SPRINGFIELD – The Classrooms First Commission has submitted a final report to Governor Quinn and the General Assembly with 23 recommendations to spur school district consolidation and streamline school district operations, with the goal of redirecting $1 billion to classrooms from administration spending, Lt. Governor Sheila Simon announced today.
Simon says she will work with state lawmakers in the coming months to introduce several legislative recommendations outlined in the report, “A Guide to P-20 Efficiency and Opportunity,” that will reduce barriers to consolidation, boost use of shared services agreements and increase learning opportunities across the state.
Among the top priorities listed by the bipartisan advisory panel led by Lt. Governor Simon is the need to replace the state’s consolidation incentive system. The commission recommends sun-setting current consolidation incentives in 2017 and replacing them with a system that is both affordable to the state and responsive to needs of merging districts.
The Classrooms First Commission was created last August by the Governor and General Assembly to reduce duplicative education spending and improve educational outcomes due to the state’s budget constraints. The commission studied a Fiscal Year 2012 proposal to cut the state’s more than 860 school districts in half, and found it would cost well over $3 billion under the state’s current consolidation incentive structure. To rein in those costs, the report calls for incentives to sunset in five years and a commission to develop a new system based on a predictable, affordable formula or factors such as the square footage of a new district.
“We want Illinois to lead the nation in education performance, not bureaucracy,” said Simon, “but taking a cookie cutter approach to efficiency ignores fiscal and educational realities. This report recommends several well-reasoned steps to spend smarter and expand opportunity. We lived up to our name to put Classrooms First.”
Simon says while new incentives are being developed, lawmakers should implement several Classrooms First recommendations that promote consolidation in regions where it will produce cost savings and increase educational opportunity.
The first step is for Governor Quinn to sign Senate Bill 3252. The bill allows new “unit” or P-12 districts to gradually reduce their tax rate over four years following a consolidation. The maximum tax rate for a unit district is below the combined rate for separate elementary districts that feed into a high school district, so the legislation would give a district time to adjust to the lower tax rate, while still providing residents with property tax relief.
The second step is to make several legislative changes next Session that would reduce barriers to consolidation and cut red tape, Simon said. They would allow districts to merge with nearby neighbors when contiguous districts reject consolidation; expand the authority of regional board of school trustees to dissolve districts; and authorize districts to delay the effective date of a consolidation while waiting for construction funding.
“These recommendations eliminate bureaucratic burdens that keep districts from consolidating even when it makes sense,” said State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, a member of the Classrooms First Commission. “Removing these roadblocks will allow districts to focus on the merits and potential benefits of consolidation.”
Within two years, the commission wants to see legislation authorizing the state to conduct feasibility and efficiency studies for districts in counties with small and declining school-age populations, which could lead them to consolidate. At that time, the state should also pilot a consolidation construction program that prioritizes funding for merging districts.
Beyond voluntary consolidation, the commission also recommended several legislative changes that would make it easier for districts to share staff and services beginning next Session and moving forward. One proposal would create a revolving fund to provide short-term, low-interest loans to seed cooperative service agreements or conduct efficiency studies; the loans would be repaid with the money gained through resulting streamlining. Another would permit districts to outsource non-instructional services if they were provided on a multi-district basis.
A third shared services proposal would authorize the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to provide a web-based resource management program to districts so they can identify potential savings in five major spending areas: instruction, transportation, food services, administration and facility maintenance. A pilot program of a similar service in Ohio resulted in at least a 5 percent operational savings at participating districts. At that rate, Illinois districts could realize a net savings of almost $1 billion.
The Classrooms First report is the culmination of an 11-month, three-stage process that gave commission members the opportunity to review relevant research and Illinois data, create working groups to draft recommendations and collect public input from hundreds of administrators, teachers, parents and taxpayers from across Illinois. The commission held two sets of public hearings that were attended by nearly 500 people and included testimony from 85 individuals. Additional feedback was collected from 470 submissions to an online survey in the fall.
“When this commission was formed it was a political football, and it has been wrested away from that,” said Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators and a commission member. “We put this in a place where it could be talked about and not kicked around politically.”
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Paul Swanstrom, who represented the High School District Organization of Illinois on the Classrooms First Commission. “The Lt. Governor asked us to be open-minded and in so doing I think we have all learned things. One of the key elements of the success of this commission is we heard from people across the state about what they are doing, and the members of the commission were able to use this information in their deliberations.”
Simon says she will begin meeting with stakeholders to move legislative recommendations in the coming year. To read the commission’s final report visit www.ltgov.illinois.gov.