High cost of 1-school districts
Single-school districts have higher administrative expenses per child, Tribune finds
Third-graders Ian Frazier, from left, Kyla Pierce, Quincy Stone, Connor Mueller and Jada Smallwood work on a group project at a school in Union District 81 in Joliet. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)
The cost to taxpayers: $23,449 per child, the highest of all elementary districts in Illinois, the most recent data show — and more than twice the state per-pupil average.
And in Cook County's one-school Lemont Township High School District 210, the superintendent was paid about $270,000 last year to oversee the 1,500-student school. That's more than the superintendent earned in Naperville, which has 22 elementary and high schools and nearly 18,000 students.
When it comes to one-school districts, Illinois leads the nation with 214 — almost a quarter of the state's school districts, federal and state data show.
That distinction doesn't come cheap. A Tribune analysis found taxpayers spent about $2,000 more per student on average to educate kids in one-school districts in the Chicago region, compared with multischool districts.
Downstate, taxpayers spent almost $600 more per student, on average, for children in one-school districts compared with multischool districts.
The higher costs could put these districts on the bubble as Gov. Pat Quinn and lawmakers consider mergers this legislative session. Quinn has proposed slashing districts by more than half to save $100 million in administrative salaries at a time of fiscal crisis.
"I'm not so sure we need so many" superintendents, Quinn said. "Some of these school superintendents are supervising one school."
Critics decry the one-school districts as a luxury taxpayers can no longer afford. But supporters note that local taxpayers cover most of school budgets, and should be permitted the benefits of a small district that provides one-on-one attention to students, even at higher costs.
The push for mergers is reigniting emotions over the hodgepodge of nearly 900 school districts.
"It just sounds absurd when you have over 200 school districts with single schools," said state Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, who filed legislation to abolish all districts other than Chicago Public Schools and to create one school district per county, as Florida has now.
Rita said he's trying to help constituents who have complained about high property taxes that he believes are fueled by "outrageous" superintendent salaries and duplicate administrators across districts.
"It is so inefficient," agreed Tom Johnson, president of Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois, who was chairman of a Taxpayer Action Board appointed by Quinn to identify ways to streamline government.
The group estimated savings of up to $120 million per year by consolidating small districts and separate elementary districts that send students to the same high school district, to "reduce the level of bureaucracy."
Statewide last year, taxpayers spent $1.1 billion on educators described by the Illinois State Board of Education as administrators — from superintendents to assistant superintendents, principals, deans and directors, the Tribune found.
In a broader category classified as "general administration," the Tribune found escalating costs as districts got smaller. Districts spent $451 per student on administration costs in 2008-09, the most recent data available. But that number jumped to $682 per student for one-school districts, and to $891 in the Chicago region's elementary districts with just one school.
Although they make up almost 25 percent of districts, one-school districts serve only about 6 percent of the state's students, the Tribune found, suggesting the small number of students could potentially be absorbed in other districts and some schools may no longer be needed.