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Keep an open mind on school mergers
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Published: 7/26/2008 11:37 PM

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Certainly children need to go to school.

But the question is, do they need so many schools?

Illinois has 870 public school districts, the second highest number in the country.

Actually, progress has been made in whittling down the number of school districts in the state. There were 2,000 of them in the 1950s. Some of these school districts merged. Barrington Unit District 220, for example, emerged from a consolidation.

But the pace of school mergers has slowed in recent years. Every once in awhile, however, a few suburban school districts take a serious look at the possibility of consolidation.

For example, in the past few weeks there have been discussions of merging West Chicago High School District 94 with feeder districts Winfield Elementary District 34, West Chicago Elementary District 33 and Benjamin Elementary District 25, all neighboring school districts in DuPage County.

The consolidation movement has been led by District 94 school board President Tony Reyes, who strongly favors the merger. So far, only District 94 and District 34 have agreed to participate in funding a consolidation study.

It's tempting to say there should be no problems with proceeding with a merger of these school districts or any other adjacent school districts. From the taxpayer's perspective - and the biggest portion of the property tax bill goes to schools - it makes sense from the perspective of the savings that can be gained from reduced administrative costs by combining separate school districts into one. There could also be economies in scale from merged transportation, purchasing and construction functions.

But it's not so easy. Many parents and school board members like their small, independent community-based school district, with a history in the family that goes back several decades, and don't want this tradition disrupted by school consolidation. They also worry about what such a huge change would do to an academic program with a reputation for excellence.

There are technical barriers, too, such as the need to address disparities in pay scales between the individual districts. Coordinating curriculum is a challenge.

Ultimately, consolidation might not be a wise course of action.

But we would hope that board members and parents in the four school systems in DuPage County, or in any other school district that would consider merging, keep an open mind on the issue of consolidation.

If the information on hand shows it makes sense financially and academically to merge schools, than put it to a vote. Consolidation can't be forced upon school systems. It can only be approved - or rejected - by voters in the school districts' attendance boundary areas. That is, indeed, giving communities local control of their schools.