Cut costs before passing a referendum at D97

Opinion: Columns

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Jack Crowe

Let's talk about the District 97 tax referendum. But first, let's get some information out on the table. An interesting website called has salary and pension information from last year for Illinois school employees, including those at District 97. Here are some interesting nuggets to think about before you decide how to vote on the tax increase referendum.

Seventy-three out of District 97's 482 employees made more than $100,000 last year. In fact, 30 of those employees earned more than $125,000 per year. These high earners represent the most senior teachers and administrators. When they retire, they will end up earning about 75 percent of that salary until they die (or until the Illinois teacher pension fund goes broke). The highest-paid wage earner in the district last year was then-Superintendent Constance Collins, who made $236,000.

Here are some other things to think about. District 97 has somewhere around one full-time teacher for every 13 or 14 students. That's a pretty low student-teacher ratio. According to, the state average in Illinois is 16 students to one teacher. The district can move to increase class sizes without being outside the norm.

But things get more interesting when you look at the total number of employees per student in the district. That's both teachers and administrators. The most recent student enrollment I could find on the District 97 website was 4,946 students in 2005. Assuming that is still the correct number, the district has about one full-time employee for every 10 students. That's a lot of employees! It tells me that the district has room to cut nonteaching staff.

Now let's talk about a few red herrings. The first is that District 97 has not had a tax rate increase in 20 years. Absolutely true, but beside the point. Even without a rate increase, District 97 has been collecting more in real estate taxes every year for the last 20 years as home values appreciated. That's why your property taxes and mine have more than doubled in that same period. Schools make up more than 70 percent of our real estate tax bill. That's where the bulk of our increasing real estate tax dollars have gone, rate increase or no rate increase.

Red herring number two: It was laudable for the teachers and employees to agree to give back one year of raises that they were entitled to under their contracts. That wage freeze will save the district $1.3 million next year. Unfortunately, this one-time freeze does nothing to address the structural problems that are driving up costs in the district. Automatic step increases based solely on seniority, plus additional contract increases every three years, are the primary movers (along with health care and pension costs) that are driving up District 97 expenses, even as the overall economy is down.

Red herring number three: Without a tax increase, the schools will lose all their extracurricular activities. CAST and Bravo, two excellent theater programs, will lose their funding if the referendum fails. Many years ago, CAST started with little or no district funding. The parents, and I was one of them, held annual musical revues to raise money, which along with show ticket sales, paid the bills. It sure is easier with district funding, but CAST and Bravo have students with dedicated parents who can find creative ways to keep these programs going.

There are good people on the District 97 board, good people who are administrators and good people who are teaching in the schools. That's not the issue. The question is whether our elementary schools can provide a good education at a reasonable price. During the prerecession go-go days, things got out of hand with school salaries and staffing levels. It's time to cut the cost side more before asking residents to increase the revenue side.

Jack Crowe is a third-generation Oak Parker. He cycles with the Lake and Harlem group and works at the Christo Rey Network of high schools.

Reader Comments

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Posted: March 22nd, 2011 2:33 PM

@EJ: Glad someone else has discovered the IIRC. A few more facts: EAV (Equalized Assessed Property Value) per pupil: Wilmette D39 $577K, D97 $322K. Tax Rate: D39 2.3, D97 3.1. Average teacher salary: D39 $67,502, D97 $72,208. Oak Parkers already pay a much higher tax rate so we can outspend the 3rd wealthiest large elementary school district in Cook County.

E. Jackson  

Posted: March 22nd, 2011 2:00 PM

Telling - few facts for you, according to the 2010 state reports cards for both districts. Revenue from property tax - 70.9 percent for D97 and 78.6 percent for D39. Costs per pupil for instruction - $7911 for D97 and $7723 for D39. Costs per pupil for operations - $13,348 for D97 and $13,060 for D39. Admin salary - $126,347 for D97 and $145,805 for D39. Both districts made AYP last year.


Posted: March 22nd, 2011 12:52 PM

@curious: The Trib article highlights the much wealthier town of Wilmette. Wilmette D39 makes the following justifications for their ref, NONE of which D97 can make: "District 39 is already highly efficient compared to 14 other nearby K-8 districts with similar ISATs. Our low operating costs per pupil rank us 13th lowest out of 15. D39's current tax rate generates the lowest property tax revenue per pupil in the region. If the referendum passes, we would move from 15th to 14th place." OP on the other hand already outspends Wilmette and many other wealthier communities who are in a better position to afford it.

Tom Scharre  

Posted: March 22nd, 2011 10:03 AM

Just "pennies a day". Of course, that begs the question: how many pennies? And how many days?

Voting Yes  

Posted: March 22nd, 2011 9:38 AM

My apologies if I was unclear yesterday, I should have said "for me, the impact will be a bit more than a dollar a day" and not refered to that as an average or imply that that one figure will be the same for everybody.

Voting Yes  

Posted: March 22nd, 2011 9:31 AM

Thanks Chet, I appreciate what you are saying too. Having the privlige of paying prop taxes is like being the floating cushions from the deck chairs of the titanic. Everybody is hanging on you! I selfishly still believe that the impact of the referendum is the lesser of two evils, tax hike vs property value, and yes high taxes effect prop value but we do have great schools here. If they decline, we will still have the high tax bill.

chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: March 21st, 2011 2:47 PM

@Voting Yes. Your sentiment is respected and understandable. But A LOT of the NO voters (like myself), take the matter one step further - D97 has been a spendthrift with our tax dollars AND projects, thru 2016, annual "salary and benefit" increases at 5%! We therefore disagree that "the Dist has done a very good job with our tax dollars where they have control." Look at this D97 link: Financial Projection of Limiting Rate Increase.pdf

Voting Yes  

Posted: March 21st, 2011 2:29 PM

Sorry, not trying to spam, I just have an opinion and wanted to get it out. I really do feel that way, and should this pass, want to work to change how we pay for education. Property taxes cannot be the go to source of all things that need funds. I pay a great deal in taxes for my home and business. Our schools, in my opinion are not the source of the problem. Thanks for listening.


Posted: March 21st, 2011 2:14 PM

"Voting Yes" no spamming the boards please. And your numbers are an incomplete example, not an average.

Voting Yes  

Posted: March 21st, 2011 10:49 AM

The proposed annual increase is est. at $380, slightly more than a dollar a day. From what I have seen, the Dist has done a very good job with our tax dollars where they have control. I love the education my children are getting, and want my property to remain attractive with a great school system. Lose that and all you will have left is the high tax bill. My prpo value will drop more than I will save if this does not pass.

JC from Oak Park  

Posted: March 21st, 2011 9:06 AM

The spending in these districts is based on revenue that will no longer be there. Time to renegotiate the various salaries and contracts to account for the lesser revenue. The revenue isn't coming back. Districts can either continue to raise taxes or take the opportunity to reduce costs. The economic circumstances are unfortunate, but people in this community are hurting. The responsible approach is to subject the schools and children to the same financial constraints as the residents of OP

Voting NO  

Posted: March 21st, 2011 8:51 AM

Curious: and I'm curious too - are those other districts also planning millions of dollars of "minor investments" for laptops etc. This referendum includes a lot of new spending. For "clear plan",he did say it in a casual way so I understand if you missed it, but I heard it and wrote it down when he said it. BTW - the current plan is not a plan because they have no plan for how they will provide teachers with planning time if the ref doesn't pass.

Good Listener  

Posted: March 21st, 2011 8:45 AM

The facts as I have heard them: Referendum is needed to close a substantial budget gap right away; additional cuts of 1.25% will still be needed annually to support the tax increase; M.S. and TIF payments end around '18; D97 might need additional approval to continue to use equivalent M.S. bond fund $ after '18. This all depends on State funding and changes at the State level, too. D97 is not alone in this dilemma!


Posted: March 21st, 2011 8:31 AM

Interesting article in the Trib today about other districts needing to go to referendum. Sounds very similar - music is on the cutting block, teachers being released, etc. So... they must all be grossly mismanaged and using scare tactics to win votes. Doesn't it seem more plausible that the state funding plan for schools is what is dooming excellent districts? This is more than just a "Vote NO in Oak Park" solution. In the meantime, do you really want to diminish the schools that much?

Clear Plan  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 10:40 PM

They have specifically addressed what will be cut whether the referendum passes or not. It's all there in black or white. Secondly, the impression I received from the forums was that the district would have more money because the middle school bonds will be paid in 2018. I never heard a mention of needing a new referendum at that time. What I heard was the possibility (although even I am skeptical of this) of a decrease in taxes. I think it should be a direct question this week.

Voting NO  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 10:11 PM

Peter T said that even if the referendum passes there will be cuts. Of course he didn't say where. What are we to expect . . everytime they want more money they hold our arts program hostage? I want to see a real plan that preserves arts and manages costs. It may mean some modest increases in class sizes (current class sizes are small) or some multi-age classes (if the OPTA will allow it.) It may also mean a stop to spending on new gadgets but I think we could do it. We must at least try.

Day by Day  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 9:47 PM

Let me restate that. They are bloated unions that pimp off the taxpayers and we are going to break them just like PATCO. Nothing personal. Just business.


Posted: March 20th, 2011 9:16 PM

So the schools are now tax terrorists? Quite a statement to make.

Day by Day  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 7:01 PM

If things continue down the Yes path, things won't be okay. Giving government a big bag of cash to save the Arts-Music-Sports programs is giving into tax terrorists. Just say no to these tax junkies and get them treatment for this sickness they have. Intervention=NO


Posted: March 20th, 2011 6:44 PM

...and less state aid money.

Voting NO  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 2:56 PM

The fact that our tax bills should go down once the bond is retired seemed to be the reason why Peter T thinks they should increase the tax rate at that time. So instead of tax payors getting the benefit of the bond being paid off, we can keep paying - just through a different formula. Keep in mind the TIF ends in 2018 and that will bring in more $$ to D97.

E. Jackson  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 2:43 PM

Then I look forward to hearing someone from the no side ask that question at one of the forums being held this week.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 2:38 PM

@ E.Jackson: If the Board would like to commit to a $29/1,000 decrease in taxes in 2018, I know that there would be a willing audience. I won't hold my breath, though. Then again, they could have achieved a similar result by limiting this referendum to being through 2018 (i.e., rather than it being into perpetuity), but chose not to go that route. But, again, rather than guessing, perhaps the Board should be asked to address the question of their "2018 and beyond" intentions directly.

E. Jackson  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 1:05 PM

Actually, according to the district's FAQ sheet about the referendum, the retirement of the middle school debt in 2018 may actually lower tax bills by $29 per $1000. Not sure how that translates to more money for District 97. Also, since we seem to be experts on facial expressions, what should we interpret from the smirk Mr. Kuriakos seems to have at these forums from start to finish?

Votign NO  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 11:50 AM

At the Mann forum Peter T said the bond and TIF would be done in 2018 - giving D97 more money, at which time D97 would want to have another referendum to raise taxes again!

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 6:49 AM

From the Trib Local: "Supporters see the tax increase as a "bridge" to 2018, when middle school improvement bonds are paid off and tax increment finance districts expire, which would unfreeze property tax values and boost district income." Perhaps the plan through and beyond 2018 needs to be fully explained so that we can all discuss productively.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 6:17 AM

As my post says: "I heard the same 'we're looking forward to 2018' statement at the Buzz Forum." In the context of that Forum, it seemed clear that that would be the next ref opportunity, but I didn't write down his exact words. If it was recorded, I'll be happy to review the tape. Perhaps I'll also look at the tape of the Mann forum. Regardless, I (and others) left that night feeling that this ref was a band-aid until 2018's bigger ref. I'd be more than happy to learn otherwise.


Posted: March 19th, 2011 9:10 PM

He said it at the Mann forum. Ask Peter T. to weigh in. And @Really? I totally agree with people sticking with the facts and telling whole truths. Let's play fair.


Posted: March 19th, 2011 8:04 PM

So the board president at a forum where he is trying to convince voters to vote YES to the April referendum, actually smirked about another referendum? Please watch the tape. I think you need to seriously think about what you are saying. It's one thing to try to convince people based on the real issues, it's quite another to state "facts" that are based on your impression. I was at the forum and saw none of what you have posted. Let's stick to the facts.

Chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: March 19th, 2011 6:48 PM

@SameForum? I haven't attended any forum, but I can read. The D97 website has posted a pro-forma budget thru 2016 for IF this ref passes. Deficit spending is projected to begin in 2016. Therefore, D97 has no choice BUT to utilize debt elimination in 2018 and go for ref - which is why OP must defeat this ref and force D97 to concede that their "status quo" and more spending must stop. Financial Projection of Limiting Rate Increase.pdf

OakPark_taxpayer from Oak Park, IL  

Posted: March 19th, 2011 6:40 PM

The board President was smirking about that. He said, "That will be our next referendum".

Same Forum?  

Posted: March 19th, 2011 5:53 PM

Did you attend the same forum I did? In that one, I actually heard the board president say that the bond or whatever would be paid off in 2017 or 2018 and at that point, there would be the possibility that taxes would go down. I heard nothing about another referendum or looking forward to grabbing more money from the taxpayers. It was recorded so you can watch it and clarify.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 19th, 2011 5:39 PM

@Oak Park_taxpayer: I completely agree with you. No one really wants to live within a budget, but taxpayers have no choice but to do so. And I heard the same "we're looking forward to 2018" statement as well as the implied opportunity for the next money grab at the Buzz Forum. Send a clear message and VOTE NO.

OakPark_taxpayer from Oak Park, IL  

Posted: March 19th, 2011 4:40 PM

If you mention anything supporting a NO vote the shrill voices start with the personal attacks. It is our duty to vote NO so the school understands they need to do a better job with the money they have already been given each year, which goes up each year already. The administration is already looking forward to the next referendum when they can get their hands on the money currently being paid on the middle schools mortgage. They said that at the referendum meeting last week. VOTE NO.  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 8:15 PM

I've been nothing but impressed with Sup. Roberts and definitely believe that he has the leadership and intellectual capacity to be paid much more in another profession. He chooses to work in education because he is committed to it. The reality is you can't close the budget gap with the cuts the opponents to the referendum want to make. So painful choices had to be made to cut everything but the basics if the referendum doesn't pass. It is what it is.


Posted: March 17th, 2011 12:52 PM

Jack doesn't know what CAST is doing today and he either doesn't know or has forgotten how CAST started. Benjamin Williams hired Jill and Michael Poehlman back in 1985 to start the CAST program. Jack, read the WJ:'Peter_Pan'_to_stage_at_Percy_Julian

Ben Weinberg from Oak Park  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 10:04 AM

I'm grateful for Jack's help in getting CAST off the ground, and for the Brooks parents and staff who created BRAVO. But apparently, Jack has no idea what has happened since the early days. We now have top-notch professional staff (Tina Reynolds and Bill McGlynn) who lead nationally recognized programs. These are not mere extra-curricular programs. They are central to the educational experience at Brooks and Julian. Surely, this is just what those early CAST supporters were hoping to create.


Posted: March 16th, 2011 10:54 PM

Mr. Kuriakos, and so whats your point on Roberts? Are you saying HE is overpaid or that the super positions in general is overpaid or D97 overpays supers in general or what?

Noel Kuriakos  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 10:07 PM

Mr. Crowe is correct. The d97 only files its report with the state at the end of the school term. So the latest data available is for 2009-2010 school year. Sup Collins was the sup that filed the report. Sup Roberts made about $150K in Michigan. His total comp about $200K was more than what the MI guv made. Yet the Board gave hime a $195K / yr contract, with $600 mo/car allowance, 2.5% bonus, pays his health ins in full, pays his contributions to the retirement sys, term life of $500K etc.

Heather McCammond-Watts from Oak Park  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 8:58 PM

I am a CAST Council member, and I assure you that D97 will indeed be forced to cut out this 25 year old gem along with BRAVO. We are dedicated parents who raise funds to support CAST just as you did years ago because we both recognize how vitally important arts education is to our children's academic and character development. However, we can't fund staff salaries and that is what makes CAST so special! Parents can buy lights and costumes, but talented and passionate directors are priceless.

Tom Scharre  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 7:55 PM

@KathrynR: because she will be eligible for that pension until she shuffles off her mortal coil, that's why.

E. Jackson  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 6:18 PM

data he needed for this column could have been obtained from the district's state report card or its Web site.

E. Jackson  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 6:16 PM

Few things. First, District 97 has cut expenditures in each of the past 10 years and will be cutting an additional $1.2 million in 2011-2012 regardless of the outcome of the referendum. These cuts include reductions in administration. Second, the superintendent presented a vision for the future of the district at the community forum held in November. I believe the PowerPoint and video from that evening are available online. Third, perhaps Mr. Crowe should actually do some research. Most of the

Kathryn R. from Oak Park  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 5:52 PM

Help! Please someone write longer viewpoint pieces so we don't have to listen to Jack Crowe spew out his opinions based upon so little factual data. At least can you get your numbers straight and be fair in your comparisons Mr. Crowe? Any good researcher can find the D97 2010 report card. It is readily available on the website. And what is it that you propose to cut in your "Cut Costs" article. Dr. Collins is gone, so what does her salary have to do with anything?

Peter R. from Oak Park  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 12:17 PM

@Peter R. -- I have attended 2 sessions and was disappointed that D97 reps repeated talking points (no ref in 20 years, we have to save the arts, it's only $380, etc.) rather than showing data to lead to a logical conclusion. There's no vision for what they want these schools to be...which would have convinced me to support it. I'll be voting no because D97 hasn't made their case that they have been fiscally responsible in the past or that they plan to be more accountable in the future.

District 97 Parent Voting NO  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 11:48 AM

aBroken System from Oak Park. Agree. District 97 needs to get down to basics: math, reading etc. CAST, BRAVO. FLES et al--all unnecessary fluff.

Peter R.  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 11:38 AM

@Broken System from Oak Park. I urge you to attend one of the district's info sessions, or better yet one where the 'Vote No' side is represented as well. If you do, you will have a better understanding of the facts (if you're willing to acknowledge what the district presents). Please cite specifically how the district has "refused" to adapt to the so-called new reality? Most if not all "broken system" issues are beyond the ability of local districts to solve. Not what this ref is about.

Dan Greenstone from Oak Park  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 10:37 AM

Jack, you may be a nice fellow, but you are a lazy writer. Your numbers of students for 97 is 6 years out of date! Also, you are WRONG when you say that 97 faces pension costs. Pensions are paid for by teachers, and are also supposed to be funded by the state. Of course, the state hasn't matched pensions in two decades. But districts do NOT pay pension costs. Earlier this year you asserted, incorrectly, that the district negotiates tenure. It doesn't. Please do your homework next time.

Broken System from Oak Park  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 10:25 AM

@Peter R: If the largest recession since the Great Depression hadn't hit the US, and OP property values kept rising (and along with them the D97 total budget), there would be no need for the Ref. But, just like every household, business, and organization, District 97 needs to make changes in the post-recession world to adapt to the new reality. We've all had to prioritize and make cuts. The Ref is about D97's refusal to do so, which reflects a broken system that needs a complete overhaul.

Doug S from Oak Park  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 10:22 AM

Over the last 20 years the number of staff on the payroll of D97 has increased 55%. Enrollment has increased 15%. (Some of the staff increase is mandated by no child left behind etc). Combined, schools taxation accounts for 70% of the tax bill, but what has your increase in actual tax dollars to D97 been since 2002? Mine has increased 31%!

Peter R.  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 9:01 AM

Jack Crowe needs to attend one of the district's information sessions to get his facts straight. There are in fact many more students in D97 than he counts in his column (5500?). Reconfiguring staff to fit his facts is easier said than done. Red Herring #1: when I look at D97's percentage of my property tax bill going back to 2002 the overall portion has stayed flat, about 33%. His assertion that "schools" account for near 70% may be true when D200 is counted, but that is not the issue here.

Interested Parent  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 8:59 AM

This is definitely opinion. Mr. Crowe wrties about his opinions of the world on a regular basis.

Max Trefonides from Oak Park  

Posted: March 15th, 2011 11:05 PM

Nevermind, the navigation was confusing to me.

Max Trefonides from Oak Park  

Posted: March 15th, 2011 11:02 PM

Is this news or opinion? It is in the News section, but this is written in first person.

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