Just 11 students make up the entire 7th grade in Lake County's Rondout School District 72, where the lone school has but 161 students.
The cost to taxpayers: $23,449 per child, the highest of all elementary districts in Illinois, the most recent data show — and more than twice the state per-pupil average.
Joliet's one-school Union District 81 has even fewer students (111) and has spent more than $2,000 per child on administrative costs alone. The school board president's wife and children have been on the district payroll, in cafeteria, maintenance and bus driver jobs.
And in Cook County's one-school Lemont Township High School District 210, the superintendent was paid about $270,000 last year to oversee the 1,500-student school. That's more than the superintendent earned in Naperville, which has 22 elementary and high schools and nearly 18,000 students.
When it comes to one-school districts, Illinois leads the nation with 214 — almost a quarter of the state's school districts, federal and state data show.
That distinction doesn't come cheap. A Tribune analysis found taxpayers spent about $2,000 more per student on average to educate kids in one-school districts in the Chicago region, compared with multischool districts.
Downstate, taxpayers spent almost $600 more per student, on average, for children in one-school districts compared with multischool districts.
The higher costs could put these districts on the bubble as Gov. Pat Quinn and lawmakers consider mergers this legislative session. Quinn has proposed slashing districts by more than half to save $100 million in administrative salaries at a time of fiscal crisis.
"I'm not so sure we need so many" superintendents, Quinn said. "Some of these school superintendents are supervising one school."
Critics decry the one-school districts as a luxury taxpayers can no longer afford. But supporters note that local taxpayers cover most of school budgets, and should be permitted the benefits of a small district that provides one-on-one attention to students, even at higher costs.
The push for mergers is reigniting emotions over the hodgepodge of nearly 900 school districts.
"It just sounds absurd when you have over 200 school districts with single schools," said state Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, who filed legislation to abolish all districts other than Chicago Public Schools and to create one school district per county, as Florida has now.
Rita said he's trying to help constituents who have complained about high property taxes that he believes are fueled by "outrageous" superintendent salaries and duplicate administrators across districts.
"It is so inefficient," agreed Tom Johnson, president of Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois, who was chairman of a Taxpayer Action Board appointed by Quinn to identify ways to streamline government.
The group estimated savings of up to $120 million per year by consolidating small districts and separate elementary districts that send students to the same high school district, to "reduce the level of bureaucracy."
Statewide last year, taxpayers spent $1.1 billion on educators described by the Illinois State Board of Education as administrators — from superintendents to assistant superintendents, principals, deans and directors, the Tribune found.
In a broader category classified as "general administration," the Tribune found escalating costs as districts got smaller. Districts spent $451 per student on administration costs in 2008-09, the most recent data available. But that number jumped to $682 per student for one-school districts, and to $891 in the Chicago region's elementary districts with just one school.
Although they make up almost 25 percent of districts, one-school districts serve only about 6 percent of the state's students, the Tribune found, suggesting the small number of students could potentially be absorbed in other districts and some schools may no longer be needed.
There are 52 one-school districts in the Chicago region, including 29 in Cook County. Statewide, the majority of one-school districts serve elementary students only. The governor's staff envisions that all districts become unit districts, which serve K-12 students and often are more cost-efficient.
James Jandora, a Lemont resident, has for years been pushing the merger of one-school Lemont High School District 210 with now-financially ailing Lemont-Bromberek District 113A, which has four grade schools enrolling about 2,500 students.
Back in 2005, Jandora appealed to district administrators, saying: "You are hearing the voice of this community express their frustration with taxation, bureaucracy and the excuse that 'this is the way we've done things.' We believe the time has come … to find new ways to satisfy the insatiable appetite for revenue to meet the budget, even if it means the elimination of one of the school districts."
In 2011, the two Lemont districts remain, as does Jandora's frustration.
"We can't afford wasteful government spending," he told the Tribune. "We have two superintendents running five schools. And (the high school superintendent) has a principal and two assistant principals."
Locals doubt savings
Lemont 210 Supt. Sandra Doebert defended her salary, saying she "runs a business with 140 employees and 1,500 students."
"I guarantee you I am an extremely busy individual. … I firmly believe that I am earning every dollar that I am given," she said.
She studied merging with Lemont's grade school district but concluded her district could lose some federal money, among other concerns. Overall, she believes consolidation would cut costs by eliminating some superintendents, but that expenses could rise if more midlevel administrators were added.
"I'm saying you won't save $100 million," she said of Quinn's estimate. "He'll save some, but not what he is claiming."
Skepticism is echoed by other educators as well as some parents.
Even if there are savings, "is the money going to go back into the schools or somewhere else," asked Bernard Walker, who was picking up his children from the one-school Burnham District 154-5 on a recent afternoon.
The 179-student district's principal, Wendy Whited, earned $92,500 last year, serving as both an 8th-grade teacher and gym teacher. The district also has a part-time retired superintendent who last year earned about $44,000.
Whited loves her close-knit school but believes there could be benefits to mergers, including doing away with some big salaries. "We've got superintendents making more than the governor. … What is this nonsense?" she said.
Quinn earns $177,412 for running a state of 12.8 million. State data showed 230 superintendents earned more than that last year.
Academic researchers disagree on how much money can be saved if school districts merge.
A Michigan State University study in August concluded that significant savings can he achieved in consolidating some Michigan districts into countywide districts.
Last month, an Ohio University study came out strongly against consolidation, saying "state-level consolidation proposals appear to serve a public relations purpose in times of fiscal crisis, rather than substantive fiscal or educational purposes."
"I question the value of combining these districts and changing the culture in these communities," said Marc Kiehna, a regional superintendent in southern Illinois who also oversees a one-school district. "I don't (deny) some belt-tightening needs to happen, but we're talking about some radical changes."
'Bigger not always better'
In 161-student Rondout 72 in Lake County, test scores are high, there are no locks on the lockers and it's not uncommon for three generations to have attended the district that dates to the late 1800s.
In one classroom, students make the most of the ample space around them, lying flat on their stomachs, feet swaying, tapping pencils against their chins and scribbling in their workbooks on a soft royal blue rug.
The teacher, who sat practically an arm's length from the students, was close enough to hear one child whisper the answer to a question about fractions.
Supt. Jenny Wojcik, who knows the name of every child in her district, earned about $138,000 last year, and a full-time principal made about $100,800. In part to save money this year, she now serves as principal as well as superintendent, earning $146,161, and she hired an assistant principal, who makes $73,500.
Rondout parent Kim Sturonas praised her district for having a homey atmosphere that lavishes individual attention on students. She's skeptical of Quinn's proposals.
"Bigger is not always better," she said. "I think school reform is needed, but they need to do it thoughtfully, as part of a plan, not some knee-jerk political move."
Sturonas pointed out that her tax bills are kept down because industry in the area helps fund the school budget. In Rondout, local property owners pay 94 percent of the school budget.
In the hallway of Will County's Union 81, a blown-up photo on the wall looks like a class photo, but it actually features every child in the district. There are just six students in Carrie DeCaprio's 4th-grade class. She called it a dream experience.
"What more could you ask for," DeCaprio said.
"I'd like to keep it like this," said school board president John LaRocca.
All eight of his children attended the school, and at least five have worked there, including in part-time summer maintenance jobs. His wife and one daughter are on the payroll full time, which LaRocca said is not against district policy.
Because of the small number of students, he fears Union would be a target for consolidation. The kids would be absorbed into another district, and the school would be no more.
"I think they'd shut it down," LaRocca said.
Tribune reporters Ray Long and Joe Mahr contributed to this report.