The Oregon-Mount Morris Consolidation
Fifteen years ago, most people would not have guessed that Mount Morris and Oregon, two rival towns, would be united by a school consolidation. To most citizens, the school district seemed to be in fine condition. Mount Morris had winning teams, a beautiful campus, great school spirit, and a seemingly stable budget. So what happened? Mount Morris citizens, young and old, struggled with strong emotions and reality, fighting to keep the "Mounders" alive.
It all started about ten years ago, when the Mount Morris school district was defined by the state school board as financially troubled. It did not mean much; there were seven other schools that were in the same situation as Mount Morris. Superintendent Ed Olds said that the district was $530,000 in debt as of June 1988, and more losses were expected. This debt was caused from farmland reassessment, the homestead exemption, and the deletion of personal property tax on Mount Morris's biggest industry. Even though this debt was well known to the public, no one seemed to see the writing on the wall.
In 1989 officials started to be concerned about the school's predicament. The Mount Morris school board cut $108,000 from the budget, including the closing of the junior high. This, however, did not meet the state's requirements, which demanded that Mount Morris cut $597,000 in three years. To everyone's displeasure, the Mount Morris school board proposed a referendum to merge with Leaf River.
The merger failed hopelessly in Leaf River, and a new idea was proposed. With Ed Olds spearheading the proposal, Mount Morris, along with forty-five other schools, planned a lawsuit against the state of Illinois. In a nutshell, the lawsuit argued
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that the children in the poorer school districts would receive an inferior education to the wealthier ones. The lawsuit demanded compensation from the wealthy schools.
Illinois school board representative Patrick Toomey had a different idea. Toomey suggested that Mount Morris should either increase the taxes or reorganize the district. School board member Mary Francis summed it up well when she stated, "Do we ask the taxpayers to support the district for the short-term, or do we get on with it and speed up the inevitable?" Everyone seemed to agree, and voted to merge with Oregon. Oregon surely was not going to settle for this, and voted the merger down.
Although Mount Morris was not ready to give up the school district easily, the rewards were tempting. All certified staff would receive a $4,000-dollar bonus for three years. The state would also chip in enough money to equalize the deficits.
If Mount Morris decided to merge, it would be the largest district to take advantage of the state's new dissolution laws. Most legislators suggested merging with Oregon, because of its geographic closeness. It all made perfect sense. Both districts would benefit immensely. The only thing standing in the way was local pride and spirit.
Despite this, the Mount Morris school district voted to dissolve at the end of the 1992-1993 school year. Emotions flooded the school. It was best said by Chris Hough, a Mount Morris sophomore: "Do we just give up and complain because there's not enough money? Is that the kind of adults we should grow up to be? When the going gets tough we should just give up? I don't want to be like that, not now or ever, but it's hard to believe in something with my heart and soul. . . especially when the rest of the community has given up."
The Mount Morris "Mounders"' fate seemed to darken as time passed. The merger seemed like it would happen and hope faded. But the tide turned quickly when the state rejected Mount Morris school district's financial plan, designed to allow it to consolidate with the Oregon school district at the end of the school year. Mount Morris decided to send revised plans back to the state. The state approved them, and put the ball back into Oregon's court. Would Oregon decide to take the offer of a half million dollars, only half of the original plan?
What would become of the district? The merger was extended over time, and in September 1993, when Mount Morris was to be combined with Oregon, officials were still weighing the options. But there were no options. Mount Morris could not hold out any longer. It would be forced to close in February, if it did not receive any funding.
Students were wondering if they would have an extra-long Christmas break. State officials were against closing the school, and recommended that the state pay $1.3 million to merge Mount Morris with Oregon. Rather than paying the needed $730,000 to keep Mount Morris open until the Oregon lawsuit was settled, the money would be applied to the cost of the merger.
The financial problems were solved, and the only thing that was uncertain was everyone's emotions and pride. Would the students get along? Would there be any hard feelings? Only time would tell.
Five years later, things seem to be settled smoothly. As a student of the Mount Morris-Oregon combined school district, I do not feel like we were ever rival towns. We all cheer the same games, and Hawk pride is rooted by Mount Morris and Oregon students alike. I feel as if the merger is the best thing that could have happened to the two districts.
Last year, the first class of four years together graduated. It was best stated in a poem by one of the graduating seniors, Marni Heller:
Four years ago two towns became one,
[From Dixon Telegraph, Oct. 25, 1993; Mount Morris Times, Ap. 28, 1992, Mar. 29, 1993, Nov. 25, 1993; Rockford Register Star, May 5, 1992.]
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