By Terry Dean
A woman who is a candidate for the Oak Park and River Forest High School board in April's election accused Oak Park's elementary school district on Dec. 20 of funneling tax dollars to other Illinois school districts to fight anti-tax lawsuits filed in those jurisdictions.
During the District 200 tax levy hearing on Dec. 20, River Forest resident Barbara Langer spoke for more than 20 minutes, voicing her opposition to OPRF's proposed levy increase and attacking the school's large cash reserves.
Then, out of nowhere, she turned to the subject of District 97 and her allegation that the district is helping fight other districts' legal battles. "There have been taxpayer-initiated lawsuits in Wilmette and in Riverside and in other places," Langer said.
"District 97, which is the grade school district in Oak Park, has been using taxpayer dollars from Oak Park to help fund the lawsuits, the defenses, for those other school districts all over Illinois."
Officials at District 97, however, said Langer's charge is false and are unaware why she made it.
Langer was referring to the various lawsuits filed last spring by Taxpayer United of America and its supporters against District 97 and other government agencies that ran referendums in April 2011.
She mentioned the group's website while making the allegation. District 97 was among the taxing bodies understating the impact of its tax hike in the actual question that appeared on the ballot.
Nine other taxing bodies, including Wilmette School District 39 and Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208, did the same thing. All of those taxing bodies used Chicago law firm Chapman and Cutler to help draft their ballot questions.
The various questions did not factor in the state equalizer — as advised by the law firm — in calculating the exact impact on property owners. The state law governing how tax hike referendum questions should be written has since been revised, stating explicitly to use the equalizer.
Taxpayers United, a nonprofit group based in Chicago, filed suits against those tax bodies, accusing them of knowingly misleading voters. Additional plaintiffs in some of those cases included residents of those towns.
Many of those suits, including against District 97, have been dismissed by the courts. Wednesday Journal contacted District 97 the day after the District 200 tax levy hearing concerning Langer's accusation.
In an email response, Superintendent Albert Roberts he did not know what was said at the meeting. Roberts said District 97, like all other school districts, has a regular budget line for legal costs.
"We have been very careful to keep our promises to the citizens of Oak Park. Referendum dollars have and will continue to be used for the purposes stated during the [April 2011] campaign, and we are documenting our commitment to the taxpayers," Roberts said.
District 97 reportedly has spent more than $50,000 to fight the lawsuit filed by Taxpayers United. Earlier this month, the group asked for and received a dismissal of its appeal filed with the appellate court in that suit.
Speaking to Wednesday Journal on Dec. 28, District 97 school board President Peter Baber said the district has not spent money defending lawsuits in other districts. He's also not sure why Langer would mention District 97 at a District 200 meeting.
"I'm not sure where she got this from," Barber said. "As a district we strive to be transparent. If people have questions for us please ask and get the information from us instead of speaking at another meeting and giving out erroneous information."
District 97, meanwhile, approved its own 3-percent tax levy increase — a net of roughly $1.4 million more than the previous year — on Dec. 18, without much controversy compared to the high school. No one from the public showed up to speak at the scheduled hearing that evening.