Many Illinoisans sense their property taxes are out of control, but not all of them know more than 60 percent of property-tax revenue goes toward their local school districts.
Illinois has 859 local school districts – the fifth-most in the nation. Many are large, expensive and redundant bureaucracies that contribute to Illinois’ growing debt, waste and corruption. Those districts are ripe for consolidation.
If all school districts in Illinois managed half a dozen schools and thousands of children, the high count of districts might be justifiable. But that’s not the case.
The reality is nearly half of Illinois school districts serve just one to two schools. And over one-third of all Illinois school districts have fewer than 600 students. Having two layers of bureaucracy in such small districts is inefficient and a huge drain on taxpayers’ wallets.
To clarify: The reform advocated here is district consolidation, not school consolidation. School consolidations should remain a local decision. District consolidations, however, have the potential to reduce costs for the entire state – and especially for all those burdened by Illinois’ high property taxes.
The majority of savings from consolidation would come from reduced administrative costs.
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.
Those high salaries lead to pension benefits of $2 million to $6 million each over the course of their retirements.
Just look at the salaries and pensions of the top-paid school district administrators in Illinois.
Eliminating those salaries and pension costs could save Illinoisans a great deal of money.
School district consolidation would eliminate waste, cut spending, streamline services
Illinois’ school district structure is incredibly inefficient, especially when compared with peer states with student populations of similar size.
For example, if Illinois school districts served the same number of students as school districts in California, the most populous state in the country, serve, Illinois would have just 342 school districts. And if Illinois school districts 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.
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.
For example, consider what would happen if New Trier Township High School District 203 and its six elementary feeder districts were consolidated. Combining these seven districts into one would eliminate many of the 136 administrators directly employed at the seven district offices.
By consolidating seven sets of staff, New Trier could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in salary and pension costs over the next 30 years.
Local taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for multiple layers of government that duplicate services, waste tax dollars, increase government debt, and decrease transparency.
Taxpayers need consolidation reform
There are currently so many school districts in Illinois that they’ve escaped accountability.
That’s why school districts have managed to amass $20 billion in debt, or $10,000 per Illinois student, and why property taxes in Illinois have grown three times faster than household incomes since 1990.
And that’s why school district consolidation is an important and necessary reform for Illinois.
To clarify, however, reforms should focus on district consolidations, not school consolidations. School consolidations should remain a local decision.
New consolidation efforts should also end the state’s policy of providing financial incentives to districts for consolidating. And to prevent local property taxes from rising, any new consolidation efforts should develop policies that block the merger of teachers contracts in any newly combined districts.
To that end, the state should create a district consolidation commission, similar to the Base Closure and Realignment Commission that closes and consolidates U.S. military bases.
Illinois’ commission would focus on cutting the cost of duplicative district administrations. The commission’s recommendations would be subject to an up or down vote in the General Assembly, meaning no amendments would be permitted.
If done properly, school district consolidation would lead to significant savings for both local taxpayers and the state – and, if taxpayers demand it, could lead to even greater reforms in education.

Ted Dabrowski

Vice President of Policy