People keep asking me my thoughts on the issue of consolidation, the most heatedly debated topic up to vote for tomorrow, so I guess I will post my opinions here. Many believe I will just go the way of my mother before me, who was on the Wood River Hartford school board for twelve years, and who was against consolidation at that time, some fifteen years ago or whenever it was that it came up. But, my mother didn’t just teach me about her way of thinking, she taught me to think for myself.
A long, long time ago someone decided that the two districts feeding into our high school, and the high school itself, should all be three distinct, separate districts. I’m not up on my area history, so I have no idea why, who, when that happened. I do know that most districts are NOT set up in this confusing manner, and that we are an anomaly. I get that. What we need to decide as a community, is if it should be changed now.
If we could go back in time and just make East Alton, Wood River, and the resulting high school one big, happy family district, I would absolutely say, “Yes, let’s do that.” But, we can’t. So now we have to decide if it is worth revisiting. They say to stitch a deep wound within 24 hours, and after that it isn’t worth it. You’re going to have a scar, the healing has already begun, and going back, ripping open the wound just to stitch it back together the *right* way, will just cause more harm, give you a bigger scar. Sometimes, you can’t easily go back and do things the way they should have been done in the first place. So, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of this pending reconstructive surgery, shall we?
First, I’d like to look at two things I’m tired of hearing, one from each camp. From the anti-consolidation side, I have heard over and over again that kids will be bussed across communities. I have heard that Hartford kids will be bussed to East Alton. I don’t believe this will happen for a minute if consolidation passes. I just don ‘t. Why? Because despite all evidence to the contrary, I still believe there are people in positions of power with compassion and brains bigger than birds. Now, if class sizes change and they want to close Hartford for good, I do think those on the border of Wood River and East Alton may have to change schools, but I don’t think that would happen any time soon. If it does, it won’t be ideal for the communities, but it also won’t be the end of the world.
From the pro-consolidation crowd, one of their main rah-rah cheers is that taxes will go down. This, in spite of a report done saying they will NOT go down (the pro crowd keeps saying this doesn’t count because the report is 5 years old, but nothing has substantially changed in that time in regards to the districts, so I don ‘t understand their reasoning). There have also been other experts saying taxes will probably not go down, yet they keep parading this line of thinking across the internet and my mailbox. Here’s why taxes will be a wash: You are going to take three districts and combine them, and even if the last superintendent standing decides, out of the goodness of his heart, to keep working for a much larger district at his same rate of pay he’s working at now, we still have the issue of teacher salaries.
Yep. Teachers in all three districts are on different, union-contracted pay scales. If consolidation passes, all of the teachers in every district will be bumped to the highest pay scale, and get the best benefits. This will cause a shortfall that will have to be redeemed somehow. Guess how? Through tax-payer money, staff reduction, school-closings, or our new Republican, union-hating governor, Rauner, gifting our district an extra $900,000 a year.
So, what is the benefit of consolidation? Well, it will align the curriculum of the feeder schools, and everyone will be on the same academic calendar. The pro camp cites neighboring unit districts as evidence that these are benefits that outweigh any risk. I have been told to “look at Bethalto and Roxana” to see how well a unit district performs.
So, I did. I looked up data on Bethalto, Roxana, Wood River, and East Alton schools. And you know what that pesky sociologist in my brain found–that little annoying voice that keeps saying, “Correlation does not equal causation,” and who weirdly loves statistics?
It found that according to http://www.schools-data.com, East Alton Elementary has a 55.9% poverty rate. Wood River has a 37% poverty rate. The better-performing schools, Bethalto and Roxana have low-income rates of 7.2%, and 15.5%, respectively. If you don’t believe that has an effect on the achievements of our student population, you are naïve at best. I’m not saying consolidation can’t help–no one knows that for sure–all I’m asking is that everyone look at the big picture, and not think of consolidation as some panacea for our students’ problems. Ensuring every student has read the same books or memorized the exact same historical facts before setting foot in the high school, is not going to solve our problems.
I have annoyed countless parents of other districts with my questioning. I really want to keep an open mind, see this issue from all points of view, but the fact of the matter is, you can dictate what everyone within a fifteen mile radius should teach and still you will have teachers who don’t get it all done. You will still have students who are under prepared, or who haven’t read the same books as their cohorts. I work in my community and it is a very transient one right now. It is a very poor one, right now. Consolidation isn’t going to fix this, and may even hinder it.
I am no expert on any of this, these are just my musings, what I have gathered through the mud-slinging coming from all sides. But, at this point, I do feel like the risks outweigh the benefits, at least for now. I see no reason to rip a new wound just to stitch it shut again.