More employees in Oak Park's public elementary schools have signed on for pay freezes next year in an effort to build goodwill in the months leading up to the April 5, tax hike referendum.
Two additional groups of employees—support staff in the district and the union of teachers' assistants—announced Feb. 17 that they would be joining Oak Park teachers and administrators in a voluntary one-year pay freeze.
At a referendum forum hosted that evening at Beye School, 230 N. Cuyler, school board President Peter Traczyk announced that the service professionals union had agreed to freeze wages. The teachers' assistants followed suit later that evening.
"We thank our support professionals and teacher assistants for making a significant personal sacrifice on behalf of the children of Oak Park," Traczyk said in a statement.
Fifty-six members of the Oak Park Educational Support Professionals staff— including secretaries, technology specialists, media assistants/clerks, receptionists and administrative assistants—agreed to forgo a total of $78,000 in pay increases for the 2011-2012 school year. District 97 will save $121,000 by maintaining existing pay levels for 105 assistant teachers. A voluntary pay freeze by administrators will save an additional $72,000, making the total savings $1.3 million (including the teachers' union pay freeze.)
The amount of the $48 million dollar referendum will not change to reflect these savings, said Traczyk at last Thursday's public forum, because exact ballot language had to be submitted in January.
Traczyk and new superintendent Al Roberts answered questions from an audience of more than 50 parents and community members, including David Pope, village president. Officials hope to drum up support for the ballot item, both to avoid serious staffing and program reductions and to fund what they call "very modest investments" in technology, curriculum and upgrades to the grounds of school buildings. Traczyk noted that the district has deferred investment for decades.
"They run things with rubber bands and duct tape. We're so far behind, we're trying to catch up," he said.
The last District 97 operating fund referendum took place in 1989. Since that time, voters have approved a referendum to fund construction of the district's two middle school buildings.
If voters shoot down the referendum, the district says that by fall it will make $5 million in cuts, including all middle school sports and after school activities, the CAST and BRAVO drama programs, arts and band programs, the multicultural department, and all foreign language in grades 1-5.
"We've been accused of making a scare list," said Traczyk, "but we need to cut staff."
If the referendum passes, Roberts proposes spending $7.5 million over eight years on technology updates.
"I've seen technology turn the light on for youngsters," he said.
Traczyk insisted the district wasn't going overboard buying gadgets. "This is not laptops for every child. This is smart-boards for classrooms."
Chris Jasculca, the district's public affairs chief, addressed what he said was a rumor—that the district had purchased 500 iPads. "There are 22 iPads. That's all. [They're] used by administrators for teacher evaluations."
Irving School parent Jassen Strokosch, a co-chair of the citizens' committee in support of the referendum, said that Irving uses parent-donated "six-, seven-, eight-year old Palm Pilots. We're stretched to the limit."
Other audience suggestions included the cost-saving option of closing an elementary school. Not feasible, replied Traczyk, since all eight schools are filled to capacity with more than 5,500 students enrolled.
Consolidating with the high school to save on redundancy is also not feasible, he said in response to a question, adding that, first, the River Forest (elementary) school board would have to agree to it.
He said elementary and middle school teacher salaries would likely climb upward to match high school teacher salary levels if the districts were unified, thus eliminating potential savings.
Even if the referendum does pass, cost savings will have to be "squeezed out" every year, said Traczyk. These will include "restructuring" and seeking outside funding for the Multicultural Department, and cutting back substantially on summer school offerings.
The initial referendum proposal called for an increase of $61 per $1,000 in current taxes being paid, Traczyk explained, but with the state's passage of an income tax increase—and the expectation that the state will now pay overdue millions owed the schools—the increase was cut back to $38 per $1,000.
Traczyk acknowledged the tough economy and the heavy tax burden in Oak Park as a reason a person might oppose the referendum.
"I've heard it. 'I just lost my job. I can't afford any new taxes.' I empathize and I sympathize," he said.