Editorial: We're intrigued by Ives' unit district proposal

  • Republican candidate for governor Jeanne Ives talks with the Daily Herald editorial board about issues like consolidation of school districts.

      Republican candidate for governor Jeanne Ives talks with the Daily Herald editorial board about issues like consolidation of school districts. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted12/19/2017 7:22 AM

State Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton is not the first candidate for governor to advocate consolidation of Illinois' record number of local governments.

Her opponent in the March 20 Republican primary, incumbent Bruce Rauner, staunchly supports consolidation efforts and before him, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, signed legislation to create a Local Government Consolidation Committee. Where Ives breaks new ground is in her call to convert all dual school districts into unit districts.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Every school district should be a unit district," Ives told our editorial board last week. "No more high school districts, no more elementary districts."

We differ with Ives on a number of issues, and it would be premature to endorse her unit district proposal without a full airing of the details and contrary arguments. But we must say, we are intrigued. Illinois has the most local governments of any state in the union, with, at last count, 6,963 of them.

A good chunk of those local governments are school districts. We have 851 of them plus one assigned to the courts. Of that total, 465 are dual districts, focused exclusively on either elementary schools or high schools. Of those, 368 are elementary systems and 97 are high school systems.

Simple math would tell you that if legislation were passed and signed to turn all those dual districts into unit districts, Illinois would go from 851 school districts to 483. That would provide real progress in consolidation efforts that thus far seem to generate a lot of discussion but little action.

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That said, we temper our enthusiasm with the recognition that it wouldn't be quite so simple. Ives herself acknowledges that unit districts by themselves are not a panacea. The Chicago Public School system, for example, is a unit district and that hasn't ensured success. It is, Ives says, too large and needs to be broken into smaller districts. She says Elgin Area Unit District 46 needs similar downsizing.

If her unit district proposal were to go forward, it could create similar size issues in, say, Palatine-Schaumburg Township High School District 211 and Northwest Suburban High School District 214, which would become massive unit districts if they simply absorbed the elementary districts within their boundaries.

There also are questions to consider regarding school board representation and the access the public has to its elected officials -- easier matters to address the smaller the district.

So clearly, the devil is in the details.

But the unit district concept has logic on its side -- easier articulation, stronger accountability, reduction of fiefdoms, eradication of duplication in positions and functions.

The idea is worth exploration and discussion. It's certainly a worthy issue to be debated in the 2018 race for governor.

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