By Terry Dean
District 200's super-sized fund balance should be reduced over the next 2 to 4 years to less than 100 percent of the high school's annual expense level, with further reductions to below 40 percent of annualized expenses in the years that follow, according to the district's ad hoc finance advisory committee.
The committee finalized its recommendations concerning the proper use and size of OPRF's large fund balance in a meeting Monday. The Oak Park and River Forest High School board will consider those recommendations at a special meeting Dec. 10. The Finance Advisory Committee met for the final time on Monday, wrapping up several months of work in examining what to do with the school's $118 million fund balance.
The committee has given the D200 board the flexibility to "phase down" the fund balance through a variety of options. One thing the group made clear, however: bringing down the fund balance must happen "sooner than later," namely over the next 8 years.
Last month, the committee discussed some possible ways to do that via changes to the school's annual levy. Options included adopting a flat or lower levy over the next 3-to-4 years. The school board will vote on next year's tax levy on Dec. 19. Last month, as required by statute, the board approved a preliminary levy and used a placeholder figure of a 2 percent increase over the previous year. The board, however, can change that levy when it adopts its final version in two weeks.
The FAC offered two specific recommendations to the board concerning that levy vote: either maintain the current rate for next year (a flat levy) or reduce next year's levy by $10 million.
D200 could also adopt a flat levy, at the 2012 tax rate, for up to four years, or it could significantly reduce its levy over a 1-to-2 year period starting in 2014, according to the FAC's recommendations.
The FAC also recommended providing tax relief "in the near term" that benefits the property owners whose taxes helped build the fund balance in the first place. The school should also constrain the growth in future taxes, the FAC says.
The committee urged the school to improve its financial oversight practices and communications with the public — the FAC plans to meet again in the spring to further discuss how the school can do that.
The committee made clear that the fund balance should be maintained for operational and educational needs above all else but with some financial restraints.
"Significant capital projects," for instance, should be paid for over time. "Non-operating fund balances" should be maintained at "reasonable levels to meet debt service requirements on any outstanding bonds," the committee said. Those fund balances should also be maintained for "clearly identified life safety and capital projects."
The committee Monday decided against naming specific capital projects in its recommendation, namely upgrading the pools, which was mentioned in the committee's draft document but taken out.
During that lengthy discussion, committee member Judy Greffin warned against naming the pools or any other specific project in its recommendations. Greffin noted that the school has many capital projects it is considering. She strongly urged against being too specific on which projects should be done.
Other committee members noted that the pool was mentioned because it is among the district's most pressing capital projects. But the committee ultimately sided with Greffin's position, saying the more general approach was more appropriate.
The committee completed its draft document Monday after more than two hours of discussion and some wordsmithing.
Jeff Weissglass, the ad hoc committee chair and vice president of the D200 school board, thanked the committee members for their work over the last months. The school board will host a special meeting next Tuesday to consider and take action on the recommendations.
The committee's work, however, isn't complete just yet. It still needs to hammer out specific recommendations for the district to improve its communications to the public concerning its finances. Weissglass said the committee will meet again next spring to continue that work, as well as to decide the FAC's ongoing role with the district.
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