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Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011 01:24 pm

Schools panel emphasizes efficiency, not just consolidation

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon says there’s no single answer for rural schools

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Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, formerly a law professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is leading the Classrooms First Commission.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

In Sangamon County there are 18 different school districts, including two community college districts, and five different regional offices of education located within the county’s borders.

That might be too many, says Jerry Harrison, a field representative for the Illinois Education Association and one of 18 members of the state’s Classrooms First Commission, formed earlier this year to issue recommendations for making Illinois education more efficient.

“We have more school districts here in Sangamon County than they do in the state of Nevada. We have the dubious distinction of voting for over 10 percent of the ROEs [regional offices of education] throughout the state in Sangamon County,” Harrison says. Nevada consists of 17 school districts organized by county. Illinois is divided into 56 different regional offices of education.

Headed by Sheila Simon, a university law professor before she became lieutenant governor this year, the Classrooms First Commission was formed last spring as the School District Realignment and Consolidation Commission in the wake of Gov. Pat Quinn’s call for mandatory school consolidations to eliminate about 570 of Illinois’ nearly 870 school districts.

Asked whether the commission would eventually issue mandates for school consolidation, Simon says members will be looking to balance local control with efficiency standards. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of opportunity or circumstance. I’m hoping what we can come up with is a set of recommendations that many school districts can look at and say, ‘Aha! This is one way I can get better efficiency of public funds. This might work for us, that might not,’” Simon said last week in Springfield at the commission’s first meeting.

Under the law that created the commission, members must examine how to eliminate duplicated efforts, eliminate “obstacles between qualified teachers and their students” and lower the property tax burden as well as determine any savings that could result from school realignment. The commission must report to the governor by July of next year.

“In Illinois, unfortunately, we have too often a system of educational haves and educational have-nots. I’m hoping that this is one way we can boost up some of those have-nots,” Simon says.

David Mills is superintendent for the one-school, rural Jasper School District in Wayne County and an education professor at Kentucky’s Murray State University. As the only person from the public to participate in the commission’s first meeting, he says the need for school consolidation and reorganization parallels that seen in moves toward more regional health care systems and current discussion of closing postal offices.

Mills says rural communities must come to grips with the realities of globalization, including rural depopulation, declining job opportunities and higher rates of at-risk students. “All small rural communities are basically between stage one and stage five of cancer. You’re either stage one, high risk; stage two, identified; or on up is stage five, terminal,” Mills says. Like a patient with cancer, what community members in such school districts will need through any reorganization process is a human touch, he adds. “There is no one-size-fits-all panacea that’s going to make these problems better.”

Mills says any consolidation effort is going to require a “committee of 10” – local champions who can satisfy demands for local control. “Those individuals can step forward and bring influence and credibility into a community to examine some of these things,” Mills told the commission. “That’s a group you need to make certain that you talk to and that you try and harvest to step forward and do what’s best for children.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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