March/April 2020

Leadership Letter: Consolidation May Again Take Center Stage

By Thomas E. Bertrand

Governor J.B. Pritzker’s “State of the State” address in January and the December report of the Property Tax Relief Task Force included calls for more consolidation of units of government. The Property Tax Relief Task Force recommended merging separate elementary and high school districts into unit school districts over a 10-year period. Meanwhile, Governor Pritzker called for further consolidation of local units of government such as townships.
Supporters of mandated consolidation of school districts point to potential savings in administrative costs, greater efficiency in operations, and the pooling of resources as the strongest arguments for mandated consolidation.

These arguments are not based upon fact. There is no research to support the argument that mandated school consolidation will save taxpayers money. In fact, there is ample research that the forced consolidation of school districts would likely produce the unintended outcome of higher costs to taxpayers. In 2012, the Classroom First Commission convened by Governor Pat Quinn reported that consolidating school districts down to a target of 300 districts would cost an additional $3 billion. The additional costs result from equalizing different salary schedules between districts, additional transportation costs resulting from longer bus routes, and additional facility needs required with larger districts. 

Aside from the additional costs associated with mandated consolidation, it is important to note that local schools are an economic engine for the community and a source of community pride. Thriving local schools are essential to the economic health of a community.

Since 1913 the number of school districts in Illinois has decreased from 11,825 to the 848 members of IASB today. Since 1993 the number of Illinois school districts decreased by 10%. Consolidation will continue as local school boards make difficult decisions on behalf of their children. 

IASB maintains the position that decisions about school consolidation must be made locally, because the consequences of merging districts are far-reaching for the affected students and the entire community. Local taxpayers also still bear primary responsibility for funding local schools. 

Rather than forced consolidation, a better path forward is to remove the barriers that prevent school districts from consolidation. Districts considering consolidation need strong, reliable financial support from the State of Illinois to overcome the financial hurdles associated with merging districts. Strong fiscal support to districts that may benefit from consolidation, coupled with greater flexibility and autonomy to share programs, services, and staff between school districts, will produce better outcomes for communities and the students we serve.
Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.