By Terry Dean
After weeks of educating itself on the finances of Oak Park and River Forest High School, an ad hoc finance committee appointed by the District 200 school board turned Monday toward formulating actual recommendations on how the school might use its large cash reserve – currently pegged at $118 million.
With ideas ranging from paying down debt to continuing to abate a portion of tax revenues back to taxpayers, from paying for new student swimming pools to taking on the cost of pensions if the state legislature shifts those costs, the committee began preliminary assessments of its options.
A topic readily agreed to was the need to improve the district's communications to taxpayers about its financial decisions going forward.
The ad hoc District 200 Finance Advisory Committee is scheduled to forward its final recommendations to the school board in time for that body's December board meeting. The timing aligns with the need for the school board to set its property tax levy for next year.
On Monday the committee agreed that a school fund balance can be maintained for cash flow purposes, as well as to absorb potential impacts on a school budget, such as fluctuating enrollment and potential state mandates.
A potential state mandate likely to come down the road is shifting costs of staff pensions from the state to local districts, the committee noted at its Oct. 21 public meeting.
Committee members discussed whether to recommend a specific range for a proper fund balance but didn't get into what that could be Monday.
The committee discussed scenarios that could lower the current fund balance over time.
The reserves could be used to pay off debt and bonds the school has accumulated. It could go toward capital expenditures, though $5 million is already budgeted annually for such projects.
OPRF accumulated its large reserves through a 2002 referendum—the school hasn't sought a referendum since—and a 2005 "phase-in" of property tax money that wasn't attained from the '02 rate hike approval from voters.
Abating some of those property tax dollars, as the school board did in February to the tune of $2.4 million, is another option for the school board to consider as part of a plan to right-size the fund balance.
Aside from finances, improving communication from the school to community is a likely policy recommendation the D200 FAC will make. The committee Monday discussed the need to better communicate the school's finances to the public.
Maintaining an ad hoc finance committee, or even a "citizen's finance advisory committee," beyond December is an option for the school board, committee members said.
The school has some short-term and long-term financial responsibilities related to the fund balance, the committee noted.
A recommendation the board could include addressing the pools, which school officials maintain needs replacing sooner than later.
The pools, committee members noted, is a short term goal the reserves can fund now.
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