- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 3, 2019

September 3, 2019

Chicago Tribune

Schools and bloat: To help Illinois students and taxpayers, merge more districts

Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently signed into law two bills making it easier to consolidate local governments and reduce property taxes. That’s good news. But before you buy stock in expandable wallets, two asterisks:

One bill the governor signed, sponsored by Sen. Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, applied to drainage districts, the elimination of which is relevant mostly in the suburbs and not a significant cost reducer. The other bill, sponsored by Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, addressed township functions in McHenry and Lake counties only, and in limited capacity.

Baby steps, people. Under both bills, voters would need to build momentum to dissolve unnecessary taxing bodies, in some cases by gathering signatures to get referendum questions on the ballot. Hear that, voters? Ultimately, it’s up to you.

It can be a heavy lift. Downsizing the nearly 7,000 governmental bodies in Illinois - a big-government state where public employee unions like it that way - is tough politically, even for elderly drainage districts or township road departments overseeing a few miles of pavement. Status quo usually wins.

But it’s a start. Here’s a more ambitious but logical next step: Consolidate school districts. The state’s 852 districts could see savings that could be sent to classrooms, redeploying money from administrative bloat to educating students. Not to mention the advantages of broader curriculums and more activities for kids in today’s small districts.

Even among Democrats, the push is gaining traction in Springfield. Fewer superintendents, fewer assistant superintendents, fewer deans, fewer transportation coordinators .

It’s one reason Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, is leading an effort to advance school consolidation. Last spring, Mayfield sponsored a bill to establish a consolidation task force. It flew out of the House but got stuck in the Senate.

No, we’re not cartwheeling over another task force. But it is significant that Democrats - traditionally the party less motivated by the prospect of shrinking bureaucracy - are coming around to the idea of merging school districts and reducing property taxes.

Over time, Illinois has been moving in the right direction. In 1983, there were 1,008 school districts statewide.

Most of the consolidations occurred outside Chicagoland in rural areas that were struggling with decreasing enrollment, expensive bus routes and dwindling sports teams. The most recent formal consolidation in 2017 - between Dimmick Community School District 175 and Cherry School District 92 outside LaSalle-Peru - took several years, dozens of community meetings and, as required under state law, state and voter approval.

But with cooperation and open minds, it happened.

A new report from the Illinois Policy Institute finds more than 9,000 school administrators earning salaries greater than $100,000. On average they’ll pull roughly $3 million apiece in pensions and benefits over the course of their retirements, the report concluded. So yes, consolidating districts would ease pressure on pension systems too.

“There is money that is going away from kids just to cover administrative costs and salaries,” says Orphe Divounguy who helped author the report. “This is really about how we can improve student outcomes by reducing the number of districts. Larger districts can attract better quality teachers, too.”

So what do you say, Illinois taxpayers? Look around. You can wait for politicians to reduce your property taxes. Or you can start pushing for consolidation of your own districts.


September 2, 2019

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Buyout bill looks like a bust

Our legislators passed a law they contend would outlaw big payoffs to high-ranking public employees who lose their jobs.

Then Western Illinois University decided to oust its president - Jack Thomas - from his executive chair and grease the skids out the door with a mega-bucks buyout. Now our legislators are trying to figure out what happened with their supposed prohibition on “golden parachutes.”

“What a gross misuse of taxpayer-funded dollars. It’s appalling to me,” said state Sen. Laura Murphy, a Democrat from Des Plaines.

Murphy certainly has a point. But what’s really appalling is that our legislators thought they could take on a complicated subject - contract law - and deal with it via legislation that apparently has loopholes big enough to allow a truck to get through.

The state’s ban on buyouts is supposed to limit severance pay to 20 weeks. In the case of Thomas, Western officials and their lawyers came up with an alternative - two years of sabbatical leave worth $570,000 and then a return to a faculty position paying $200,000 a year. It was a price they were willing to pay to avoid a big fight over Thomas stepping down.

They called it a transition, not a separation agreement, and, technically speaking, they’re right.

Thomas isn’t really going, as a buyout would suggest. He’s taking an extended well-paid sabbatical and then returning, if he wishes, to teach at a salary much higher than most of his colleagues make.

If WIU is lucky, Thomas will find a better job elsewhere and not return to the classroom.

But who was kidding whom with that headline-grabbing legislation aimed at protecting taxpayer dollars through a ban on big buyouts.

If legislators are really serious about the issue, they’ll need to revise current law. But it won’t be easy.

For starters, high-powered and high-paid public employees sign multiyear contracts to take important jobs. They insist on financial guarantees, particularly if circumstances go south.

These contracts give them certain rights that allow them to extract compensation in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it’s cheaper to settle disputes with a cash payout than to pay lawyers to litigate.

Perhaps the state can forbid some kinds of financial guarantees that are written into contracts. But, if so, if legislators try to clamp down too hard, they had better be prepared for outstanding candidates for important jobs going elsewhere.

There is, of course, no question that paying big buyouts to failed employees is infuriating. Unfortunately, sometimes it can’t be helped.

The best solution is not to make hiring mistakes on the front end that require buyouts at the back end.


August 31, 2019

(Arlington Heights) Daily Herald

Are these the final days of Arlington Park?

If nothing else, Churchill Downs Inc. surely has captured the attention of local officials and lawmakers with its announcement that it will not seek the casino license it previously seemed to covet so fervently for Arlington International Racecourse.

Where the debate goes from here — and the odds of the track’s closing — are harder to assess.

Arlington Park is one of the premier horse racing venues in the world and this isn’t the first time it has threatened to go dark without some acquiescence by the state, so the notion that this announcement is more political leverage than a solid business vow can’t be dismissed.

But whatever the case, the company’s reservations are understandable, given that the requirements the license would place on the track are more severe than those placed on the Illinois casinos that compete against it. In essence, that would make the track’s slots less lucrative than those in a casino. Hard to see the equity or fairness in that.

Will Churchill Downs be successful in getting its complaint heard? Given the track’s competitive location only a few miles from the Churchill Downs’ owned Rivers Casino, does the company even care?

When it comes to Springfield listening, it won’t hurt that the track is not alone in its strident objections to the rules in the recent gambling legislation. Officials in the city of Chicago are all but demanding that the tax formula be changed to make a city casino more tenable.

The state of Illinois is counting on the revenue its large-scale shift in gambling philosophy is expected to produce. It would have a stake in the result if companies failed to build the gambling stations that have been expected to fuel some of the state’s future bill paying and spending.

So, as the November veto session for considering legislative revisions approaches, it seems reasonable for legislators and policymakers to take a serious look inside the gambling expansion bill to see what revisions are necessary.

In doing so, there are many questions to be answered.

If one objective of the legislation was, as Churchill Downs and lawmakers themselves said, to protect horse racing, is it reasonable to allow conditions under which the company could shutter a horse racing venue while the same company pursues expanded gambling stations in Des Plaines and Waukegan?

Is the requirement that tracks divert a portion of their casino proceeds into racing purses the anti-competitive additional tax that Churchill Downs says it is, and if so, what’s to be done about it? Or, is it a means of promoting the industry, as the company and racing supporters insisted when they lobbied for video gambling at the track?

Arlington Park, even in a troubled economic environment, is one of the jewels of the suburbs and a source of pride for the entire state. It is an asset worth protecting. It deserves the respect of careful and thoughtful analysis to ensure it can compete effectively and fairly. At this eleventh hour, we hope that is all that Churchill Downs really wants.

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