ATWOOD — The Atwood-Hammond school district should make an effort to annex into the adjacent Arthur-Lovington district, according to a reorganization study that was recently completed.
About 350 people crowded into the Atwood-Hammond Elementary School gym this week to hear recommendations from Midwest School Consultants, the Springfield firm that researched the issue over the past four months.
Consultant Bill Phillips said annexation is one of seven consolidation options available to Atwood-Hammond, which has been looking at ways to address declining state funding. The district is also looking at ways to increase educational options for its students.
"With annexation, the districts would become more financially stable. Why? Because you have a higher EAV (equalized assessed valuation). Remember the higher the EAV, the better the ability to generate tax money at the same rate," Phillips said.
It would also boost enrollment, which is expected to drop in both districts over the next five years. For example, a combined Atwood-Hammond/Arthur-Lovington high school would decrease by 50 students between now and the fall of 2016, when enrollment would be an estimated 285.
Under annexation, both school districts would need to petition their respective regional offices of education. If the regional boards of school trustees endorse the idea, it would go before the voters, probably in April 2012. It would need to be approved in both districts for the annexation to go forward.
A similar move is bringing Lovington students into the Arthur district this fall, and Arthur Superintendent Travis Wilson agreed that a larger equalized assessed valuation means a more stable district.
"We're in tough times," said Wilson of the state funding issue. "Our board is open to cooperating with the Atwood folks to keep the quality of programs and broaden the tax base to help taxpayers."
Annexation has been the most popular reorganization tool used in Illinois, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. About 47 percent of all consolidations since 1984 have used that form, with 39 percent being straight consolidations, where an entirely new district is formed.
With an annexation, Atwood-Hammond would become part of the Arthur-Lovington district, land owners would convert to Arthur's tax rate, and teachers would all be on the Arthur-Lovington salary schedule. Phillips said it would result in a slight decrease in the tax rate for Atwood-Hammond taxpayers, and a pay bump for its teachers.
He estimated that state incentives that kick in for consolidation would total around $2.2 million over four years.
Another option for Atwood-Hammond is to deactivate the high school and pay tuition to its students to another district. It is a costly option that would not save the district any money, according to the study.
Either way, the district — located in Champaign, Douglas, Piatt and Moultrie counties — needs to do something soon, according to Superintendent Kenny Schwengel. He said Atwood-Hammond still has about a $1 million fund balance in the education fund, but is spending about $300,000 more per year than it takes in.
"We're trying to be a little proactive, so we can provide more for the kids, but it's obviously being driven by the finances as well. We don't want to go to the point we have to start cutting and increasing class sizes," said Schwengel.
The Atwood-Hammond Board of Education will hold a special session at 6 p.m. Aug. 7 to discuss the issue further. The meeting will be held in the elementary school music room.
Atwood-Hammond's consolidation options
— Annexation: Atwood-Hammond would become part of the Arthur-Lovington School District . Voter approval from both districts is required, probably on the April 2013 ballot.
— Deactivation of the high school: Atwood-Hammond would keep the K-8 students and pay tuition for high school students to a neighboring district. Voter approval also needed, and could come as early as November.
Other consolidation options available to Atwood-Hammond include true consolidation (forming a new district), dissolving the district, forming a cooperative high school, school district conversion and a partial elementary unit.