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Let’s squeeze bloated school districts

Bad habits can be infectious, which may explain why Cook County government’s well-earned reputation for wasteful spending, bloated bureaucracy and resistance to change has spilled over to the county’s independent school districts.

A recent Better Government Association investigation with CBS 2 found that some superintendents in the county’s suburban districts are making more than $300,000 a year in base pay for managing a handful of schools with a few thousand students.

Several earn more than $200,000 for overseeing only one school.

And those figures don’t include the generous benefits, bonuses and perks many of the top administrators also receive.

By comparison, Chicago — with more than 600 public schools and 400,000 student s— pays its CEO $250,000.

The high suburban salaries are perfectly legal, and the school boards that approved them apparently thought they were appropriate.

But the super-sized compensation packages are symptoms of a larger malady: School systems in the Cook County suburbs spend more than two times the national average on their district-level administration — i.e. bureaucracy — according to figures compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nationwide, about 1.5 percent of all K-12 school dollars go to fund district offices. In Chicago, the figure is 2.2 percent, but in suburban Cook it’s a whopping 3.5 percent — and this at a time when school budgets are being squeezed mercilessly by escalating costs, especially for employee pensions.

Most Illinois school officials realized years ago that combining or consolidating the smallest districts is a smart way to save money, and mergers have reduced the number of districts by 150 since the early 1980s.

But it’s only happened once in Cook County — in 1990 — when two single-school districts combined to create one district in Lemont.

Suburban Cook has more than 140 separate school districts — almost 30 have only one school — and no one wants to consolidate?

That’s wasteful, inefficient and irresponsible.

Mergers aren’t the answer in every case, but when you have that many one-school districts, each with its own high administrative overhead, something is wrong when an obvious efficiency step isn’t even being considered.

Districts could be returning administrative savings to the classroom or the taxpayers or both, instead of pouring the money down a bottomless bureaucratic pit.

This has been a front-burner issue for Lt. Governor Sheila Simon, who is now the Democratic candidate for state comptroller.

Her “Classrooms First Commission,” which looked at ways to streamline school spending and increase consolidation, found that administrative costs could be reduced by $1 billion a year if state lawmakers and school districts embraced a series of reforms.

“It’s not pie in the sky,” Simon says. “It’s possible. That’s the kind of savings that could be achieved.”

So why isn’t it happening in Cook County? Jim Nowlan, a retired state representative and former advisor to three governors, says “it has to do with the natural human dynamic of people being resistant to change.”

It’s also district administrators and school boards protecting their own fiefdoms, instead of doing what’s best for taxpayers.

Sound familiar? It’s the same narcissism that permeated county government for decades.

But in this case, it’s not just taxpayers who are being shortchanged. It’s also the students — our future — and the classroom is one place we should vigorously protect from the infection of craven politics and misguided priorities.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Twitter: @andyshawbga



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