By Ken Trainor
It's a red flag for journalists covering local elections: When 15 people line up to run for four seats on the local school board, something's up. So what's up with District 200 (aka OPRF High School)?
Well, their fund reserve for one thing. Many figures have been thrown around, but everyone seems to agree it's well over $100 million. That's one hell of a reserve.
OPRF must be the richest school district in the state — in stark contrast to our immediate neighbor to the west, Proviso Township, a once-proud district that, if memory serves, hasn't passed a rate-hike referendum since the Eisenhower administration, with test scores reflecting that stinginess.
OPRF, meanwhile, has passed two in the last 15 years, and their financial wizard, Cheryl Witham — whom other districts must be dying to steal — found a loophole that allowed the high school to legally access even more funds from the last referendum. Some disgruntled taxpayers consider this an extra tax hike.
The reserve, we're told, is a hedge against future referenda. It has become, in effect, their delaying-the-inevitable fund.
In spite of that, the district continues to levy as much as the law allows each year, or close to it, which really has hard-pressed taxpayers disgruntled. So it should be a lively election season.
I don't know how OPRF's reserve compares with New Trier, Hinsdale Central and Lyons Township, our main comparative/competitors. Maybe they don't need big reserves. They're all wealthy districts with little diversity and few low-income students to complicate educational efforts. Their relative homogeneity and their students' advantaged backgrounds are the main reasons for their boast-able test scores.
OPRF's population, meanwhile, covers a much wider socioeconomic spectrum, leading to a stubborn grade gap and uneven test scores. So we have a Cadillac school district that doesn't get Cadillac results. No wonder the natives are restless.
To get Cadillac results, of course, OPRF needs to do some Cadillac spending. But other than a pretty sweet teachers' contract and hefty salaries, the school is basically sitting on its reserve. Spending it down would bring the date of the next referendum closer, and they need to put that off long enough so taxpayers will forget how pissed off they were once upon a time about the big fat reserve.
That violates, some say, the spirit of the tax cap, the ceiling imposed in the early '90s to limit the amount school districts can levy (5% or the CPI, whichever is lower, which is always the CPI). The idea, supporters say, is to force them to go before the voters when they need an increase. Theoretically, it makes school districts more accountable.
I've never been a fan of the tax cap. Forcing school districts into a perpetual state of deficit spending, followed by hat-in-hand solicitation (combined with grave threats of cutting programs "to the bone") is not my idea of an efficient system.
Voters, first of all, are not necessarily the best school overseers. In addition to parents of school-age children, the districts are being judged by single adults, couples without children, people whose kids passed through the school system (or some other system) long ago, people who send their kids to private schools and may resent paying to educate "other people's kids," and those who think public education is nothing but socialism (which, of course, it is, but they assume all socialism is the work of the devil).
Not exactly an unbiased population, especially in the last 32 years when many Americans considered all tax increases unjustified and all government spending wasteful and excessive.
On the other hand, school districts do need to be held accountable in some fashion. OPRF in particular has always shown an unfortunate tendency to regard itself as a separate, sovereign nation and seems to consider the surrounding community as a necessary evil.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that OPRF — as the initials imply — comprises two communities with somewhat different needs. River Forest parents (and a certain percentage of Oak Park parents) mostly want to launch their gifted and talented offspring, who come from advantaged backgrounds.
OPRF is an elite school when it comes to preparing and launching advantaged kids. But the high school is not nearly so adept with kids whose backgrounds are more challenged, though they pay lip service to doing better on this front.
Which is why it bewilders me that the D200 school board hasn't joined District 97 elementary schools and the Village of Oak Park in funding the Collaboration for Early Childhood initiative. CEC is the group targeting at-risk kids, 0-5, to keep them from falling far behind right from the starting line. A wealth of evidence shows that this pro-active approach is a much more effective way to attack the achievement gap.
But that takes money, which as it happens OPRF has in abundance. And it's certainly in their best long-term interests. Most 4-year-olds in Oak Park and River Forest right now will enter this high school in 10 years — just about the time OPRF is considering its next referendum.
So why not use some of their big fat reserve to fund a promising effort that should show real results 10 years from now and which could make their educational task infinitely easier?
They've finally started talking about it (see page 8) but seem to be dragging their feet. Maybe they're waiting to see how the state pension crisis plays out. Or maybe they're waiting to see how the election goes.
Funding the Early Childhood initiative is one way to demonstrate accountability. A big reserve ultimately can be justified only if you spend some of it on worthwhile efforts that improve educational results for the entire school.
That benefits both communities — who happen to be paying for it.