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Some creative ways to save money in Illinois public schools

State Sen. Tom Cullerton is sponsoring a bill on streamlining school districts to save money. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

There’s a lot of talk these days about raising state and Chicago taxes to deal with looming budget holes. And there’s talk about whether to elect a school board in Chicago, while the rest of us should have just voted to elect school board members all around the rest of the state. Schools generally make up two-thirds of the property tax bills most of us dread paying.

Why hasn’t there been more talk about how we might save money, cut costs or operate more efficiently, especially when it comes to schools?

OPINION

As Illinois loses population and, therefore, taxpayers, a new analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council drives home why we absolutely need to be focused on creative ways to save tax dollars and funnel more of it into the classroom on quality services for our children.

Illinois spent twice as much as the national average on administrative costs in 2016, or $544 per pupil. New York spent $349 per student and California, which has three times as many students, spent only $95 per student that year. We’re the only state to have spent more than $1 billion that year on administrative costs.

Authors Adam Slade and Nick McFadden estimate that Illinois could save $645 million per year, or $318 per student, if it reduced administrative spending to the national average.

That’s tough to do when we have so many school districts: 852, with 211 of them serving only one school. Thirty-one districts have fewer than 100 students. Does this make sense?

Slade recently told a House education committee to consider:

  • Illinois not only spent more than $1 billion on general administration, the most of any state, it spent more than 10% of the total general administration spending nationwide.
  • Single-school districts spend more than multi-school districts on administration.
  • Elementary or high school districts spend more on administration than unit districts.

State report card data showed that “at the average multi-school district, 45% of students reach growth benchmarks for both English and Language Arts and Math,” which is nearly three times better than the academic growth reached in single districts, Slade said.

Consolidating districts long has been a tough sell. Former Gov. Pat Quinn proposed it several years back and it went nowhere fast, but it’s worth a serious look again.

State Sen. Tom Cullerton and State Rep. Rita Mayfield, both Democrats, are pushing SB 1838 to create an efficiency commission charged with issuing recommendations by May 2020 on the optimal number of districts, enrollment per district, and where reorganization and realignment might best be achieved.

Republican State Sen. Sue Rezin is advancing SB 1287, which would allow voters to approve, via a ballot question, the sharing of a superintendent or other administrators, except principals, among schools and school districts. Principals were excluded because Rezin heard from many people that they are critical for setting the tone in each school building.

“It’s another option for taxpayers to say, ‘You know what? We can save money this way and then put that saved money in the classroom.’ So half of that perceived saved money would go in the classroom and the other half would go for property tax relief, in theory,” Rezin said.

The MPC analysis should be a wake-up call, Rezin said.

Texas school officials share services, she said, and have won awards for academic outcomes because of the coordination that occurs when elementary and high school districts plan and collaborate together. New Jersey, New York and Ohio also have systems in place to share administrators and staff, according to the MPC.

Under Rezin’s plan, local school boards could determine how shared services would work, but if problems arise, the regional school superintendent would help develop a plan.

“My frustration has been,” she added, “we’ve put a billion and a half dollars back into education the last three or four years and then we see … all of this new administration being hired” instead of money going to the classroom or for property tax relief.

We need to do right by our children, but we also can’t continue to turn to taxpayers for more money year after year. Ideas like consolidation and administrative service sharing are long overdue.

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for political and government reforms.