Originally Posted Online: Jan. 18, 2013, 6:16 pm
Last Updated: Jan. 18, 2013, 10:38 pm

Consolidation study progressing for schools

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By Sarah Hayden, shayden@qconline.com

Five Rock Island County school districts have commissioned a formal study to take a new look at whether consolidation can save money.

Superintendents from United Township High School and the Colona, East Moline, Silvis and Carbon Cliff/Barstow elementary districts said the study will look at several scenarios.

Students from the four elementary "feeder" districts go on to United Township High School, which is also its own school district. Hampton Elementary District, which also feeds UTHS, is not participating in the study.

The Illinois State Board of Education awarded a grant of $7,500 to help pay consultants for their work on the project. If costs run higher, no district will have to pay more than $900 each, said East Moline Superintendent Kristin Humphries.

The new study is being conducted by three former superintendents: David Bills of Riverdale, Dr. Harold Ford of Geneseo and Richard Van Kerrebroeck of Annawan, with Mr. Bills leading the group.

Dr. Ford worked with the Illinois State Board of Education to identify state requirements for information that must be in the study and the final report to school boards, said Colona superintendent Kyle Ganson.

"This is the continuation of a conversation we've been having for years," said Mr. Ganson.

The last formal study was conducted in 2004, and concluded merging districts at that time would not save money.

"It's something we've been talking about for a while. The state of Illinois keeps taking money away from schools and education," said Mr. Humphries. "We wanted to be proactive and find out what a study might do for our neighboring districts."

The consultants have finished touring the schools involved, but are still gathering data, said Dr. Ford. He expects the study to be completed by mid-June.

The study will focus on three possible scenarios:

-- Combining the four elementary schools into one district

-- Combining the elementary schools with United Township High School into one district

-- No consolidation.

If the latter is chosen, the consultants will look at how the schools can share resources to cut costs, said Dr. Ford.Some districts already have shared resources for years.

Mr. Ganson said Colona contracts with Silvis for extracurricular, athletic and special education transportation, and Silvis pays the East Moline school district a quarterly fee for information technology support.

Consolidation has been a hot-button issue in recent years. Gov. Pat Quinn has tried to pass legislation forcing school districts to merge, only to see several bills fail. New laws let districts opt for voluntary consolidation.

Illinois has 868 school districts, third only to California and Texas. Of the Illinois districts, 214 are single-school districts, more than any other state.

Is bigger less expensive?

A government study completed in 2011 showed Illinois spends considerably more to educate children in single-school districts than larger districts.

The belief is that a larger district saves money because it has fewer administrative positions, which saves money on salaries.If districts were to merge, superintendent positions would be eliminated and districts could lose local control.

"You don't want to lose that small school feeling," said Silvis superintendent Ray Bergles. "On the other hand, it would help curriculum and some of our districts could see a combined tax rate go down. Yes, you'll eliminate superintendents, but you'll have more office staff."

Mr. Bergles doesn't think consolidation will save districts money, considering teacher salaries will have to be raised to meet those of the higher-paid teachers.

State law requires Illinois to pay incentives to districts that consolidate, which helps offset the cost of equalizing those salaries.

"Those incentives only last up to four or five years," said United Township superintendent Jay Morrow. "You have to set the new tax rate at a point to maintain all the programs without having to make cuts. There's no prospect of closing down schools in our area because they're full."

Mr. Ganson also doesn't believe consolidation will save money, he but says he believes it would make for a more effective school system.

"It may save on duplication and bring uniformity as far as curriculum, staff development and services," he said.

As it is, five different elementary schools with five sets of curricula blend into one high school. Dr. Morrow hopes one of the outcomes of consolidation study will be a better, more aligned curriculum that benefits students.

Once the study is completed, the involved school boards will review it. Ultimately, voters in each district would have to approve any consolidation.

"If it's good for the kids, then we have to push it," said Mr. Bergles.