By Gus Bode

Quinn proposes oft-defeated school consolidation


Associated Press


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn proposed a slight increase in education spending Wednesday but wants to save state money by pushing school consolidation and eliminating regional education offices — two ideas that have been soundly rejected over the years.

Quinn resurrected the idea of consolidation, which has caused ill feelings seemingly since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, saying it “lowers administrative overhead, improves efficiency and will save taxpayers $100 million.”

“Illinois currently has 868 school districts, and our fiscal reality demands consolidation. That’s too many,” Quinn said in his budget address to a joint session of the House and Senate. The governor will create a commission to study the issue.

He also proposed cutting a $13 million subsidy to 45 regional offices of education, which conduct safety checks, training and run special schools, and reducing by $95 million the amount the state pays to bus students to the classroom.

Overall state support for elementary and secondary education would climb 3.2 percent to $7.2 billion, still 1 percent lower than in the 2009-2010 school year. Higher education would see just a slight increase in funding, up 1.2 percent to $2.15 billion.

Consolidation has historically pitted progress and efficiency against local control and sentimentality. Since there were 12,000 school districts as late as World War II, in small towns the school has been the community center and local point of pride. But merged schools mean pooled resources, and advocates say they are better able to retain top teachers and afford the latest technology.

Lawmakers passed a sweeping education reform package in 1985 that required consolidation, with the goal of no fewer than 1,500 students in any district with kindergarten through 12th grade. The outcry forced the Legislature to repeal it months later.


Rep. Roger Eddy, a Republican from Hutsonville where he’s school superintendent, said studies show the targets of consolidation — small schools where less money is spent per pupil — typically have higher standardized test scores, with smaller class sizes and more parental involvement.

“It’s hard to make the argument that we’re doing this for education purposes and to save money because the data doesn’t show that,” said Eddy, who has served on several consolidation study panels in the past two decades.

He also said geography plays a big role and efficiency has to be balanced against how long pupils have to spend on buses getting to school — a particularly sensitive issue because Quinn also recommended cutting state funding for transporting pupils to school.

If the governor’s plan is adopted, the bus budget will have dropped 50 percent from two years ago.

The governor’s chief of staff, Jack Lavin, said local districts wouldn’t necessarily have to raise property taxes to pay for buses, but instead could cut layers of unneeded administration.

Quinn said the state could save $13 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 by cutting support for 45 regional offices of education, run by elected superintendents. They provide bus driver training, area-wide schools for dropouts and truants, GED testing and more.

“The $13 million annual savings will be spent in the classroom, rather than on administration,” Quinn said.

Quinn’s predecessor, ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich, proposed eliminating regional offices of education in his first budget address in 2003. Widespread opposition to that plan forced Blagojevich to agree to a compromise that would have cut the number in half by 2005, but that never happened, either.