Illinois schools are top heavy, and it’s crushing the classroom
Illinois school districts spent $1 billion on district-level administration in fiscal year 2014 – more than any other state.
Illinoisans have been hearing a lot from superintendents lately surrounding the push for school funding reform at the Statehouse. Most direct lawmakers’ attention toward topics such as funding fairness, demographic changes and staffing levels.
But few, if any, talk about the elephant in the room.
There’s nary a mention of a school funding problem that foments funding inequity, saps scarce dollars from the classroom, and makes for monstrous property tax bills: administrative costs.
Through the first half of August, every school superintendent who testified to education committees in the Illinois House of Representatives in support of the Democrats’ school funding reform bill took home six-figure salaries, ranging from $120,000 to $255,000.
Now, those high salaries aren’t necessarily the problem. Top administrative talent requires good pay. Ensuring the adequate education of hundreds or thousands of students, managing a large staff, and keeping up with a state that’s keen on spitting out unfunded mandates requires serious, executive-level skills.
But here’s what are problems: there’s too many, they’re ensuring the success of too few students, and plenty are making way too much while not having stepped foot in a school building for years.
Illinois’ high number of superintendents is a function of the state’s overabundance of local governments in general. Each superintendent represents a school district, which is an administrative body that oversees a school or group of schools. Of the state’s more than 850 school districts, about a third serve fewer than 600 students. An entire district-level bureaucracy to oversee so few students is a waste of tax dollars.
But don’t expect your local superintendent to say so.
That’s why lawmakers focused on education reform should peek their heads over the state border. Comparing administrative costs is eye opening. Florida, for example, only has about 70 school districts.
A 2017 study from the Metropolitan Planning Council, or MPC, is especially bleak. Researchers analyzing data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed Illinois school districts spent $1 billion on district-level administration in fiscal year 2014 – more than any other state. That’s $518 per pupil, which comes in as the second highest rate in the country.
Bringing that rate down to the national average would save more than $460 million per year, according to the MPC. Those dollars could be funneled directly into the classroom, toward after-school programs, used for capitol improvements, or recouped for much-needed property tax relief.
Illinois Policy Institute research shows that by cutting the number of Illinois school districts in half, Illinois could experience district operating savings of nearly $130 million to $170 million annually, and could conservatively save the state $3 billion to $4 billion in pension costs over the next 30 years.
A 50 percent reduction might sound extreme to some. But nearly 45 percent of Illinois school districts oversee just one or two schools. There’s plenty of room for district consolidation.
But again, good luck getting those in control of the districts to say so.
Finally, as of 2015, the top 10 superintendent pensioners were taking home pensions in excess of $260,000 annually, meaning millions over the course of their retirements. That’s absurd.
Changing Illinois’ education funding formula is a tall task. And by all means, Illinois politicians should be in constant contact with superintendents about what the state can do to make sure communities can provide a high-quality education.
Just know that when it comes to priorities, superintendents can have blinders on. It’s the responsibility of policymakers and taxpayers to call out high administrative costs, and demand concrete steps toward reducing them.