One way McHenry County Regional Superintendent of Schools Leslie Schermerhorn said schools can cut costs and improve educational opportunities for students is through consolidation.
Whether it be through combining feeder elementary districts with high school districts, or two neighboring unit districts, consolidating can mean more classes and extracurricular activities for students, and less inefficiencies when it comes to running two administrations, Schermerhorn said.
“The student enrollment is fluctuating greatly in different communities, and it’s time to be strategic about that,” Schermerhorn said. “Which buildings we’re going to keep, how we can best use the buildings – that kind of thing.”
An alarm also should go off in taxpayers’ heads when a district talks about building a new school, Schermerhorn said.
“Does it help the kids enough to bear the cost of what it will be?” Schermerhorn said.
The Illinois State Board of Education lays out the steps to consolidating, and said the boards of each affected school district or registered voters must be the ones to petition to consolidate.
Having two school boards agree to consolidate is one of the largest barriers, Schermerhorn said, because often there is a feeling of school pride in a district that people are afraid will be lost if districts combine.
In May, Alden-Hebron School District 19 bought 80 acres of land for $756,599, according to a news release from District 19 Superintendent Debbie Ehlenburg.
“We have no immediate plans for the land and none in the near future, but we recognize that eventually we are going to have to either significantly repair and upgrade the middle/high school or build a new school,” Ehlenburg said in the initial purchase announcement.
Enrollment at the Alden-Hebron middle and high school building was at 215 students at the end of August, and the capacity of the building is 251, according to information the district provided through an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request.
About nine miles south, Woodstock North High School sits with enrollment at 944 and a capacity of 1,600, according to information Woodstock School
District 200 provided through an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request.
District 200 school board President Carl Gilmore said consolidation between districts is not something the board has discussed.
“We don’t know anything that would suggest it would be good, or bad or even feasible at this point,” Gilmore said.
He said the district is currently looking into creating a community facilities committee that would help the district work through its goals as far as what’s important in terms of managing the district’s facilities and be more efficient.
Alden-Hebron School District 19 Board President Sue Walters said in an email response the board has never talked about consolidation as a formal agenda item.
“We realize we are a small district, but that doesn’t mean we have to consolidate with a bigger school,” she said.
Walters said the district has maintained a balanced budget for the past 10 years, enrollment has been steady and class sizes are small.
“I believe the school is the community, if you take that away, the town would lose its identity and suffer,” Walters said.
If a smaller district does consolidate with a larger district, Walters said the smaller district would likely have to take on an increase taxed rate to match the larger district.
Teachers also would have to be on the same pay scale if districts consolidated, Ehlenburg said in a statement. She said that while there are some incentives for schools to consolidate to adjust to some of the costs, the state is not currently funding them.
District 19 board member Ken Winkelman said in an email consolidating could possibly benefit students by giving them a larger selection of classes, but the district helps this situation by offering online classes, and classes though Lake County College and McHenry County College.
As far as school sports, everyone has a chance to participate in Hebron because there are no cuts, Winkelman said. There also are opportunities for senior citizens to come to games through senior passes, which is a great way to keep them involved in the community, he said.
“It is nice to go to the events and see community members whose children have left the district long ago [and are] still attending school functions,” Winkelman said.
While feelings of school pride, especially in smaller districts, are strong, Schermerhorn said one of the most heard complaints in McHenry County is about the high cost of education, which represents the largest portion of property tax bills.
Since it is up to the school boards of both districts to decide whether consolidation is best for their schools, one of the ways taxpayers can be in control is to research school board candidates and vote for the ones who best represent their views, Schermerhorn said.
Elections for open seats will be held April 4, Schermerhorn said, and information on candidate forums will be available on the McHenry County clerk’s website.
“People are not powerless abut the cost of education, which they all feel they are,” Schermerhorn said.