By Terry Dean
The District 200 Board of Education Dec. 18, approved continuing to freeze its levy, sticking with the $10 million cut from last year's levy.
The Oak Park and River Forest High School board voted on the action 6-1 at its regular meeting. Sharon Patchak-Layman was the lone dissenter, arguing as she's done previously that the levy could be reduced even more.
Steve Gevinson voted for the levy freeze but expressed concerns that the school was cutting potential revenue without considering needed spending on education. Board members Tom Cofsky and Jackie Moore said they agreed with Gevinson's point but that the district could be both fiscally responsible to taxpayers while also spending more in the classroom.
The board approved a roughly $54,700,000 levy for fiscal year 2015. The preliminary levy approved last month of roughly $65 million, which represented about an 18-percent increase from 2013, was brought forward for action but amended instead to the levy freeze.
D200 will actually collect roughly $72 million less in taxes over the next 10 years, since the impact of levy reductions compounds over time, according to the district. The board also voted to abate about $2.5 million from its debt-service levy, resulting in a third-year of paying down debt from district reserves versus future property taxes. That vote was unanimous.
The owner of a $300,000 home in Oak Park saw a savings of about $450 on this year's bill next year as a result of last year's tax cut. That'll be about the same for next year with the levy freeze.
The tax levy reduction this year totals $10,250,000. The additional $250,000 in reductions allows the district to utilize what's called the "look-back" provision in the state tax code.
Because the district is reducing its levy for a second-straight year, if it chose to increase its levy next year, it could only do so at the highest levy rate in the two previous years, which would be at the 2012 level.
"What allows us to do this is a provision in the tax code that allows you to reduce your levy and then return to the highest levy…To go back to 2012 next year, we'd have to reduce our levy from 2013 this year," said board member Jeff Weissglass.
It was also Weissglass who proposed amending the motion to go with a levy freeze. The board deliberated for more than an hour on the levy, including holding a public hearing on the levy, as required by law, earlier in the evening. Three community members spoke in opposition to the 18-percent levy increase this year that had been floated as a preliminary levy amount.
Weissglass said the levy freeze continues to put the district on track to reduce its fund balance below 40 percent of expenses in the next 8 to 10 years.
Patchak-Layman said the district could reach that goal even sooner by reducing this year's levy even more, by about $30 million, but she did not offer to amend the motion on the table to state that.
Gevinson did not vote for last year's tax cut but said he could still vote for the freeze despite his concerns.
"Last year I voted against the reduction because I wanted to see what the educational expenses might be, and I continue to have some concerns. We heard some strategic planning ideas; some of them wont be expensive and some might be. And so, there's one part of me that wants to know what will be the proposed expense of strategic planning," Gevinson said.
Board President John Phelan said he supported the measure because of "balance and trust" that it demonstrates to the community.
"I think we found ourselves in an awkward position a couple of years ago where we had this very significant fund balance and many of us had a sense that that was creating an imbalance in our communities; it was creating a lack of trust in our district," he said.
"For me, it was important to come in for a soft landing. It was important for us to get back on a regular track of referendums where we are accountable to our communities; where we try achieving the excellence we can within the resources that our communities choose to give us for that."
Related article: No tax cut (yet) as D200 approves preliminary levy increase
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