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Two rural school districts say the solution to their problems could be consolidation

It’s hard for smaller, rural schools to recruit and retain teachers. In Somonauk, between hiring challenges and early retirements during the pandemic, they find themselves short a high school science teacher.

Mike Short is the president of the Somonauk School Board. He says that’s a big deal when those classes are supposed to include hands-on lab work.

“We're able to provide the students an online curriculum for the science classes,” he said. “But doing a science experiment virtually where you click with your mouse and move this beaker to that beaker and pour this file into that one and watch the reaction happen on a computer screen in an animated drawing? It's nowhere near the same.”

In Leland, they can’t currently offer any AP classes to get students a jumpstart on college credit.

But, Short and Leland School Board President Claire Anderson say those are just a few challenges they could solve through consolidation.

It’s rare for school districts to reorganize, whether it be consolidation, annexation or deactivation. It hasn’t happened in the state at all in three years, since two other rural northern Illinois districts -- Paw Paw and Indian Creek -- joined forces by deactivating Paw Paw’s high school.

Those schools were already working together before their official alliance. The same is true with Somonauk and Leland. Claire Anderson says they have a long history of collaboration dating back decades.

“I, as a Leland high school student, went over for physics 25 years ago. So, it's not a new function for us,” she said.

Over the past few years, that relationship has only grown. They share a food vendor, help each other with transportation for special ed, and have a teacher that splits time between the districts. Since 2019, they’ve had a sports cooperative.

That same year the districts launched a formal study to see if something like consolidation could make a difference for their students. Since then, their study and committee say coming together could address each district's challenges like AP classes, that missing science teacher and more.

They say it could also allow both districts to offer all-day pre-K, bring in-house special-ed to Leland and consistent JV sports teams to Somonauk.

In some consolidation cases, one or both schools are seeing declining enrollment. Short says that’s not the case here, and that both districts are in a good financial place.

“Both districts are able to approach it from a position of strength,” he said. “Nobody is losing students dozens of students a year. Nobody's hemorrhaging money or buried in debt.”

Claire Anderson at Leland says it’s about long-term stability. State funding might be somewhat reliable now, but the pandemic and budget impasse taught them how to plan for volatility. They project over $1 million in financial benefits and a small decrease in property tax.

“There are going to be quick gains. But in 10 years, in 20 years, what kind of district can we be proud of that we're offering excellent student life and academics, and still being really tax-savvy with our taxpayers?” said Anderson.

So, what would consolidation actually look like? All of the buildings would still be in use to keep class sizes small. Somonauk students would take a 10-minute drive to Leland for 2nd-5th grades. Then, Leland students would ride to Somonauk for 6th through high school.

Transportation is one of the biggest concerns residents have raised. Short says he understands but believes the schedule change is worth it.

“What do you gain when your high school student is not using doing high school chemistry on a computer screen? What do you gain if you're a family who values sports?” he said.

The other common question is about teachers. Short and Anderson are adamant that no teachers or staff will lose their jobs if the consolidation goes through.

Another question is just about the communities. How can they retain the legacy of both schools while building something new together? The shared history helps. They’ve got a plan to keep both sports mascots. The middle school teams will retain Leland's Panthers and the high school will use Somonauk’s Bobcat. It’s the little things, but it helps that they’re both cats.

The towns will vote in June on whether to approve the consolidation. If they vote yes on the referendum, the new school district will begin with the 2022-23 school year.

Both Short and Anderson say they’re confident residents will see the benefits. Their committee has been holding community meetings through the process and will continue up to the election.
Copyright 2022 WNIJ Northern Public Radio. To see more, visit WNIJ Northern Public Radio.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.