So what’s the deal with all these school districts?

It’s hard to blame folks for being confused about which school district their kids should or do attend. Currently, the Oswego School District serves students who live in unincorporated Kendall, Kane, and Will counties, plus the municipalities of Oswego, Aurora, Montgomery, Yorkville, Plainfield, and Joliet. Most of the towns, of course, have their own school districts. So why do kids living in Joliet find themselves going to school in a school located inside Plainfield’s municipal limits that belongs to the Oswego School District?

For the answer, we need to go back to the 1930s, when it was decreed that high school districts should be formed to include every place in Illinois. Eventually, most–but not all–of those high school districts merged with elementary districts within their bounds to form unit school districts educating children from kindergarten through the senior year of high school. But for most districts, that was some decades in the future.

About 1929, Alex Harvey posed with the district’s only bus he drove to collect Oswego High School students in the rural areas served by the school. When the photo was snapped, his only passenger was his sister, Virginia. (Little White School Museum photo)

In this area, the educators and school boards of the 1930s knew it made a lot of fiscal sense to persuade as many farmers as possible to annex to their school districts. That’s because while a farm might cover hundreds of acres, generally there was just one family of children living on it. So property tax on farmland was a winner for the districts. Lots of revenue rolled in, but few students had to be educated.

It was the same with industrial and other commercial property, but back then there was relatively little of that in Kendall County outside Plano, which had been in industrial town since it’s inception as a stop on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

So school superintendents drove all over the countryside talking up the advantages of annexing to their school districts. In general, farmers picked a district to which their families had ties, either through shopping or where their relatives lived. That resulted in school districts large in area but, until the latter years of the 20th Century, quite small in enrollment, meaning school officials made pretty shrewd bets on protecting taxpayers.

But then enter the era of fast growth, and all that rich farmland was eyed by ambitious developers. The first of the major post-World War II developers was Don L. Dise, who, with a consortium of investors, bought the old Boulder Hill Stock Farm between Oswego and Montgomery owned by the Bereman family and turned it into one of the largest unincorporated subdivisions in Illinois. All those Baby Boomer kids living in new houses on what had previously been crop and pasture land were funneled into Oswego’s schools.

As growth accelerated through the end of the century and into the new 21st Century, those 60 year-old decisions to annex as much farmland as possible began looking more and more shortsighted. But to be fair to those long-ago officials, no one, even as late as the 1960s, ever expected the municipal boundaries of Plainfield and Aurora to touch, nor those of Plainfield and Oswego, or of Yorkville and Sugar Grove as they do today.

In fact, it’s still hard for many of us today to realize just how large our once-tiny farming communities have grown. At a school board meeting somewhere around 2000, Joel Murphy, then the Oswego School District’s business manager, suggested that when fully developed, an area requires about one elementary school per square mile. That means that the Oswego School District, with 68 square miles, can eventually expect to build and maintain more than 60 elementary schools along. Yorkville, with its 85 square miles, can eventually expect to have more than 80 elementary schools.

If only we could accurately predict the future, how much easier we could make life. However, all we can do is use the best evidence we have at the time decisions are to be made, and inform it with whatever wisdom we’ve been able to acquire over the years. Even then, many of the most momentous decisions must be approved by voters who often have little in-depth knowledge of what goes into making those decisions, and who can be easily swayed by those with their own personal axes to grind. It’s an often cumbersome and expensive system resulting in many expensive false starts as decisions have to be redone again and again as they are found to be faulty. And then done again as the lessons they should have taught are promptly forgotten. But it’s the system we have to work with, which is why it’s important to make absolutely sure the people we elect have the best interests of all at the forefront, not just the interests of themselves or this or that small pressure group.

Looking for more Kendall County history? Go to their web site to see my weekly Reflections column in the Ledger-Sentinel.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Montgomery, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

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