BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw talks about Illinois’ school administration costs in his bi-weekly column for Crain’s Chicago Business.

While the protracted battle grinds on in Springfield over the fairest funding formula for Chicago and other Illinois school districts, our good government colleagues at the Metropolitan Planning Council are calmly contributing some important research to the contentious conversation.

MPC recently took a deep dive into the wonky world of administrative districts that oversee individual schools, and their findings—based on 2014 data, the most recent available—confirms our worst fears about the insidious impact of bureaucratic bloat:

  • Illinois’ 850 school districts—only two states have more—collectively spend more than $1 billion a year, most in the country by far.
  • That’s $518 per student—two-and-a-half times the national average of $210.
  • By comparison, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin spend less than $400 per pupil, California and Florida less than $100.

That’s a lot of numbers, but before your eyes glaze over here’s why it matters:

The Illinois School Funding Reform Commission recently estimated the state would have to spend $3.5 billion over the next decade to achieve fair per-pupil funding for schools in every district.

Incredibly, Illinois could easily meet the commission’s goal without scrounging for another penny if district administrative spending was even close to the national average because that would free up at least $400 million a year for classrooms instead of offices.

That’s a big deal.

So why is Illinois so administratively top heavy? Indulge me in a few more numbers to explain:

  • 220 of the state’s 850 districts, or 26 percent, have just one school, and those districts cost 67 percent more to operate than multiple-school districts.
  • Also, districts comprised of only elementary or high schools spend about a third more on administration than unit districts that include both.
  • The state’s largest unit district, Chicago, is barely afloat but full of bloat, according to the MPC study, spending $350 per student on general administration in 2014.

That’s below the statewide average but almost 70 percent above the national norm and nearly four times more than New York City and Los Angeles, where administrative spending is less than $100 per pupil.

CPS claims major bureaucratic cuts since 2014 but officials haven’t produced compelling evidence to back up their assertions.

Meanwhile, here’s my takeaway from the overall MPC analysis:

Those reforms would save big bucks, but they’d have to be handled carefully to avoid massive layoffs or impairment of educational services.

Streamlining may also require legislation to resolve union contract disparities and pacify consolidation foes.

Under normal circumstances those obstacles would be surmountable, but this is Illinois, a multi-billion dollar fiscal fiasco and an arguably ungovernable state where lawmakers can’t pass a budget, pay overdue bills or resolve a deepening pension crisis.

Still, it’s the job of watchdogs and good government groups to keep analyzing problems and proposing solutions.

That’s why MPC conducted its study and BGA hosted an “Idea Forum” on March 30 to shed light on the complicated issue of school funding.

We’re doing our jobs, and that includes equipping educators and elected officials with enough valuable information to eventually do theirs.