Among the key candidates for consolidation are the state’s 859 local school districts, which consume nearly two-thirds of the $27 billion in local property taxes that local governments across Illinois collect each year. Illinois has the fifth-largest number of school districts in the nation.
Nearly 25 percent of Illinois school districts serve just one school, and over one-third of all school districts have fewer than 600 students. An additional layer of administration for these districts is inefficient.
On average, Illinois school districts serve just 2,399 students per district, the fifth-lowest among states with school populations over 1 million. Conversely, California school districts average 6,067 students. If Illinois school districts served the same number of students as California, Illinois would have 500 fewer school districts than it has today.
By cutting the number of school districts in half, Illinois could experience district operating savings of nearly $130 million to $170 million annually and could conservatively save the state $3 billion to $4 billion in pension costs over the next 30 years.
A majority of those savings would be realized by a reduction in district staff. Not only do taxpayers fund the principals, administrators, teachers and buildings at the school level, but they also pay for an additional – and often duplicative – layer of administration at the school district level.
The cost of administrative staffs at school districts adds up quickly. Nearly all districts have superintendents and secretaries, as well as additional personnel in human resources, special education, facilities management, business management and technology. Many districts retain at least one assistant superintendent as well.
Administrative salaries in school districts end up consuming a significant portion of public funding. More than three-quarters of Illinois’ superintendents have six-figure salaries, and many also get additional benefits in car and housing allowances, as well as bonuses. In addition, their high salaries lead to pension benefits of $2 million to $6 million each over the course of their retirements.
For an example of districts where consolidation makes sense, consider New Trier Township High School District 203 and its six elementary feeder districts. Combining these seven districts into one would eliminate many of the 136 administrators directly employed at the seven district offices, saving local taxpayers over $12 million a year in salaries alone, or over $1,000 per student.
Another example is Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School District 233 and its two elementary feeder districts. Consolidation would cut down on the three districts’ 68 office administrators, saving local taxpayers over $5 million a year in salary costs, or over $750 per student.
Those savings don’t include the massive reduction in pension costs that would also occur through consolidation.
The consolidation solution
This report does not encourage school consolidation – the decision to consolidate schools should remain in the hands of local taxpayers. But these same local taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for multiple layers of government – in the form of school districts – that duplicate services, waste tax dollars, increase government debt, and decrease transparency.
Given the challenges facing consolidation efforts, district consolidation will only happen when the state partners with local districts to discuss concerns and craft a solution.
That partnership should come in the form of a district consolidation commission, which would work with local governments to create consolidation and reorganization guidelines, select candidate districts, and establish a process for implementation. The commission would also support the creation of legislation that would mandate its proposed recommendations through an up or down vote, meaning no amendments would be permitted, in the General Assembly.
However, the commission should also be relatively narrow in its scope of recommendations. School district consolidation should focus on reining in the duplicative costs of district administration only – not on equalizing salary contracts or funding new facilities. The state should not provide any incentives for those items, nor should it mandate any school consolidations. And to prevent local property taxes from rising, the commission should develop policies on limiting the merger of local bargaining units in newly combined districts.
If considered carefully and implemented properly, school district consolidation could provide serious financial benefits to both local taxpayers and the state, have a positive effect on student outcomes, and increase government transparency at the local level.