Suburban schools losing students but adding teachers

During a decade in which suburban schools lost thousands of students, the number of teachers is growing.

That's according to a Daily Herald analysis of Illinois State Board of Education report card data for 93 suburban school districts.

Taken together, the school districts' enrollment dropped by 7,097, or 1.5 percent, from 2008 to the end of the 2016-17 school year, the analysis shows. At the same time, the number of teaching positions increased by 745, or 2.5 percent.

Most district leaders say the employment spike was caused by changes in curriculum, adding full-day kindergarten, returning special education classes to the district after previously outsourcing them, or hiring teachers in specific specialties to "close the achievement gap" identified in annual statewide testing.

"Most of our hiring is related to overall student achievement and belief that closing the achievement gap earlier trumps later attempts to do so," said Naperville Unit District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges. "Offering all-day kindergarten was one of the ways the board and administration felt we could do that, but that also nearly doubles the staff needed to operate those classes."

District 203 reported 1,586 fewer students last year than in 2008, but 27 more full-time teachers, according to the report card data. Bridges said in addition to the kindergarten teachers, the district added specialized "instructional coaches" to work with teachers and students at several grade levels.

Twenty-three of the 93 school districts lost students while adding teachers. Combined, their enrollment fell 5,009 while teaching positions increased by 316.

That baffles some education finance reform advocates.

"And this happens when public schools take up the biggest part of our property taxes," said Jim Tobin, president of Taxpayers United of America, a conservative anti-tax research group based in Chicago.

Twenty-nine school districts reported growth in both students and teaching positions over the decade, but at different rates. Many significantly increased teacher hiring while seeing modest enrollment growth.

Round Lake Area Unit District 116, for example, reported 143 more full-time teaching positions in 2017 than in 2008 - a 41 percent increase - even though enrollment grew by 313 students, or 4.6 percent. That's roughly one new teaching position for every two new students.

"The increase is not related to just one thing, but a combination," said Deputy Superintendent Donn Mendoza. "But one of the chief things was bringing special education programs back to the district."

Several school districts reported an uptick in hiring specifically related to special education programs that the districts are now offering in-house, rather than through special education cooperatives that required busing to classrooms outside the districts.

"Financially, it's pretty much a wash," said Jim Conrey, spokesman for Stevenson High School District 125 in Lincolnshire. "There were several reasons to bring those classes back here, but the big one was that when we sent students to (Special Education District of Lake County) classrooms, we essentially lost control of the ability to monitor and properly evaluate the personnel working with our kids. And these kids also didn't feel part of Stevenson."

Stevenson reported 445 fewer students, or nearly 10 percent, last year than in 2008, but had 18 more full-time teaching positions, or almost 7 percent, according to the district's report cards. Conrey said the district and board made the changes with parent and taxpayer input.

"Any changes we made can be easily justified," he said.

Thirty-eight of the school districts reported fewer teachers and fewer students compared to a decade ago. One had the same number of teachers as in 2008. Only two - Fenton High School District 100 and Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 - reported more students with fewer full-time teaching positions.

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