Why do we need change?

The questions I get most asked by community members who aren’t closely following school-related news is “Why do we need to reconfigure District 112? Why should my school or any other school close?  Why do we need to change?”

The need for change in District 112 is driven by a complex set of interconnected educational, financial and facilities challenges – my explanation follows.

Finances and Facilities

District 112 cannot continue to operate 12 buildings and be financially sustainable absent a significant ongoing property tax increase.

Two recent public opinion surveys indicate that most of our community is unwilling to pay more in taxes to support this approach.  Based on the assumptions in the 2.0 Financial Model that I developed with Marc Lawrence and shared with the community in November, it would require a school property tax increase of approximately 8% starting next year to sustain 12 schools through 2030.  This money would repair our buildings but would not allow for improvements (like ADA accessibility or air conditioning) or for new programming (like full day Kindergarten).

What’s driving our immediate financial challenge?  The large backlog of deferred capital work on these 12 buildings is the major financial challenge, a situation exacerbated by operating expenses that are rising faster than property tax revenues.  Put another way, there is $50 million in recommended capital repairs and identified Health Life Safety work through 2020, an amount that easily dwarves the resources available.

Over the past several years, the District has cut over $8 million from a $70 million non-capital operating budget (including over $3 million for teachers and para-professionals) in an effort to address its financial challenges – but that’s insufficient.  With the exception of Oak Terrace (nearly 20 years old), the average age of the district’s buildings is 74 years old and at some point, various systems like plumbing, electrical, heating, windows and roofing need to be replaced.

It’s clear to most objective observers that our ability to “kick the can down the road” is coming to an end – not next year but certainly in the not-too-distant future.  And with the State of Illinois seriously contemplating a property tax levy freeze, changes in state aid to school districts and a shift of pension obligations back to local government, we need to address this problem sooner rather than later.

Education

But even if we could afford to operate as we have in the past, consolidation at both the elementary and middle school level makes educational sense.

At all levels, buildings with more sections per grade allow for greater teacher collaboration and student differentiation.  And District administrators tell us that teacher collaboration is key – it leads to better, more innovative lessons and greater consistency in curriculum delivery.

Additionally, at the elementary level, professionals (like social workers) can be assigned full-time to larger elementary schools and it is easier for students who are outliers to fit in.  At the middle school level, small student enrollment can lead to significant tracking, fewer course offerings, singleton subject teachers (one 7th grade math teacher) and classes that are too small (e.g., too few kids in French class for productive discussions).  As well, it’s a challenge to offer a variety of high-quality extra-curricular experiences (like Science Olympiad) without a critical mass of students.

It is important to note that similarly-sized school districts in our area operate significantly fewer buildings than District 112.  Many other districts, like Deerfield 109, have closed schools in the past 25 years to reduce excess capacity (Deerfield shut 4 of its 8 elementary schools) – District 112 has not.

Instead of spending money to employ additional administrators and maintain extra buildings, these districts are able to devote additional resources to education.  From a facilities perspective, this means ensuring that each building has the space and the physical environment to support STEM programs, small group collaboration, and technology.  From an educational programming perspective, this means being able to offer things like full-day Kindergarten, field trips, foreign language in elementary school and strong extra-curricular activities.  Simply put, we can reduce the number of buildings in District 112 and improve the quality of the education provided all at the same time. 

The Change Goal – Balance

The goal is to find a long-term plan that balances educational best practices with community values, in a manner respectful of the community’s tax dollars – that’s what I and my colleagues on the Reconfiguration 2.0 team (a diverse group of community members tasked with finding solutions to District 112’s challenges) are working towards.

Through stakeholder engagement (focus groups, surveys, forums), we are trying to develop a long-term plan that the community will support, one that benefits our students and supports our property values.

I’m convinced that there is a better alternative out there that will:

  • more efficiently use our tax dollars and be financially sustainable;
  • improve the quality of education delivered;
  • provide additional programming like full day Kindergarten for our students;
  • respect our history of neighborhood schools;
  • make intelligent, forward-thinking investments; and
  • upgrade our buildings for things like ADA accessibility and air conditioning

While it is unrealistic to think that any reconfiguration will garner everyone’s support, there is a happy medium here waiting to be developed that is fair and equitable and that the community can get behind. It’s not “no change,” it’s not “radical change,” – we need well-thought out, balanced change.

And a successful plan will allow teachers and other professionals to focus on what they do best – educating and supporting all of our students.

Dan Jenks for 112 Board – What You Can Do

If you agree that we need balanced change and believe that I could play a constructive role in moving the District in the right direction, support Dan Jenks on April 4.