By Jamey Dunn
Some close to education say that realizing savings through Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed cuts could be a long uphill climb.
While Quinn proposed an increase to general state aid for schools as part of the budget plan he outlined to legislators yesterday, he also pitched some controversial cuts to education. Quinn called for the creation of a commission to reduce the number of school districts in the state. Illinois has 868 school districts. Quinn says $100 million could be saved under a consolidation plan.
“Illinois has one of the largest number of school districts in the nation,” said Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the State Board of Education. Vanover said he thinks Quinn’s commission will work on proposals to reduce that number by combining districts with “an eye to 300 districts.” He said the agency backs the idea of consolidation and has been researching the issue. However, he said the way the state tackles what is typically viewed as a local issue may vary by region. “There are going to be different dynamics in different parts of the state.”
David Vaught, Quinn’s budget director, said school district consolidation is a “long term” process but one that can be accomplished, over time, “without damaging or hurting what goes on in the classroom whatsoever.”
“Right now, the way the statutes are, local governments have to initiate or approve [district consolidation.] I think the idea would be, at least based on what I heard yesterday, some type of legislation that would allow for a mechanism for it to be forced by the state,” said Rep. Roger Eddy, a Hutsonville Republican.
Eddy, who is also superintendent of Hutsonville School District 1, said :“This is a very emotional issue, and one that’s been studied and studied and studied. And we’ve never really moved very far because of Illinois being such a local control state.”
He added that studies show that many smaller school districts spend less and get better student achievement results. “The purpose and the foundation for why we’re doing it is just backwards to what the data and the results show.”
Quinn also proposed a $95 million cut to transportation funds for schools. The state cut the money it gives local districts to bus students to and from school by $146 million for the current fiscal year, according to a budget analysis by House Democratic staff members.
Vaught said spending on early childhood programs, state funds to help low-income students attend college and general state aid to schools won out over transportation funding. “Is it a state responsibility to make sure the kids get to school? Or is that a local district responsibility a parental responsibility to get the kids to school? This is not the highest priority when you weigh objectives and priorities against one to the other. And so, we see a cut here. … We think the districts and the parents can handle that on their own.”
Eddy added, “At a time when we are talking about making larger geographic districts, we won't have transportation money. … They are kind of in conflict.”
The plan also calls for cutting all funding for regional superintendents. Quinn says that would save $13 million, which he says should be spent in the classroom.
“We don’t think that extra administrative layer adds much. … Those are local elected officials. If the locals elect them, they can pay for them,” said Vaught.
Eddy said regional education offices provide many functions, such as professional development for teachers, safety checks on schools and criminal background checks on employees. “Who’s going to do that? $14 million — can you do it cheaper from a higher level?” Eddy said that the offices add an important layer of oversight by making sure schools fulfill their safety and certification requirements.
David Comerford, a spokesperson for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said his organization is still looking into Quinn’s consolidation proposal, as well as the plan to cut funding to regional education offices. He said since Illinois will not receive federal stimulus finds for education in the next fiscal year, Quinn had far less to work with. “In the overall financial picture, there was a good deal of federal dollars that went away that he had to try and fill,” he said. “We appreciate that [Quinn} tried as best he could to fill that.”
Comerford said the transportation cuts and other reductions would be difficult for schools to bear. “People who are calling for cuts — you’re getting them. There are significant cuts being made here.”
Inquiries to Quinn’s office on how he plans to implement consolidation and cut funding to regional education offices were not returned.