Illinois has too many school districts, taxpayers pay way too many administrators, and our children are suffering for it.
It’s hard to argue with any of those things, but politicians have been gun shy about addressing the issue ever since Gov. James R. Thompson proposed a school consolidation program more than 30 years ago and received a political backlash that likely still has Big Jim spinning.
There is an old saying that the hardest animal to kill in Illinois is the school mascot. Community pride and tradition often stand in the way of sound education and fiscal policy.
That’s why it’s refreshing to see a politician wading into those waters again. State Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, is seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination, and she’s not afraid to take on political sacred cows – like local school districts.
Illinois has 852 school districts. By comparison, Florida, a state with a similar population, has 100.
Every one of Illinois’ school districts has its own school superintendent and administrative support personnel. Districts could be merged without even closing school buildings, and taxpayers could save big bucks.
How much? Well, Ives is vague in her estimates, saying the savings would be in the “billions.”
But here is a simple trick. The median salary for Illinois school superintendents last year was $133,300, according to the Illinois Association of School Boards. So, if Illinois were to reduce its number of school districts to 100, it would save about $100 million a year in that position alone.
“First thing, every school district should be a unit district,” Ives told me in an interview. “No more high school districts, no more elementary districts.”
That’s a good idea. It would provide greater continuity for children to be in the same school district as they mature. But fiscal discipline is required, too. Cost savings can be eaten away by bumping all salaries up to the most generous contract of the districts being merged.
Also, youngsters attending many rural school districts lack the diverse course offering they need to be successful in college, Ives said.
In tiny school districts, advanced science, math and foreign language offerings are meager, at best. Consolidating with neighboring districts not only helps local taxpayers but provides higher quality educational opportunities.
By the way, I live in one of those rural school districts, and Ives is right on the money here.
“Only 50 percent of our state’s new high school graduates are rated as college ready. That’s ridiculous. We need to do something about it,” Ives told me.
Ives is challenging Gov. Bruce Rauner in the March 20 Republican primary election, while seven Democrats are vying for their party’s nomination.
During the past three decades, the state has offered incentives for school districts to voluntarily merge. Progress has been glacial at best.
It’s time the state stirs things up in these educational fiefdoms. You’ll hear school administrators, fearful of losing their jobs, hollering about “local autonomy.”
They can talk about autonomy all they want, but it is state taxpayers who are pulling the bulk of the freight for those administrators’ pensions.
And Illinois has the worst-funded pensions in the nation, no matter whose numbers you use. The state says it has an unfunded pension liability of $130 billion, but Moody’s Investment Services puts the number at more than $250 billion.
Regardless, the state is broke, and many of our school districts are not getting the desired results. Something needs to be done.
And right now, the only gubernatorial candidate I hear making serious policy proposals in this area is Jeanne Ives. Hopefully, more candidates will follow suit.
Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions. He can be reached at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.