A little sharing could go a long way
While winter break gave students and teachers a reprieve from the daily routine, officials from some suburban districts took no break from thinking about ways to use tax dollars more wisely.
In an example worth extending across the suburbs, Mundelein-area school leaders are talking about the possibility of sharing services or even merging school districts.
The discussions are preliminary and no specific proposals are on the table, but these leaders are looking in the right direction. A consideration of shared services — including those related to transportation, administration, purchasing, instruction and tech support — makes sense in these economic times.
"We want to understand what those choices are and how they apply to us to see if they're even worth investing in for a study," said Cynthia Heidorn, superintendent of Mundelein Elementary District 75.
Indeed, the research of possible changes takes time and money. But schools can look to other government entities that have seen the financial benefits of cooperation. For instance, Hawthorn Woods and Mundelein have begun sharing inspection services, and Elgin is considering consolidating its police and fire administrations. Five of Illinois' nine library groups, including the North Suburban Library System and DuPage system, are expected to merge this year.
In addition, alliances between community colleges and high school districts are increasing. And private schools have long contracted with public schools for bus service.
Consolidation of school districts is a sticky matter. It offers the potential of cutting costs, widening academic options and increasing diversity. But it also could mean a reduction in both local control and jobs, and it is achieved by a lengthy and often emotional process that requires public hearings, the state's nod and eventual approval from voters.
Illinois provides grants as incentives to merge, and in recent years, several dozen smaller districts have taken advantage of them. Among suburban districts, West Chicago Community High School District 94 and its three feeder districts studied consolidation to increase efficiency. In 2009, a consultant recommended — for the first time in his 38 similar studies — that the four districts remain separate, citing strong fund balances and high academic achievement.
When something's not broken, it shouldn't be fixed. For districts not on such sound footing, though, consolidation shouldn't automatically be ruled out. But as a more immediate solution, sharing services might be prudent.
The high quality of education has defined the suburbs for decades. Regional solutions that work for all involved should be among the creative ideas considered to increase efficiency and keep schools strong.
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