The idea recently proposed by several Illinois elected officials to decrease the number of school districts through consolidation does not sit well with District 91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo.
“It’s all rhetoric,” Cavallo said, dismissing the legislation being floated.
Gov. Pat Quinn, for one, is proposing that the state’s 868 school districts be decreased to 368; and before his bill was held up in committee, state Rep. Robert Rita (D-28) wanted to erase all the current districts, except Chicago’s, and hold county elections to create new boards.
Next to Texas and California, Illinois has the most districts in the nation, which means a large number of superintendents and administrative staff. The Quinn administration is arguing that smaller districts mean fewer positions, which will save the state $100 million. It is unclear what equation the administration used to arrive at this figure.
“Gov. Quinn, where is he getting this $100 million from?” Cavallo asked during an interview in his office last week with the Forest Park Review. He said the middle management that would have to be hired to operate larger districts would trump any real savings the state might see. In Dist. 91’s case, that would amount to less than one percent in savings, he noted.
“One person can’t run a much larger district. … It’s not a complete savings,” Cavallo said.
In Dist. 91’s case, state money is a moot point in this argument, Cavallo added.
“If state aid did not come, we would still be able to pay our salaries,” he said.
According to the district’s figures, state money has made up the smallest portion of the annual revenue received thus far: 2 percent or $311,658 for fiscal year 2011. Dist. 91 relies almost entirely on local taxes, which accounted for 93 percent of its revenue, or $15,428,597, in FY ’10.
But the high salaries of some superintendents and administrators statewide are being criticized by the Quinn administration and used as reasoning for the governor’s merger proposal.
Cavallo and four Dist. 91 staffers are paid over $100,000, district records show. Cavallo makes $181,038 as superintendent; Asst. Supt. Ed Brophy earns $115,206; Wendy Trotter, principal of Grant-White Elementary School, $109,155; Robert Giovannoni, principal of Field-Stevensen Elementary School, $108,967; and the salary of Forest Park Middle School Principal Karen Bukowski is $103,165. Three other employees also make between $80,000 and $97,000, based on the district’s numbers.
The district is required by state law to post employee salaries and detailed information on their benefits on its website. That information is supposed to be easy to find. The Review could not find it and had to ask Cavallo, who said it was located in the minutes of a past meeting.
Around “three hundred [superintendents] make more than the governor’s salary,” said Kelly Kraft, a spokesperson for the governor. Quinn’s salary is $177,417.
It’s important to keep in mind that the salaries of Dist. 91’s employees are paid almost exclusively with local tax dollars. In 2004, residents voted in favor of hiking the tax rate of a fund on which Dist. 91 relies for most of its funding.
Throughout the interview, Cavallo detailed his confusion over Quinn’s proposal.
“There’s the issue of the tax rate,” he said. “How does that work?”
The amount of local tax dollars that go to schools varies from district to district: If there is a merger, it is not clear how tax rates would be set for towns that pay different amounts to their schools.
“This could mean considerably higher taxes,” Cavallo said.
The same thing could happen with merging districts that pay their teachers differently, as a new base salary rate would have to be worked out, Cavallo said.
The Associated Press reported last week that the consolidation plan could actually lead to a spike in teachers’ salaries that would all but erase any savings that the state might see, subsequent to consolidation. This is because teachers in a lower-paying district are allowed to receive the higher pay of the other district, the article noted.
“There’s no specific plan,” Cavallo said in frustration, regarding Quinn’s idea.
“Again, this is in its early stages,” Kraft said.
Uncertainty over this issue abounds, and state Rep. Linda Chapa Lavia (D-83) recently created a task force that will be studying its effects through 2014. That said, education in Illinois will not immediately bear the brunt of the state’s $10 billion deficit reduction plan.
Cavallo said he was mostly concerned about the progress the district has made since he became superintendent. Dist. 91 addressed a perceived behavioral problem with students through the individualized, data-gathering program Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS); through a reconfiguration of elementary schools – there are now two primary schools and two intermediate schools – the student bodies are much more diverse; and, at meetings, the school board is always examining new ways to monitor students’ progress. These are but a few of the changes.
“I don’t want to leave Forest Park; we have made great gains. All those initiatives would halt,” he said, if consolidation happened. “My major concern is no one is talking about the effect this would have on kids. … The only concern is the state budget,” Cavallo said.
“This is being done for the wrong reasons,” he added. “It’s political, not educational.”