Municipal, school and community leaders from Shiloh and O’Fallon heard from an Illinois State Board of Education expert on the school consolidation process during the annual Building Educational Success Together (BEST) Committee meeting June 5.
The BEST committee is comprised school board members, superintendents and administrators, as well as other community stakeholders. The group has met yearly since 2006 to discuss issues in local education.
“BEST isn’t just a committee, it is a group that helps collaborate,” Becky Drury, an original member of the BEST Committee and District 90 School Board member. “The main focus is to provide plenty of informed, factual information so the public can learn about the districts. One of the continuous themes is public relations and getting messages out for the districts. Curriculum alignment, specifically math, was also a focus for the committee.”
“There was a lot of excellent communication. It’s always good for all four groups to get together and communicate,” said Dawn Elser, O’Fallon Central District 104 superintendent. “The name itself says a lot, and that’s what the group is all about.”
“It was a great event that brought the Board of Education, superintendents, city leaders, and a representative from Scott Air Force Base together to further study the issue of school district consolidation,” said Dr. Darcy Benway, O’Fallon Township High School District 203 superintendent.
The consolidation process
Michelle Heninger, a consultant for the school business service division of the Illinois State Board of Education, was the featured speaker.
“We desired to find a way to help the community see any consolidation information as neutral in presentation,” said Shiloh District 85 Superintendent Dale Sauer.
Heninger shared that there are many types of school district consolidation, each generating a different impact on our educational systems and communities.
“I’m most interested in finding out what the impact would be — and this topic comes up often, for example when we were looking at the sales tax referendum recently. Really, I felt like most people were interested in what would happen if we did consolidate with one of these consolidation options, so why not learn more about it?” said Carrie Hruby, superintendent of O’Fallon School District 90.
Benway shared similar sentiments.
“As responsible school officials, it is important that we continue to gather the necessary information in an effort to acquire greater understanding of the extent to which each type of consolidation may or may not be beneficial to our students and taxpayers. OTHS welcomes the opportunity to participate in further discussions that will explore consolidation options for our schools,” Benway said.
Heninger shared a general overview of consolidation, as well as information on the types of consolidations and the legal processes.
For example, if a consolidation effort were to be led by the current school districts, a resolution must be approved by each school board. If led by a committee of citizens, it would require a petition drive.
A committee of 10 people from all the districts would be required as part of the consolidation process, which may have subgroups, such as a finance subcommittee to determine what will the new tax rate be based on the current rates, policies and fund balances.
“So the committee of 10 then holistically evaluates and looks at how to move forward as a unified district,” Hruby said.
According to Heninger, the ballot question must contain specific information, such as what the new tax rate would be in each fund. A petition, containing all of this information, must be presented to the regional superintendent and ISBE through a formal hearing process. Any testimony against the petition must also be presented during the hearing in order to be considered. The Illinois state superintendent’s decision could be appealed through the courts. If the petition is denied or referendum fails, the petition cannot be considered again for two years, unless it is substantially different or one of the districts is named to the financial watch list or list of academic priority districts.
Once on the ballot, the measure must pass by a majority of the voters in each district.
The state does offer funds for studying consolidations, but they are subject to the appropriations process.
“While feasibility studies are not required, there are grants available for studies, when funding is available (on a first-come, first-served basis). The feasibility study funding comes from the same line item as the consolidation studies, which would be paid first,” Hruby said.
Feasibility studies typically cost $12,500-15,000 and can take anywhere from six to nine months to complete.
Representatives will take what they learned at the meeting back to their individual school boards to be mulled over.
“We are going to take it back to the school boards to gather input on the subject and have discussions about a possible feasibility study happening,” said Elser, the Central 104 superintendent.
Elser added there was “a lot of positive energy in the room,” though what, if anything, might happen will still require much deliberation.
“I don’t have a strong opinion, necessarily, on consolidation,” she said. “But, there are two things I try to keep in mind, which are savings to the district — because we are always looking to be fiscally sound — and as always, what’s best for the kids, (those) are the two main things for me.”
Sauer, Shiloh’s superintendent, said consolidation was something his board had explored in the past, but declined to move forward with. However, the district would respond to any new inquiries.
“In regards to consolidation itself, the Shiloh Board of Education is continuously focused on doing what is best for our students, their families and the Shiloh community. We have not received a formal request from any district to consider the topic. If a request is ever received, our School Board will respond after thoughtful consideration. In past years, the board has deliberated on the issue and determined that it was not in the best interest of our district to pursue consolidation at that time,” he said.