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By Terry Dean
District 97 plans to ask voters to support a $75 million working cash bond sale referendum in April 2011.
That will amount to an increase of $61 for every $1,000 paid in property taxes. Taxpayers, though, won't see that increase until their tax bills arrive in the fall of 2012. The District 97 Board of Education agreed on the $75 million bond sale at their Tuesday board meeting and presented that recommendation to the community at a public forum Thursday.
The board is scheduled to finalize their ballot question at the Dec. 14 meeting before formally approving it on Jan. 11.
"We've been looking and really have focused now on a very alternative way of funding the district for the short term and immediate future," said board President Peter Traczyk to about 40 people listening to his presentation in Irving School's auditorium. Joined by Supt. Albert Roberts and members of the school board, Traczyk explained that they preferred a working cash bond option as opposed to a permanent rate increase in order to ease the burden on taxpayers.
The bonds would be paid off by 2018, and at that time the district would seek another referendum for a rate increase. Annual budget reductions of about $700,000 will also need to be made in the meantime, Traczyk said. The money from the referendum, Roberts added, would not only cover the district's structural deficit, expected to reach $6 million by 2018, but also fund such things as capital improvements, technology and increased foreign language instruction. In all, roughly $10 million would be spent through 2018, money that is included in the referendum projection.
Roberts mentioned, in particular, the need for improvements in technology to improve overall teaching.
"While we have a strong curriculum, our world is changing very quickly," Roberts said. "It's becoming very technologically dependent and very globally interdependent. So we must provide a way for our students to be the best they can be in a very different society than perhaps students from the previous generation."
Traczyk and Roberts also addressed likely counter-arguments from voters cool to paying more to support the elementary school and prefer to cut spending instead.
Roberts insisted that cuts alone won't solve the structural deficit. As an example, he said, even if the district cut every single administrator, plus 34 teachers, that by itself would not be enough. Roberts, however, did say there would be reductions in the administration.
The board also plans to develop a policy on how the district will manage the money, which will include ongoing updates from the administration to the board.
"So we're going to put in place a process by which it's going to be very transparent in how we manage these monies going forward," Traczyk said.
Jim Kelly, an Oak Park resident with no children in the school system, said after the roughly hour-and-a-half forum that he will support the referendum.
"I think they did an outstanding job of helping us understand where the school district is now, financially and structurally and educationally," he said, "and what the consequences are in not passing this referendum and what the benefits are if we do."
Kelly said he didn't need time to think about whether or not to support it.