Quinn schools plan could significantly change suburbs

  • Some public school systems across the suburbs could be urged to merge, under a proposal by Gov. Pat Quinn aimed at reducing administrative costs and increasing efficiencies by reducing the number of districts in Illinois by about 600 from the current 868.

    Some public school systems across the suburbs could be urged to merge, under a proposal by Gov. Pat Quinn aimed at reducing administrative costs and increasing efficiencies by reducing the number of districts in Illinois by about 600 from the current 868. Daily Herald file photo

 
 
Updated 2/22/2011 7:40 AM

SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Pat Quinn's sweeping plan to merge hundreds of school districts across the state could leave the suburban education landscape looking very different.

But with doubts about whether such a massive change could win approval and no details about how it would work, how different suburban schools would be is anyone's guess.

 

Still, the potential for big changes has some suburban school officials pushing back already, saying bigger isn't necessarily better.

"This would be an extremely backward move," said Lisle Unit District 202 board member Kari Altpeter.

Because of its smaller size, District 202 can give students "individualized attention" that might be lost in a larger district, she said. The unit district has about 1,500 students, according to state data.

"In a bigger system, some of that goes away," Altpeter said.

Others, though, are open to suggestion.

Mundelein Elementary District 75 board President Wells Frice said officials from his district and others plan to meet in March to talk about sharing resources, and consolidation likely will be a topic of conversation.

Mundelein students are divided among four different elementary districts, and a state plan to consolidate could target similar situations. District 75 has about 1,800 students.

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"It's difficult to explain to people why I live on one side of the street and go to one district and someone living on the other side of the street goes to another district," Frice said.

Generally, Quinn wants to reduce the number of school districts in Illinois by about 600 from 868 by 2013, in an effort to save $100 million in administrative costs. In the past 25 years, the state has reduced its number of districts by about 140, making Quinn's vision a huge undertaking.

But with the state's finances in crisis despite an income tax increase, Illinois officials are looking "for the dime under the Coke machine," said Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat.

Chapa LaVia has proposed legislation to look at district consolidation, separate from Quinn's proposal. But the idea is the same: Find efficiencies and cost savings by eliminating administration.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Quinn wants to tap a commission to come up with details about how it could work. So those specifics aren't available yet.

"It's going to be up to the commission," Quinn budget spokeswoman Kelly Kraft said.

But a recent Illinois State Board of Education study on school consolidation can shed some light on how some of the changes might come.

First, suburban areas with separate elementary and high school districts could see those districts combined into unit districts. Second, areas with many small districts could see them merged into bigger ones.

Those kind of changes won't come without controversy and high emotions.

People often identify with their schools as a part of their communities. Yet schools could close under consolidation plans, and local property tax rates could change.

While consolidating districts isn't a new idea in Illinois, the speed with which Quinn wants to do it is, with Quinn wanting to eliminate 600 districts in just two years.

The last consolidation in the suburbs was in 2004 in DuPage County, when Downers Grove District 58 was formed, according to state records. Before that, Nippersink District 2 was formed in McHenry County in 2000.

District 75 and Diamond Lake District 76 investigated merging in the mid-80s but didn't move forward.

Frice thinks consolidation would save administrative costs, but only to an extent.

"If you have a building with students in it, we're probably going to need a principal," Frice said.

Quinn has projected his plan would save $100 million a year because of the elimination of hundreds of superintendents. That $100 million represents about 1.4 percent of the state's projected share of spending on education next year.

To help persuade districts to merge, the state could offer financial incentives. And state board of education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said bigger districts often offer more curricular opportunities to students than smaller districts. Unit districts might ask residents for slightly fewer tax dollars, too.

But Quinn's asking for big changes. Even if they might bring cost savings, the attempt to consolidate schools might see big pushback, too.

"Our district and most others take great pride in the education we provide our kids locally here," said John Correll, superintendent of Salt Creek Elementary District 48, a three-school system with about 500 students that serves areas of Villa Park, Elmhurst, Oak Brook and Oakbrook Terrace. "Our district has been (around) 175 years, and we've done a great job with a pretty diverse group of kids."

•Daily Herald staff writers Robert Smith and Anna Madrzyk contributed to this story.