Let's talk about the District 97 tax referendum. But first, let's get some information out on the table. An interesting website called familytaxpayers.org 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 education.com, 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.