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September/October, 2010

Boards must decide how small is too small

The question for this issue is answered by Linda Dawson, director/editorial services and editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.

Question : How many students do we have to have enrolled in a K-8 school to keep it open? Or better yet, to close the school?

Answer : According to Ben Schwarm, IASB associate executive director/governmental relations, there is no minimum student enrollment set in state law. Thus, the question of “How small is too small?” rests with the school board and the community it serves. A number of different factors will come into play in any decisions with regard to closing a single school or the larger questions of consolidating/annexing with another district. The board should be prepared to ask tough questions of itself and the community.

One consideration is the amount of state aid that comes to the school from figures submitted for average daily attendance. If student numbers in the district are dwindling overall, are local taxpayers willing to support the district through local property taxes in order to keep the school(s) open and functioning? If they are, schools in question can operate indefinitely as long as students register.

When student numbers begin to dwindle at a single school, board members often look at redrawing attendance boundaries to absorb students into other buildings. This can elicit strong reactions from the area that will be left without a neighborhood school. Communicating financial benefits and having an orientation plan for uprooted students can help alleviate some problems, but be prepared for push-back.

When numbers begin to dwindle for the entire district, the board may need to consider reorganization options. The number of school districts in Illinois has decreased from 1,008 in 1983-84 to 866 as of July 1, 2010. Reorganizations can involve consolidation with another district, annexation to another district, conversion to form a new high school district and new elementary district based on the boundaries of a dissolved unit district, deactivation that sends students to another district or formation of a cooperative high school.

Consolidation, annexation and conversion can carry financial incentives. These incentives can take the form of supplementary state aid, supplementary teacher salary allowances, a single payment to cover a deficit difference and a supplemental state aid payment equal to $4,000 for each certified employee who is employed by the district on a full-time basis for the school year.  

Beyond financial considerations, school boards and their communities should fully analyze the learning opportunities available for students. Do students meet and exceed learning standards on state testing? Do graduates go on to higher education or vocational schools with success? What does the community value and what aspirations does it have for local students?

“The local school board needs to determine at what point the lack of students begins being a detriment to the learning opportunities for the children of the district and act accordingly,” Schwarm said.

With this issue, The Illinois School Board Journal begins a three-part series on school closure. Researchers from Illinois State University collected and analyzed 20 years worth of data regarding school closure and offer their insight as to which factors are most likely to lead to closure at the elementary, junior high and high school level.

The factors offer good benchmarks for a district to determine if a particular school or schools in the district might be on a path to closure. In addition, they show which factors, with work, a board and community can influence to prevent what seems to be inevitable closure.

So, how small is too small? It depends on the board and the community to make the call.

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