Editorial: The state's test of government consolidation in McHenry County could be just the start

Rank-and-file lawmakers like to take popular positions on big issues the public cares about — think Fair Maps, for instance — but they're often slow to take initiative without getting the go-ahead from legislative leaders.

That's one reason it's so gratifying to see at least some progress being made toward consolidation of governments in Illinois.

On Monday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill crafted and championed by Republican state Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills that enables residents in McHenry County to dissolve a township by referendum, allowing another unit of government to absorb its duties. In a state with 102 counties and nearly 7,000 units of government, this is clearly a baby step, but it's progress, and that alone is worth celebrating.

It's also worth emulating. Hopefully, the movement started in McHenry County will spread and taxpayers throughout Illinois can begin wringing more efficiency out of their local governments.

And not just township governments.

McSweeney says his next target is school districts. He wants to bring an end to independent elementary and high school districts and blend all school systems into elementary-high school unit districts.

With 465 districts statewide that are exclusively focused on either elementary or high school, the area is clearly ripe for consideration. If all these dual districts were transformed into unit districts, Illinois' 852 school districts could be reduced to fewer than 500, obviously producing significant efficiencies in school-management costs and providing relief in the largest segment of a property tax bill.

Of course, the issue isn't that simple. Serious discussion would have to go into deciding how to merge specific elementary and high school districts, and some existing very large high school districts might have to be cut up and reapportioned to avoid creating systems that are too large to be governed effectively.

But the topic is broached. McHenry County residents have the authority to streamline local government. Residents in other counties can begin demanding similar powers, and assuming McSweeney is true to his goal, residents across the state soon will be talking about whether and how they can consolidate school districts to keep standards high and costs low.

McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, a former Democratic lawmaker who once chaired the state's consolidation commission, says he found “it was extraordinarily easy to create a government but very difficult to eliminate one.”

The process is now a fraction of a bit easier. It may be just a start, but for a legislature normally weighed down by inertia when it comes to ideas with no special interest constituency, it's an encouraging one.

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