Merging the 800-plus Illinois school districts into a more manageable number could cost nearly $4 billion, according to a recent report that may kill any chance that a commission looking for ways to improve Illinois education will recommend a major consolidation.
Gov. Pat Quinn proposed a sweeping consolidation of school districts last February as a way to save about $100 million. His idea to merge the state’s 868 districts into just 300 was based on the potential savings that would come from reducing the number of school administrators. But it didn’t account for the financial incentives that state law promises to merging districts—primarily additional money for salaries.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, the leader of the Classrooms First Commission, said the estimated cost “reinforces the idea that there’s not a quick-and-easy money-saving solution” for the entire state. “If we did everything all at once,” she said, “the cost would undoubtedly be prohibitive.”
The commission looked at a hypothetical consolidation—one that is smaller than Gov. Quinn’s proposal—and calculated that it could cost state government at least $3.7 billion over four years. That assumes all of Illinois’ individual high school districts and elementary districts are forced to merge into unit districts.
The full cost would be even higher because merging districts are also entitled to financial aid related to the schools’ budgets and state aid, according to the report by commission member Linda Riley Mitchell, the chief financial officer for the state board of education.
The report says that if the state went solely to unit districts that governed both high schools and lower grades, the switch would merge 478 separate districts into just 101. Of those, 10 would have fewer than 1,000 students, and 29 would have 10,000 or more.
Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Gov. Quinn, said the Democratic governor looks forward to seeing the commission’s recommendations, due July 1, but still wants to cut the number of school districts.
“The governor continues to be interested in a major consolidation initiative,” she said, but “it won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Illinois Merger Plan Could Be Casualty of Sticker Shock