When Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Connie Neale received a $60,000 raise to bring her total pay package to more than $400,000, taxpayers called it highway robbery.
By some measures, though, Neale's January deal was a steal.
Neale ran a district with 40,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Nearly 20 miles to the east, Northwest Suburban High School District 214 and its six feeder elementary districts claim 36,000 children K-12 -- and seven superintendents.
Together, the seven superintendents were compensated a total of $1.39 million in 2005-06.
That's nearly four times what Neale made.
The difference -- nearly $1 million -- would easily pay the salaries and benefits for at least 10 teachers.
The Daily Herald combined the statistics of nine suburban high school districts and their respective feeder districts to create composite districts comparable to unit systems, where K-12 schools all are grouped under one administration.
A total of 34 elementary districts feed into these nine high school districts.
These nine composite districts employed a total of 43 superintendents, who received compensation equal to $52 for each student.
Suburban unit districts paid their superintendents $22 per student.
Superintendent pay is not the only area in which elementary and high school districts spend more money than unit districts.
Overall, our nine composite districts collected $13,231 per student in 2005-06, compared with the $10,871 our 21 unit districts collected for each student.
To illustrate the difference, take Naperville Unit District 203 and a composite of Maine Township High School District 207 and its three feeder districts, 62, 63 and 64.
Naperville has 17,613 students.
The Maine composite has 17,896 students.
In 2005-06, Naperville received a total of $202.8 million, or $11,513 per student.
In 2005-06, Maine 207 and its three feeders collected a total of $253.0 million, or $14,138 per student.
If Maine 207 and its feeders had collected at the Naperville rate, they would have collected 47 million fewer taxpayer dollars.
In all, Illinois high school and elementary districts together spent $5,883 per student on instruction.
Statewide, unit districts spent $5,373 per student on instruction in 2005-06, a difference of $510 per student.
Separate elementary and high school districts together spent $3,450 per student for support services.
Unit districts spent $3,080 per pupil on support services.
The real difference, however, came in administration.
In 2005-06, unit districts spent $427 per student on administration, compared with $585 for elementary and high school districts, a 37 percent spread.
The apparent efficiency of cost in unit districts filters down into staffing.
When looking at administrators who work on a districtwide basis -- above the level of principal -- unit districts have an edge.
A unit district would have one administrator in charge of curriculum.
A high school district would have the same, as would its feeder districts.
In 2004, for example, Northwest Suburban District 214 and its six elementary districts had 69 district-level administrators for their 36,000 students, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.
Palatine-Schaumburg District 211 and its two feeder districts had 73 administrators serving 37,000 students.
U-46, a unit district, had 25 administrators and 35,000 students.
Districts 214 and 211 and their feeder-schools, then, had three times as many administrators as U-46 but served nearly the same number of students.
The same duplication of services occurred in Crystal Lake High School District 155 and its four feeder elementary districts. Together, the five schools had 27 administrators for 21,000 students.
Community Unit District 300 in Dundee Township had 11 for 18,000 students.
Feeder districts tend to have more administrators -- and pay them more.
In 2005-06, the average suburban high school district administrator made $122,000, while the average elementary district administrator made $111,000.
Though unit districts generally have more students, the average unit district administrator made $100,000 -- 11 percent less than elementary administrators and 22 percent less than high school administrators.
In 2005-06, suburban elementary and high school feeder districts collected $13,231 per student.
Suburban unit districts collected $10,871.
Local funding was particularly unequal.
Our nine composite districts collected $11,553 per pupil in local funding.
Suburban unit districts collected $6,648 per pupil from local sources.
In all, taxpayers in the composite districts paid a much larger share of the total school bill in 2005-06.
Their local taxes and school fees accounted for 87 percent of all the revenue the nine high school districts collected.
On the unit district side, local funds accounted for 61 percent of the total.
Taxpayers in our composite districts pay more, in part, because their property is worth more.
The average composite district has $218,875 worth of property per student, compared with $171,031 in unit districts.
By that measure, our composite districts are 28 percent richer than suburban unit districts.
The big picture
Illinois has 2,096 students per district.
Only 16 states have fewer students per district, and most of those states are primarily rural.
Over the past decade, the number of school districts in Illinois has decreased modestly, from 905 in 1996-97 to 873 in 2005-06.
The number has held relatively steady despite significant financial incentives meant to spur district consolidation.
For districts that combine, Illinois will:
• Erase a portion of their operating deficit.
• Make four years of supplementary payments so that staff at the new district make what staff at the highest paid old district made.
• Make four years of supplementary payments in state aid, if state aid would decrease due to the reorganization.
• Contribute $4,000 to the new district for each certified employee.
Illinois is willing to pay big cash to achieve the big savings of unit districts.
There's only one category in which unit districts post bigger numbers than their elementary and high school counterparts, and it's nothing to boast about.
Unit districts owe twice as much in long-term debt as their educational colleagues.
Next week: School district debt.