OPRF 'phase-in' levy needs a more thorough explanation

John Rigas, One View

Opinion

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On behalf of the District 200 Board of Education and administration of Oak Park and River Forest High School, I must correct some misinformation contained in a piece published in the December 14 Wednesday Journal, concerning levies and the "phase-in" option of state law, particularly as related to the OPRF rate increase of 65 cents that voters approved in the 2002 referendum.

It was stated that in the first year of a phase-in, the district could increase the Education Fund by 10 cents, the Transportation Fund by 25 cents, and the Life Safety Fund by 25 cents, making a total of 60 cents.

In fact, OPRF did not, and legally cannot, structure a levy in this manner. As established by the Illinois General Assembly, the legal maximum rate for the Transportation Fund is 12 cents, and the Life Safety Fund maximum rate is 5 cents. Specifically, OPRF has never attempted to raise rates in the illegal fashion that example implies.

The article also implied that, by availing itself of the existing state law, Dist. 200 was engaged in deliberately duplicitous behavior. Nothing can be further from the truth in OPRF's case.

The phase-in situation for OPRF was created by two key events that had a profound impact on the 2001 tax year and levy amount. The first was an unexpected increase in EAV (Equalized Assessed Valuation) from new property in the same levy as the new Education Fund rate went into effect. As a result, when the district estimated the new levy amount after the referendum, the value of new property was seriously underestimated.

The cause for this underestimation was a very unusual event of a single large piece of new property with an EAV value far exceeding any value in recent history. This was the Oak Park Hospital Professional Building.

Typically, new property in Oak Park is in a TIF district, and the high school does not realize the value in the levy. When the actual EAV exceeded the estimated levy amount, as it did in this instance, this had the effect of reducing the tax rate for that tax year, ending up at $2.77 rather than the $2.95 maximum authorized by the 2002 referendum.

The second event affecting the phase-in was the triennial reassessment, which resulted in a significant increase in the EAV. This increase had the effect of further eroding the Education Fund rate of $2.77 down to $1.99 in 2002.

In fact, the largest influence on the phase-in for OPRF has been this impact of ever-increasing EAV in Oak Park. By its very nature, this erodes the overall tax rate and triggers the phase-in option in the law. For OPRF, the phase-in was triggered solely by the unpredictable consequence of tax cap law and these two unexpected events that were not within the high school's purview to control.

In addition, OPRF typically levies the non-education funds very close to the maximum rate allowed by law: 5 cents for Life Safety; 12 cents for Transportation; and 25 cents for Operations and Maintenance. We do so in order to keep those funds solvent. However, in advance of the 2002 referendum, the district needed to reduce the amount levied in a couple of funds in order to provide the maximum amount to the Education Fund for a short-term period.

This action, taken to maximize the return to the Education Fund, left the Transportation and Operation and Maintenance Funds severely underfunded by the 2002 year. Those funds needed to have their rate re-established in order to continue the transportation, operation, and maintenance functions of the district.

The district values deeply the support our citizens provide for the young people of our communities and wants them to have accurate explanations about the actions that must be taken to exercise prudent stewardship of the funds they provide. Such stewardship does not come easily under current Illinois education funding mechanisms.

Given the almost exclusive reliance on property tax to meet educational needs, Dist. 200 is grateful that it has a legal opportunity under provisions of current state law to realize the value of the 2002 referendum that voters approved. These funds will be used to extend the life of the 2002 referendum well into the next decade while meeting mounting unfunded state educational requirements and continuing to work toward our school community's number one goal of eliminating race as a predictor of academic achievement.

John Rigas is president of the District 200 Board of Education, Oak Park and River Forest High School.

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