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SALMAGUNDI: Consolidation doesn't come without consequences

Less government doesn’t necessarily mean smaller government.

That’s a reality school consolidation advocates will have to confront before generating significant momentum behind a push to reduce the number of districts in Illinois, and it might bounce people off their standard political positions.

A Chicago Tribune editorial we shared on Saturday’s Views & Voices page called for merging districts as a way to help students and taxpayers, a traditionally conservative talking point from a traditionally conservative editorial board.

“The state's 852 districts could see savings that could be sent to classrooms, redeploying money from administrative bloat to educating students,” the editorial asserted. “Not to mention the advantages of broader curriculums and more activities for kids in today's small districts.

“Even among Democrats, the push is gaining traction in Springfield. Fewer superintendents, fewer assistant superintendents, fewer deans, fewer transportation coordinators.”

It’s easy to see the attraction of paying more to teachers because fewer administrators are involved, all without changing the amount of tax dollars poured into the system. But consolidation hasn’t taken hold across the state because small, rural districts are keenly aware of the downsides.

Geography is always a consideration. Running public schools in dense urban and suburban areas rich in transportation options and safe pedestrian access is a completely different ballgame from agrarian communities where busing is the only option for virtually every student. In order to fully realize the type of savings consolidation advocates project, such districts are likely to move toward attendance-center formats which strip not just local identity from a community but also the kind of parent involvement that enriches the educational experience.

It’s problematic enough for the bus to pick up kids an hour before classes at some school several miles from home, but that also complicates matters when mom or dad wants to pop into the kindergarten classroom as a mystery reader or attend a midday third-grade play performance. Or when the kid forgets lunch or gym shoes. Or has a dentist appointment. Or when a special education or discipline meeting has to take place at the district office instead of the student’s home school.

Having fewer administrators indisputably saves money, up front in payroll costs — where they earn at the top end of the scale — and down the road in pension obligations. But that’s not smaller government, it’s a larger bureaucracy that makes it more difficult for principals and superintendents to have time for any individual student’s concern. It’s fewer school board members who each would have larger constituencies, which equates to less reason to care about small interests.

The Tribune fairly painted Democrats as “traditionally the party less motivated by the prospect of shrinking bureaucracy,” but in so doing it failed to acknowledge a push for drastic consolidation as odd coming from a conservative tradition that usually resists large government bodies overseeing what used to be local-level decisions.

Much as the state GOP might resist federal takeover of things like election administration or gun regulation, so too are people whose property taxes support a community-based K-8 district unwilling to cede control of a central force of their daily life to the nearest major population center.

Saturday’s paper also had feature stories about the exciting new STEAM lab at Grand Ridge Elementary, funded in part by local donors, and the Marseilles Elementary school resource officer, warmly received at a City Council meeting. Both districts are forever at risk of being carved up because of the proximity of larger communities and so face losing the local choice of whom to hire or how to innovate.

The front page Saturday touted the Harding Grade School preschool program, a new initiative aimed at getting kids ready for kindergarten. It’s an important effort that should pay dividends, but Harding is part of Community Unit School District 2 also incorporating Serena and Sheridan, so it’s not shocking to see the program running at half capacity given the commuting involved for very young students.

Consolidation advocates would say a K-8 school operating independently in each community could never afford any sort of pre-K program. They’d rightly point to CUSD2 as a consolidation success story, broadly speaking, but anyone following closely over the years knows there are concessions to be made in the name of efficiency, often against protests of students, parents, school staff and taxpayers.

The Tribune smartly put consolidation at the feet of taxpayers, not lawmakers. But it’s hard to incentivize the surrender of local control, especially in respect to whom we entrust with our children’s safety and education.

SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at newsroom@mywebtimes.com, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749. 

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