What's up with District 200?

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

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.

They shouldn't.

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.

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

Reader Comments

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Science rules!  

Posted: February 26th, 2013 12:48 PM

Saying the research is "mixed" is no different than saying evolution or climate change isn't real. All the science supports early childhood interventions unless you're purposefully attempting to be cynical. You have to look at cognitive, social, early literacy, the whole range. Science requires debate, yes, but few scientists would take the idea seriously early childhood education doesn't boost later success. College tends to get you more salary. Smoking tends to cause cancer.

drmr from Oak Park  

Posted: February 26th, 2013 12:37 PM

For those skeptics of the CEC claims,check this site:This report and other reports sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation are available at http://www.acf. hhs.gov/programs/opre .

drmr from Oak Park  

Posted: February 26th, 2013 12:33 PM

THIRD GRADE FOLLOW - UP TO THE HEAD START IMPACT STUDY FINAL REPORT OPRE Report 2012 - 45 October 2012 Michael Puma, Chesapeake Research Associates, Stephen Bell, Abt Associates, Ronna Cook, Ronna Cook Associates, Camilla Heid, Pam Broene, and Frank Jenkin s, Westat , Andrew Mashburn, Portland State University, and Jason Downer, University of Virginia Submitted to: Jennifer Brooks, Project Officer Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation Administration for Children and Families U.S. Departme

drmr from Oak Park  

Posted: February 26th, 2013 12:05 PM

The CEC quotes studies purporting to show benefits of early education lasting through high school and beyond.In fact,the research on this subject is mixed,at best,and against intervention in the most respected studies.They say any gains from Head Start and similar programs disappear by third grade.Before we ask District 200 to increase their contribution %1,000,shouldn't we be sure the program is really effective?Don't throw tax money from district 200 for programs outside their legal mandate.

Independent Voter from Oak Park  

Posted: February 25th, 2013 10:08 AM

How many underperforming students at OPRFHS lived in Oak Park during the pre-school years? Where (if at all) did those students attend preschool?


Posted: February 4th, 2013 8:02 PM

@Tlt. If the financial projections were once on the Collaboration's website but have been taken down, that is really troubling. Thank you for directing me there; I believe your attempt to be transparent was sincere. If there is so much support for this project, can someone who is involved in it please tell the rest of us how much money you are asking the local taxing bodies to provide?


Posted: February 4th, 2013 6:45 PM

I personally don't care whether someone running for the Board has kids in the schools. My wife and I won't be voting for you, Mr. Perkovich, but it is strictly on the content of your ideas. That shouldn't prevent you from being in the race.

David Perkovich from Oak Park  

Posted: February 4th, 2013 5:44 PM

(Continued from my previous comment.) It would seem to me that the parents of current students are more biased ?" benign, positive, caring, and involved; certainly: but undeniably biased. A voice from the "others" should be welcome. If not, perhaps only the parents of current students should pay school taxes. What is that 200 year old phrase? Ah yes, "taxation without representation."

David Perkovich from Oak Park  

Posted: February 4th, 2013 5:43 PM

I am a current candidate for the D200 board. As a gay man who has lived in Oak Park for 35 years and who believes in the social contract in which education is supported by taxpayers I was appalled, I was insulted, by the 12th paragraph of Mr. Trainor's above article. He implies that only parents of matriculating OPRFHS students can understand the issues that come before the school board and anyone else is "biased". How insulting and small minded. (Continued in my next comment)

Thinking longterm  

Posted: February 4th, 2013 8:34 AM

Sorry, Arrogance, it was there last night as a pdf. As for taxpayers, keep in mind that the slate for spring elections has "Expand Early Childhood Collaborative by encouraging support from all local taxing bodies" as one of their platform viewpoints & there are multiple candidates in the D-200 election who support this. That doesn't mean I don't think financials should be transparent...they should...but I think you underestimate the amount of support there is for this in the community already.


Posted: February 3rd, 2013 9:12 PM

@Tlt. The document that you are referencing is not under the stratetic plan header on the website. The page 14 you are referencing does not appear to have been made public. So the budget is still "a big secret" to the public. You also suggest most taxpayers don't need convincing. That is arrogance.

Thinking longterm  

Posted: February 3rd, 2013 7:57 PM

They're a nonprofit so different rules may apply for what they must disclose. Given how much ROI dollars put in before Kindergarten give you compared to later in their academic careers, it actually makes more sense to me to spend more money on EE than later in primary or secondary per student. But that's a whole other topic. Really the trend has been an increase in funding across the nation. You'd have a pretty hard time convincing people this ISN'T a good use of taxpayer money.


Posted: February 3rd, 2013 5:26 PM

@Tlt. Admittedly, I'm quite ignorant on this matter. I do have kids and have worked in education, but before committing millions (and where are the financials for this group?), I'd like to know where something like this has been tried and what the results were? I'm unaware of any silver bullets on this matter, but I also acknowledge that this IS a serious societal problem. Why should OP & RF taxpayers think that this is definitely a wise use of our money - esp in this economy?

Thinking longterm  

Posted: February 3rd, 2013 5:13 PM

Actually, there's quite a bit of debate about Head Start results. Neither here nor there. FWIW, I think that's the idea behind bringing in all the taxing bodies is to not make it such a big burden in one budget. The problem with a trial basis is how do you decide which kids deserve the limited resources while turning away the rest?


Posted: February 3rd, 2013 4:45 PM

@Tlt. Kind of what I thought/read. Thanks. Next? Instead of taxpayers committing millions, why not just first try this on a limited and trial basis locally? I know that Head Start at first is great - but in the end those kids perform relatively the same as the placebo/control group. "Education" is full of "no brainer" proposals like "New Math" that sound great, but end up not having the desired outcome. OP is a community ripe for this - both good and bad. 2011/12 ECI fin'l statements are where?

Thinking longterm  

Posted: February 3rd, 2013 3:07 PM

Unfortunately, I'd direct you to the National Institute for Early Education Research. They have a lot of funding and policy papers on their website. To save you the trouble though, I'd summarize that funding is sometimes targeted, sometimes universal by age, sometimes comes from states, sometimes counties, sometimes cities...They have a whole "outcomes" section that goes state by state, global, whatever you like. It's really a no brainer when you see all the research.


Posted: February 3rd, 2013 2:41 PM

Like "Arrogance" - I couldn't find much of anything at the website - I finally concluded that it wasn't much more than a nice and pretty marketing/PR pamphlet. Per the post by "Thinking longterm," I went back and found this: http://www.collab4kids.org/index.php/resources/strategic_plan - but I'm still scratching my head about this program/expense. Question? Can you please point me in the direction of other school districts doing something similar and what sort of results/outcomes have they had?

Thinking longterm  

Posted: February 3rd, 2013 2:11 PM

It's in the Strategic Plan. Page 14 there's a full breakdown called "Required resources and potential funding sources." It lists the staff hiring and where they would like to direct money. It includes a breakdown of Next Steps and even the benchmark of $135 per child under 5 as making "a well-coordinated, effective system of early care and education in Oak Park."


Posted: February 3rd, 2013 1:26 PM

Longterm, the Collaboration website does not display answers to my questions. Please provide a direct link to the budget or other area where the funding requests are detailed.

OPRF Achievement  

Posted: January 31st, 2013 6:41 AM

Well, after reading through the 21 comments on the page I did not see one that offered a reason why d200 has built up the surplus. Only the last one came close in talking about salaries. It is not salaries they are worried about, no it is pensions. The same scheme the democrats in Springfield will not allow to be fixed. It's the unknown tax, kind of like our property taxes. As to the collaborative, yes d200 should participate. But, they should not toss in money but rather Leadership.


Posted: January 30th, 2013 11:45 PM

Allow me to quote, "OPRH is an elite school when it comes to preparing and launching advantaged kids." & they pay "lip service" to helping kids whose backgronds have challenges. Lip service means just what it say - words with no action. Since OPRF has so little interest in anything other than the top students in its own institution, why would we exptect them to care about other students. That big fat reserve is there to pay big fat salaries in the future - not to improve education.


Posted: January 30th, 2013 7:22 PM

I don't think that we'll have a shortage of "It's for the children" ideas regarding the OPRF surplus, but one fin'l "concern" from the Board that I've frequently questioned is their survey that projected that OPRF would have an enrollment increase of 25% in the near future. I just finished the Sunday Trib report on "Fewer children" and it showed a 2.4% DECLINE in Oak Park's 0-9-age population!?! Therefore, BEFORE more "special interests" covet that surplus - it should be lessened/returned ASAP!

Thinking longterm  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 5:26 PM

@Arrogance it's not like it's a big secret. All the details are on the website. http://www.collab4kids.org/index.php

Total arrogance from Oak Park  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 5:05 PM

I also object greatly to the lack of detail being provided about this preschool's annual budget when fully up and running, how it will work, where it will be, whom it will serve, what it will teach, how many it will employ, who will run it, etc. The only message being put forth is that "studies show" it will be good for disadvantaged kids. The promoters say so, so it must be, and we must pay whatever it costs, which they won't exactly tell us.

Thinking longterm  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 2:53 PM

It is my understanding that several elected officials support this collaborative idea and several (5?) candidates for the school board endorse it. I think we need to have a discussion about it as a community but it gets my full support.

Mr. Middle  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 2:33 PM

@ Long. Voters have decided in the past about school board members for a HS not early-education. D97 has the responsibility to deliver ready kids to D200. Hold D97 responsible for that. Voters should decide on who is doing the best job for the board they represent. Your argument allows for anyone to decide that anything can be related. We as voters should expect that the HS Boards members we elect are proper stewards for the HS taxes we pay.

Thinking longterm  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 2:22 PM

The way the Village slacks on road repairs, the school district may have take over! lol Your argument doesn't quite work IMO b/c early education is fairly co-related to high school. It isn't like the school should pay for sewer work. We're talking relevant subjects. A school board has a general duty to education even if specific to a grade level or school. In the end though it is the voters who will decide.

Mr. Middle  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 2:13 PM

@ Long. I am not talking about ample funding that comes from wherever I wish. I am talking about boards being responsible for what they are elected to do. Should the HS pay for more cops? How about fixing the streets? G works in a way where there are groups responsible for certain things and that is it. That is why I believe you are wrong. Also, when someone brings up "the kids" argument that usually means they are out of justifications. BTW, I am for D 97 expanding preschool for at risk.

Thinking longterm  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 1:47 PM

Not wrong about how G works, Middle. Just don't subscribe to the same theory as you. ;-) We'll have to agree to disagree. Though note that I'm not the one arguing against ample community funding for children. lol That's always a bad side of a disagreement to be on.

Mr. Middle  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 1:30 PM

@ Long. Well you would then be wrong about how G works. School boards are not responsible for Police yet security in the area would have an impact on overall education. Your answers slips and slides to fit your "want." Boards are directly responsible to the tax payers which elect them to do a specific job. The HS's job is not to improve "the area" it is to run a great school. BTW...great schools are what you/family make of them. Every school in OPRF is pretty special given most standards.

Thinking longterm  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 12:32 PM

Since you asked...IMO the determining factor for what makes a good school board member is the person who will do their best to improve the overall quality of education in the community. Not a focus on finance, or their own little sub-area of education, or the achievement gap. It's a bigger picture, wider-involvement thing.

Mr. Middle  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 12:18 PM

@ Long. Then what are the determining factors in choosing a school board or any other board member? Should the mosquito abatement board pay for this too? The purpose for different boards is for them to focus on their responsibility and collect the appropriate taxes to do so. Or we risk allowing boards to overreach and do whatever they please beyond their mission. Imagine where that would go; especially with a huge reserve and an avoidance of any taxpayer referendum.

Thinking longterm  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 11:52 AM

@Middle There should probably be multiple funding sources across all the taxing bodies from the township to village to schools to even the park district. @Tom I'm not opposed to using school money for other community purposes though. I'd be fine with a community-shared pool, too. ;-)

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 11:31 AM

Longterm- you could extrapolate that argument to justify any use of Dist.200's money on anything. It is not in its mission statement to educate anyone other than its students. That should be its focus.

Mr. Middle  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 11:31 AM

@Long Term. What is not linked then? If everything is linked then why do we have 12 different taxing authorities with 12 different boards? Why not just one central G that controls all? The HS should focus on its quality of teaching and offerings and direct funds to that. It seems to me that these funds are best coming from the OP Township and district 97. The HS should not be part of this.

Thinking longterm  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 10:52 AM

@Tom What you're missing is that kids who fail at the HS level become more likely to drop out, less likely to find a job, more likely to commit crimes, and more likely to burden the state. And if the HS has a mission to turn out successful graduates, then it MUST collaborate with levels below it to prepare kids for a tougher curriculum. It's all linked.

Thinking longterm  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 10:48 AM

@Tom It's not economics per se. Studies correlate future academic success with a variety of indicators, but one big way to prepare students is preschool. Especially exposure to language skills, books, etc. There is a high correlation between future reading skills and the vocab of adults surrounding toddlers. That's not just throwing money at it...that needs community intervention in early education.

Mr. Middle  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 10:28 AM

@Ken. Even though you are an opinion writer maybe 5 minutes of prep time would help in your argument. Or point to a problem. New Trier has a budget of $96M with reserves of $68M or 9 months operation. It educates 4200 students. OPRF has a budget of $77M with $112M of reserves or 17.5 months to educate 3200 students. OPRF pays $1200 more per student roughly. However, do not let facts get in the way of your argument.

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 10:28 AM

Long term - while I can't claim to be an expert on this, I am pretty sure that studies show that the biggest cause of the achievement gap is economics. Based on your argument, shouldn't district 200 just give money to all the low income families in OP and RF? In the end, the education of toddlers is not the mission nor the obligation of a high school. If this is a beneficial program for the citizens of OP, then those citizens should pay for it.

Mr. Middle  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 10:06 AM

I noticed a parent and a student with a flat tire this AM at Chicago and Lake. Seems like they where headed to OPRF but got a flat probably from a pothole. I am sure this will have an affect on that student's achievement. I call for OPRF to repave all streets leading to schools to prevent this from happening as a way to pay down the reserve. Give me a break. OPRF should pay for the things inside its campus that make it a better HS.

Thinking longterm  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 10:04 AM

If RF taxpayers pay to educate OP toddlers (a higher risk group), then RF taxpayers stand --longterm--to benefit from less money needed to deal with problems that arise later in life from those children...in both education & socially. Don't be so shortsighted, Tom.

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 9:26 AM

How exactly do River Forest taxpayers benefit from a program that will pay to educate Oak Park toddlers? Why not have RF subsidize Dist. 97 too? And those OP Parks need some work. Why not have RF kick in to that fund too? The issue of fairness is blithely ignored in this op ed.

OPRF Achievement Gap  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 6:53 AM

This piece was terrible piece of .... It is filled with conjecture and "I don't knows" If you are going to say OPRF needs to spend more - be specific, to do what, why and how results need to be monitored and measured. Otherwise please spare the cheap piece of hatchet journalism. You have absolutely ZERO facts. Or I forgot, this is the Wednesday Opinion Journal

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