As if there already weren't enough arguments for government consolidation in Illinois, here's another one:
The administrative offices of four school districts in south McHenry County in the northwest suburbs of Chicago are located within seven-and-a-half miles of each other.
Two, both based in Crystal Lake, are barely a mile apart. The other two, both based in Algonquin, are about 3.5 miles apart.
If you were to drive from one to the next until you stopped at all four — District 47 and 155 in Crystal Lake, and Districts 158 and 300 in Algonquin — it would require fewer than 45 minutes in moderate suburban traffic.
Yet these same four districts, located so close to each other, sent a combined 52 staff and school board members to an education conference in Chicago recently, costing taxpayers a combined $55,450.
It's yet another example of a complete lack of consideration for those who pay these bills — Illinois taxpayers.
The $55,450 is just a small snapshot of the millions of dollars taxpayers coughed up for the conference statewide. The money went to pay registration fees costing $465 per person attendee, extravagant Chicago hotels, valet parking, transportation, fine dining and more.
In the era of Skype, online universities, and other digital training platforms, why?
And why send so many people who serve students so close to each other?
The Illinois News Network last week published the results of a monthlong investigation into the use of taxpayer dollars for school officials' attendance at the Illinois Association of School Boards' annual conference in mid-November in Chicago. We filed Freedom of Information Act requests with more than two dozen school districts across the state.
Our investigation uncovered what at best can be described as highly questionable spending. In addition to the registration, hotel and other costs, officials from one school district, for example — Bloomington District 87 — billed taxpayers for an $1,800 meal at an exclusive restaurant that averaged more than $100 per plate. The school district's superintendent has since apologized.
School officials told INN that the training they received at the conference is invaluable, particularly for newer school board members and administrators.
But a closer look shows spending at such conferences is an abuse of the state's overly burdened taxpayers.
Our investigation looked at just 26 districts. Do you know how many school districts there are in Illinois? I knew it was a lot, but I had to look it up. The answer is more than 850.
If each of Illinois' school districts spent on average what the four districts from Crystal Lake and Algonquin — located within eight miles of each other — spent on the IASB conference, taxpayers in the state would be on the hook for more than $11.9 million.
School districts aren't the only governmental units in Illinois that have associations similar to IASB's. Each of them — for cities and villages, townships, park districts and more — host conferences similar to the education one in Chicago. An INN investigation into an Illinois Municipal League conference in October found similar spending abuses.
Illinois has nearly 7,000 units of local government. You might have heard this before, but that's the most in the country by far. And that's despite the fact that Illinois is only the sixth most populous state in the nation.
It was fifth largest about a month ago. But then in December, the U.S. Census Bureau released updated data showing the Land of Lincoln again lost tens of thousands of people on net, year over year. The population dropped for a fourth consecutive year.
The top reason people leave Illinois for other states? Crushing taxes that pay for outrageous spending.
Of the more than 850 local school districts in Illinois, one in four supports only a single school. More than 40 percent serve just one or two schools.
The city of Marengo, population 7,500 and also in northwest suburban McHenry County, is served by three separate school districts, for example.
Would the four Crystal Lake and Algonquin school districts send 52 people to the IASB conference at a cost of taxpayers of more than $55,000 if they were a single district?
Statewide, about 4,800 school officials from more than 700 districts across Illinois attended the IASB event. If we cut the number of our school districts in half, how much taxpayer money would have been saved on this single conference alone?
Of course, schools say they are starving for more money. At a recent budget hearing, the Illinois State Board of Education asked state taxpayers to spend an additional $7 billion on education next year. That's nearly double the $8 billion sent to school districts this school year.
Government is far too big in Illinois.
Taxpayers are paying the price, and leaving the state as a result.
We need to eliminate hundreds — thousands, more likely — of redundant units of government, including school districts.
Our government officials need to make better spending decisions.
That's Illinois' only chance.