By Terry Dean
The District 97 Board of Education doesn't believe they have a problem with the language in their April 5 referendum ballot question.
Members underscored that point at their March 8 meeting, addressing the recent scrutiny surrounding the ballot wording raised by the Oak Park Township assessor, who says the wording underestimates the impact on property owners. A resident in the community first alerted Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar and Wednesday Journal to the issue.
The crux of the concern centers on the state equalizer, used by the Cook County Assessor's Office to help calculate local tax bills. Dist. 97's ballot question, and that of at least nine other municipalities and school boards with a referendum on April 5, does not factor in the state equalizer. Not including that, says ElSaffar, understates how much voters are expected to pay in property taxes in those referenda passes.
Dist. 97 is seeking a $6 million increase on April 5 — which results in a $48 million total levy for the district if approved by voters. The district has estimated the cost to be an additional $38 for every $1,000 in property taxes currently paid by property owners. The district has been using that number in their public campaign, rather than what's on their actual ballot question.
Dist. 97 board members said they followed the advice of their counsel in not needing to factor in the state equalizer. The school board hired Chicago-based Chapman and Cutler to help draft their ballot question. The firm also helped write the 2006 law concerning how those questions should specifically appear on a ballot. The statute makes no mention of the state equalizer.
ElSaffar, though, insists that the correct amount of property taxes cannot be obtained without factoring in the equalizer, which should be taken into account.
But Dist. 97 board members maintain that they've made no error. They also conclude that ElSaffar has a different interpretation of the statute than the firm which actually wrote it.
Members last week were joined by Robert Kohn, of Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn, the district's legal firm. He told members that their ballot question is written according to the law.
"It should be noted that your bond counsel firm was responsible for drafting the statute, and so you would think that they would have a very good understanding of what the intent was when that statute was written, and your language is consistent with that intent," Kohn said.
He added that the board couldn't change the question even if they wanted to because the deadline to finalize ballots has already passed. As for any inadvertent inaccuracies or miscalculations that might end up on a ballot question, Kohn noted that the '06 statute covers that point.
"The statute has what's referred to as a 'savings clause;' that an error in the proposition will not result in an invalidation of the proposition," he said. "So even if you were to make an assumption that the number is incorrect, or if a court were to find sometime down the road that the number was incorrect, that doesn't mean that your proposition, if passed, would be invalidated."