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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 05:47 am

Sheila Simon school reform group moves on to classroom efficiency

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon’s Classrooms First Commission is entering the second stage of its process to improve classroom efficiency, with the commission now being broken into four work groups.

The Classrooms First Commission was formed as a result of HB 1216, which passed Aug.23. The 20-member commission is to recommend ways Illinois school districts can improve student learning opportunities and reduce district costs. The group’s recommendations are due to Gov. Quinn and the General Assembly by July 1.

The second stage of the CFC — the review, discussion, and scenario stage — is scheduled for its first meeting on Jan.23 at 1 p.m. in the fourth floor boardroom of the Illinois State Board of Education building, located at 100 N. First St. in Springfield

The research stage, which began in September 2011, resulted in four work groups — educational shared services, operational shared services, within-district efficiency and realignment.

Dr. Lynne Haeffele, a research associate from the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University, who is working with the CFC, said the members of the four groups will be announced at the Jan. 23 meeting.

The educational shared services group will focus on finding ways to assure opportunities for teacher learning and support, while also looking into ways to improve educational programs by eliminating ineffective or outdated programs.

The operational shared services group will look into identifying ways to reduce district costs, while the within-district efficiency group will seek ways to identify and share methods among districts to provide students with a higher-quality education.

The realignment work group will focus on defining parameters for realignment/reorganization and high school size, while also examining potential incentives for reorganization.

These four smaller groups will work from January to March 2012 (CFC’s second stage) to create draft recommendations focusing on the commission’s two primary goals: improving educational opportunities for public school students and improving efficient use of educational resources.

Simon said that some of the focus of the upcoming commission meeting will be to gather and evaluate the information found during the research and fact-finding stage.

“Some of these scenarios (for improving classroom efficiency) will potentially go together nicely, but others will require the working groups to evaluate between two sets of ideas and decide which one makes sense for Illinois, or is there a way we can make them work together,” Simon said.

“There is a strong desire for people, who are outside of particular school districts, to say why are you spending money on two superintendents for the grade school district and the high school district when you could just have one superintendent? Folks within the district might say that’s something to look at, but we would like to be able to choose to decide that on our own,” she said.

Simon said that there is strong support for local control of schools, which is a long tradition in Illinois and across the country.

Simon said that the upcoming meeting will involve discussions about a variety of topics, while also starting the process of creating draft recommendations.

“We want to look at the range of financial incentives provided to schools, where we might want to change that package of incentives or maybe a different package of incentives would fit our current economy better,” Simon said. “We want to look at tax structures and what restrictions we place on local school districts, as well as looking at possibilities of sharing services, both educational and operational services, between districts that aren’t consolidating.”

Haeffele said that after the draft recommendations are prepared there will be four public hearings to gauge the public’s response.

“In April, we will release our draft recommendations. They will still be considered drafts so that people can comment on them, while we take them on the road to the other public hearings. If appropriate, we will then modify the drafts based on the public’s feedback,” Haeffele said.

Neil Schneider can be contacted at nschneider@illinoistimes.com.