School consolidation: Easier said than done

School consolidation: Easier said than done

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When Gregory Goins became superintendent of Thompsonville Community High School District 112 and Thompsonville School District 62 in 2002, he was walking into a unique situation.

The two districts shared a superintendent and principal, but everything else was separate - two school boards, two budgets, two bookkeepers, two separate tax levies and two sets of teachers' collective bargaining agreements and salary schedules.

"We were sharing a lot of the same resources, and we were in the same building, for the most part," said Goins, who is now the superintendent of Frankfort Community Unit School District 168. "The practical thing was to merge those two districts together."

And in 2007, that's what happened. As of the 2009-10 school year, Thompsonville Community Unit School District 174 in Franklin County serves 309 students.

"I felt we were one district all along, and I think that's the way the people of Thompsonville felt," Goins said.

Quinn proposal

Gov. Pat Quinn's Feb. 15 budget address called for the formation of a commission to examine reducing the number of school districts from 869 to around 300 through consolidation. Quinn budget spokesper-son Kelly Kraft said it would be a more efficient way to operate the school districts through eliminating administrative costs.

The Illinois State Board of Education offers financial incentives to newly consolidated districts, up to four years after the process is completed. Last year, 16 consolidated districts throughout the state received 3.2 million dollars.

For rural areas like Southern Illinois, the prospect of consolidation is a difficult decision. In the re-gion's 16 counties, there are more than 70 school districts, many of which consist of a single school with only a few hundred students.

Of Jefferson County's 17 school districts, McClellan Community Consolidated School District 12 has only 53 students, the smallest district in the region. Marion Community Unit School District 2 in Williamson County is the largest, with 3,722 students.

Logistically speaking, in communities with low population density, consolidation may not be practi-cal.

"You have to look at it from an individual point of view," said Matt Vanover, of the Illinois State Board of Education. "If you've got a one-county school district, how long are you going to have kids on a school bus? If you've got kids on there for an hour, hour and a half going to and from school, then you start wondering if it's worth it, and you start looking at increased transportation costs."

Additional costs of consolidation could also come from teacher's salaries. In two districts with different collective bargaining agreements, there could be expense from matching the salary schedules in a contract renegotiation.

However, there is something to be said for strength in numbers.

"One of the things, especially in rural areas, that is a positive is when you look at those types of con-solidations, you're looking at whether or not those districts, when they're that small, can offer the type of classes that can prepare their kids for college and careers," Vanover said.

Current talks

Christopher Unit School District 99 and Zeigler-Royalton Community Unit School District 188 are in the process of determining if consolidation would be beneficial. According to Christopher Superintendent Richard Towers, excluding special education, driver's education and physical educa-tion, each district high school has around 40 curricular offerings.

"(We) looked at other districts that would have similar enrollments," Towers said. "If you combine us together, we'd have about 465 students in high school. Du Quoin has 449 students, they have 106 curricular offerings. Pinckneyville has 458 students, and they have 102 curricular offerings. That is the driving force behind this, we are looking at an opportunity to provide more for our students."

For 20 years, the two districts have had a combined athletics program and they also co-op some aca-demic classes.

In 2009, the two boards approved a feasibility study, the first step in consolidation. When it was completed, a committee of ten of five community members from each district was formed to further explore the issue. The committee meets monthly in meetings open to the public and public input is encouraged.

If consolidation is deemed beneficial after the process is complete, the districts hope to have a measure to consolidate on their election ballots in March 2012.

Although the districts view the consolidation as a positive move, Zeigler-Royalton Superintendent George Wilkerson said some in the community are worried about a possible increase in property taxes.

The combined district may want to build a new school for grades 6 to 12, but Wilkerson said they would look at alternate funding options, such as state money for construction and a county school facilities occupation tax. But the decision to build a new school is not a deal-breaker.

"We would like to do that, but we don't have to have it, I don't believe," Wilkerson said. "If that's not a possibility, and we still decide to consolidate, we'll have to make do with the buildings we have."

Local control?

Statewide consolidation is in the beginning stages, and although Quinn's office says it still wants local communities to make their own decisions regarding education, many superintendents are wary of what could be forced consolidations.

"Anytime you can set your own terms, it's going to be beneficial," Wilkerson said. "Some of the things the state is talking about could be more than what we're doing. It could mean more districts; it could be as much as the entire county. I think what you're going to see is some form of consolidation, we're not sure just what."

Gary Kelly, superintendent for Du Quoin Community Unit School District 300 and president of the Illinois Superintendent Association board of directors, said consolidation can be difficult because of long-standing emotional ties in the community.

"I learned a long time ago - somebody told me the hardest thing about consolidation is killing a mas-cot," Kelly said.

Goins said he does believe there are too many school districts in the state. In cases like Thompsonville, it's almost a no-brainer. But Goins would not agree with the idea of state forcing consolidation on local districts.

"They don't know the dynamics of each community," Goins said. "Schools are the focal point of small communities throughout Illinois. I feel very strongly that decision-making needs to come from the local level."

brent.stewart@thesouthern.com/ 618-351-5805

 

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