180522_SECEDE_G1

Anger over the pending closure of the Darien Elementary School is understandable, but talk of seceding from the Delavan-Darien School District is premature and potentially destructive.

Darien residents might be able to reopen their elementary school—and change district policies regarding its operation—while remaining in the district. The obvious first step is to pass a fall referendum, which could provide the money to reopen the school for the 2019-20 school year.

Meanwhile, the school board should consider abandoning its 2-year-old center school experiment, which is arguably counterproductive, despite its creators’ good intentions. Under this system, students attend schools based on their grade level not their geography. This means all of the district’s fourth- and fifth-graders attend Darien Elementary School, and some Darien residents don’t like the arrangement because their kids (unless they’re in fourth or fifth grade) are bused to Delavan.

The district also should explore remaking the Darien Elementary School into a charter school. Village of Darien Administrator Rebecca Houseman LeMire offered this alternative in a memo to village trustees, who are investigating whether and how to create a new school district. A charter school would give the Darien school some autonomy but would maintain the current district boundaries.

Secession talk threatens to become a major distraction ahead of any fall referendum, and district officials should strike a deal with Darien so the district can focus its energies on passing the referendum.

Incoming Superintendent Jill Sorbie has said one of her goals is to “re-image” the district, and she can begin by reassuring Darien over the future of its elementary school.

At the same time, Darien officials shouldn’t overestimate their leverage. The financial outlook for the Delavan-Darien School District looks bleak, but that doesn’t mean Darien would be better off leaving the district.

Many questions arise when considering the financial viability of Darien’s go-it-alone approach:

How many students would a district of only 2,000-or-so people draw?

Would it suffer enrollment losses as the Delavan-Darien School District currently does?

Most important, would a Darien School District have a large enough tax base to sustain a school?

School districts often merge to gain efficiencies, and a tiny Darien district would presumably lose efficiencies by having to duplicate administrative functions currently shared with Delavan. When one considers the numerous state mandates and tax-levy restrictions placed on school districts today, Darien would discover running a district is nothing like it was in 1904, when Darien established its first high school district. Darien joined what would become known as the Delavan-Darien School District in 1955.

To the extent Delavan is a financial drag on Darien or vice versa, we’re not sure. But Darien residents shouldn’t assume secession will solve their problems. They’d be wise to exhaust all other options before resorting to extreme measures.

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