Suburban school districts using outside venues for high school graduations say the costs -- which vary dramatically among districts -- are worth the comfort and ease they provide families.
School districts paid from $3,500 to $78,000 for ceremonies held at various suburban venues this year, Daily Herald research shows. From churches to large event centers, the costs are based upon hours booked, labor and other equipment usage, and the number of ceremonies and graduates.
Class of 2017 graduation venue costsSears Centre Arena: Bartlett, Conant, Dundee-Crown, Elgin, Fremd, Hampshire, Jacobs, Lake Park, Larkin, Libertyville, Mundelein, Schaumburg, South Elgin, Stevenson, Streamwood, Warren (from $35,000 to $78,000)
Rosemont Theatre: East Leyden, Maine East, Maine West (from $20,000 to $75,000)
Willow Creek Community Church: Barrington, Hoffman Estates ($15,000)
Quentin Road Bible Church: Wauconda ($3,500)
NIU Convocation Center: Batavia, Burlington Central, Huntley, Kaneland, Metea Valley, Neuqua Valley, St. Charles East, St. Charles North, Waubonsie Valley, West Aurora (from $7,500 to $18,000)
College of DuPage: Glenbard East, Glenbard North, West Chicago, Wheaton North, Wheaton Warrenville South (approximately $15,000)
Source: Daily Herald research
Officials say such outsourcing is a better alternative to crowded school auditoriums and hot gymnasiums, or risking cancellation of outdoor ceremonies on football fields from inclement weather.
Two of the most coveted graduation venues are the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates and Northern Illinois University's Convocation Center in DeKalb -- each with a seating capacity of 10,000. Sears Centre costs $35,000 to $50,000, and NIU costs $7,500 to $18,000.
The cheapest suburban graduation venue in the Daily Herald analysis was Quentin Road Bible Baptist Church in Lake Zurich, which can be rented for $3,500 per ceremony.
Rising costs at the Sears Centre prompted Huntley Community School District 158 to switch venues this year.
The district paid more than $30,000 for Huntley High School's 2015 graduation at the Sears Centre, which officials had used since 2012 to accommodate ever-increasing graduating class sizes and students' relatives and friends. Families were charged $10 per ticket beyond four free tickets, which helped defray some of the rental costs.
The district now is in the second year of a three-year contract with NIU Convocation Center for $11,400 yearly. The Class of 2017 graduation with 661 students went off without a hitch, said spokesman Dan Armstrong.
"After our administrators toured the NIU venue they determined it would provide an excellent experience, as good if not better than the Sears Centre at a greatly reduced cost," Armstrong said. "The savings allowed the school to eliminate ticket sales, which is great for our families."
Cost versus comfort
A slew of local high schools still have their graduations at the Sears Centre, which hosted 17 ceremonies this year. Sears' longest-standing partnership is with Elgin Area School District U-46, which has held graduation ceremonies there for its five high schools -- Bartlett, Elgin, Larkin, South Elgin, and Streamwood -- since 2007. Before that, each school held graduation on-site in the auditorium or gym or outside.
Costs vary every year based on the number of graduates. U-46 spent nearly $49,000 on this year's five ceremonies for 2,678 graduates conducted in 16 hours straight, spokeswoman Mary Fergus said.
"It's a great location," Fergus said. "It's convenient for our schools and our families. We're really grateful to have all five of our high school graduation ceremonies in one location on one day. It's efficient, and everyone knows to plan on graduation at the Sears Centre on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend every year."
Other perks, such as air conditioning, plenty of indoor space and parking to accommodate huge crowds, a digital sign to display graduates' names, and comfortable seating, make the cost worthwhile, she added.
U-46's deal with the Sears Centre is unique because it dates back to the building's opening, said Ben Gibbs, general manager of the arena.
"No other graduation has their kind of pricing," Gibbs said. "Almost 25,000 people come for that day alone. We're providing traffic control, flaggers, police, ushers, bag checkers, cleaning; we also have wheelchair service, medical on-site, tech and AV support."
Sears Centre's rental prices are dynamic based on attendance, logistics involved and which days the facility is rented -- weekends are premium pricing.
"There is like a three-week window that all the graduations fall within," Gibbs said. "Certain days are priced higher than others because the demand is great. A lot of schools are moving to multiyear contracts so they can better budget. We try to keep their expenses flat."
In-house not cheap
Despite the high costs of renting outside venues, holding graduation ceremonies in-house doesn't come cheap, either.
"We used to hold our graduations in our stadiums, on our football fields," said Tom Petersen, spokesman for Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211. "When you hold a graduation on your own campus, you really have to plan for two ceremonies in case you have inclement weather. You are really spending double to hold your graduation on campus."
Maintenance costs, overtime for employees, and chair and riser rentals are the largest expenses, he added.
Graduation ceremonies for 1,800 graduates from three District 211 high schools -- Conant, Fremd, and Schaumburg -- were held at the Sears Centre during three weekdays this year at a cost of $78,000. Meanwhile, Hoffman Estates High School had its ceremony for 441 graduates at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington for considerably less -- $15,000.
District 211's Palatine High School is the only one to have its graduation, for 555 students, on campus in the school's gym.
"Palatine is set in their tradition, and it's worked well for them," Petersen said. "Our other four schools, it affords them an air-conditioned venue, and essentially as many tickets as they want for each student."