One top school official has a plan for reversing a big financial gap between two Quad-City area districts.
“If Geneseo would just give us half of their revenue, everything would be good,” said Andy Richmond, superintendent of the Carbon Cliff-Barstow School District.
He was kidding, of course.
But Richmond's District 36 and the neighboring Geneseo District 228 are so strikingly different, they are getting national attention.
A recent ranking of the 50 most economically segregated school district boundaries in the U.S. placed Carbon Cliff and Geneseo at number 10.
The Detroit/Grosse Pointe, Michigan, boundary ranked No. 1, according to the nonprofit EdBuild, which released the list in August.
The Carbon Cliff/Geneseo border was the only one from Illinois to make it into the top 10, and no districts in Iowa made the ranking.
"It caught my eye,” Richmond said. “To see Geneseo and our small district being two of the most marginalized of high- versus low-income — being in that combination — took us by surprise. If it’s going to be Illinois, it’s got to be some place in Chicago, right?”
To compile the list, EdBuild compared poverty rates, median property values and median household incomes between neighboring school districts. Here are some of the findings:
• Carbon Cliff-Barstow has a poverty rate of 45 percent while Geneseo has a poverty rate of 6 percent. The average rate across Illinois is 15 percent.
• The median property value in Carbon Cliff-Barstow is $96,300. In Geneseo, it is $147,000. The median for the state is $130,800.
• The median household income in Carbon Cliff-Barstow is $32,273. In Geneseo, it is $62,197. The median for the state is $57,000.
In fairness, Carbon Cliff and Geneseo do not supply an apples-to-apples comparison.
The Carbon Cliff-Barstow School District has only one school: Eagle Ridge, which is a K-8 school with about 300 students.
Then there's Geneseo.
At eight times the size of neighboring Carbon Cliff-Barstow, Geneseo has three elementary schools, one middle school and a high school with a combined enrollment of 2,500 children.
Geneseo is mostly white and has just a 4 percent minority population. Carbon Cliff has 10 times more minority students.
One would travel 15 miles to get from one town's center to the other. But the distance between them, financially, is more vast.
The reality is
Most of Geneseo’s 6,500 residents are concentrated in the main part of town, where U.S. 6 and Illinois 82 meet just off Interstate 80.
Geneseo also has housing additions scattered along Wolf Road toward Colona, and the school district pulls children from nearby Atkinson.
Carbon Cliff’s 2,100 residents are concentrated along Illinois 84 with pockets along Illinois 5. Unincorporated Barstow lies northeast of Carbon Cliff.
The school districts make contact along a sparsely populated sliver of the Rock River.
Scott Kuffel, who is in his 14th year as superintendent in Geneseo, said he is not surprised there is some disparity, given the overall difference in property values between the communities and the history of how they evolved.
But number 10? To put that in perspective, there are 13,500 school districts in the United States, according to census data. EdBuild states in its report that there are more than 33,500 school borders in the country.
“Certainly, the magnitude of being part of the top 10, I think that was a surprise,” Kuffel said. “If the gap had been 5 percent smaller, maybe you don’t make the list, but there are still disparities.”
Regardless of how wide the gap, the fact it exists came as no surprise to Richmond, who is in his ninth year as superintendent in Carbon Cliff-Barstow.
“There’s nothing I can do about this,” he said. “I could go out and lay on the ground, scream, holler and fret the property lines are not correct. That’s all I can do. I knew when I took this job this was our school. I knew what the boundary lines were. I knew what we were taking in.”
Eagle Ridge Principal Tim Green also considers school boundaries an “untouchable” issue.
“We do have a high poverty rate, and we accept that,” Green said. “It’s not anything we try to hide. But we embrace what we have. Every day, we come to work ready to embrace that challenge and do what’s right for the kids.”
Property values tell only part of the story. Green points to another statistic not included on the EdBuild list: At Eagle Ridge, 100 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals at school.
In Geneseo, 20 percent to 34 percent of students are eligible, depending on the school. It’s 20 percent at the high school and middle school. Among the elementary schools, Northside has the highest free- and reduced-price meal rate, at 34 percent. Southwest Elementary follows with 28 percent, and Millikin is lowest at 22 percent.
Kuffel wonders how the border of Carbon Cliff and Geneseo would have ranked prior to the 2008 recession.
“Because our demographics have shifted over the past decade, we do have more students in poverty,” he said. “More families since 2008 have fallen on some hard times. I guess I was a little surprised at the gap that still existed.”
But the area is no stranger to hard times.
Industrial plants used to dot the Mississippi River shoreline, and the population around the Carbon Cliff, Silvis and East Moline areas made up a large portion of the workforce. When many of the plants closed in the manufacturing downturn of the 1980s, the local economy struggled to rebound.
Margaret Pankey owns Carbon Cliff Bait and Tackle Inc. It is one of the few stores that make up Carbon Cliff’s tiny business district, a stretch of Illinois 84 that's just a few blocks long. Her husband used to work at International Harvester Farmall Works in Rock Island, although he left long before the plant closed.
For 53 years, the Pankeys built a business while raising children in a house next door to the shop.
“We started in just this little corner,” Margaret Pankey said, pointing to an area toward the front of the store. “And as we gradually got bigger, we kept adding on. We used to have our own bait, worms and minnows, and then we got wholesale bait.”
When her children were little, they would go to a nearby creek and pick out the bricks that had dates on them. Pankey said the bricks came from the old Argillo Works plant, which in the 1800s and early 1900s fired clay from the nearby bluffs in coal-heated kilns.
The town of Carbon Cliff got its name from the coal mining center that once dominated the bluff area to the west of what is now Illinois 84. The community developed as Argillo Works provided housing around the brick yard and railroad — now 1st, 2nd and 3rd streets — for its employees.
Fire destroyed the plant in the 1930s, and Argillo went out of business. A Casey’s General Store now occupies the site.
Lifelong resident Patti VanDeWoestyne and her four brothers attended Apollo Elementary School on 3rd Street. It was Carbon Cliff’s only grade school until Eagle Ridge was built in 2002. The Apollo building now is used as an alternative school.
VanDeWoestyne runs Cantrell’s Towing, which her father, Joseph “Hob” Cantrell, started as a body shop in 1959 after moving to the area from Alabama. He converted an old auction house and adjacent apartments on Illinois 84 for his business and raised his family just a few blocks away.
When she was a child, VanDeWoestyne thought of Carbon Cliff as a small town in the “boonies,” where kids caught crawdads in the creek with the worms they bought at Pankey’s place and all the men in town served at the local volunteer fire department and hosted dances.
“The fire department was a really big thing for us,” she said. “They did a lot of the social stuff, but that’s all gone.”
Job loss eventually hit her family, too. Her grandfather worked at Moline Malleable Iron Co. and one of her brothers worked at Case IH. Both lost their jobs to plant closures.
VanDeWoestyne is one of the few in her family who stuck around. She complained about not knowing her neighbors anymore.
“When I grew up, you would bring your family back here,” she said. “Not anymore. It’s not so family-oriented anymore. It’s not homey, not to me anymore. People don’t neighbor like they used to.”
Carbon Cliff has seen an influx of low-income housing developments in recent decades, something VanDeWoestyne said has hurt the town’s reputation.
“I think most people probably thought Carbon Cliff was a lower-class area,” she said. “But I never thought of it that way.”
Reflections on Carbon Cliff
Mansur Wood, a combination of rental townhouses, condos and single-family homes, was built atop the bluffs in the early 2000s on what used to be a Boy Scout camp.
Nakita Yankson pays $795 a month for her three-bedroom townhouse. The 30-year-old mother of three, whose son attends Eagle Ridge, moved to Mansur Wood two years ago for the extra bedroom, but she has no interest in staying in Carbon Cliff.
“I don’t like being out this far,” Yankson said. “I’m moving soon, hopefully out of the Quad-Cities. I’m ready for a change.”
Kay Lipscomb lived at Mansur Wood when she was 10 years old and attended Eagle Ridge. The 21-year-old now lives in Peoria, and returns frequently to visit her mother and to take her daughter to the same playground she enjoyed as a child.
The housing complex hasn't changed much since she lived there, she said, except for the color of the shutters. A basketball court was added, but unchanged are the field where the hose from a local fire truck sprayed children during the summertime and the hill behind the rental office that was used for sledding in winter.
“I remember always having friends and finding anything to play with,” Lipscomb said. “We’d find nothing and turn it into something. It was the perfect childhood.”
Lipscomb would consider moving back to Carbon Cliff.
“My whole entire family is here,” she said. “It was very quiet. We had no problems. I loved being here when I was a kid.”
And in Geneseo
School and community pride are on display nearly everywhere.
On lawn after lawn, “Green Machine” signs encourage the kids involved in high school athletics, especially football.
Dozens of century-old homes have been restored, and finely manicured lawns rest on giant boulevards, giving the town its slogan “Victorian Geneseo.” The walkable downtown, large for a town its size, is anchored by an operating movie theater with multiple restaurants and taverns as well as law offices and real-estate companies that line State Street.
“For a lot of families, when kids leave town to go to college, they come back to raise their families,” said Pat Rusk, a product of Geneseo schools and owner of Carl’s Barber Shop on East 1st Street.
A sign in her shop advertises “$10 haircuts, cash or check only” next to a “bragging rights board” displaying hunting and fishing photos from customers.
One of her customers, Rob Groene, a paramedic who grew up in Moline, referred to Geneseo as the “kind of place you don’t bother to lock your doors.”
Geneseo grew out of the farm fields of Henry County. It has been a choice of Deere & Co. and Rock Island Arsenal executives who want a rural alternative to the more densely populated metropolitan Quad-Cities, Kuffel said.
“That’s my understanding, historically, how the whole Wolf Road part of the community developed 30 or 40 years ago,” he said. “Couple that with fairly prosperous farm land. The agriculture community is fairly self-sufficient and self-supportive. It just tended to occupy a much smaller percentage of low income.”
Home values and median income in Geneseo have remained steady, even more so compared to the metro area, Kuffel said.
“Carbon Cliff, Silvis, East Moline, I think those communities have struggled more,” Kuffel said. “As the industrial jobs moved out of the area, along went that kind of living wage for the labor market. It’s not so much as Geneseo has risen as in those communities there’s been more of a downward shift.”
Kuffel characterized Geneseo as a “bedroom community and a farming community,” adding, “and we make guns here.”
Geneseo is home to Springfield Armory Inc., a nationally known firearm manufacturer and importer.
Impact on students
Clearly, not all school districts are created equal.
But in Illinois, regardless a community's financial status, per-pupil spending should be consistent across the board, educators and the state Constitution say.
Kuffel's Geneseo District generates the property-tax income needed to fund its local schools. That’s not the case in Carbon Cliff.
“Geneseo is a very well run school district, but they have the tax dollars — the property values — to bring in the income,” said Superintendent Richmond of Carbon Cliff-Barstow. “We, unfortunately, don’t have the business.
“We base our money (budget) on the local income tax in our communities. We have Walmart, Sonic and Aldi, but that’s also a big TIF (tax increment financing) area. Some of those businesses are getting tax credits, because it’s incentive for them to build in our area. But I’ll be gone before that money is ever seen and comes to fruition.”
For districts such as Carbon Cliff-Barstow, the state has to make up the difference.
Typically, Richmond said, 53 percent of funding comes from the state, 38 percent comes from local taxes and 9 percent comes from the federal government.
“We rely so much on the state,” he said.
So the state levels the playing field, right?
“If it’s fully funded, it should,” Kuffel said. “But it hasn’t been. It’s been prorated.”
Prorated funding can be more damaging to a district like Carbon Cliff-Barstow than it is to Geneseo.
“We have other means to generate the money locally, because we have higher property value,” Kuffel said. “So, for a lower tax rate, we can generate more local tax dollars than they can. We’re really proud that we have a fairly low tax rate. But some of that’s artificial because we have such high property values.”
This year was the first in several years that Carbon Cliff-Barstow has been able to bring its per-pupil instructional spending level up to 100 percent, which is $6,119, said Richmond, who praised the stopgap budget Gov. Bruce Rauner and lawmakers approved this summer. Instructional spending is included in the district's overall operational spending per pupil, which is $10,325.
“Rauner did us quite a bit of a favor,” he said. “That hasn’t been seen in seven years.”
Richmond said the state is looking at a funding formula to make it more equal across the board and narrow the funding disparity between districts.
Kuffel called the relief from Springfield a “stimulus” geared more to students in poverty.
“I don’t have a beef with that,” he said. “The first priority of dollars should go to where it’s most needed. You’d operate your home that way; not sure why you wouldn’t operate your school that way.”
Whatever formula lawmakers eventually come up with, Geneseo “won’t win,” Kuffel said.
“... we don’t have as many poor kids as, say, Carbon Cliff, Colona or Silvis. But the reality is our local constituency is going to have to make drastic cuts or generate more money at the local level.”
Historically, voters in both the Carbon Cliff and Geneseo areas have supported local tax increases for the benefit of schools.
The construction of Eagle Ridge was made possible when voters passed a referendum in the spring of 2000, recognizing the deteriorating conditions at both Apollo and Aldrin Junior High School in Barstow. Carbon Cliff and Barstow merged into one district in 1960.
Completed in December 2002, Eagle Ridge became the first new school to be built in Rock Island County in more than 20 years. It opened for the 2003-04 school year with about 250 students and 21 teachers who celebrated their first year with a time capsule.
Lipscomb, the former Eagle Ridge student who lives in Peoria, remembered the ceremony.
“Our generation was the first generation to go there,” she said. “They had just built the school, and we buried this time capsule for thousands of years later when they find it. I probably drew some stuff. I was big into Bratz. I probably put a Bratz doll in there.”
Getting behind education
The referendum in 2000 that made Eagle Ridge possible was “overwhelmingly” approved, Richmond said.
“I’m really proud of the support we received from this community,” he said. “And even though our income level per household may not be as high as Geneseo, they wanted to do it, anyway. They knew education was important for the kids, and they wanted the building that could provide them the environment to do that.”
About 10 years after Eagle Ridge was built for $7.6 million, taxpayers in the Geneseo district approved measures that helped fund $35 million in renovations throughout Geneseo schools, including a science addition at Millikin Elementary.
Sarah Boone, in her first year as Millikin’s principal, navigates the noisy construction zone to start her day.
On a recent morning, she was greeted as she exited the newly renovated administration area by a boy who was excited about having lost a tooth. Another student ran to hug her as she stood near an interior fountain that has been a prominent feature of the Geneseo school since it was built in 1967.
The principal then high-fived kindergartners in the hallway on her way to a meeting. She was stopped by a boy who lamented the death of his grandmother. She then ducked into the remodeled conference room for some “curriculum mapping” with fourth-grade teachers.
“Our community is strong in how it supports one another,” said Boone, who is a product of Geneseo schools and taught in the district before returning as principal. She also had a stint as principal in the Rockridge School District.
Millikin has 415 students that come from southeast Geneseo and Atkinson. The addition being built on the north side of the building will provide classrooms for fourth and fifth graders.
“This is the next generation in science standards, to be good thinkers and problem-solvers,” Boone said of the school's “hands on” curriculum.
While poverty levels differ dramatically between districts, educators say, all students have the same access to learning and technology.
“We have iPads in each kid’s hands,” Richmond said, adding the technology was made available to Eagle Ridge through federal Title One funds for students at or near poverty. “We’re able to secure some of those items bigger school districts might have an easier time getting through property tax dollars.”
In academic achievement, Geneseo is on par with or exceeds the state average in terms of meeting expectations, while Carbon Cliff-Barstow lags in areas, according to Illinois State Board of Education data.
All third through eighth graders enrolled in Illinois public schools take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests in the spring.
The state average showed that 29 percent of students met and 4 percent exceeded expectations; 28 percent approached, 24 percent partially met and 14 percent did not meet expectations.
In Geneseo, 30 percent met and 2 percent exceeded expectations; 34 percent approached, 24 percent partially met and 11 percent did not meet expectations.
In Carbon Cliff-Barstow, 11 percent met expectations and none exceeded expectations; 27 percent approached, 35 percent partially met and 27 percent did not meet expectations.
For the principal at Eagle Ridge, the lower achievement rates reflect community challenges, and that means his staff must work harder.
Green said he sees the result of those efforts at the end of the day.
“Whereas at more affluent school districts where students have more privileges, they don’t have to see their results on a regular basis like we do here,” he said. “When you’re working with a kid at Eagle Ridge, you’re going to see a change. You know you’re having a greater impact on a student.”