MENDOTA - Whether in business or in government, the goal of consolidation is generally to promote efficiency, save money and/or increase profits. In the school setting, the perception that two small school districts could merge to provide better education and save money for taxpayers is appealing but it does not always work that way.
In Illinois, Governor Bruce Rauner has pushed for consolidation over the past few years. Local governments and school districts have been encouraged to consider any possible cost savings that could result from the merger of the many small districts across the state. Financial incentives are offered by the state and some districts have already consolidated with successful results.
In 2015, Mendota High School Board President Jim Lauer contacted the Mendota Elementary District to propose the idea of having a feasibility study done regarding consolidation. Representatives from both boards agreed to meet in October and again in January 2016 to discuss the pros and cons of having a study done.
After the second meeting, the committee members returned to their respective boards and presented their recommendation. The high school board voted to pursue a feasibility study for consolidation, while the elementary board’s first vote ended in a tie when one of the seven board members was absent. The elementary district had been unenthused about the idea from the start, stating that they could not see any benefit in consolidation. But at their March meeting, the elementary board voted to share the cost of the study with the high school.
Over the next several months, the boards reviewed feasibility studies that were done for other districts and searched for consultants to complete the local study. They eventually agreed to hire the Midwest School Consultants team of Dr. William Phillips, Dr. Scott Day and Dr. Leonard Bogle. After gathering information and speaking to both Mendota school districts, the consultants completed the feasibility study in May and a public meeting was held Monday evening during which the team reported their findings.
The study examined how consolidation would impact all areas of education: curriculum, finance, enrollment, buildings, transportation, staffing, academic testing and extracurricular activities. At the end, the consultants were to present their unbiased conclusion as to whether or not consolidation would benefit the districts.
Phillips, who presented the report to a crowd of several dozen parents, teachers and board members gathered in the MHS cafeteria, praised both school districts for the condition of their buildings, the programs they offer and the effective management of finances.
He prefaced the program by emphasizing that as the state’s financial problems continue, the impact on schools will become increasingly serious. Phillips also noted that while the state has promised financial incentives to districts that choose to consolidate, that money is not being received by those districts at this time.
Unlike many studies he has conducted, Phillips said Mendota has a very unique situation in that there are two districts having basically the same boundaries. All of the school buildings are being fully utilized and with declining enrollments expected in the near future, lack of space should not be an issue. Elementary enrollment has declined by 140 students in the past five years and a loss of 64 more is anticipated in the next five years. Beyond that, he said enrollment is expected to level off. Enrollment is also declining significantly at the high school and Phillips noted that this is a common theme for many schools in Illinois.
After considering the finances, enrollment, buildings, transportation and staffing of both districts, Phillips concluded that they would not recommend consolidation of Mendota’s two school districts because there is nothing to be gained. He noted that this is only their recommendation and the community has the final word. If enough people are in favor of consolidation, they can move forward to have it placed on the ballot. “It’s up to the community to decide what is best for their children,” he concluded.