The savings plan that isn't
It can't be said too often — the devil is in the details.
In his budget speech in early 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn casually threw out some of what he believed would be money-saving ideas the state should embrace as a means of coping with its chronic financial woes.
One of them, he asserted, would be to consolidate high school-only and grade school-only districts in Illinois. He even asserted that his proposed reorganization would save $100 million in administrative salaries, and his idea sounded good — at least in terms of efficiency.
But it sounds as if Quinn didn't know what he was talking about — at least if you believe the findings of a commission formed to study the issue and headed by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon.
Merging all of the state high school-only and elementary school-only districts would cost Illinois $3.7 billion over a four-year period, a shockingly high sum in any environment but completely out of the question for a state billions of dollars in debt.
Depending on your point of view, consolidation may or may not be a good idea. It's no secret many communities are extremely reluctant to merge their schools with other communities, although merging high school and elementary school districts would be an easier sell. But the big numbers involved make it a daunting project.
Illinois has 100 high-school-only districts and 377 elementary-school-only districts. Rantoul is one community with separate districts. If all of them were consolidated into unit districts, it would affect 36 of Illinois' 102 counties and nearly 800,000 school kids.
Why would local school consolidation be so expensive for the state? Because in an effort to encourage school consolidation, the state has made financial pledges designed to ease the transition.
Illinois would be obligated to make up the difference in pay scales for employees of districts that merge, equalizing salaries at the higher level. That would cost $3.1 billion alone. The state also is obliged to make lump-sum payments to districts of $4,000 per employee for as much as three years. That's another $600 million-plus.
There could be additional costs, like higher state-aid payments by the state to the new districts, although the state's Board of Education could provide no specifics.
Illinois' disgraceful financial status pretty much makes that idea dead on arrival, another downside of the state's pauper status.
Assume for the sake of discussion that school consolidation is a good idea — both for cost savings and education. Or if school consolidation is an issue that is too emotional to contemplate, think of other possible efficiency advances that might require a state investment. They all are non-starters because of the state's chronically mismanaged finances.
Illinois is in no position to do anything other than lurch from day to day, hoping it will have enough money to pay its bills and usually discovering that it doesn't.
Even when the economy bounces back, Illinois' recovery will lag other states because our state government — for a variety of reasons, mostly political — simply does not work.
Our economic climate is hostile to economic growth and jobs creation, Our political climate is despoiled by relentless corruption and a what's-in-it-for-me attitude by elected officials. As a result, the state as a whole is as paralyzed as the idea of consolidating high school-only and elementary school-only districts, no matter what the merits.