OPRF takes levy route to raise taxes

Pledge measurable progress on academics

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Though the holiday season is now behind us, Oak Park and River Forest taxpayers received an unlikely?#34;and probably unwanted?#34;gift in their Christmas stockings Thursday from the District 200 Oak Park and River Forest High School board.

In a 6-to-1 vote, the board approved a tax levy increase from $2.84 per hundred of Equalized Assessed Valuation to $3.004 per hundred. In approving the increase, the board opted to capture phase-in money not previously received through its 2002 referendum, which voters approved.

The new levy will bring in a total of roughly $50 million in '05 tax dollars paid next year. OPRF's education fund increases to nearly $41 million. The levy increase will postpone a referendum until at least 2018, school officials said.

Board members voting yea said the money will pay for new programs to address the achievement gap facing minority students and added costs for special education, along with covering mandates imposed by the federal "No Child Left Behind" law and new state graduation requirements approved this fall.

"We are responsible to make sure these funds are spent correctly," said Board President John Rigas, who voted yes. "Everything we do is going to be measurable. It's going to be very focused on making sure we achieve our goals."

Board member Valerie Fisher kept her promise to vote against the increase if the administration didn't match new levy dollars with specific costs of new programs. Fisher joined other board members in voting for a preliminary levy request on Nov. 17. She acknowledged that the administration's latest outline came close, but not close enough for her vote.

"I'm voting no because I want to make it clear that as a board member I will not support the levy going forward unless they directly align with the cost of specific programs periodically assessed in demonstrating measurable goals," said Fisher.

Oak Park and River Forest voters have been slow to catch onto the school's levy plans. School officials admit that voters would balk at another referendum for District 200, especially with ones from Oak Park District 97 and River Forest District 90 looming.

In 2002, District 200 got a 65-cent increase per $100 EAV in its education fund, from $2.30 to $2.95. That increase represented a 5.3-percent increase in individual property tax bills in Oak Park and a 5.9-percent increase in River Forest. This is the last year that the high school can phase in its referendum.

The remaining phase-in of the referendum would increase tax bills next year 3.7 percent, or $185 for a $5,000 tax bill, according to figures compiled by Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar.

But taxpayers are wary about rising tax bills, said ElSaffar, who spoke at Thursday's board meeting. He estimated that one in 10 Oak Park homeowners have contacted his office in the last year about property taxes, a 70 percent increase from 2002.

Taxpayers recently approved referendums for Oak Park's park district and library. District 90 will seek a tax hike in 2006 and Distict 97 has said it is likely to follow with a referendum within two years. Property owners also have seen the value of their homes increase in the last five years. After the 1999 reassessment, the median price of a single-family home was $200,000, ElSaffar said. In 20O5, the reassessed value was $393,000. ElSaffar said such a jump may be great for sellers but not owners footing the bill in higher taxes.

Also, spending levels of all Oak Park governments combined tallied $88 million in 2000, compared to more than $119 million in '05, ElSaffar said.

"I think there's an increasing concern in the community about property taxes," ElSaffar said. The concern that I have involves all of the taxing bodies. Somebody needs to talk about what effect this is having on the ability for the community to be diverse not only racially and ethnically, but also economically."

Board members in favor of the levy said they recognize those concerns. They also said they could have levied the maximum amount allowed under law, which amounts to an additional $6 million left on the table, but opted against the move.

Much of the new levy money, members said, will go toward adding new programs, staff and class offerings to address its initiatives for student achievement. The same goes for new state graduation requirements. Illinois high schools must offer extra classes in math, science, English and writing under a law signed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich this year. And in special ed, for instance, additional case managers are needed because of increased enrollment of special education students, according to school officials.

School officials said if they didn't increase the levy now, existing programs would have likely been cut in order to meet federal and state mandates.

Board members said they will hold the school accountable.

"I'm very excited about the programs that this money is going to be used for," said board member Jacques Conway, who voted in favor of the increase. "I believe its going to give us an opportunity to really make a difference in this community with our youth."

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com


How board members explained their support for the tax hike.

Dee Millard: "We hope in the end that the community will understand why we are doing what we're doing? Now that this is passed we are going to need every citizen in this community to be willing to speak up if they feel there is something we're not doing that's appropriate with this money."

Barbara Fernandez: "I fully support this levy. I would not think of not supporting it. We must do this. I can't imagine what would happen if education for our children goes unfunded. I realize that there was a referendum, but I can't use hindsight for what is a reality right now."

Yasmin Ranney: "It was an easy decision for me. If we didn't do this now, we would be back in the same situation of not being able to do anything different, new or innovative. If we didn't exercise this option then we would probably have to go back for a referendum."

Barry Greenwald: "This was an agonizing decision. I will support the levy. But it's going to take incredible skill to explain to the community that we serve why we have done what we've done. That this is not chicanery, that we're not using the Christmas holiday to sneak something in under the wire."

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