School consolidation boosts academics but costs Illinois taxpayers

Students are old enough for finals at United High School in Monmouth, but they’re too young to remember when their district formed in 2002. “It was ...

Students are old enough for finals at United High School in Monmouth, but they're too young to remember when their district formed in 2002.

"It was a long time ago," said Superintendent Jeff Whitsitt, who was there from the beginning.

"This room was actually my Second Grade classroom," said Danielle Sprout.

Science teacher Sprout, 27, remembers.

"Students at that age don't like change at all," she recalled.

For her, passing periods between classes still trigger shudders.

She experienced consolidation as a student and became a teacher there.

"Really, all of a sudden, all these people and crowded hallways," she said.

Now, youngsters at Wethersfield Junior High are caught in a political struggle that threatens school funding.

"It's going to come to a point where school districts are going to have to close their doors," said Wethersfield Superintendent Shane Kazubowski.

As Kewanee and Wethersfield consider merging, a decades-old rivalry could be ending.

"Take the good from both schools, combine them together and make something even better," said Bruce Tossell, who serves on the citizens committee looking at consolidation.

Consolidation, though, rarely saves tax dollars.

"Our tax rate didn't go down for either district when we consolidated," said Whitsitt.

When Aledo and Westmer school districts merged in 2009, The Chicago Tribune reported that the new district saved just $500,000 out of a $14 million budget.

Kewanee and Wethersfield residents would pay higher taxes, with hikes averaging 3.79 to 4.87%

United taxpayers also pay higher rates than before consolidation.

"They're still paying more because our costs are going up, and their values are going up," said Whitsitt.

While consolidation didn't save taxpayers money, without it, schools warn it would cost even more.

United's Algebra class proves there's power with numbers.

Academic benefits that add up with consolidation.

"We had more options to choose from," Sprout recalled.  "We got a wider range of different things."

"It didn't make out class sizes so big that you're overwhelmed, but it added numbers," said teacher Jennifer Stoneking.

"We've had some luck, too," added Whitsitt.

12 years ago, football became the great unifier.

That's because the first United Red Storm football team brought home a state championship trophy.

"We gave people lots of opportunities that year," Whitsitt said.  "That's for sure."

Wethersfield and Kewanee may decide soon if the time is right for them.

"Kewanee has the nickname of the 'City of Choice,'" said Mary Alepra, who opposes consolidation.  "I don't think it's a negative that we have two school districts."

"It's time to be one school," Tossell countered.

As teens eat lunch and wear school shirts, high above them there's a triple tribute.

Jackets from Warren, Yorkwood and Alexis symbolize the transition to United.

It seems to say something to districts like Kewanee and Wethersfield.

"Really go into it with a positive open mind," Sprout concluded.  "I think the possibilities could be almost endless for them."