Ten metro-east school districts have decided they want answers to questions that have been lingering in their communities for decades.
If they merged with other nearby districts or shared services in some way, would their students have more opportunities?
Would they save money?
What effects could that change have on current staffing, buildings, bus routes, and even sports and mascots?
School officials have agreed to participate in separate studies that would provide clues.
The groups of districts interested in conducting those studies include:
▪ Freeburg Elementary District 70, Freeburg High School District 77 and Smithton Elementary District 130
(St. Libory Elementary District 30 declined to participate in a study with Freeburg and Smithton schools, so it isn’t contributing to the cost. But consultants are still including it in their research because St. Libory students largely go on to attend Freeburg High School.)
▪ Brooklyn Unit 188, Madison Unit 12 and Venice Elementary District 3
▪ Central Elementary District 104, O’Fallon Elementary District 90, O’Fallon High School District 203 and Shiloh Elementary District 85
The groups are in different stages in the process.
Consultants have already started the study for Smithton, Freeburg and St. Libory. They estimate that they could have results by March.
School leaders in the other communities haven’t picked consultants for their studies yet.
The districts need their own agreements because the studies would be specific to them and analyze their individual circumstances.
There are different types of school reorganizations that districts can consider in Illinois. The most common are consolidations, which create a new district with a new tax rate, and annexations, which dissolve one district into another.
The state says that, for the most part, school communities have decided to reorganize so they could offer better programs for their students, offset enrollment declines or cut costs.
Jim Rosborg, a consultant working on the Freeburg-area study, said a “big, big question” is whether students would improve academically through a merger.
Merged districts could develop an aligned curriculum, for example, so children at the same level would get the same education as their peers in the other schools.
Merging could give students access to another school’s “enhanced” curriculum, which Rosborg says would include math and science courses such as calculus and chemistry.
Students could also gain access to things like athletics and clubs in a merged district that their individual districts might not provide.
“If you can offer more co-curricular activities, you provide a better academic regimen, you lower the taxes, and you improve the finances of the people involved within that community, you should consolidate,” Rosborg said.
Local voters have the final say. It takes a successful referendum in an election to make these kinds of changes to school districts.
East Alton and Wood River school districts have tried to consolidate at least three times in the last six years. Each time, voters rejected the referendums by narrow margins — a difference of as many as 12 votes and as few as eight.
The most recent school reorganizations to be approved in the metro-east were annexations, according to a list from the state.
Livingston District 4 dissolved in the 2004-05 school year when it was annexed by Staunton Unit 6. There was some debate at the time about whether Livingston students should go to Highland, 20 miles away, or Staunton, four miles away.
Rosborg says the distance between districts can be a deciding factor in a potential merger.
“You don’t want any child to have to ride a bus for an hour and 15 minutes to get to the school,” he said.
Mergers can save districts money if they result in cutting personnel or closing buildings, for instance. Consolidated “unit districts” also get more money from the state, according to Rosborg.
“The way the state of Illinois finance is set up, it’s an unfair distribution of dollars between districts that are elementary only and high school only versus a unit district,” he said. “So if an elementary district and a high school district consolidate, right there alone, that district is going to get more state revenue.”
It also presents costs. A consolidated district would start using the highest teacher pay scale that was used in the original districts.
It takes a successful referendum in an election to make these kinds of changes to school districts.
Consolidated districts cut their superintendents down to one but often have several, new administrative positions.
“All of us wear many, many hats in a small district,” said Freeburg District 77 Superintendent Greg Frerking. “In larger districts, those hats are kind of distributed to more people. There’s somebody who’s typically in charge of finance or special education or curriculum or transportation, building and grounds.”
With a new tax rate, it’s possible taxpayers could see a savings, too, if their districts consolidated.
The change wouldn’t require taxpayers to take on other districts’ debt. The taxpayers within the old boundary of a district would continue paying down their own debt in either a consolidation or annexation, according to state statute.
Rosborg says the possibility of a reorganization can be emotional for residents and school leaders.
The community might push back because it feels like it would be losing local control.
“A consolidation is eventually going to bring all of those (school) boards together, so instead of 28 board members, you’re going to have seven,” Rosborg said.
School identity can also be a factor that voters consider when reorganizations are proposed.
“It might be the school colors or the school mascot or the nickname for the district,” Rosborg said. “Those are all things that people don’t realize that sometimes really play an important part in the consolidation process.”
Superintendent Ryan Wamser said the community in Smithton District 130, for instance, is attached to its Cougars.
“For some people, they would say, ‘Oh, it’s just sports,’” he said. “Well, for a community that prides themselves on their sports teams and will be cheering their teams on to state championships in softball and baseball, that means a lot.”
“The reason why I think sometimes we haven’t looked at things in decades is because we immediately go to the emotion rather than, ‘Let’s focus on the facts, see what the facts lay out, and then maybe we don’t have to even worry about getting upset or getting emotional about these other things,’” Wamser added.
What could happen next?
During studies, consultants look through documents that cover aspects of the schools — from students to finances — from the last five years to make predictions about what the future could look like for the districts.
But, like other districts have learned in the past, conducting a study doesn’t mean anything will change in the end.
Board members could decide that reorganizing their district isn’t beneficial for them right now, so a proposal never reaches voters.
That’s what happened the last time Brooklyn and Venice participated in a study about eight years ago, according to Venice District 3 Superintendent Cullen Cullen.
He said Venice paid for that study because it was required by the financial oversight panel that the state put in place in Venice. At the time, district leaders thought a reorganization wouldn’t have created more educational opportunities for students, Cullen said.
A new study of those districts today would look at updated information, and this time it includes another, larger district: Madison.
School leaders in Brooklyn, Madison and Venice are still meeting to discuss who could conduct their study.
If you can offer more co-curricular activities, you provide a better academic regimen, you lower the taxes, and you improve the finances of the people involved within that community, you should consolidate.
Jim Rosborg, consultant
In O’Fallon and Shiloh, school leaders’ involvement in the process is minimal — by design.
The O’Fallon-Shiloh Chamber of Commerce is taking the lead. David Hopkins, the chamber’s education committee chair, said they’re trying to be proactive about perception.
“The chamber is not for or against school consolidation,” he said. “That’s really why we’ve taken on this endeavor.”
Hopkins explained that if the districts paid for a study that showed it would be beneficial to consolidate, the perception could be that the districts were promoting consolidation. On the other hand, if it showed that there were few advantages to consolidation, the perception could be that they were trying to prevent it, he said.
“We’re trying to promote an unbiased approach,” Hopkins said. “It was our feeling that if the schools are a part of it, it should only be a small part of it, not the bulk of it.”
The chamber is putting together a panel of community members who will decide how to pay for a study of the O’Fallon and Shiloh schools and will interview potential consultants to conduct it.
So far, city and village officials have agreed to contribute $12,500. Hopkins said the study could cost as much as $25,000.
In the agreement for the Freeburg-area study that’s underway, consultants said they would offer an opinion about whether the districts should reorganize. If the answer is yes, they would suggest the best way to do it.
The reason why I think sometimes we haven’t looked at things in decades is because we immediately go to the emotion.
Ryan Wamser, Smithton District 130 superintendent
Even if merging isn’t right for them, the consultants might find other ways the districts could share services to help students or save money.
But if, for example, the consultants say the districts should pursue consolidation and the school boards agree, residents would get a chance to offer their opinions.
The next step would be to get approval from regional and state education leaders. Then, it would go to the voters, who make the final decision.
“The bottom line with consolidation: it has to be something that the school community itself wants,” said Rosborg, the consultant. “... Once it goes onto the ballot, then if one (district) votes against it, they don’t have to be part of that consolidated district, but the others can be.”
It would be a similar process for districts to pursue annexation.
Superintendent Frerking said in his 26 years with Freeburg High School, he has repeatedly heard the question: “Why are there so many different districts?”
“The reason is that’s how it was set up 80, 90 years ago, and it just hasn’t changed,” he said. “… We’ve never looked at it in the detail that they’ll look at it in the feasibility study.”
Freeburg District 77, Freeburg District 70 and Smithton District 130 are sharing the cost of an estimated $11,000 study by consultants Nick Osborne and Rosborg.
Superintendent Thomas Rude said the St. Libory District 30 School Board decided not to participate in the study because it has “no intention” of consolidating.
“It’s not that there’s some disagreement or some animosity. We’re doing OK,” he said. “We believe we’re serving our students well. We’re in good financial shape. So there’s no real driving force to make us want to consolidate right now.”
“It’d be different, I think, if we were scraping to get by, if our enrollment was in the 40s and everything we did was a challenge. But it’s just not right now,” Rude added. “And (board members) didn’t want to go through with paying all this money and getting involved in this study just for the heck of it.”
We’re just like every other district in the state; we are pinching every penny that we can and trying to make cuts here and cuts there to survive without losing out on any of our services.
Greg Frerking, Freeburg District 77 superintendent
State finances contributed to some districts’ interest in conducting studies now, including Freeburg District 77 and Venice District 3.
“Twenty years ago, all the districts were in a lot healthier shape financially,” Frerking said. “We’re just like every other district in the state; we are pinching every penny that we can and trying to make cuts here and cuts there to survive without losing out on any of our services.”
Superintendent Warletta Brookins said Madison Unit 12 wants to know whether students in Madison and nearby communities would benefit from sharing the courses and extra-curriculars they offer. Madison, for example, recently brought back football and band programs.
The Smithton District 130 School Board is interested in the benefits or drawbacks of reorganization as it considers ways to address space issues in its only building.
Enrollment has grown to the point that Smithton Elementary School can’t hold the students it currently has. The district is using temporary classroom and office space for fifth-graders, the school psychologist and social worker in a trailer with no running water.
“It wouldn’t make sense to move forward to add on or to plan for the space if five years down the road, we were looking at changing the fundamental structure of the districts here,” said Superintendent Wamser.
The Freeburg-area study began Sept. 1.
Rosborg, one of the consultants, is a parent of three Freeburg school graduates. He said his previous experience with the schools won’t influence a recommendation that the consultants will give the school districts to consider.
“Our youngest daughter graduated in 2001, so there has been a 16 year lapse since our children attended the school,” he said. “Secondly, we will be basing our decision on the research and data we collect in the process. Thirdly, I will be working with Nick Osborne, who has had no prior association to either Freeburg or the area.”
Rosborg is a former Belleville District 118 superintendent. He currently works at McKendree University in Lebanon as the director of the master’s of education program.
Districts at a glance
Students who met state standards*
Average per student spending*
St. Libroy 30
*Notes: Enrollment averages are based on five years of data available from the state: 2012 to 2016. Average per student spending is based on each district’s instructional spending from fiscal year 2011 to 2015.
The state determines which students met or exceeded standards based on their scores on PARCC, the annual assessment. These test results are from 2016. High school students started taking a new test in spring 2017.
Salaries included are base salaries, which excludes some benefits.