The full school boards and superintendents of three Morris school districts convened Wednesday evening to discuss ways to continue combining forces to save dollars.
The first official meeting of the Morris Community Schools Shared Services Committee, composed of Morris Community High School, Morris Grade School District 54 and Saratoga District 60C, met in Saratoga’s gymnasium to hear a presentation by an expert in school consolidation and to discuss shared services issues.
The board members of the three districts are considering commissioning a study on the feasibility of consolidation of the Morris schools and invited Dr. William Phillips, a member of the University of Illinois-Springfield group that would conduct the study, to talk and answer questions about consolidation.
Superintendents Kathy Perry (Saratoga School), Dr. Patrick Halloran (Morris Community High School) and Teri Shaw (Morris District 54) presided over the joint meeting. The three school boards are expected to vote on whether to participate in the consolidation study at their next respective board meetings.
Among other items, the four-month study would examine the schools’ present enrollments, future projected enrollments, facility comparisons, transportation systems and trend analyses of the districts’ finances.
Board members and the audience were encouraged to ask questions. Arthur Hornsby asked Phillips a question that has been on the minds of many in the community regarding consolidation of the schools – what about current bond obligations of each district?
Phillips said that if the districts were to consolidate, the county clerk would continue to levy the original constituents of the bonded district. The bonds of one particular district would continue to be the responsibility of the taxpayers of that original district, not suddenly spread among the taxpayers of all of the three districts.
“And if one of those districts was in deep operational debt,” he added, “the state of Illinois will pay that for one time, and you start even.”
The new school board created would then assume the other assets and liabilities of the old school districts. The previous three school boards would become one, and there would only be one superintendent of the new consolidated district.
The process of consolidation would begin with votes by the current individual school boards. If all three districts agree that consolidation would be advantageous, the issue would be put before voters.
Phillips said there are various ways the community voting could be conducted. One option would be that a yes vote by the voters in the high school district and one grade school district would be enough to consolidate the two districts together, but not the one that voted against it.
“The district that voted against consolidation cannot be forcibly consolidated if the people in that district do not want it,” Phillips said after the meeting.
The high school’s board members John Maddox and Judie Roth asked questions of Phillips regarding the issue, as did several audience members. Maddox asked if there were other things the district could learn from the study besides consolidation issues.
Phillips said yes.
“It’s very telling, the information you get,” he said. “Sometimes we do not recommend consolidation. ... It won’t always save the districts money. But almost universally, we find that a better curriculum is offered with consolidation.”
Phillips said there is more to consider from consolidation than just dollar savings.
“The most important thing is to think about what’s best for the most kids,” he said.
After the meeting, Halloran explained that consolidation can give more than just financial savings in districts. It can also make sure students throughout town receive consistent curriculum and that they are all on the same page as they move from one grade level to the next.
Consolidating districts can also be advantageous to establishing better gifted and remedial programs, he added.
The school superintendents Wednesday also gave summaries of how the districts have been sharing services for several years and have saved thousands of dollars by going together on such services and purchases as bus transportation, utilities, professional development and office supplies.
District 101 and GAVC Technology Director J.D. Morrison also explained to the joint boards and audience about the savings to all the schools and other public agencies, such as Grundy County and the library, through the Morris Area Technology Coordinators Consortium, MATCC.
District 54 and Saratoga have also shared the services of their building and grounds director and their food services director.
Shared services have paid off for the districts in big ways, Halloran said after the meeting.
“Shared services are very important,” he said. “As resources become scarce, it’s even more important to be as efficient as possible.”
Shared transportation services, in particular, Shaw said, have saved the districts a combined $25,000 per district each year for regular education students and about $500,000 a year for special education bus services.
Perry said MCHS and District 54 currently share contracted bus services, whereas Saratoga uses an in-house service, leasing their buses. Under consideration is a tri-district sharing of that system, she said, which would add a combined $410,000 per year savings among the three schools.
“We would see significant savings by doubling routes,” Perry said.
However, the districts would have to carefully coordinate their schools’ start and end times, staggering them so that the buses can transport students to all four schools. Other area districts that have made this work, Perry said, are Channahon, Coal City, and the Minooka and Plainfield elementary districts.
State representative Pam Roth also spoke at the joint meeting, giving updates as to what is happening in Springfield and how it relates locally.