The evidence-based school funding formula recently adopted in Illinois will drive up costs without the corresponding gains in student performance promised by many school officials and lawmakers, education experts say.
One remedy for both taxpayers and students lies in consolidating the state’s 859 districts and the jobs and business functions that go with them, according to separate studies by a former public school official and a Chicago-based think thank.
Bill Eagan recently sent lawmakers a succinct three-page policy paper titled “Driving Value in Illinois Schools By Consolidating Business Functions.”
Eagan told Prairie State Wire that he wrote the paper from his experience as the top business official at Hinsdale High District 87 and a certified public accountant and certified management accountant. He’s convinced that consolidation will drive dollars back to the students, where it belongs.
“The savings generated could be used to lower the student-to-teacher ratio, tailor education more specifically to an individual child, or help offset the impending pension cost shift from the state to school districts,” Eagan said. “Before we can do anything, we need to obtain the savings before we can start to decide what to do with them. In order to generate savings, we should consolidate business offices on a regional or county basis.”
The Illinois Policy Institute’s 2016 analysis “Illinois School Distrait Consolidation Provides Path to Efficiency, Lower Tax Burden” reached the same conclusion from a different perspective.
Background statistics cited by the institute show that nearly 25 percent of Illinois school districts serve just one school and more than a third have fewer than 600 students.
If the districts were to serve the same number of students as school districts in California, the most-populous state, Illinois would have just 342 school districts. If they served the same number of students as North Carolina’s, Illinois would have just one-fifth of the school districts it has today – and one-fifth of the administrative bloat.
One cited example is the Homewood-Flossmoor area, which has two K-8 school districts feeding into a single high school district, meaning area taxpayers are required to pay three superintendents an average of $270,000. If the elementary districts were combined with the high school district, Homewood-Flossmoor could reduce the number of superintendents to one and save local taxpayers a half-million dollars a year just from the reduction in superintendent compensation.
Salaries for superintendents, in fact, are a substantial cost driver statewide: There are 320 school district administrators, primarily district superintendents, who make $200,000 or more annually. Many also get additional benefits in car and housing allowances, as well as bonuses. Their high salaries lead to generous future pension benefits: Superintendents on average receive $2 million to $6 million in total pension benefits over the course of their retirements.
The institute's analysis concluded that cutting school districts by half could lead to operating savings of $130 million to $170 million annually and conservatively save the state $3 billion to $4 billion in pension costs over the next 30 years.
“The benefits of consolidation would go beyond saving taxpayers money,” the study said. “District consolidation can have a positive effect on student outcomes and would increase transparency as well.”