Two rural school districts consider consolidation

May 13, 2014

As rural populations and state school funding decline, small school districts in Illinois look at consolidation as an option for survival. Few districts actually go through with the idea. But it could happen this year in south Vermilion County. Last month, school boards for that area’s two smallest districts, Catlin and Jamaica, approved a consolidation referendum for the November ballot. Illinois Public Radio’s Jim Meadows reports.

When the buzzer sounds at Jamaica High School in rural Vermilion County, the next classroom is usually just a short walk down the hall.

Jamaica High only has about 115 students; the entire Jamaica school district has 523. But as small as it is, the school system still costs money to operate. And Jamaica district parent Brian Lane of Fairmount says they’ve had to make cuts every year.

"We’ve cut everything we possibly can. The classroom sizes were starting to get larger. Instead of having two teachers for each class, we were down to one in some areas. We were cutting out some of the educational programs I think were needed," says Lane. 

Lane is a member of the Committee of Ten, formed by the Jamaica and Catlin school boards to make plans for merging their two adjacent school districts into one.

Jamaica school board member and Committee of Ten Co-Chair Jeff Carder says they considered other proposals, such as a jointly operated cooperative high school, and deactivation, which means closing  a school in one district and sending students to the other district.

"Of course, nobody liked that idea. Nobody wants to lose a high school, so we scratched that one off pretty quick. And the co-op high school would have saved money, but not nearly as much as a consolidation. So we decided to go with the biggest money savings, which would be a consolidation," says Carder.

Some years ago, Jamaica and Catlin combined their high school sports programs, under the banner of the Salt Fork Storm. Under the consolidation plan, the two districts would combine entirely, into the new Salt Fork school district. The high school in Jamaica would close, as would the junior high school in Catlin. 

With larger enrollments at the remaining schools, the new district could reduce its staff, saving about half-a-million dollars a year, and use its remaining staff more efficiently. The consolidation plan would use existing school buildings, and backers don’t see the need for a hike in property taxes.

Catlin School Board President Jeff Fauver, the other co-chair of the Committee of Ten, says he’s heard concerns in his more compact district about the daily bus rides junior high kids would be taking to the Jamaica campus. But he says the alternative is making additional cuts in the classroom.

"If we don’t create some efficiencies through this consolidation, what other cuts could we see in Catlin? You really can’t cut too much more at the high school. So, now you’re gonna start getting into your junior high and grade school. And do you really want those cuts? Or do you want your child to travel 12 miles to not experience those cuts?"

But if approved, the Jamaica-Catlin consolidation is expected to only slow down financial decline, not put an end to it. The Committee of Ten’s financial projections show renewed fiscal problems by around 2020.

The Committee recommends that a future consolidated school board make plans for a consolidation with other nearby districts. This merger could create one high school to serve much or all of south Vermilion County.

The so-called south county high school idea is not a new one. A version of it was floated in 1991, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to consolidate Jamaica, Catlin and the adjacent Oakwood school district, with a new high school building included. But Catlin grade school teacher Kristen Strunga, another consolidation supporter, says things are different now.

"In 1991, we weren’t ready to give up our small town high schools. And look, we’ve made it until 2014. So, we didn’t have to do anything. But now, we have to. There really is not Option B. There is nothing else," says Strunga.

But the consolidation plan still has its skeptics. Besides the concerns in Catlin about bussing their junior high school kids out of town to the Jamaica school, Jamaica residents have questions, too. Emails posted on the Committee of Ten website, ask about conditions at Catlin’s 1920s-era high school building, and whether the more populous Catlin district will dominate elections for the new consolidated school board.

Backers of Catlin-Jamaica consolidation are sure to face more questions from voters, as they promote the idea at public meetings, civic and church gatherings and community festivals during the six months between now and Election Day.