Little Support for Gov. Pat Quinn’s School Consolidation Plan
Since shocking educators and parents last month by calling for a complete overhaul of Illinois school districts' sizes and boundaries, Gov. Pat Quinn has yet to provide detailed proposal, draft legislation or build support in the General Assembly.
Meanwhile, a State Board of Education report on school consolidation raises questions about Quinn's approach, and key lawmakers reject the idea that the Chicago Democrat even has a plan they should consider.
"The word 'plan' is really being kind," said Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville. "It's a concept, I think, at this point."
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said Wednesday he doesn't plan legislative action on the consolidation proposal, but declined to say why.
Quinn has assigned the issue to Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, whose office says the proposal is simply a starting point for discussions.
Quinn's plan includes cutting Illinois' 868 school districts to about 300, redrawing boundaries so that each district -- aside from Chicago -- contains about 30,000 people and cutting administrative jobs. Quinn estimates that would save at least $100 million. But that figure has been disputed by critics who say it's based on the state's 300 highest-paid superintendents even though many merged districts would be downstate, where salaries are typically lower and current law allows teacher salaries to rise when districts merge.
A Board of Education report compiled last fall cautions that cutting jobs could be difficult if new merged districts are too large. It also noted that a state panel in 2002 said high schools should have enrollments of at least 250 and elementary districts at least 625 students. Using that guideline would mean eliminating 359 districts, not the 568 that Quinn has suggested.
The report found no clear correlation between district size and student performance. Small districts did better than large ones by some measures and did worse by others.
Education officials and legislators said the state should encourage districts to merge rather than requiring it.
Illinois has provided $155.6 million in merger incentives since 1986, eliminating 139 districts, the Board of Education said. That means the state paid, on average, $1.1 million for each district it cut.
Quinn's critics say the relatively small number of districts accepting the state incentives means there must be strong local reasons not to merge.
"If it was smart for them to do this, people would already be doing this," said Brent Clark, executive director of Illinois Association of School Administrators.
Kelly Kraft, Quinn's budget spokeswoman, said incentives have not spurred enough consolidation. She said Quinn's proposal is the best way to realize significant savings.
Critics contend that meeting Quinn's goal of 30,000 people would produce some huge downstate districts sprawling across six counties. And despite Quinn's claim that he wants to merge districts but not schools, many people said the real benefit would come from closing school buildings.
Richard Towers, superintendent in Christopher, said his district wants to merge with nearby the Zeigler-Royalton district, saving about $220,000 in administrative costs. But the way to help students, he said, would be building a single new high school.
"Keeping the status quo with two small high schools, I just don't know if the curriculum could be expanded to the extent that it would need to be," Towers said.
Critics note Quinn proposed a $95 million cut to school transportation, one year after slashing $140 million from the same program. Experts said schools that cut administrative costs would simply end up spending the money on buses.
Legislators and education advocates see little chance of Quinn's proposal being approved. They say Quinn sprang it on them without any preparation and has done little since then to build support or even share basic information.
"I have two lines in his budget address," Ben Schwarm, associate executive director for Illinois Association of School Boards, said of his knowledge about Quinn's plan.
Quinn said his proposal would focus resources on education instead of administration but remained careful to note that he is not advocating for schools to close.
"We don't need as many folks at the top level," Quinn told reporters earlier this month. "We need folks on the front line in the teaching, imparting knowledge."
Kathryn Phillips, spokeswoman for the lieutenant governor, said Quinn's proposal is a "starting point and is one of many different ideas that we've hear. It's too early to tell which proposals are best or to assign any values to the proposals."
She said Simon, who declined to speak with The Associated Press, is discussing consolidation with legislators, school administrators, teachers and more.
Illinois has the third-most school districts in the nation, behind Texas and California, which have much larger populations. Nearly 250 superintendents are paid more than Quinn, who earns $177,400 annually. Phillips said about one-quarter of districts consist of one school that could be merged with larger districts.
Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, head of the House education committee, said local concerns about school pride and community would be difficult to overcome in a state-mandated consolidation plan.
"We have to cross a huge hurdle called local control," said Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora. "In the sand is drawn, 'This is our local control. Don't come out and bother us.' So I think we need to get a new idea.