Six years ago, the Business and Civic Council of Oak Park urged voters to reject a school District 97 referendum asking for $45 million in additional property tax revenue through 2018. We acknowledged that school performance was instrumental to the quality of life in Oak Park and a magnet for families moving here.
We also warned that ever-higher property tax bills were rendering Oak Park increasingly unaffordable for families with school-age children and risking its enviable progress in racial and economic diversity. D97 is the biggest consumer of property taxes paid by village residents and commercial interests.
The referendum question passed, and since then, families with school-age children have hardly been deterred. Average daily attendance in Oak Park’s elementary and middle schools has swelled by more than 10 percent, to a projected 5,700 this year. Fall enrollment surpassed 6,000 for the first time in 40 years.
Another referendum looms.
On April 4, voters will consider a property tax extension providing an additional $13.3 million per year and, separately, whether to authorize issuance of up to $57.5 million in capital infrastructure bonds. Together, they would effectively increase a $10,000 property tax bill by $740 — double the impact forecast in the 2011 referendum.
This time, the Business and Civic Council supports passage of both referendum questions. There simply isn’t an alternative. The district warns that rejection threatens a 20 percent reduction in teaching staff, a 25 percent increase in class size and other draconian measures.
D97 has suffered (as all districts have) from a state budget stalemate it says cost it $9 million. All-day kindergarten has added pupils and more costs.
The school board itself is not blameless. It has repeatedly approved budgets with significant deficits and severely compromised financial flexibility by spending down the operating fund balance, from $36 million two years ago to a projected $7.1 million deficit in two years, despite brakes on per-pupil expenditure growth.
Going forward, the community needs a board committed to balancing its budget and living within its means.
The 2011 referendum was sold, in part, as a bridge to 2018, when bonds issued in 1999 for construction of middle schools and renovation of elementary schools would expire, extinguishing their debt payments and offsetting the added tax burden of the operating referendum.
Instead, enrollment-driven expansion also is advanced as a rationale, along with facility upgrades, for the new capital referendum. Barring passage, the district forecasts cancellation of new classrooms planned for Holmes and other radical fixes, such as temporary classrooms on playgrounds or segregating grades by schools.
But before setting out on an expensive expansion of select schools, the board should consider redrawing attendance boundaries. If done in a thoughtful way, it can be accomplished with minimal disruption and meaningful savings, we believe.
A 2013 study by an outside consultant concluded that only Longfellow and Beye schools would exceed capacity by 2018.
Meanwhile, escalating taxes, besides imperiling diversity and home ownership, threaten commercial development, just as new rental towers downtown bring sorely needed diversification to the village’s tax base. Our concerns haven’t changed since 2011.
Our “yes” vote recommendation this time around reflects another concern: the current framework of school funding in Illinois, which ranks last among the 50 states in support of public education. Placing the burden on property taxes to fund schools leads to appalling inequities and isn’t sustainable.
Until that’s solved, property taxpayers are on the hook.
Members of the Business and Civic Council are Frank Pellegrini, president; Marty Noll, treasurer; Willis Johnson; Tom Gallagher; John Hedges; and Greg Melnyk.