As budgets tighten, school districts looking at variety of alternatives

As budgets tighten, school districts looking at variety of alternatives

By: Tim Martin

By: Tim Martin

By: Tim Martin

By: Tim Martin

ARCOLA – In late August, Arcola Superintendent Reggie Clinton mailed letters to four area schools about an emotionally charged topic: consolidation.

None of the four districts – Arthur, Mattoon, Oakland and Tuscola – has yet to express interest in starting informal, long-term discussions on merging. But their cold shoulder does not mean those districts are oblivious to the issue during this tight-budget time.

"It's just not a topic that, unless they have to or unless it's gotten ugly, people want to discuss," Clinton said. "They prefer to wait until you've got to do something. That's human nature."

As local school districts scrape to balance budgets, administrators say it is likely they will have to look at ways to reorganize. The solution may be as simple as sharing a physics teacher or sending students to a nearby school for a calculus class.

But the reform could also mean something drastic, like considering consolidation, a long-standing issue for many rural districts.

The number of public school districts statewide has declined 12 percent in 20 years, from 1,010 in 1984 to 889 in 2004, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. At the same time, the number of students increased almost 10 percent, from 1.85 million to 2.03 million.

About half of the 25 schools in the regional office of education that includes Arcola and the four districts contacted have discussed consolidation or restructuring, administrators estimate. Both healthy and struggling districts are confronting the issue.

Communities with lethargic economies are exploring potential suitors and options for reshuffling. Stronger districts are bulking up their facilities, with hopes of becoming the school of choice when, and if, neighboring towns choose to consolidate.

The state has programs that accommodate districts interested in consolidation discussions. It pays for feasibility studies that analyze how the finances would shake out in a potential merger. In addition, the state offers financial incentives for districts that consolidate, such as paying off deficits or covering salary differences.

"We do not mandate; that's a completely local decision," assures Meta Minton, public information officer for the state board of education.

For many districts, talks of consolidation make residents nervous because the move could mean losing the community's cog, the school. But, increasingly, administrators face a philosophical dilemma: At what point in this financially tight period does keeping a school sacrifice academic quality?

Last year, Arcola contemplated cutting its extracurricular activities before the residents OK'd a tax increase. The education fund tax rate went up 75 cents, to $2.65 per $100 of equalized assessed valuation, which added about $409,000 in new revenue per year.

"A town with no school means everything is going out of town," says Arcola Mayor Larry Ferguson. "The children will go elsewhere and so will our citizens."

The tax increase, though, provides protection for only five to seven years, unless the state reforms the way it funds education, Clinton says.

"I'm not trying to take any side on it, other than 'here's the options,'" he says. "I don't want people to be surprised."

But the other schools' responses highlight the complexities that arise when consolidation looms as a possibility.

For the Arthur school district, the board members believe their school still offers a competitive slate of classes, given its intact musical program and technical classes, like welding and consumer sciences.

"I don't think there's a curiosity," said Travis Wilson, Arthur superintendent. "I think if you talk to the board and community, they're intent to keep their school and keep a quality of education right here in Arthur."

The Oakland school district accepts the idea of consolidation. Ezra Smithson, the interim superintendent, hopes in five years "we'll be aligned with someone else." Some classes enroll just two or three students. The district conducted a feasibility study with Arcola, but momentum hit a snag when the blueprints called for Oakland's students to travel to Arcola but not vice versa.

The two districts would maintain separate junior high and elementary schools.

"If you're looking at a consolidation, you're not Arcola-Oakland anymore," Smithson says. "You're forming a different name, and surely you would want continuity all the way up. We were giving up all our students and not getting anything in return."

Both Mattoon and Tuscola, with their larger districts and business bases, weighed the costs and the benefits and ultimately said no – for now.

After receiving his letter, Mattoon Superintendent Larry Lilly met with Clinton and reviewed financial and demographic information. Lilly then recapped the conversation on Oct. 11 to the school board to gauge whether discussions should advance.

The board's final response: "We had enough on our plate," Lilly recalled.

One issue that dampened interest was the 10-person committee that would form in the long-term discussions. Each community would by state law have five members, which bothered some Mattoon board members, given that Mattoon is a district of 3,400 students and Arcola has 700.

Similar factors turned off Tuscola, but it doesn't mean the district is not planning for consolidation. The town has made a conscious effort to fund its school facilities, partly to attract new residents, but also to position itself as the No. 1 choice if consolidation sweeps the region.

"You can stick your head in the sand and say it will never happen here," says Tuscola Superintendent Joe Burgess. "But looking around the state and the issues of funding, we firmly believe in preparing ahead of time and being proactive."

State and federal funding is the oft-cited reason districts must look ahead to a sometimes shaky future. For fiscal 2004, the state paid for nearly 30 percent of the total education bill, with local funds providing 62 percent and the federal government the remaining 8 percent.

Some administrators believe the state should foot half the education bill, or at the least, pay for all of its mandated programs.

Because of the unpredictability of state and federal funding, administrators agree that relying on local funds is more stable, although citizens can only take so much of the burden. Surging school taxes could push some communities to look at consolidation, which some perceive as a cheaper alternative, although critics say that has never been proven.

The merger could also help in hiring more faculty members to teach a broader selection of subjects. "School districts want to raise the quality of students coming out and one of the ways you look at doing that is, whether in business or maybe in education, 'Let's just join forces,' and provide more dollars to go into the classroom," the state board's Minton said.

But some skeptics point to West Virginia, which made it a policy in the 1980s to start consolidating school districts, as an example of what not to do. Although more than one-quarter of West Virginia districts have consolidated, some are operating at a loss because of transportation costs.

"Sometimes if you put two struggling districts together, you get one bigger struggling district," says John McNary, regional superintendent for Clark, Coles, Cumberland, Douglas, Moultrie and Shelby counties.

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