Saturday, June 03, 2006

The state won't get tough on schools to save money

The Southern Illinoisan has an interesting opinion piece relating to school consolidation efforts:

The current debate over the governor's lottery plan entirely sidesteps this issue. Yes, the plan invests four $1 billion lump sums into things like increasing a school's basic funding foundation level, replacing old textbooks and creating additional in-school academic help for students, but all it really does is feed a network that is almost too large to be satisfied. Because of all the discussion of the lottery lease, one might have missed the fact Blagojevich did propose a piece of legislation earlier this year that could be a gateway for true school funding reform.

Senate Bill 2795, sponsored by State Sen. George Shadid and State Rep. Michael Smith, streamlines the school consolidation process and gives local voters more choice as to how they will reorganize their districts. Of course, state officials only hope people take advantage of the provisions, because consolidation remains strictly optional at this point. But should it remain optional?

Consider this: Union County, with a population around 17,000, has seven separate school districts. Within those districts there are seven elementary schools and four high schools. Three of those elementary schools are feeder districts into one high school. All of the elementary students combined probably don't exceed 1,500 individuals; the same goes for the high school students. One would think the relatively small number of students would only require one countywide unit district or two districts at the most, separated between elementary and secondary. Now, I'm ignoring any number of social and community identity reasons why the schools don't consolidate, but if one looks at this strictly financially (and the point here is education funding reform) it starts to make sense.

Locally property taxes pay for the students to have an education, but they also pay seven sets of administrators to do the work for the same number of students who would be present in the local school system, consolidated or not.

It should be noted I'm not picking on Union County, as there are other Southern Illinois counties with multiple school districts for a relatively small number of students. But Union serves as a good example of how operating a large number of school districts can be more draining on the taxpayers and ultimately less beneficial to the students in a certain district.

Some of the funding challenges start to solve themselves when schools consolidate. It's easy to see all of Union County's real estate taxes pouring into a single district (and a single set of administrators) would be cheaper than trying to fund the operations of seven districts. This would eliminate the problem of schools in smaller communities getting less money than schools in larger commercial and residential municipalities. A consolidated school district means fewer total dollars spent trying to maintain multiple buildings, increased school purchasing power for better deals on supplies, and increased local income from school breakfast and lunch sales. Consolidated schools would also mean fewer districts for regional superintendents to track and would give the opportunity for the regional offices of education to work on initiatives that would be sure to affect all students in a given area. On the academic side, consolidated school districts would have an easier time implementing a curriculum that gives students a cohesive learning experience in K-12 and could be easier on the students in transitioning from high school to college.

The governor often touts the amount of money he's thrown toward education as a staple of his administration, but SB 2795 could prove to be the most significant education proposal of Blagojevich's career once it is signed later this year. The only drawback to it is it really lacks teeth to make schools consider consolidation. Asking them politely won't gain the type of results state officials want to see.

Make no mistake; consolidation of school districts is no easy process. In fact, if Union County school districts all joined as one it would likely require consideration of constructing an entirely new school building or two big enough to hold all of the students. But Illinois has allowed schools to have a mild winter for too long. Now . . . there are too many districts striving to flourish.

As always, the emphases are our own.

The piece was written by Mr. Caleb Hale who they call the "higher education reporter" for The Southern Illinoisan. His column appears periodically. He can be reached at (618) 351-5090 or at

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Letters From: Springfield

Democrats' budget wasn't democratic

Though the new state budget was entirely crafted and passed by Democrats, there was nothing “democratic” about it. There are 177 members of the Illinois General Assembly, each representing more than 100,000 local residents, yet almost all were completely shut out of this year's budget process. The new $58 billion spending plan was negotiated in secret by three Democrat leaders.

As a result, the new state budget includes $800 million in pork projects for Democrat members to secure their votes, while nursing homes, pharmacists and others who care for the sick and disabled must wait months for state reimbursement for their services.

Over the past three years our state bond debt has nearly tripled to $20.3 billion, and our backlog of unpaid Medicaid bills owed to those who care for the sick and disabled has grown to nearly $2 billion. Yet, the new Democrat budget does nothing to address these critical problems. In fact, it adds to them, increasing state spending by another $1.4 billion that taxpayers simply can't afford.

To fund their continued spending, Democrats have once again raided the pensions of suburban and downstate teachers, and other public employees. The 5-year, $3.5 billion pension raid will ultimately cost our families $38.5 billion to repay. That”s $3,500 for every man, woman and child in Illinois.

Because Illinois now has the worst funded pension systems in the nation, Fitch Ratings, a top New York bond rating agency, has given Illinois a “negative” financial outlook and has indicated they will likely lower our bond rating, costing us more in interest for money we borrow. According to Fitch, Illinois will either have to increase revenues (raise taxes) or dramatically cut spending in the near future just to fund pensions.

The second year of each two-year session of the General Assembly is supposed to be strongly focused on our state budget, yet this spring, the second year of the 94th General Assembly, Democrats rushed through the budget process at record speed. If ever there was a time when we needed to focus our full attention on our state's fiscal problems and our budget, it is now. Hearings on various areas of the budget are normally held over the course of several months in Springfield and Chicago. This year, Democrats condensed the hearing process down to two short weeks.

A perfect example was the Human Services Appropriations hearings that account for almost 50 percent of our total state budget, yet Democrats raced through a hearing limiting citizens' and advocates' testimony to 3 minutes. That same day, they allowed only one hour to review the entire $16 billion budget for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services. These are the agencies that fund many services for children and families, the disabled, mental health services, Medicaid and children's health programs.

Throughout the spring session, House Republicans were ready to work with the Democrats on a responsible budget that would rein in spending, restore pension funding, and pay down our escalating debt. We, and the millions of families that we represent, were shut out of the process.

The foundation “democratic” government is that everyone has a voice. It's unfortunate that in this year's state budget the only voices that were heard belong to Gov. Blagojevich, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones.

Tom Cross
House Republican leader, Plainfield Illinois

( emphases is our own, not the writer's )

Talk Ain't Cheap! Can You Hear Us Now?

Here in Illinois, the average monthly cell phone tax is above the national average, close to 19 percent every month. One recent survey and study says Illinois ranks No. 10 in the nation in cell phone taxes. Nebraska is No. 1 at almost 25 percent. So, the average monthly cell phone tax per month in Illinois is at least 10 percent above the average sales tax! Who ever said, "talk is cheap"? Of course, in addition to taxes, you are also charged about $1 to maintain cell phone 911 service.

According to Illinois and Chicago departments of revenue, it is estimated that in 2005 Illinois collected $330 million in cell phone taxes. The City of Chicago collected $68 million.

Local governments tax cell phone bills just like they have always taxed home (land-line) phones, however,there is a difference - wireless isn't a "regulated utility."

"Wind Farm" Construction Put On Hold

The Chicago Tribune as well as the Bloomington Pantagraph yesterday reported that Federal officials have issued stop-work orders on "wind farms" all over the country. Developers said that at least 15 wind farm proposals in the Midwest have been shut down by the Federal Aviation Administration since the start of the year, including the project near Saybrook, Illinois.

The Saybrook site is one of several proposed for Central Illinois, including those near Benson, Delavan, Hudson, and northern Livingston County. Wind farms in LaSalle and Bureau counties already are operational.

This supposedly has something to do with military radar interference on the part of the turbines and Homeland Security as well as the FAA seem involved.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Wind Generated Power Goes To Chicago

The Associated Press today reports on the Navitas/Woodford County "informational meeting" scheduled for the 13th of June in Benson, Illinois:

BENSON (AP) -- Woodford County residents will get a chance next month to hear more about a proposed wind farm that would involve 80 gigantic turbines.

The wind farm would be located near Benson -- about 30 miles east of Peoria -- and produce about 160 megawatts of power. That electrical energy would most likely go to the Chicago area.

The Woodford County Board's finance and economic development committee is hosting an informational meeting on June 13 in Benson.

Benson Mayor Arthur Brooks said there are plenty of the village's 400 residents who are wary of the project -- some think the turbines ruin the landscape.

The project is a proposal of Minneapolis-based Navitas Energy.

Construction could begin next year, if the necessary permits are obtained.

The above emphasis is our own. Note that the power generated is to go to - guess? That's right, Chicago.

The photo is from Navitas' "farm" in southwest Minnesota. The towers there are about half as big as the ones proposed for Benson.

For photos of the site in Mendota (Paw Paw), Illinois see this excellent site. Again, the pictured towers are about half the size of those going in at Benson, due to local topographic differences.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

"Wind Farm" Generator Schematic

(click on the image to enlarge)

Woodford County "Wind Farms"

We mentioned a few months ago our ambivalence about these "wind farms" sprouting up all over the place. The Woodford County Board's finance and economic development committee is hosting an "informational meeting" (sales pitch) in Benson on June 13th.

We're not sure folks really understand what we're talking about here. These towers are supposed to be around 400 feet in height. Watterson Towers on the ISU campus in Normal is only 300 feet and can be seen for miles and miles. This "wind farm" is going to be the equivalent of EIGHTY Watterson Towers!

The developers talk about "landscaping" to minimize the visual impact. Can you imagine trying to landscape so you couldn't see Watterson Towers from a mile away? Fortunately, Watterson isn't spinning around.

Our intention is to get up there to the proposed site, take a few pictures, and then digitally superimpose the style of towers suggested at scale. We will publish those altered pictures here to give an indication of size relative to the landscape up there.