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Governor's plan to cut school districts disputed

Area school administrators say Gov. Pat  Quinn’s proposal to slash the number of school districts in half may not result in adequate cost savings and could hurt the quality of education.

In his state of the state address last week, Quinn called for massive school consolidations, reducing the number of district in Illinois from more than 800 to somewhere around 300, along with cuts in transportation funding and other areas.

“This is an unprecendented era of diminished state support and the worst thing to happen to Illinois education in generations,” Forrestville Valley Superintendent Lowell Taylor said. “All areas of education are going to be affected, either directly through the loss of support (constitutionally mandated from the State of Illinois and not provided) or through the loss of focus and support by moving support from other programs to those not supported by the state.” 

Saving money is not a good reason to combine districts, Taylor said.

“Consolidation is a process that should only be considered from a curricular or programming standpoint,” he said. “Consolidation strictly for financial reasons is not a proven method. Studies demonstrate savings are short-termed and non-sustainable in systems of stable or growing population.”

Oregon Superintendent Tom Mahoney agreed that consolidation would not decrease costs in significant ways.

“We have the lowest tax rate of the non-power plant districts and the third lowest expenditure per pupil (in the area). My guess is we would not benefit in operation ways but we would in our volume pricing on supplies and services,” he said. “Does it help kids, that is the more intriguing question and without deep discussion I do not know.  Initially I would think it could improve the quality of instruction if districts were able to leverage staff development and  unify a county curriculum so that students who move throughout the county are receiving a consistent curriculum.”

Taylor said consolidation mandated by the state is unfair to local taxpayers.

“From a functional standpoint, I believe there is a ‘wrongness’ of demanding from the state that a school organization reorganize at the local level,” he said. “Local supporters provide 60 to 80 percent of the local school resources. Telling them how to use their money from the state level is simply wrong. In any regard, there are continued conflicts — local control eroding, state mandates being sent down in a system designed to be led by locally elected boards, which will be eliminated in consolidation. My question becomes simply this, what have you ever seen taken from a local delivery model to a state delivery model, while getting better?”
Quinn also announced further reductions in the amount of transportation dollars going to local districts from the state, on top of the loss of General State Aid and other state funding over the last few years.

Both Mahoney and Taylor said consolidations and less transportation funding are simply incompatible.

“Increasing district size would mean more miles, increased transportation costs — another completely disjointed approach promoted by the state,” Taylor said.

“This is the irony in the proposal — it would appear that consolidation would increase our transportation costs even though the governor decreased funding for transportation,” Mahoney said.  “Remember pupil transportation is a state mandate and, as such, consolidated districts must provide the transportation.”

Even without consolidation, the loss of state transportation reimbursement will have a significant effect on district budgets.

Oregon, like many school districts in recent years, has relied on borrowing from its Transportation Fund to bolster the Education Fund, which has been depleted by the loss of General State Aid and other reimbursements.

“The underfunding and not allowing a district to waive the requirement will have a negative impact on the education budget of all districts,” Mahoney said.  “To pay for those services we will need to shift dollars that would have been allocated to the Education Fund to the Transportation Fund to cover our non-funded mandated costs.”

Taylor said covering the loss of state money in a district of 180 square miles will not be easy.

“The (state) transportation support for Forrestville Valley is about $750,000 traditionally. This has decreased significantly over the last couple years. I am planning for less than half that mandated state support this coming year — meaning there will be about a $350,000 shortfall, maintaining the current department operations,” he said.  “Local taxes will not be raised, in fact, cannot be raised quickly enough because of the levy cycle, to offset these losses.” 

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