Does Skokie Have too Many School Districts?
School consolidation, taxes and teacher performance were among the subjects discussed at a recent forum hosted by Skokie Voice.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Skokie has a population of 64,784 people. At the same time, the village touches on seven different school districts.
To some residents, that’s too many.
Last week representatives of all seven districts gathered to answer questions in a forum hosted by upstart community group Skokie Voice. While there were many topics at hand, the subject of combining some of the districts was certainly an emotional one.
“Thanks to all of you for coming, but there are too many of you,” said 25-year Skokie resident Norman Frankel. “We need to consolidate districts. People are walking away from their houses, we need to think creatively.”
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Consolidation is not something under the control of the school superintendents. Instead, it falls under the control of school boards and the local taxpayers even as Governor Pat Quinn pushes for a reduction of school districts. Yet those officials present Wednesday cautioned that while consolidation may look good on the outside to challenged taxpayers, the end result may have many unintended consequences.
“You would think on the face of it, of course it would make sense. But like a lot of things in the state of Illinois, things are not black and white,” said John Schopp, the superintendent of East Prairie District 73.
“Skokie is a community within a community,” Schopp added. “If we were to consolidate, the tax rate for the East Prairie people would go up.”
Frances McTague, superintendent of District 68, said the local boards have tried to streamline services, specifically in the area of sharing bus services, cooperative purchasing and some special education needs.
But McTague stated other expenses pop up when districts come together. “When we talk about consolidation, I think, the surface level is we would talk about the savings level of a superintendent’s salary, but the larger a district grows the more middle management positions come into play and there probably isn’t a savings in terms of personnel,” she said.
McTague also echoed Schopp’s contention that tax rates are likely to be higher and added teacher salaries are going to be higher if consolidation occurs.
The topic of consolidation was brought up as residents are worried about property taxes in a rough economy that has decimated property values. With the State of Illinois being heavily reliant on property taxes to fund education, the costs of maintaining schools draws ire throughout the state, especially in upper middle class areas like Skokie.
John Peters, whose home is in the District 73 1/2 zone, excoriated the superintendents by saying, “You are bleeding the taxpayers dry with school taxes. I have seen my taxes go up from $1,000 to $7,000 plus. The vast majority is going to the schools. How do you expect taxpayers to sustain (hundreds) of dollars of tax increases every year? There has to be some restraint on school district or seniors like myself simply can’t afford to live in Skokie. The real world says there has to be restraint.”
But McTague would not back down. “Strong schools make for strong communities,” she responded. “All of us are trying to contain costs and we understand the struggle in our communities right now particularly with the decline in property values. I don’t think that any of us would consider any of the programs we are offering in our schools lavish or frivolous. If you as a community want the best quality education for your children, you need to pay for your teachers at a fair market wage, you need to pay for up to date technology and instructional materials and buildings that are modern are adaptable to changing instructional needs.”
The other school administrators present were Quintin Shepherd of District 69, Cindy Whittaker of Fairview District 72 and Hardy Murphy of District 65 and Nanciann Gatta of District 219. Dana Otto, the principal of Middleton Elementary School, substituted for Kate Donegan, superintendent of District 73 ½, who is currently taking a medical leave of absence.
Violence in School
School safety was another topic that came up in the crowd of approximately 150 as the leaders talked about the various procedures and precautions they have in place. But Gatta said there is more to safety than police officers and equipment.
“You keep schools safe by ensuring that every kid has a connection to something and some adult,” Gatta emphasized. “That is why we need to invest heavily in extracurricular programming and academic clubs. When kids are connected to their school and feel good about something and have an adult that advocates for them, schools are safe.”
One parent of a student at District 68 expressed concern about a perceived lack of diversity in terms of teaching ranks, even though all the superintendents took time at the beginning of the meeting to note the large number of languages spoken at their schools.
McTague said principals have been sent to job fairs to try and recruit minority teachers, but they have not been as successful as they wish they had been. “Growing a more racially diverse faculty and staff has been a board goal for the last five years at District 68. We have made a sizable financial commitment in advertising our district to recruit teachers of color,” she said. “We have been unable to attract a number of teachers of color to our district.”
Finally, there is always the concern of whether teachers are still performing and providing their students with a solid education. Gatta said there is a misconception that tenured teachers can’t be fired.
“It requires a process, but the process is very clear and if you follow it you get to the end (that) you need. Because ultimately, the needs of children need to come before the needs of adults.”