By Terry Dean
Editor's note: Online version features a correction not appearing in print edition:
With three likely "yes" votes in the bag and only more needed for a majority, the District 200 Board of Education appears poised this week to approve a $10 million reduction in its levy next year, following a recommendation by the board's ad hoc finance advisory committee.
Such a move, if approved at the regular meeting on Dec. 19, would be a major reversal for the high school board, which has annually voted for levy increases over the past decade. The board took a 2.5 percent levy increase in 2012 but voted to abate $2.4 million in taxes in February of this year.
Thursday's levy vote comes a week after board members received the FAC's recommendations on trimming the district's $118 million fund balance over the next decade. Specific recommendations for next year's levy were also presented.
Those include the board adopting either a $10 million tax cut or keeping the tax rate the same as this year. If approved, a $10 million reduction would mean a $450 savings on next year's tax bill for the owner of a $300,000 home in River Forest or Oak Park, according to the FAC.
Three D200 members — board President John Phelan, Tom Cofsky and Sharon Patchak-Layman — confirmed that they're either leaning toward, or plan to support, a $10 million tax cut. Just one more yes vote is needed for approval.
Steve Gevinson and Jackie Moore said they're undecided, and board member Ralph Lee said he won't support the tax cut but will support a flat levy for next year. Jeff Weissglass, who also chaired the FAC, did not want to say which option he prefers, given his roles on the committee and school board.
The tax cut and flat levy were among the options recommended by the committee, which presented their findings to the board on Dec. 10. There was no call for a levy increase among the recommendations.
The FAC — a volunteer group comprising residents, school administrators and D200 board members — provided the board with a variety of options to bring down the fund balance in the next 8-10 years. Those options entail a combination of flat levy years and tax cuts, as well as paying for capital projects over time and debt service on any outstanding bonds.
The D200 board last month approved a preliminary levy, as required by state law, with members voting for a 2 percent increase from the previous year. The chance of that increase standing, however, appears very unlikely.
Three yeas, one nay
Phelan says he'll support the $10 million tax cut, adding that he won't propose a levy increase and doesn't know who else on the board will. Phelan said he plans to support the FAC's recommendations for trimming the fund balance as well.
"This is a committee of very independent people with diverse disciplines related to this issue. If this is their recommendation, we should follow that," Phelan said, speaking to Wednesday Journal last week.
Lee, however, says he won't support a tax cut but will instead vote for a flat levy. Lee insists the tax cut, though popular with the community, doesn't address the larger issue of expenses outpacing revenues in the district.
The school's expenses have been growing at a greater rate than revenues over the last seven years, Lee said. Before tax cuts are even considered, he added, the board should have a conversation about controlling expenses, something he insists they have not really done.
And the board, he said, can control expenses without making harsh cuts to teachers or salaries.
"I cannot see reducing taxes by $10 million until we first look at the rate at which our expenses are increasing," Lee said. "I'm not going to vote for a $10 million cut because it is attacking one small part of the problem. We need to analyze the entire situation. We're only looking at one small piece. The fund balance is not the cause of something; it's the consequence of something."
The ad hoc finance committee recommends reducing the district's fund balance to less than 100 percent of the school's annual expense level over the next 2-4 years. Further reductions in the years after should reduce it to 40 percent — but not below 20 percent — of annualized expenses.
Maintaining a flat levy at the 2012 level for four years or cutting roughly $615,000 for three years are among the options to achieve that, the FAC says.
The committee advises the board to constrain the growth of taxes, as well as begin planning for a "reasonably-sized and timed" referendum. They also urged the board to trim the fund balance "sooner than later," namely within the next decade.
Cofsky, who served on the FAC, supports that approach. He said he's also leaning "very strongly" toward the $10 million cut but stressed he has not made a final decision.
"We can't have the school being the taxpayers' bank account," Cofsky said. "I do believe we need to get this down and start making moves to get to that 100 percent [level], which is only getting us in the ballpark — you've got to take action to make that happen."
Patchak-Layman plans to support the tax cut but would rather see the district refund money back to taxpayers from the school's reserves. She said she'll offer an amendment Thursday to do just that. The district can refund as much as $60 million to taxpayers, she said.
"I think the levy should be decreased but a reimbursement to the taxpayers is what's needed."
If the board does go with the tax cut, property owners need to anticipate taxes returning to the current 2012 rate in a year or two, Weissglass noted. That "bounce-back" effect could stun property owners, he added. And if the board votes to keep the levy flat, which is among the FAC's recommendations, Weissglass said that won't prevent them from lowering future levies.
Gevinson says he's undecided concerning the FAC's recommendations and is still thinking through the options. Moore, who served on the FAC, said she's still going over the recommendations and has not made a decision yet.