The state of education in Knox County

Oft forgotten bureaucrat approaches retirement

By Mike Kroll

Last November Knox County voters elected four countywide officials, but one of the newly elected officials received a lot less attention than the others. "It really disappointed me to see all the recent news coverage of Knox County’s newly elected officials center on the County Clerk and County Treasurer while we also broke historical ground with the Regional Superintendent of Schools," commented Bob Johnson. As the current Regional Superintendent whose term ends this June Johnson is referring to Bonnie Harris’ victory over his current assistant Tim Halloran. Unlike the other elected officials Harris doesn’t actually take office until mid-summer.

"It seems to me that for something we nearly all agree is so important, the education of our children, we would pay more attention to this office," explained Johnson. "Do you know that this budget year Knox County provided our office only $40,000—the same amount of financial support the county provided at the start of my predecessor’s term? Supporting the educational needs of our children just hasn’t been as much of a priority as I believe it should be." According to Johnson many smaller counties contribute more to their regional superintendent’s office. "If it weren’t for our success in seeking grants we just couldn’t afford to offer most of the programs many take for granted."

The programs Johnson refers to include the Knox County Academy (KCA) that gives kids a second chance to complete school and the Project ADEPT truancy prevention program. While most programs comparable with the KCA simply prepare their students to take the GED test Johnson proudly points out that KCA students can earn real high school diplomas. To Johnson’s credit School District 205 thought so highly of his KCA that they discontinued their own alternative high school and now refer to the KCA.

Johnson has served two terms as Regional Superintendent and before that he was Ray Franson’s assistant from 1989-94. He first began teaching in 1963 and continued his education to become an educational administrator. Serving as a principal, assistant school superintendent and curriculum director for area school districts, Johnson has seen area education from a wide variety of viewpoints. He is proud of his eight years as Knox County Regional Superintendent and feels that it has been a most appropriate capstone to his four-decade long career in education.

Johnson takes an egalitarian view of public education and feels that public schools are too often unfairly criticized in society today. "Public education is the great equalizer. The public school takes any and all comers with the promise to educate and for the most part delivers. Despite popular opinion a public school education today is better than ever before and responsible for nine out of ten Americans education. More students are taking tougher classes and the number completing high school is the highest in this countries history."

This is not to say that Johnson is entirely pleased with the current state of affairs in public education. "My biggest regret is that over time we have lost local control of our schools. Between the state and Federal governments there are so many mandates and requirements that much of the important decision-making has been taken away from local school boards, administrators and teachers. There is a continual adding of new curriculum requirements even as the number of school days remains stable at an insufficient 180 days. Elsewhere in the world children attend 220-240 days of school per year and those schools are merely expected to provide an education. Illinois schools today are not only expected to teach children reading, writing math, science and social studies—we are also expected to insure that they are immunized, taught how to drive and how to shop!"

And Johnson laments the decreasing resources available to education. Not just days in school but dollars from state and Federal governments to fund the schools basic mission plus all the extra mandates. Another resource in short supply are qualified teachers. "The early retirement programs have been very successful in prompting experienced teachers and administrators to retire younger but in many cases there just aren’t enough incoming educators to take their place. And we need to reevaluate both our teacher education and certification programs. There is a need to emphasize the practical aspects of teaching rather than just theory. And, we need to expand the alternative certification options so that we can recruit more non-traditional teachers into the schools."

"One good example is that virtually none of the college education programs teach anything about classroom discipline or dealing with parents. The biggest discipline problems in schools today aren’t the kinds of things that get students suspended or expelled but rather the many relatively minor problems that steal valuable time and attention away from teaching in the classroom. In many respects it is much harder to be a teacher today than ever before."

"Today it is more important than ever to keep good teachers in the schools that need them the most. With the change of tenure rules a new teacher must complete four rather than just two successful years of teaching to be awarded tenure. This change is a big help to administrators because it affords them a better tool to evaluate teachers before granting tenure. Frankly, a good administrator should be able to determine whether or not someone is a good teacher within four years."

In Knox County, as in much of downstate Illinois, both declining enrollments and declining state financial aid for schools are putting great pressure on school districts large and small. But for the multitude of small districts the effects are especially problematic. Johnson points out that there are five school districts in Knox County: Abingdon, Galesburg, Knoxville, R.O.W.V.A. and Williamsfield. Four of these districts spend less per student that the state average of $7,926 with Abingdon and Knoxville more than 27 percent below the state average while Galesburg and R.O.W.V.A. are about 18 percent below. Only Williamsfield spends more per pupil than the state average at $8,706.

Another interesting statistic regarding school funding concerns the role of local property taxes. It is a common lament that there is too much reliance on property taxes for school funding. However, with the exception of Williamsfield, every other Knox County school district’s proportional funding through property taxes is lower than the state average of 54.4 percent of total school expenditures. When you turn to property tax rates, Abingdon (4.31) and R.O.W.V.A. (4.34) approximate the state average of 4.34 while both Galesburg (3.71) and Knoxville (3.65) are well below.

The declining enrollments in the Knox County school districts can be exemplified by last year’s state-mandated ACT results. Galesburg had 279 students in the class of 2002 take the test while Knoxville, Abingdon, R.O.W.V.A. and Williamsfield had 82, 54, 46 and 22 respectively. All of the local school districts are facing significant financial challenges at the same time that their enrollments are trending downward. This is why consolidation talks seem to be more common than not today.

"Say whatever you will about the good of our children, only financial desperation or state mandate will force most area districts to consolidate. There are many factors having absolutely nothing to do with education preventing realistic consolidation discussions from taking place today. Ironically, I am guessing that the changing demographics of the area will help speed this process along despite the political interests opposed to consolidation. As enrollments decline the proportion of older residents without any children in local schools is climbing rapidly. With most of these voters on fixed incomes they won’t be willing to pay more and more just to keep the local high school."

Similarly, Johnson sees as inevitable the further consolidation of Regional Superintendents territories. Already Knox County is an exception as most Regional Superintendents cover multiple counties. "I really don’t see elimination of the regional offices as cost effective but I am sure that financial limitations will cause consolidation. It wouldn’t be practical for the state board of education to take over most of the present regional duties and I see it as politically unlikely for them to be shifted back to local school districts. This is an office that is more important than most people realize and the challenges facing education only increase the value of a strong regional program."