By Terry Dean
A group of parents and community members have come together to actively support, and persuade voters to vote for, the referendum Oak Park Elementary School District 97 has put on the ballot in April.
Jassen Strokosch, co-chair of the Committee to Support Oak Park Schools, said his group of about a dozen members is working independently of the district or the school board. He's unaware of any group formed in opposition to the April 5 referendum. The committee has created its own website, www.referendumyes.com, and will be passing out fliers and hosting "coffees" in residents' homes, among other activities, into the spring in support of the referendum.
The committee met Monday night for informational meeting and planning, at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St. About 20 people showed up.
The district is seeking $48 million, which translates to about $37 per $1,000 paid in property taxes by homeowners. Along with the tax-rate hike, about a million dollars in cuts will also occur. But approximately $5.7 million would need to be shaved from the budget if the referendum fails, district officials said.
Strokosch credits the district for making reductions in the last decade — totaling more than $4 million — and credits the district for not seeking a rate hike in over 20 years.
"That doesn't happen by accident," he said. "That's an example of sound fiscal responsibility — 1989 was the last time they passed an operating referendum. That's a very long time. When you look at many of the districts we compare ourselves to, we are one of the few that hasn't gone for a referendum in the 2000s. Some of those schools have gone every 5-6 years; others have gone 8-10 years between referendums."
A referendum in 1999, he noted, was successfully run to build the two middle schools, but that was not tied financially to the district's operating expenses and revenues. The middle-school bonds will be paid off in 2018.
Since forming, pro-referendum committee members have already been fielding questions from people either on the fence or outright opposed to a tax increase. At Monday's meeting, the group, including new participants on the committee, discussed how to respond to such views.
One argument by opponents is that the village and other taxing bodies should help District 97 financially. That has already occurred over the last five years, they reply, through various intergovernmental agreements between the taxing bodies. Those agreements are specific and tightly worded and are not necessarily permanent.
Strokosch explained that Dist. 97 can't solve its structural deficit — which is heading into the red around 2013 — through such helpful but temporary agreements. As for cuts to teachers, the district, he added, can no longer avoid that scenario without a long-term solution.
"There's no silver bullet," he said. "You look at any one of these cases and the dollar amounts involved; yes, it's very helpful, but none of those things solve the financial state we're in right now."