New village leaders must be true to schools: Onayemi

Opinion

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As property tax bills arrive, it should come as no surprise that homeowners and businesses in Oak Park are once again pitted against school children in a never-ending battle over tax revenue that provides the bulk of local school funding.

During my tenure as president of the District 97 school board, we strongly supported a village effort to begin a process to address the property tax capacity problem in Oak Park and find ways to expand the tax base. With the village board's assistance, we were headed in the right direction toward a goal of generating sustainable economic development and more local revenue for schools.

Today, however, I watch with growing alarm, as a new village board seems determined to unravel the progress we made with their predecessors and even take steps in the wrong direction. These are decisions that would have serious policy, legal and financial consequences for the village, its budget and local schools.

In other words, it would cost you and me plenty.

To put my concern in context, it is important to point out that in an environment of fiscal stress, the D97 school board embraces a philosophy to maintain and strengthen the quality of education and programs the community expects. My fellow board members and I appreciated the willingness of the previous village board to meet, listen and act on our shared interest.

Working with the village board, for example, we came to an agreement in which the village would help fund transportation services and the multicultural resource center, two key areas that help foster true diversity. The assistance was critical because D97 was faced with making budget cut decisions that would severely affect important education programs.

Perhaps our most significant achievement was the school board's support of an Intergovernmental Agreement on Extension of Downtown Oak Park TIF, a move that will provide more than $11 million in revenue for D97 and D200 between 2005 and 2009.

The agreement was a win/win: it preserved economic development advantages of the downtown Oak Park TIF district and matched revenues that would flow to schools if the TIF ended as scheduled in 2006.

Those policy decisions represented real progress and created momentum that would begin expanding tax capacity in Oak Park.

Now, several months after taking office, some village trustees have voted as a block to renege on the village's commitments to Whiteco and appear to be considering a reversal of village policy. I am not alone in this observation. The Business and Civic Council of Oak Park issued a statement recently that said breaking the Whiteco agreement would be "a terrible mistake."

I agree with the BCC when it said trying to find a way to weasel out of the Whiteco agreement "would have a lasting negative effect on our ability to draw new investment to Oak Park." Trying to break the Whiteco agreement or even making life as difficult as possible for Whiteco would be, as the BCC put it, "a recipe guaranteed to elicit a lawsuit from Whiteco ?#34; at great cost to the village and its taxpayers ?#34; and scare off other potential investors in our community."

Punishing a developer is no way to expand the tax base and improve schools in Oak Park. It is a big step backward on many levels, not the least of which is missing the revenue Whiteco would generate to fund as many as six teaching positions in D97.

Here is a better, more productive agenda for village board members who not long ago embarrassed themselves and the community during a tantrum-filled study session meeting involving Whiteco: work with schools and other taxing bodies to address the tax capacity problem, encourage sensitive development, and keep your commitments with those who want to do business in Oak Park.

Adekunle Onayemi
Oak Park

Editor's note: Onayemi is the past president of the District 97 public elementary school board.

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