Spending per student ranges from $8,500 to $32,000 in suburbs

The $32,278 spent on every student in Rondout Elementary District 72 last year was almost enough to cover the cost of educating four students at Big Hollow Elementary District 38.

That's according to a Daily Herald analysis of operating costs per student at 93 suburban school districts.

The two Lake County school districts are at the opposite ends of the spending spectrum, according to the analysis, which showed the average cost per student among the 93 districts was $14,456.

The analysis included costs reported to the Illinois State Board of Education by 56 elementary districts, 18 high school districts and 19 unit districts in six counties.

Rondout, based in Lake Forest, topped the list, followed by $22,420 spent per student at Libertyville High School District 128, $20,674 at Northwest High School District 214 based in Arlington Heights, $19,286 at Lisle Unit District 202, and $19,219 at Maine Township High School District 207.

Big Hollow District 38, based in Ingleside, had the smallest per-student cost at $8,542.

“I guess that's a good list to be dead-last in,” joked District 38 Superintendent Bob Gold. “We always look for anything we can do to reduce costs that doesn't impact kids in a negative way, but we do have larger class sizes than many other districts. We're adding staff to lower those numbers, but the flip side of that is it will definitely cause our per-student costs to rise.”

Big Hollow's classrooms averaged 25 students last year, compared to Rondout's 15, Illinois report cards show.

A recent report issued by the state's Illinois School Funding Reform Commission noted the wide disparity of per-student costs across the state's 800-plus school districts.

“The problem is no one knows what it ought to cost to educate students,” said state Sen. Dan McConchie, a Hawthorn Woods Republican on the 25-member commission.

The report notes that Illinois' average per-pupil cost in 2013 was the 15th-highest in the nation, but only two other states had wider spending gaps between the wealthiest district and the poorest district.

The commission is recommending the state change its education funding formula to narrow the per-student spending gap among districts, but it does not specifically say how that would be accomplished.

District 72 Superintendent Jenny Wojcik said her district's high per-student spending was related to the district's small enrollment: 141 students. Big Hollow has 1,790 students.

“It's the reality of our existence because we're never going to have the economy of scale,” she said. “But we're always looking for ways to maximize our resources and we certainly don't take it for granted that we're going to spend the maximum per child.”

Some larger districts with thousands of students have higher-than-average per-student spending, too.

Officials at District 128 said their per-student costs are comparable to what nearby districts are spending. The district's per-student costs have remained relatively flat over the past three years, according to state financial reports.

“We look at what we're spending and how we're performing and how we staff ourselves,” said Yasmine Dada, District 128's assistant superintendent for business. “In recent years, we have made a number of reviews of expenditures and reduced head count in some areas.”

Some district administrators believe the per-student costs aren't comparable from one district to the next because the student populations might differ significantly. Programs for gifted or special-needs students or English-language learners, for instance, might be more expensive.

“Certain students cost more to educate than other students,” said Leyden High School District 212 Superintendent Nick Polyak. “You may be required to provide more services or costlier services than a neighboring school district.”

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Suburban school districts holding millions of dollars in reserve

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