Doubling down at D97

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We've known for some time that District 97, the Oak Park public elementary schools, would be coming to voters in April with a tax hike proposal. What wasn't clear until last week is that the spring ballot would include two tax hike referenda from the district.

But on Dec. 20 the school board agreed to go for both an operating tax increase which would fund ongoing operations of the schools as well as a request to issue new bonds to pay for facility improvements and expansions.

That could make Election Day a very costly one for Oak Park taxpayers, already burdened with steep property tax obligations. 

Illinois' property tax caps were well designed to bring our schools back to taxpayers on a fairly regular basis — every six to eight years — to seek permission to raise taxes. If the money is well spent and the outcomes are solid, there is no shame in a school district making that request. 

The bond proposal will be sold to voters as having no impact on their tax payments as the new bonds would replace the bonds issued two decades ago to build the twin middle schools and now scheduled to be paid off. Of course, taxes could actually decline if no new bonds were issued or approved by voters.

Notably, the district argues that both tax hikes are necessary because of the 24 percent spike in school enrollment over the past 10 years. More kids equals more teachers and more necessary space.

That said, voters will require a lucid and transparent argument if the school district has any hope of making this sale.

Reader Comments

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Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: January 8th, 2017 3:47 PM

The slide presentation Ben wants everyone to look at is not unlike a slide presentation a salesman prepares to get a sale. Its self serving. The big increase in school population is only because the school made a decision to add more kindergarten classes. No one asked if each and every household in Oak Park was up for spending at least an extra $5600 over the next decade to fund that, they just did it and now its a crisis if they don't get extra funding. This is an easy NO vote, as the numbers shown are not at all convincing.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: January 8th, 2017 3:06 PM

Nick: this is where the proverbial rubber meets the road: approx. $56 per $1000 in property taxes - the least expensive estimate in property tax increase if the D97 referendum passes. When you cut through all of Ben Conley's "good" reasons - and like you imply the apologists for our taxing bodies ALWAYS have GOOD reasons for wanting more money - many people just can not afford this. And as you also imply there will be other increases as well - from our other "silo" taxing bodies. D200 is not finished with their nonsensical pool project. That I can assure you. And the Village has already stated it must increase its fair share to shore up the failing police and fire pensions. Those are a given. Then down the road there is our Park District making noise about a $40 million rec. center. The remedy is bitter but necessary: just say NO.

Nick A Binotti  

Posted: January 8th, 2017 12:30 PM

Ben, unfortunately the state doesn't view D97 as Oliver Twist, but rather Oliver Trask, the rich kid from the Fox's series "The OC". I prefer to view D97 more as Oliver from the Brady Bunch, welcome in the Brady household as long as his parents keep sending along those checks. Oliver references aside, I'm merely offering a view outside the silo'ed world our govt bodies exist in. I'm sure D97's request is thoughtful, but it does not exist in a vacuum. What might resolve our problems is our elected officials, who also happen to be on the teacher union's payroll, lobbied for more funds from the state, therby helping all parties. What won't help is the resurrection the oft-mocked memes like the Simpsons' Helen Lovejoy exclaiming, "Won't someone please think of the children" or the "children as shields" defense. While those may play well with the jet-setting Karen Lewis types, those outside the silos are starting to see right through them.

Ben Conley  

Posted: January 7th, 2017 9:05 PM

@Nick - Oliver, the one you're villainizing, was a poor, needy, deserving orphan boy. The thing he wanted more of was slimy mush, for survival. So in keeping with your analogy, would that make those voting "NO" on the D97 referendum Fagin? That's harsh, man. But it isn't my analogy. @Tom. Seriously? I'll post this for the fourth time. Please. Click. The. Link. "The schools function and life goes on.." Okay...if you're comfortable with D97 assuming massive debt ($30MM by 2022) and passing that obligation on to the next generation. Ironic that this was Illinois's mentality to pension funding, which led to the our current $111 billion pension deficit. "We can pay the bills today, so why worry about the deficits of tomorrow?" See slides 18 and 27 for the facts.. "Property taxes have tripled over the last 20 years". See slides 19 and 23 for the facts on why property taxes haven't kept up with inflation plus unexpected enrollment increases. "So the 24% enrollment increase has already happened?" Yes. Glad we're finally in agreement on this point. Baby steps. "New apartment buildings, which are going to be full of a lot of 20 somethings with no kids." Sounds like fun party. See you there on the weekends. I have no slides for factual support here, but I can only imagine you and I will be like Will Ferrell hitting up the fraternity parties in Old School.

Nick A Binotti  

Posted: January 7th, 2017 8:12 PM

The timing here is interesting. Word has it down in Springfield that powers-that-be are finally close to a budget deal that will raise the state income tax 1%. Per the US Census, that's $800/yr for the average OP taxpayer (your results may vary). Worse yet, that's not nearly enough for all the hands in the state's pot, let alone to stop the leaking septic tank that is our pension system. So D97, considered wealthy by the state, will probably get no funding increase from the state ever after the tax hike. So fresh off a significant tax hike, OP working families are going to be presented with Oliver asking for more, and while the ask here may seem innocuous unto itself, taken as a whole, it may not be perceived as such. Ben, I believe you questioned why the children might suffer for sins of the past. I hereby present you the State of Illinois: the land where taxpayers might be through with the past, but the past surely ain't through with us.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: January 6th, 2017 5:29 PM

@Ben - interesting stats you share. So the 24% increase in enrollment has already happened. That means, every day, the schools function and life goes on with the increase already in the totals. It also means the new schools we built were always able to accommodate more students and they are doing that just fine. I don't think we are on the cusp of some huge net population spike from a handful of new apartment buildings, which are going to be full of a lot of 20 somethings with no kids. There will be some kids in the mix, but using this as a justification is weak and all those apartments pay taxes too. Property taxes overall have tripled over the last 20 years and the schools get those increases, so its not like they don't already get more money every year to work with as time passes. No need for even more going their way.

Michael Nevins  

Posted: January 6th, 2017 3:56 AM

Yes, enrollment has increased the past 10 years (although still much less than during the baby boom) and one of the major reasons is because D97 has introduced both all-day kdg and pre-k. This does not account for the full increase, but the many necessary additional classrooms for all-day kdg and pre-k is a major reason for the space constraints. D97 also intends to add PK3 & PK4. This will obviously further constrict spaces and increase costs: (page 29).

Ben Conley  

Posted: January 5th, 2017 7:58 PM

So.... on the issue of enrollment increases there seem to be two arguments emerging. On the one hand, D97 has published actual average daily attendance statistics over the last ten years, down to the student. Average daily attendance in 2007 was 4,502. Average daily attendance in 2016 was 5,582. That's a 24% increase. See slide 20, here: On the other hand, you have an argument that enrollment hasn't increased in the last ten years, supported by a citation to 2010 census data. I feel obligated to point out a few things here. (A) the last seven years of population growth wouldn't be captured by that 2010 data, (B) overall population trend doesn't capture age demographics, and (C) the person arguing that population hasn't increased and that D97 is lying argued today, in the same thread, at 8:47am, that population has increased due to new apartments. One of these arguments is clearly mythical.....

Tom MacMillan  

Posted: January 5th, 2017 6:23 PM

@Ben - what everyone should do is google "population of Oak Park IL" so you can see what the US census says. It shows a flat line of 52000 citizens from 1990 to now. This mythical 24% increase in students while the entire towns population remains constant is a bunch of BS made up by a school board who wants money so they can have (even) more staff and pay increases.

Ben Conley from Oak Park  

Posted: January 5th, 2017 1:25 PM

The Tier 1 Pensions are a bit of a straw man/red herring here, aren't they? In other words, those guarantees are almost entirely outside of the realm of control of D97 and are protected by the Illinois Constitution. (In fact, Illinois attempted to cut back some of these guarantees a few years ago and the state Supreme Court struck down that law). D97's only direct impact is salary and late-career salary spikes, which have a flow-through implication on the overall level of benefits received. As noted in my prior comment, and as discussed in the D97 presentation linked below, the district has begun to address those concerns through recent bargaining concessions. So, while voting down the referendum might certainly feel satisfying, those obligations remain (and are in many ways amplified) as a result of that vote. @Barbara, taking my comments out of context makes for a good sound bite, but I was clearly referring to pension guarantees made years ago. Applying your response to that context, you seem to be suggesting that 6-13 year olds should be penalized (you note an emphatic "YES" on that point) to atone for pension guarantees made in the 80s and 90s before they were born, before many of their parents were born, and before any of the present board began serving. I may be misinterpreting your comments (and if so, feel free to clarify), but that's the only conclusion I can reach based on your failure to explain how a "no" vote addresses historic pension liabilities. ....or maybe you were just taking my parenthetical out of context. Again, I strongly encourage voters to review the D97's detailed proposal, available here: Fair game to understand the proposal and still disagree. But throwing out non-sequiturs in support of a no vote is disingenuous.

Nick A Binotti  

Posted: January 5th, 2017 12:39 PM

@Ben - While it certainly won't be the district's intent to resurrect pension spiking, there is nothing preventing the union from putting it back on the bargaining table and getting that limited spike window opened again or an increase in a different benefit in exchange for it. So that cost may indeed carry on in the district, merely concealed in a different form. And while there may be a shift away from pensions in the future, it will only be for new hires and savings are decades from realization. IMO, that 403b benefit should only be offered to Tier 2 teachers as their pensions (and overall compensation) are inferior to their Tier 1 counterparts. My CTU analogy was only to provide context into what can be a union's selective interpretation of contractual agreements. A taxpayer's sunset is the public sector unions' new sunrise. And students today are already paying from actions a decade ago and beyond. Furthermore, those same short-sighted decisions lead to the penalizing of new teachers called Tier 2 benefits. Trust me, we're all paying...even the children.

Barbara Joan  

Posted: January 5th, 2017 11:49 AM

(sins of the past do not justify penalizing current students)....YES it does! Tough love--time for a real budget through Op-RF across all boards!

Ben Conley from Oak Park  

Posted: January 5th, 2017 10:07 AM

@Tom - Have you looked at the detailed materials prepared by the Board explaining why the referendum is necessary? You cite the article's vague reference to improvements and enhancements, but if you look at the planned use of expenditures, they'll go toward facility expansion to cover the 24% enrollment increase, improved accessibility for students with disabilities, adding air conditioning (desperately needed, based on my understanding), repairing roofs, and upgrading fire/sprinkler systems and electrical. I guess we can quibble over whether roofs accessibility for students with disabilities are "stuff we don't really need," but the stated intent for these funds do not match your inflammatory rhetoric. Your second point assumes that D97 is misleading (or worse, lying) regarding the need for funds to cover enrollment costs. Can you cite to any sources to support your position? D97 has (the PPT linked in my prior comment includes extensive data analytics). Perhaps RSM McGladrey and the various other cited sources are in on the ruse, but in the absence of any evidence other than vague, conspiratorial allegations, I find that conclusion far-fetched. @Nick - your comments seem to suggest D97 negotiated pension concessions in the current bargaining session but intends to add back pension spiking in the next contract. I guess anything's possible, but based on your pension and teacher contract research, I'm sure you'd agree that's a very remote possibility and completely inconsistent with the trend of union pensions over the last 30 years. The most recent contract demonstrates a clear shift toward individual 403(b) accounts and away from pensions. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, it seems like a very unlikely scenario that this shift would be reversed in a subsequent CBA. I don't see much relevance in your analogies to the CTU (not the union at issue here) or actions from a decade ago (sins of the past do not justify penalizing current students).

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: January 5th, 2017 8:47 AM

Two points are troubling. One is the idea we need to raise taxes for " improvements and expansions". That is a choice to spend more on stuff we don;t really have to have and have been successfully living without. The second questionable issue is saying this is needed because of a supposed 24% increase in school population. All the extra apartments and condos are also adding extra tax money to the schools coffers, so the extra people also come with extra tax dollars already. This is just a tax grab attempt by the school and it needs to be stopped with a NO vote.

Nick A Binotti  

Posted: January 4th, 2017 10:28 PM

Ben - To be clear, the new rules for pension spiking are only for the current contract. Those "sunset" terms say you had to give your notice of retirement by 2/28/16 (2 years into a 4 year contract) and that you had to retire by end of school year 2019-2020 to qualify for the automatic 6% yearly raises. There is nothing preventing this unethical practice from being brought back to the bargaining table with the 2018 contract. It's important to stay on top of this as it was only last decade when D97 was handing out 20% raises in the final 2 years of employment. Taxpayers state-wide are still paying that bill. And let's not forget the 7% "pension pick-up" that CPS and CTU were fighting over last year. CTU screamed bloody murder that it couldn't be taken away and was a entitlement to exist in perpetuity even though each CPS contract the union signed stated "This pension pick-up will not constitute a continuing element of compensation or benefit beyond the end of current contract." One thing I've learned in my pension and teacher contract research is that the unions are very selective in what is considered permanent and what is not.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: January 4th, 2017 10:16 PM

Shouldn't all of us (The Posters) boycott Wednesday Journal Editorial's when WJ editorials do not identify the name of the writer. Several years ago, Dan Haley (Publisher and Editor) forced all posters to provide their names. If you did not provide, you could not write or post. Haley regularly prints editorial without identifying the writer. That's not fair! I definitely I will not read editorials or any other articles that do identify the writer. Join Me.

Ben Conley from Oak Park  

Posted: January 4th, 2017 9:32 PM

@Tom - As noted in the article, Illinois' property tax caps were designed such that schools are expected to come to taxpayers for funding periodically. That, combined with the unexpected surge in enrollment suggests the current referendum is in no way out of the ordinary and, in fact, is exactly what you would expect a fiscally prudent board to do. As to the article's call for a lucid, transparent argument for the referendum, I'd strongly encourage voters to review the detailed proposal prepared by D97, publicly available at (I'd also encourage the WJ to edit it's article to link to this presentation rather than calling D97 to make an argument for the referendum while disregarding the fact that the Board has clearly put extensive efforts into doing just that.) Among other things, the study: (1) specifically addresses the question of whether D97 has operated in a fiscally responsible manner through several examples, audit findings and and recognitions, (2) addresses the question of whether the new admin building was a fiscally prudent investment, (3) details concessions won in the most recent teacher CBA, including modifications intended to address the oft-repeated complaint of late-career salary bumps to boost pension payouts, (4) emphasizes that this referendum is in no way connected to the D200 pool referendum (this is a totally different entity), and (5) demonstrates that D97's operating expenditures are very middle-of-the-road, when compared to peer school districts. I understand it's incredibly easy and satisfying to drop a comment slamming high taxes and alleging bureaucratic mismanagement. But it's a bit disingenuous and not in keeping with prudent citizenship to do so without providing any factual basis for those arguments.

Jennifer Malloy Quinlan  

Posted: January 4th, 2017 8:43 PM

The village is building all these high rises. Where will those kids attend school? Where will all the additional property taxes go?

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: January 4th, 2017 8:37 PM

Lets get new district leadership. Replace all of the people who don't understand that their job is to get things done with what they are given, not ask for more.

Larry Skiver  

Posted: January 4th, 2017 6:43 PM

NOOOOOOOIOO!!!!!!! To tax increases

Jeff Schroeder from Oak Park  

Posted: January 4th, 2017 5:16 PM

At the time the two new middle schools opened, all eight K-6 schools became K-5. That meant an entire grade of building capacity. Maybe the schools need to re-think how they are using all that extra capacity that was created back at that time.

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