Consolidating school districts could save Illinois taxpayers billions

Consolidating school districts could save Illinois taxpayers billions

Consolidating Illinois’ 859 school districts will lead to greater efficiency and help stem rising property taxes.

Illinois Senate leaders have put their stamp of approval on a “grand bargain” budget that would, among other things, raise the state personal income tax more than 30 percent. And while the proposal does include a two-year freeze on property taxes, the Senate’s budget plan fails to address the reforms needed to bring the drivers of Illinois’ sky-high property taxes under control. One of the biggest cost drivers is the high number of school districts and the bureaucrats employed to run them.

Illinois has 859 school districts, the fifth-highest in the nation. The 859 school districts also consume two-thirds of total property tax revenue. The fact that Illinois has so many school districts, combined with the state’s numerous layers of other kinds of local government, is among the principal reasons why Illinoisans pay the nation’s highest property taxes. Many of these school districts are poorly drawn and inefficient. Thirty-four percent of Illinois school districts have fewer than 600 students enrolled at schools within their districts. On top of that, nearly 25 percent of districts serve just one actual school.

While the decision to close or consolidate individual schools should be left to local residents, school districts are ripe for consolidation. Administrative bloat has become a serious problem in Illinois’ K-12 education. From 1992 to 2009, the number of school district administrators has increased by 36 percent, far outpacing student population growth, which has only grown by 14 percent. Each school district comes with a series of individual, and well-compensated, administrators. In fact, 9,000 administrators – from superintendents to principals – earn six-figure salaries, and can expect pension payouts of more than $3 million over the course of retirement.

Superintendents are especially expensive. For example, Loren May, former superintendent of Marquardt School District 15 in Glendale Heights, had a final average salary of $357,117. May is set to receive $5,118,688 in pension benefits over the course of retirement.

And May isn’t alone.

More than 75 percent of superintendents in Illinois receive six-figure salaries. Many also receive car and housing benefits and bonuses in addition to their lucrative salary and pension compensation. Having fewer school districts means fewer pricey superintendents and administrative staff members to run the districts.

But school district consolidation won’t happen unless the state partners with local districts to provide a cooperative solution.

To achieve this goal, the Illinois General Assembly should authorize the creation of an official District Consolidation Commission, which would function in a manner similar to the federal government’s Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. The commission’s consolidation recommendations would be approved by an up or down vote in the General Assembly, meaning no amendments would be permitted.

By cutting the state’s school districts in half, local taxpayers could experience 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.

As the battle for the budget continues in the General Assembly, lawmakers have a responsibility take a serious look at every option to cut costs and make government more efficient. That includes the unnecessarily high number of school districts in Illinois, which drive up property taxes. Consolidating smaller school districts and cutting needless administrative costs would save taxpayers and state coffers millions.

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