Column

McCaleb: On school administrative bloat, need for consolidation

Dan McCaleb
Dan McCaleb

The rural City of Marengo is located in western McHenry County, about 60 miles northwest of Chicago.

It occupies about five square miles and is home to 7,496 residents, according to 2017 U.S. Census estimates.

Marengo also is home to three separate school districts – Marengo Community High School District 154, which supports one school; Marengo-Union Elementary School District 165, which supports three schools; and Riley School District 18, which also supports a single school.

That’s three school districts serving five schools in a rural community with fewer than 10,000 residents.

That’s also three superintendents earning taxpayer-funded, six-figure salaries as well as three administrative support staffs costing hundreds of thousands more.

Marengo is the poster child for why school consolidation is a must in Illinois. A new report from the Metropolitan Planning Council shows that Illinois’ public school districts spend twice the national average – $544 per student in Illinois compared to $226 nationally – on administration expenses. Those costs largely are composed of the salaries and benefits of district superintendents and other administrative support staff.

According to MPC’s analysis, Illinois school districts spent more than $1.1 billion on general administration costs in Fiscal Year 2016. No other state in the country topped the billion dollar mark.

The state of California serves more than three times the number of students in Illinois, yet spends 33 percent less on school administrative costs.

Please keep in mind that’s California – a state not known for its frugality.

The largest driver of this outrageous cost is the number of school districts in Illinois. There are 852 public school districts in the state, the highest total in the country. Of them, one in four supports a single school and more than 40 percent serve only one or two schools.

The higher the number of school districts, the larger the administrative bloat.

And, of course, schools districts largely are funded through property taxes. That administrative bloat is one of the fundamental reasons why Illinois homeowners are required to pay the second-highest property taxes in the United States. 

School district consolidation is a must for Illinois.

Illinois lawmakers have attempted to prompt school districts to consolidate over the years with varying degrees of success – mostly very little.

This session, state Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, filed House Bill 3053, which passed unanimously last month in the House, 109-0. The measure would create the School District Efficiency Commission, which would be charged with recommending which school districts should be consolidated into unit districts based on an “optimal amount of enrollment” in each.

Voters in each of the designated school districts recommended for consolidation could then vote on whether to move forward with the recommendations. The goal is to reduce the number of school districts by at least 25 percent.

“HB 3053 is the most significant effort Springfield has ever taken towards more efficient administration in education and ensuring the money taxpayers spend on schools makes it to classrooms first,”Adam Schuster, director of budget and tax research for the Illinois Policy Institute, said. “Illinois has had study commissions in the past and the experts have weighed in; nearly everyone understands that school district consolidation is the right thing to do. ... This bill takes the issue beyond more studies and discussions. If HB3053 is enacted, voters will finally be empowered to take real action to reduce bureaucratic waste in their schools.”

Lawmakers are in the first of a two-week spring break. They return to Springfield April 30.

Passing HB3053 out of the Senate and then sending it to Gov. J.B. Pritzker for his signature should be a top priority for a state that needs to begin chipping away at myriad unnecessary costs taxpayers are expected to fund.

• Dan McCaleb is editor of Illinois News Network and the digital hub ILNews.org. He welcomes your comments. Contact Dan at dmccaleb@ilnews.org.

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