Editorial: Voters have chance to drop an archaic school position

Every few years, Cook County residents are reminded that their county supports the last vestige of one of the most archaic layers of government in modern times. These are the township school trustees and treasurers, positions created by the Illinois Legislature in 1819 to oversee school land holdings, investments, payroll and other complicated bits of school finance.

By 1961, recognizing most school districts had the wherewithal to handle their own affairs, the legislature eliminated township school treasurers everywhere in Illinois. Everywhere except Cook County, that is, where duplicate sets of books were ordered kept, one by the school district and one by the township school treasurer.

Over the next 53 years, 44 school districts in Cook County extricated themselves from the political, and often patronage-laden system. Today, about 100 school districts remain enmeshed, but hopefully by November, two more will pull out. Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 and Mount Prospect Elementary District 57 will ask voters in November to get them out of the school trustee system and allow them to keep in-house the $70,000 they spend annually for this position. If both districts pass the initiative, the jobs disappear from Elk Grove Township, since Northwest Suburban High School District 214 - the third school district in Elk Grove Township - bowed out of the system in 1995.

We wholeheartedly support the initiative, but it's not personal. In Elk Grove Township, treasurer Dennis Saviano, a CPA, has done his job for 20 years. Even he thinks there's no compelling reason to keep it, as long as the schools don't turn around and spend the same money on additional personnel or investment firms.

Not all township school treasurer offices have been as clean as in the Northwest suburbs. Former treasurers in Leyden and Lyons townships have gone to jail. In the South suburbs, one treasurer making a base salary of more than $100,000 turned out to be subcontracting nearly all the work to a neighboring school treasury office - at the expense of his school districts.

District 214 led a losing effort in 1962 to eliminate Cook County township school trustees and treasurers. Their side failed, largely because then-Cook County Superintendent of Schools Noble J. Puffer rose up against it, arguing the trustees and treasurers constituted a "wholesome, desirable setup."

That was then. Now, if clearheaded voters in Districts 59 and 57 vote themselves out of the system in November, another township will join the ranks of the enlightened. In the Northwest suburbs, that will leave only one township so encumbered. We're looking at you, Maine.

Today's Opinion Page editorial cartoon

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