Future Oak Parkers will thank you for voting No

Opinion: Columns

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By Jack Crowe

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Nile Wendorf did a public service in a recent Viewpoint, pointing out that between 2006 and 2016, property taxes in Oak Park increased by 32 percent [The only option is saying no, Viewpoints, Feb. 22]. That's compared to an 11 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index. Which means that Oak Park property taxes increased more than three times inflation during the Great Recession.

What is the impact? Low wage earners move out of Oak Park. Senior citizens leave town. Dan Haley moves to Berwyn. We push out the people we care about.

While talking diversity, we created a tax policy directly contrary.

With each new tax increase, the argument is the same: it's only some hundreds per household. Don't look at the total property tax over time.

I thought about this when I received a mailing from District 97 on its two referenda.

According to Wendorf, D97's tax haul over the last 10 years increased from $45 to $62 million, or 36 percent. Where does it end? It doesn't. If the referenda pass, Oak Park will become a more affluent and less economically diverse town. It's that simple.

Two D97 items are up for a vote. One is spending $60 million on facilities. Do you know what we are buying for $60 million? Neither do I. The D97 website is vague, listing something about maintenance and repairs ($60 million worth?), accessibility upgrades (a good thing too but $60 million?), more modern classrooms (not that expensive) and undefined "complete expansions at Holmes, Lincoln and Longfellow."

What seems to be happening? The $60 million is a plug number set to keep the tax assessment even as the 1999 middle school construction bonds expire. Is that good tax policy?

The other part of the referenda relates to operating expenses, purportedly caused by a baby boomlet. But I suspect the need for the increase is driven more by annual increases in the teachers union contract which so often exceed inflation.

If we value living in a diverse community, there is one response to this conundrum: reject the referenda.

And if anyone feels guilty voting "against the kids," vote for the operating cost referendum, but against the $60 million capital referendum.

Future Oak Parkers will thank you.

Reader Comments

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Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 18th, 2017 3:03 PM

Barbara you are absolutely correct. And as you point out newer residents have no historical perspective of what has gone on before in this community. They accept the old saw - without question - that D97 needs more money because D97 enrollment has increased. What the D97 apologists and shills fail to point out is that while D97 enrollment has increased 24% over the years, its FTEs have increased by 68% - a sure sign of waste and duplication (especially to anyone who has any knowledge of how the public sector works). And of course why not blame everything on that old unsympathetic punching bag: the bankrupt state of Illinois? That is always a convenient excuse - I mean who is going to say good things about the state; a very convenient bogeyman. And then of course there is the inconvenient truth:: more money does not nor necessarily yield improved student performance (look no further than D200 at performance, out come scores and reputation). The fact is - and not just D97 - all of our taxing bodies think that the first tool out of the tool box to fix any shortfall or other problem is to throw more money at the problem. As I have repeatedly said: our community has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Vote NO on April 4th.

Josh Vanderberg  

Posted: March 18th, 2017 10:03 AM

@Barbara I am one of those people who moved here from the city (via rural PA, but that's another story). We've also got quite a few friends in the same boat. I will admit the good schools were a major draw. My Chicago friends are somehow managing to put together a reasonable education for their kids, but it's a complicated mess, as neighborhood schools are mostly mediocre to poor. We bought a relatively expensive rehabbed house here in OP, but it was cheaper than Chicago housing stock in neighborhoods with good elementary schools. The tradeoff was higher taxes than Chicago, much higher. We knew that coming it. But this isn't some sort of a new phenomenon. Oak Park schools didn't become great 4 years ago when we moved here. Basically it's not my fault the taxes are high and the schools are good, but I did move here because of it. So you might need to talk to those who moved here a decade or so before me. I do entirely agree that if we keep on this course, we are going to end up like the north shore - basically with the equivalent of extremely high quality expensive private schools, funded by public tax dollars. As much as this community values equity and diversity I don't think it is taking seriously the impact these property tax levels will have on the community. What good does do to give expensive services and computer hardware to kids, when those who need it most can't afford to live here? When I raised this question at a public meeting, one of the D97 board members actually said (I paraphrase) "Oak Park still has lots of apartments".

Barbara Purington  

Posted: March 18th, 2017 3:05 AM

@Bruce and James--I do sense a trend toward elitism. It seems there is a faction of newer, younger residents who relocate here from the city when they start families. They are all about wanting the best for their kids (nothing wrong with that) and they have deep pockets, spending upwards of $550k on old housing stock that has been extensively remodeled with their tastes in mind. Good for them. What they don't have is a history of the poor financial decisions made by those in charge of running the village and schools. These newer families could care less about raising their children in a racially and socially diverse community. If older couples feel forced to sell the family home where they raised their children after the last child graduates OPRF, or if grandma and grandpa can't afford to live independently in their home because they have to choose between making repairs or paying taxes, or if lower income residents can no longer afford increased rents or the price of single family homes, it doesn't concern them. They are all about maintaining and increasing the value of their property, and sending their super achieving children to well-funded schools. They are okay with living in a community of people just like them, successful, hard charging, high earners with money to spare. Frankly, I don't understand why they don't buy in Glen Ellen or Hinsdale--probably Oak Park's proximity to the city. Oak Park does need new families, as they bring with them enthusiasm and new energy. My wish is for people to take time to look deeper, get an appreciation for what has been before them, and to lose the attitude that if you can't afford to live here anymore, then it's time for you to move on.

Josh Vanderberg  

Posted: March 18th, 2017 1:15 AM

I compiled a ten year lookback comparison based on D97's reported 'local sources of revenue' in their financial reports - this should be mostly local property taxes. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1bgfT9DtV1nnNN0F1--tccW_F5GVN9TjuSeqqagZmI1c/edit#gid=499767199 The first tab (highlighted cells) shows the overall percentage increase first in absolute dollars, and then in CPI adjusted dollars. 44% and 21% respectively. The next tab shows those increases on a per student basis, 14% increase in absolute dollars -4% in CPI adjusted dollars. So effectively inflation adjusted, per student local tax revenue is flat or slightly down (please correct my numbers if I have made an error, sources are linked in the spreadsheet). I think the notion that D97 has somehow massively increased its revenue is flawed. I'd say they've kept up with inflation and enrollment levels, almost perfectly.. So, you might argue, why do we need a further increase? Well, I think that's a good question. The answer given by the board is yet further increased enrollment and a drop in state funding.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 17th, 2017 10:58 PM

Mary: they make poor financial decisions.

Mary Pikul  

Posted: March 17th, 2017 6:23 PM

I think this is a well-written opinion, and I agree with it. Furthermore, I have unfortunately lost trust in the District's fiscal responsibility. Here is why - you know those repairs that were mentioned (plumbing, bathrooms, lights, etc), well they were there when the District paid for Fast ForWord in 2012 and purchased all new sets of unnecessary classroom furniture. If they could forego those repairs then, then they aren't really needed. OR they make poor financial decisions. At one school, the PTO had a surplus of thousands, so we asked the teachers what they wanted. Materials? Resources? Science stuff? Anything? Except for the music teacher who asked for drapes (which a portion of the money covered) no other teacher asked for anything. This means they have a lot of resources. There were no needs. No requests for science, math, early childhood materials. Nothing. The schools provide a lot. It might be time to shift those to the PTOs who could provide. Finally, I really do like my child's school and IB program, however, the District recently put out a report. The report can be found at https://v3.boardbook.org/Public/PublicItemDownload.aspx?ik=40154597. Overall, 59% feel engaged. 50% are meeting or exceeding writing expectations. 55% showed improvement in MAP reading. 49% improved in Math. The District recognizes that there is work to be done. That is good. But shouldn't we expect a little better scores if in fact our schools are so great and we pay large taxes towards making them great? I don't mean to criticize but it is a worthy question. For me, if the scores were better, maybe I would be more inclined to vote Yes. There is something to show for the high taxes. But I think the schools have to perform better to ask me to pay more. They have had quite a lot. Granted the enrollment is up. I get that. But that doesn't explain why scores are not better.

James Hall  

Posted: March 17th, 2017 2:06 PM

Help preserve the elitist image of Oak Park! Get rid of the poor people! Vote Yes! Yes! Equality for those that can afford it

Margy Feley  

Posted: March 17th, 2017 1:33 PM

I'm with Jack and voting no, and it's not that I don't support quality schools. I think the district needs to think before spending on what is essential, ways that the budget can be cut and still be effective, and make do with available resources. I'm a recently retired teacher who upon hearing how much the taxes are going to increase, will seriously have to think about relocating. I've lived in Oak Park for 33 years. I'd like to leave on my own terms and not be forced out because I can't afford the even higher taxes.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 16th, 2017 1:12 PM

Well I guess I should have said: "well at least we're not Hinsdale but we should strive for Cicero." And not only in keeping with Cicero's admirable class size but also their property tax burden as well. As far as Mr. Conley quoting the President of the Oak Park Association of Realtors as proof that "the number one reason people move to Oak Park is the schools" - well in the hierarchy of evidence, by "expert statements" are the least robust and reliable. Certainly the President of the Oak Park Association of Realtors is likely more informed than I on this matter, however. And if he is right, then what we are heading towards here in Oak Park is a community of long term transients seeking to rent our schools. By that I mean our property taxes will be so high, but our schools so great, that folks will come here (as he says) for the schools and as soon as their kids are graduated, leave immediately (if they can sell their house). No more life time commitments to our community. No economic diversity. No age diversity. If this is the community you envision, then Vote Yes. But if you envision a more inclusive, healthy diverse community - as I do - vote NO this April 4th.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: March 16th, 2017 12:34 PM

People are attracted to Oak Park for all sorts of reasons that often do not even include schools. Architecture, location, public transportation, diversity Being close to Chicago without being in Chicago. What repels people is extremely high property taxes. Schools will be just fine after we vote NO on the referendum, they will simply adjust to reality.

Barbara Joan  

Posted: March 16th, 2017 10:02 AM

Cicero can teach Oak Park how to do more with less.How incredibly phony OP & RF residents are to say things like we are not Cicero while proclaiming diversity and praising the play Across Austin Boulevard as courageous as it becomes more affluent and elitist.

Nick A Binotti  

Posted: March 16th, 2017 8:21 AM

Bruce - Until 1902, Oak Park was indeed Cicero. Ironically, we separated from them via referendum. And the top realtor of the time, Baird Koenig Coldwell, listed railroads and access to the best churches as the top reasons people moved here.

Ben Conley from Oak Park  

Posted: March 16th, 2017 8:03 AM

By the way, a few questions for Mr. Crowe. If you truly believe in the strength of your argument, why did you choose to lie and mislead in your letter? It's unfortunate because your letter otherwise included a few valid points that are totally obscured by your glaring misrepresentations. Notably, (1) why did you use a $60M figure for the capex referendum rather than the actual figure, $57.6M? Is $2.4M insignificant to you? If so, then the $260 (per $10k) difference on your tax bill from the capex referendum shouldn't matter. (2) If you were on the D97 Referendum website, then why did you state that the website is "vague" on what the funds will be used for? The website actually provides a very detailed, four year project plan listing the specific repairs contemplated, including accessibility improvements, fire alarm upgrades, lighting systems, power distribution upgrades, plumbing repairs, roof repairs, boiler repairs structural repairs, tuckpointing, enhanced learning spaces, classroom modernization, conversion of former computer labs, expansions at Lincoln & Longfellow, and upgrades and/or installation of HVAC systems (temperature control). The website also includes a very detailed cost breakdown for each phase of the repairs. (3) Why do you need to speculate about what's driving the need for an operating referendum? The D97 referendum page has very detailed breakdowns of where the expenses are coming. Again, if you were on the website, I'm sure you saw the very detailed information regarding the most recent teacher contract renegotiation, which led to one of the most innovative CBAs in the state in terms of shifting D97 teacher compensation toward a more sustainable model. By the way, it seems like folks in the know on both sides of the aisle are in agreement on the uniqueness of the new D97 teacher CBA (just anticipating the typical clamoring that I'm drinking the "Kool-Aid").

Kyle P. Eichenberger  

Posted: March 16th, 2017 7:56 AM

For 2016, School District 99 in Cicero has an avg class size of 23 according to their IL Report Card. (That's above the state avg of 21 where D97 is.) If the referenda fail and we go to class sizes in the high 20's for elementary we'd actually be WORSE than Cicero. And avg class size for our middle schools will be in the low 30's. For the record, Hinsdale is 22 students per class in their equivalent district...one worse than us. https://www.illinoisreportcard.com/

Ben Conley from Oak Park  

Posted: March 16th, 2017 6:33 AM

According to the President of the Oak Park Association of Realtors, "Schools are by far the number one reason people move to Oak Park." Also, "at least we aren't Cicero" doesn't strike me as the most enticing Village motto.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 16th, 2017 12:12 AM

@Mr. Krasinsky. Nonsense. Do you have any data to show that "Oak Park schools are the number one reason people move to the village?" I suspect the number one reason is convenience to the City and points west as well as the excellent public transportation. Sure the schools are a reason. But number one? Prove it. I, for one, moved here because of the proximity to the city as well as my job, the diversity - both cultural and economic - and then thirdly the schools. Those crying hysterical over poor little ole D97 have to realize that Oak Park always considered its schools important. We we're never Cicero (my apologies to Cicero) and if this referendum fails we still will be a long ways from becoming Cicero. But if it passes we may be a ways closer to becoming Hinsdale.

Steve Krasinsky  

Posted: March 15th, 2017 11:01 PM

Conspicuously absent from Mr. Crowe's argument above are the kids we would be letting down if the D97 referenda doesn't pass. Oak Park schools are the number one reason people move to the village. We don't let our kids down here - it's a huge part of what makes this community so great. Our kids and their future is what this decision on April 4th is about - not Mr. Crowe's taxes.

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