Sober support for District 97 tax hikes
Tuesday, March 21st, 2017 4:13 PM
With a clear recognition that the property tax burden in Oak Park has reached a level that is directly impacting the housing choices of villagers — spurring families who have aged out of the schools to consider leaving, and potentially impacting the ability of lower-income minority families to stay — we offer a sober but sincere endorsement of the twin referenda being put forward on April 4 by the District 97 Oak Park elementary schools.
Advocates for the increases point to two forces driving the need for an increase in the operations portion of the tax levy six years after voters approved the last hike. Enrollment in the 10 elementary and middle schools has risen a quite staggering 1,000 children (to a total of 6,055) in recent years. And the continuing meltdown of state government has already cost the district $9 million in Springfield funding with no earthly reason to feel optimistic about what comes next.
Those are compelling arguments for a voter-backed tax hike. To them we’d add two points for backing the operations referendum. Taxpayers in D97 have benefitted from a decidedly frugal and progressive school board over the past 15 years. While critics will point, with reason, to a misguided expenditure such as the half-million-dollar FastForward software expenditure, we’d say such misfires have been rare in this district. Instead, we see a school district that has spent wisely, implemented the most fiscally and educationally progressive faculty contract this town has seen and, when compared to the past obscene overtaxing which still rightly hounds the high school, has been a study in fiscal accountability.
Equally critical, Oak Park has ridden the excellence of these elementary schools, even with the raft of challenges our highly diverse student mix brings, to its current status as a highly sought after and wonderfully stable community. If the district is going to invest more in achieving educational equity — and the new superintendent is impressive on this critical issue — this is not the time to starve the district of funds.
When Wednesday Journal invited critics of these referenda in to make their case, there was not any clear, organized opposition to the added tax, just a suggestion that the vote be delayed a year through defeating the referendum to allow further financial review. Running the cash balance to break even, however, is no way to run a complex educational program in our opinion.
We also support the D97 facilities referendum though, like all involved, we’d have preferred a more clearly delineated building plan. Expansions at three schools to absorb the enrollment spike is broadly logical. Air conditioning and bringing each building to ADA compliance is worthy. But we’d have preferred more details. Approving this second referendum will not directly hike property taxes as the bonds approved will replace the expiring bonds used to pay for the middle schools a generation ago.
This is not an easy choice. We respect those who cannot bring themselves to vote yes. Tax capacity has been reached. Wider solutions are necessary. But right now they are nowhere in view.
Tuesday, March 28th, 2017 12:43 PM
By Business & Civic Council of Oak Park
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.