East Moline taxpayers could find savings through school district consolidation

East Moline taxpayers could find savings through school district consolidation

While Quad Cities geography connects East Moline and the Iowa cities of Davenport and Bettendorf, Illinois’ abundance of school districts means their administrative environments are worlds apart. By consolidating duplicative administrative bodies, East Moline could generate taxpayer savings.

One thing that should concern taxpayers keeping an eye on the cost of their government is the number of government units that rely on tax dollars. Draped in nearly 7,000 layers of government, the Land of Lincoln has more government units than any other state in the nation.

Among those government layers are the state’s 852 school districts – fifth-most nationwide, as of 2015. Illinois school districts consume two-thirds of the state’s total property tax revenue. But nearly 25 percent of Illinois’ school districts serve only one school – and more than one-third serve only 600 students or less. This suggests taxpayers are shouldering the cost of redundant administrative bodies.

On Illinois’ side of the Quad Cities divide, East Moline offers an example of where consolidation efforts could increase efficiency and eliminate waste, while generating taxpayer savings.

District duplication

East Moline oversees three school districts, each with its own administrative bodies, which collectively administer eight schools in the city, according to Illinois State Board of Education, or ISBE, data.

Of East Moline’s three school districts, the student enrollment of just one – East Moline School District 37 – surpasses the state average. District 37 serves roughly 2,750 students, according to ISBE, while the average among Illinois school districts is roughly 2,100 students. And while this example of above-average enrollment might not appear ripe for consolidation, Illinois’ district enrollment average is actually unusually low. Illinois’ average number of students per school district is fifth-lowest among states with school populations exceeding 1 million.

The average school in Virginia serves a similar number of students as the average school in Illinois. But the average school district in Virginia serves more than double the students of Illinois’ average school district. While boasting better performance outcomes, the Old Dominion has only 133 school districts statewide.

East Moline’s three school districts collectively serve 5,100 students. Were these school districts to consolidate, the resulting district would contain slightly more than half the number of students in Virginia’s average school district.

The potential for taxpayer savings is most apparent in East Moline’s two smaller school districts: Silvis School District 34 and United Township High School District 30.

District 34 serves just two schools, which share a mere 660 students, while District 30 administers only one – East Moline’s sole high school – with a student body of roughly 1,690. Were these school districts to consolidate, the resulting school district would be only slightly bigger than Illinois’ low state average.

Inspiration from Iowa

Consolidation of school districts, it’s important to note, is not the same as consolidation of individual schools. East Moline taxpayers need not look as far as Virginia to see what district consolidation looks like in practice. Across the Mississippi River, on Iowa’s side of the Quad Cities – consisting of Davenport and Bettendorf – there are just three school districts. Davenport’s entire school population is served by just one school district, while Betterndorf is served by two, one of which is shared by the neighboring town of LeClaire.

First take Davenport’s sole school district, Davenport Community School District. Serving the city’s entire school population across 26 traditional schools, as well as preschool programs and two specialized academies, the district’s total enrollment exceeds 15,200 students – roughly three times that of East Moline’s three school districts combined. Despite the enrollment disparity, grade schools in East Moline and Davenport exhibit similar class sizes, suggesting consolidated school districts need not mean consolidated classrooms.

Or look at Bettendorf’s largest school district: Bettendorf Community School District serves 4,607 students, over two-thirds more than that of East Moline’s largest school district. Yet average grade school class sizes in Bettendorf also resemble those of East Moline.

Also larger than any East Moline school district is Pleasant Valley Community School District, Iowa’s smallest school district in the Quad Cities. With a total enrollment of 4,200 students, the district serves seven schools and a preschool program between Bettendorf and LeClaire. These schools additionally serve neighboring towns such as Pleasant Valley, Riverdale and Panorama Park.

But the case for school district consolidation in East Moline can be found closer still. In Illinois’ remaining Quad Cities, Rock Island and Moline, both are served by one school district each, administering 12 and 13 schools, respectively.

Six-figure administrators

Consolidating administrative bodies could save resources and allow for more funds to be returned to the classroom.

One consequence of district overabundance is the duplication of costly administrative payrolls. Compensation records show administrators across all three East Moline school districts earning between $100,000 and $200,000 annually to perform identical services. The highest earner is District 30 superintendent Jay Morrow, whose compensation was roughly $204,250, including benefits, for the 2017 school year. Factoring in benefits, superintendents at District 34 and District 37 earned $154,120 and $187,868 respectively for the 2017 school year. District compensation records show nine administrators – including superintendents, assistant and associate superintendents, and “general administrators” – across all three school districts earning upwards of $100,000 in the 2017 school year.

Excessive administrative pay puts upward pressure on property taxes while crowding the classroom out of school district budgets. And as administrative costs continue to grow, some districts can become dependent on tax hikes to deliver basic student services and perform general maintenance.

Take East Moline’s District 30, which hiked its property tax levy in December 2015. The following year, Rock Island County introduced a countywide sales tax increase intended for school facilities through referendum. Voters approved the sales tax increase in November 2016 after having rejected the measure three times prior.

Meanwhile, between the 2014 school year – the year before the district’s property tax levy increase – and the 2017 school year, the district’s administrative staff grew to four employees listed as “general administrator or general supervisor” earning more than $100,000 from just one employee with that title earning roughly $60,000 – despite a slight decline in student enrollment.

A border war ceasefire

While it’s unlikely school district consolidation alone would suffice to ease East Moline’s punishing property tax burden, it would nonetheless serve a necessary step toward controlling taxpayer costs. Comparing Rock Island County’s property tax burden with that of its cross-border neighbor makes clear Illinoisans’ need for cost-savings. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the effective property tax rate on a median value home in Rock Island County was 2.23 percent in 2016, while the rate in Scott County, Iowa – where Bettendorf and Davenport are located – was 1.61 percent. But that isn’t the only disparity that Illinois lawmakers should be troubled by.

Population trends across the Quad Cities tell a disheartening tale for the Land of Lincoln. While Illinois’ three cities in the region ­have continued to downsize since 2010, the Iowa side of the border has grown. County-level data show these population changes are driven in large part by migration trends. Natural population growth – births minus deaths – and international migration gains have failed to offset the outmigration of residents from Rock Island County to other areas. Scott County meanwhile has grown across all three components of population change over that time.

Illinoisans have demonstrated that policymakers can only resist reform for so long before taxpayer plight turns into taxpayer flight. And while many reforms will require action from Springfield – such as pension reform and collective bargaining reform – local leaders could serve their taxpayers by eliminating waste and duplication through consolidation.

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