Anyone who’s lived in Bloomington-Normal has probably wondered the same thing: Why are there two different school districts here, and why is one donut-holed inside the other?
The answer, of course, is complicated. Today’s Unit 5 and District 87 school districts are the product of over 160 years of organic and planned community growth, whose separate fates were sealed two decades ago by voters in a highly emotional referendum.
“This is the only situation in the state where two unit districts are nestled one inside the other,” said Lynne Haeffele, director of Illinois State University’s Center for the Study of Education Policy. “It’s been an interesting outlier for many, many years.”
District 87 is the older sibling—by a lot. It was formed in 1857 was one of the first school districts in Illinois. It even hired Abraham Lincoln to do some legal work.
Unit 5 came along in 1948, as the state moved away from one-room schoolhouses and rural schools and pushed unit districts. Voters created Unit 5, in part, because District 87 declined to add all of the schools in the surrounding area, such as Carlock, Hudson, and Towanda, said former Unit 5 school board member Doug Reeves.
“They declined because they would’ve had to provide busing, and they didn’t provide busing. So Unit 5 was created as the donut around the District 87 hole in the middle.”
At that time, urban schools like District 87’s had more prestige and better funding than more rural ones like Unit 5, said Alan Lessoff, a history professor at ISU who has studied school consolidation. And for years, the two districts squabbled in court about land annexation and the property-tax dollars that came with it.
But by the 1970s, changes to state law had decoupled municipal annexation from the extension of school boundaries, meaning a city and its local school district were no longer automatically joined at the hip. Unit 5 was then able to “tie up and prevent the growth of District 87 just by dragging it out in the courts,” Lessoff said.
That’s when the dynamic started to change.
“Unit 5 replicates kind of a suburban-type school district, with middle-class subdivisions on the periphery of the city, leaving behind the central-city schools, which are no longer identified as dynamic but identified as stagnant and troubled and all the things people look at in that era when they’re looking at inner-city schools,” Lessoff said.
As Bloomington sprawls to the east and southwest, its school district doesn’t. Fewer Bloomington residents have a stake in District 87, which includes many lower-income parts of the city.
“In terms of giving the whole city a stake in how well the city is doing, this separation of municipal boundaries from the school boundaries has had just a really enervating effect on politics in the city of Bloomington,” Lessoff said.
This separation of municipal politics from education politics has become a big, long-term problem for Bloomington, Lessoff said.
“It’s really important … to make different parts of the city feel that they have a common enterprise. Whereas the sociocultural dynamics of the current situation means that outlying subdivisions, they can get most of what they want done without paying too much attention in the more troubled parts of the area, without really thinking about what really is the economic health of this whole area.”
Merger Talks Begin
It wasn’t long before a merger of Unit 5 and District 87 was considered.
The Pantagraph proposed one in 1964, although neither district supported the idea then. The McLean County Regional Planning Commission studied the issue in 1972, Lessoff said. While they didn’t recommend full consolidation, it did suggest a land swap between the districts that would’ve restored the link between city politics and education politics. But it didn’t happen.
Fast-forward to 1995. Unit 5’s territory had grown to around 200 square miles, adding 1,100 students in the past five years. District 87 was still landlocked with 10 miles of tax base, adding only 27 students. Nearly one-third of District 87 students were from low-income families, and there were concerns the diversity and socioeconomic gap between the districts would only grow if left unaddressed.
“District 87 had more of the low-income students and the students that needed the most help and needed the special attention and special education, and those type of services,” said Bill Mueller, a former District 87 school board member. “So the impetus was that District 87’s tax base was basically capped, and all this other growth was going on around it for which it was getting no benefit, and that having a single district would help solve that problem.”
A “Committee of 10” successfully placed the merger question on the March 19, 1996, ballot for voters to decide. Preceding the vote there were months of community forums and pages and pages of letters to the editor in The Pantagraph.
“So the ‘need’ that seemed to permeate the community was that the merger was more or less in lieu of an upcoming and possible crisis or rescue of District 87,” Mueller said.
Mueller supported the merger, as did most District 87 leaders. More so than dire predictions about District 87’s future, he thought a merged district would simply provide a better education to students, with better programs and more efficiency. There was talk that consolidation might open the door for career academies focusing on agriculture, industrial technology, or business.
“We had silly situations where kids in Unit 5 lived within a few blocks, probably a 5-minute walk, from a District 87 school, but they’d be bused miles to a Unit 5 school,” said Mueller, a Committee of 10 member. “It made no sense at all.”
Unit 5 leaders were opposed.
One reason was financial. District 87 teachers generally made more than Unit 5’s—that’s still true today—and if the two districts merged it was likely they’d need to make the higher amount. The state was willing to offset some of that cost, however, by offering a $4,000-per-staff member incentive for the first three years post-merger.
“We could understand combined efficiencies and what cost-savings there might be,” said Reeves, then the Unit 5 board president. “But we also saw we were going to be incurring some large costs for those homeowners and property owners in Unit 5 by having to increase salaries and update some of the District 87 schools, since they were older than ours. We had a lower tax rate than District 87. All those things concerned us.”
Alan Chapman was principal at Normal Community High School in 1996.
“I was convinced at the time that in order to really make a rational decision on a potential merger, we’d need to answer two questions: Can we educate students better with a merged district? Can we do it more economically? And the information we had at the time did not answer those two questions to my satisfaction,” said Chapman, who later became Unit 5’s superintendent.
Ostensibly, the 1996 referendum was about dollars and cents and educational quality.
But there were emotional threads that pulled at voters—perhaps even more strongly than charts and graphs and logical arguments about EAV or per-pupil spending.
Some Unit 5 voters felt slighted that District 87 didn’t want them back in 1948 during the big school district reshuffling, said Reeves, who lives in Towanda.
“It was everything from, ‘District 87 didn’t want us when I was a schoolboy out in the country’ to ‘I was burned because I used to live in Unit 5 but I had to transfer to District 87 because they annexed where I lived,’” said Reeves.
Mueller saw that too.
“The feeling was that District 87 had rejected them then, so ‘it’s our turn to reject you,’” said Mueller. “It was ironic to me that the situation 50 years ago, people were dredging it up, what they perceived to be a slight.”
Others saw something darker. Mike Matejka thought it had a lot to do with race.
“I got a lot of people mad at me when I said that,” said Matejka, a local union leader and historian and former Bloomington City Council member.
District 87 student body was more diverse than Unit 5’s. Although the pro-merger Committee of 10 recommended that no student be required to change schools, there was an undercurrent of concern that Matejka traced back to race.
“And if you go back and look at the letters to the editor that came around that referendum, there were a lot of references to busing, like ‘I don’t want my kids bused to Bloomington schools,’” said Matejka, a local founder of Not In Our Town.
Anti-merger voters did not care for that characterization.
“I’m getting a little tired of people implying that everyone against the merger of Unit 5 and District 87 is some sort of self-serving, narrow-minded bigot who doesn’t care about children. That is just not the case. That’s baloney,” Steve Peterson said during a WJBC Forum a few months before the vote.
“‘How dare you say that.’ I remember one guy telling me, ‘You need to apologize to every small town around here because they’re not racist,’” Matejka recalled. “When you say racism people take it as an individual thing and not looking at systemic racism. And to me this was a thing of systemic racism.”
Ultimately, voters rejected the merger by a 2-to-1 margin. Even though 69% of District 87 voters supported the idea, 74% of Unit 5 voters did not. It was dead.
Small Appetite For Mergers
Today, Illinois has 852 separate school districts, including Unit 5 and District 87.
There haven’t been many mergers in recent years; the last consolidation in McLean County was El Paso-Gridley (2004). Illinois has lost only 10 districts in the past seven years, said Lynne Haeffele from ISU’s Center for the Study of Education Policy. She was a top education aide to former Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and worked on the Classrooms First Commission that in 2012 studied the pros and cons of consolidation.
One barrier, their study found, was teacher pay. If the state wanted to merge separate elementary and high school districts into “unit” (P-12) districts—down to a maximum of 300 districts—it would cost at least $3 billion (in 2012 dollars), primarily because of salary equalization incentives, Haeffele said.
“It’s not as simple as two corporations merging and now you get rid of half of the administrative staff because you're just one running one company instead of two,” Haeffele said. “You're still going to have the same number of students to serve. You're still going to need as many teachers as you have now.”
Sure, you might save a superintendent’s salary, but larger school districts might require additional assistant superintendents to make things run smoothly.
“If bigger was always better, then our biggest school districts would always be financially sound, and their kids would be knocking it out of the park. Guess what? We know that's not true,” Haeffele said.
Illinois school districts on average serve around 2,300 students each. That’s well below the national average of 3,600 students, said Adam Schuster, director of budget and tax research at the conservative think tank Illinois Policy. That group wants to make it easier for voters to initiate consolidation efforts.
“We simply have way too many school districts and it's costing our state money, and frankly, it's siphoning dollars away from the classroom,” said Schuster.
If Unit 5 and District 87 merged tomorrow, the combined district would have nearly 19,000 students. That’s big for Illinois.
“When you look around the state at those large unit districts that are over 15,000 students, there are not great examples of those that are just doing phenomenal jobs,” said Barry Reilly, superintendent of District 87, which has around 5,300 students. “They're facing challenges, whether you look at Rockford, Elgin, Springfield, Chicago Public Schools, Peoria—all of these districts face significant challenges.
“20,000-plus students—those are challenging places to get things done,” he said.
There is no current effort underway to try again to merge Unit 5 and District 87. One of the last times it came up was in 2006, when a report from Unit 5’s Citizens Advisory Council said a merger was not needed but “the topic should be periodically evaluated.”
“If this is something the community would want, we’d definitely have to take a serious look at it. But it’s definitely not something that we are actively seeking out or discussing at all,” said District 87 School Board President Brigette Beasley.
The dynamic between Unit 5 and District 87 is different today than it was in 1996. Now, it’s Unit 5 facing serious financial challenges, including a $12 million structural budget deficit that’s prompting speculation that a referendum lay ahead. District 87’s deficit is a more modest $2 million, and that’s likely to fall as the year goes on.
Back in 1996, the experts said District 87’s outlook was bleak without a merger, that it would be able to limp along but would ultimately fail to serve its students adequately.
“The reality is, that didn’t come to pass,” Reilly said. “We went through some challenging times, and we went through some deficit-reduction. But it didn’t occur."
And Unit 5 got more diverse, even without absorbing District 87’s students. One-third of Unit 5 students are now nonwhite, and 32% come from low-income families.
If the vote was held again today, would Unit 5 voters still reject it?
“There’s kind of this thinking that the vote might actually be flipped if you were to hold it today,” said Mark Jontry, regional superintendent of schools covering McLean, Logan, Livingston, and DeWitt counties. “And I think that a lot of that has to do with financial position relative to the two districts right now.”
Twenty-three years later, Bill Mueller, the former District 87 board member who supported the merger, said he thinks Bloomington-Normal would have a stronger school system had the referendum passed.
“And I'm not saying that the school districts are bad here now, but they could have been better,” he said. “And I think that anybody who looks back at the history of this will scratch their head and say, ‘This makes no sense. How did this happen?’”
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