Amid cuts to school band program, Norridge-area taxpayers fund 59 district employees making over $100K

Amid cuts to school band program, Norridge-area taxpayers fund 59 district employees making over $100K

Duplicative school districts and an excess of publicly funded six-figure salaries have educated Norridge-Harwood Heights taxpayers on the benefits of consolidation.

The Cook County villages of Norridge and Harwood Heights are a pair of small, enclaved suburbs within Chicago’s city limits, recognized jointly as Norridge-Harwood Heights. And while the community is not subject to the dysfunction of Chicago Public Schools, residents have not escaped the costly burden of school district waste found statewide.

With a student population of 3,000 across four school districts, Norridge-Harwood Heights boasts roughly one school district for every 760 students – each performing services and duties that needlessly duplicate one another. And across those redundant districts, nearly 60 employee incomes surpass $100,000.

In the wake of painful cuts to the school’s music program, those excessive salaries become all the more notable.

Six-figure surplus

Personnel costs typically make up the largest expense in school district budgets. And with 59 school district employees’ total compensation exceeding $100,000, those expenses are no small cost to Norridge-Harwood Heights taxpayers.

Among the highest earners across the community’s four school districts are district administrators. Jennifer Kelsall, superintendent for Ridgewood High School District 234, is the highest-earning school district employee in the suburb, collecting $224,800 when factoring in benefits. Not far behind is Norridge School District 80 superintendent Paul O’Malley, earning $220,200 including benefits.

Six District 234 administrators, including two listed as “general administrator or general supervisor” earn upwards of $100,000 in total compensation; five district-level administrators earn more than $100,000 at Union Ridge School District 86, one of Norridge-Harwood Heights’ three elementary school districts.

The average administrator salary at each of the community’s four school districts – Pennoyer School District 79, District 234, District 80 and District 86 – surpasses the state average, according to the Illinois State Board of Education, or ISBE. While the average school district administrator salary in Illinois is just shy of $106,300, District 80’s average administrator salary is $144,450 – 36 percent higher.

Case for consolidation

The District 80 school board has been among the most responsive to the community’s growing interest in consolidation. And it isn’t hard to see why: In the third year of a state-imposed deficit-reduction plan, the district is among the most financially troubled in the area. In February, the District 80 school board voted to eliminate the district’s popular band program, citing considerable financial strain.

O’Malley described the vote to Norridge-Harwood Heights News as “one of the saddest, most depressing moments of my career as an administrator.”

District officials had twice previously turned to taxpayers with tax increase referendums – first in November 2016, and again in April 2017. But Norridge-Harwood Heights residents are already tapped out on tax hikes, as evidenced by their rejection of the referendum questions on both occasions.

Fortunately, thanks to Norridge-Harwood Heights community members, the district’s band program was reinstated following a districtwide fundraising campaign. By June, a group led by District 80 parents had raised $50,000 to help the program. District officials responded by reviving the band program, albeit this time on a fee basis – charging $295 per student.

While the community’s success should be celebrated, their efforts should not be taken for granted. Absent long-term fiscal reforms, financial threats to the district’s beloved band program could soon resurface.

District 80 isn’t the only school district in the area on uncertain fiscal footing. Voters’ rejection of a bond referendum that would have provided for building improvements, as well as create a new academic wing, has found Pennoyer School District 79 looking at difficult cuts as well.

With uncomfortable cuts on the horizon, many district taxpayers are looking at the prospect of diminished services – despite stepping up their contributions in tax dollars. As Cook County taxpayers’ second installment of this year’s property tax bills come due, an annual report from the county clerk’s office noted property tax bills in the region increased nearly 3 percent over the year.

Duplicative school districts

Norridge-Harwood Heights is served by four school districts, according to ISBE. Only one of those districts administers more than one school – Norridge School District 80, which serves just two schools. District 80, which serves 1,100 students, is also the only school district of the four with an enrollment exceeding 1,000 students. The remaining three districts each serve less than 900 students, with the smallest being District 79, whose sole school serves 400 students.

The average school district in Illinois, according to ISBE, serves 2,380 students – which is low compared with states that are home to similar student populations. The Land of Lincoln’s average school district size sits fifth-lowest among states with student populations over 1 million. That all of Norridge-Harwood Heights’ school districts fall below Illinois’ already-low state average should illustrate the overabundance of administrative bodies taxpayers shoulder in the community.

By contrast, school districts in Virginia – a state with a student population similar to that of Illinois – serve more than 9,600 students on average. Were Norridge-Harwood Heights’ four school districts to consolidate, the resulting 3,000-student district would be less than one-third the size of the average Virginia school district. Consolidation of school districts – which should not be confused with the consolidation of individual schools – can lower administrative costs, free up public funds and encourage more efficient use of resources. Far from compromising educational standards, Virginia’s mere 133 school districts have in fact produced student outcomes far outpacing that of Illinois.

In a state swaddled in nearly 7,000 layers of local government units – from county boards to mosquito abatement districts – Norridge-Harwood Heights’ glut of school districts is hardly uncommon. But a rising property tax burden and recent budgetary hardships have alerted many residents to the high cost of maintaining some of these redundant administrative bodies.

“Hijacked” transparency

By April 2018, the cause for school district consolidation had generated some buzz among Norridge-Harwood Heights residents. Although consolidation referenda in the community had failed in the past, heightened interest in the issue recently prompted school district officials to hold an informational forum on the subject of consolidation open to the public.

But those plans were upended prematurely when Mark Klaisner, executive director at the West 40 Intermediate Service Center No. 2 (another layer of school district administration at the regional level) abruptly canceled the meeting. Klaisner asserted that by posting a notice publicizing the event, District 80 had attempted to “hijack” the forum as its own. District 80 officials dismissed Klaisner’s charge as “bizarre,” according to Norridge-Harwood Heights News, countering that the posting was intended simply to comply with Illinois’ Open Meetings Act.

As executive director of West 40, Klaisner oversees all four school districts in Norridge-Harwood Heights – in addition to 34 others. West 40 would be tasked with managing the consolidation process, provided such a measure succeeded in the area.

The combination of a rising property tax burden and tense school district budgets is a raw deal for taxpayers and students. It’s reassuring that some district officials have signaled an interest in district consolidation as a measure for controlling costs. By minimizing administrative costs, consolidation could free up more resources for the classroom as well as provide a path toward property tax relief for residents. Norridge-Harwood Heights taxpayers and school district officials alike would be wise to continue to push consolidation into the conversation.

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