- Lawmakers in Illinois are exploring the option of consolidating some of the state’s 852 school districts, which range in size from less than 100 students to huge urban districts in urban areas like Chicago, the Illinois News Network reports.
- State Sen. Tom Cullerton, who supports consolidation, feels that smaller school districts should share superintendents and resources because this would help the state save money, especially in light of the pension issues facing the state.
- While many lawmakers and school leaders have promoted the idea of consolidation in the past, few local school districts have agreed to consolidate. Cullerton wants to create a task force to find ways to woo school districts to agree to consolidation, and he says his bill will not impact school buildings or mascots.
School districts must consider many factors when making the decision to consolidate, and many ultimately resist the idea. Mergers can affect community engagement and can impact sports teams and other community centered events. Some school boards will be eliminated or combined and can lose autonomy, as well. Low-income students also often benefit from smaller schools.
From a lawmaker’s point of view, school district mergers usually make a lot of sense, which is why those in some states have placed the authority to merge districts in the hands of state-level entities. Having fewer school districts requires the hiring of fewer superintendents and other central office staff, and states end up with fewer entities to deal with overall. Merged districts can also share resources or get better bargains on educational software and classroom resources because of their larger size. And they can often offer a wider range of educational opportunities for students and, in some cases, better address segregation issues along the way.
Most states, however, can only try to enact measures to entice school districts to merge, usually by offering funding incentives. But more are now pushing for mergers. In addition to Illinois, states considering or enacting consolidation measures through mergers or regionalization in recent years include South Carolina, Connecticut and Vermont.
Research shows that the most savings in these scenarios comes from merging smaller districts with fewer than 1,500 students. According to federal data from the 2013-14 school year, roughly 46% of school districts in the nation have fewer than 1,000 students. However, consolidation can have drawbacks, as well. For larger districts, the costs of upgrading teacher pay, increased transportation costs and other factors can offset much of the other savings.
Geography also must be considered. While merging rural school districts may have some benefit in providing more course offerings for students, the cost of transportation in remote districts may make mergers impractical. In some cases, topography makes the idea even more difficult.
Though the issue of merging school districts appears at first to be a natural solution, it is a complicated issue that deserves careful study before a decision is made. In some cases, regionalization, rather than merger, may offer a better solution.