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home : news : state news free November 17, 2019

9/4/2019 11:24:00 AM
Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in Illinois
The Associated Press
Chicago Tribune

Schools and bloat: To help Illinois students and taxpayers, merge more districts

Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently signed into law two bills making it easier to consolidate local governments and reduce property taxes. That’s good news. But before you buy stock in expandable wallets, two asterisks:

One bill the governor signed, sponsored by Sen. Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, applied to drainage districts, the elimination of which is relevant mostly in the suburbs and not a significant cost reducer. The other bill, sponsored by Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, addressed township functions in McHenry and Lake counties only, and in limited capacity.

Baby steps, people. Under both bills, voters would need to build momentum to dissolve unnecessary taxing bodies, in some cases by gathering signatures to get referendum questions on the ballot. Hear that, voters? Ultimately, it’s up to you.

It can be a heavy lift. Downsizing the nearly 7,000 governmental bodies in Illinois — a big-government state where public employee unions like it that way — is tough politically, even for elderly drainage districts or township road departments overseeing a few miles of pavement. Status quo usually wins.

But it’s a start. Here’s a more ambitious but logical next step: Consolidate school districts. The state’s 852 districts could see savings that could be sent to classrooms, redeploying money from administrative bloat to educating students. Not to mention the advantages of broader curriculums and more activities for kids in today’s small districts.

Even among Democrats, the push is gaining traction in Springfield. Fewer superintendents, fewer assistant superintendents, fewer deans, fewer transportation coordinators .

It’s one reason Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, is leading an effort to advance school consolidation. Last spring, Mayfield sponsored a bill to establish a consolidation task force. It flew out of the House but got stuck in the Senate.

No, we’re not cartwheeling over another task force. But it is significant that Democrats — traditionally the party less motivated by the prospect of shrinking bureaucracy — are coming around to the idea of merging school districts and reducing property taxes.

Over time, Illinois has been moving in the right direction. In 1983, there were 1,008 school districts statewide.

Most of the consolidations occurred outside Chicagoland in rural areas that were struggling with decreasing enrollment, expensive bus routes and dwindling sports teams. The most recent formal consolidation in 2017 — between Dimmick Community School District 175 and Cherry School District 92 outside LaSalle-Peru — took several years, dozens of community meetings and, as required under state law, state and voter approval.

But with cooperation and open minds, it happened.

A new report from the Illinois Policy Institute finds more than 9,000 school administrators earning salaries greater than $100,000. On average they’ll pull roughly $3 million apiece in pensions and benefits over the course of their retirements, the report concluded. So yes, consolidating districts would ease pressure on pension systems too.

“There is money that is going away from kids just to cover administrative costs and salaries,” says Orphe Divounguy who helped author the report. “This is really about how we can improve student outcomes by reducing the number of districts. Larger districts can attract better quality teachers, too.”

So what do you say, Illinois taxpayers? Look around. You can wait for politicians to reduce your property taxes. Or you can start pushing for consolidation of your own districts.


September 2, 2019

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Buyout bill looks like a bust

Our legislators passed a law they contend would outlaw big payoffs to high-ranking public employees who lose their jobs.

Then Western Illinois University decided to oust its president — Jack Thomas — from his executive chair and grease the skids out the door with a mega-bucks buyout. Now our legislators are trying to figure out what happened with their supposed prohibition on “golden parachutes.”

“What a gross misuse of taxpayer-funded dollars. It’s appalling to me,” said state Sen. Laura Murphy, a Democrat from Des Plaines.

Murphy certainly has a point. But what’s really appalling is that our legislators thought they could take on a complicated subject — contract law — and deal with it via legislation that apparently has loopholes big enough to allow a truck to get through.

The state’s ban on buyouts is supposed to limit severance pay to 20 weeks. In the case of Thomas, Western officials and their lawyers came up with an alternative — two years of sabbatical leave worth $570,000 and then a return to a faculty position paying $200,000 a year. It was a price they were willing to pay to avoid a big fight over Thomas stepping down.

They called it a transition, not a separation agreement, and, technically speaking, they’re right.

Thomas isn’t really going, as a buyout would suggest. He’s taking an extended well-paid sabbatical and then returning, if he wishes, to teach at a salary much higher than most of his colleagues make.

If WIU is lucky, Thomas will find a better job elsewhere and not return to the classroom.

But who was kidding whom with that headline-grabbing legislation aimed at protecting taxpayer dollars through a ban on big buyouts.

If legislators are really serious about the issue, they’ll need to revise current law. But it won’t be easy.

For starters, high-powered and high-paid public employees sign multiyear contracts to take important jobs. They insist on financial guarantees, particularly if circumstances go south.

These contracts give them certain rights that allow them to extract compensation in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it’s cheaper to settle disputes with a cash payout than to pay lawyers to litigate.

Perhaps the state can forbid some kinds of financial guarantees that are written into contracts. But, if so, if legislators try to clamp down too hard, they had better be prepared for outstanding candidates for important jobs going elsewhere.

There is, of course, no question that paying big buyouts to failed employees is infuriating. Unfortunately, sometimes it can’t be helped.

The best solution is not to make hiring mistakes on the front end that require buyouts at the back end.

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