Writer fails to provide 'data' on D97 referendum

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Daniel Hurtado

John Dagnon's headline, "Logic, data lead to 'no' vote on D97 referendum," [Viewpoints, March 2], is a fraud. I know he didn't write the headline, but his essay doesn't deliver what the headline promises. After sarcastically denigrating a middle-school student's advocacy for the referendum as "well written because to use empirical data and logic would only cause normal taxpayers to vote a resounding 'no,'" Dagnon himself cites only two pieces of purportedly relevant "data," neither of which are actually sourced. The remainder of his piece asks a series of rhetorical questions that reflect a lack of genuine analysis.

The first data point Dagnon cites is that "Americans spend more on education per pupil than any country in the world. Yet we are mired toward the bottom of developed countries." Assuming that bit of hyperbole is factual, how is it relevant to the question of whether District 97 needs additional funding to maintain services and programs? Is Dagnon suggesting there is an inverse relationship between funding and quality of education?

His second data point is that the "well-regarded" Scottsdale, Ariz., school district spends only $3,000 per kid, compared to District 97's $15,000 per kid. Since District 97's schools obviously aren't "five times better" than Scottsdale's schools, Dagnon queries where the "extra money is going." But his figures seem highly questionable on their face. And as the online commentary to Dagnon's article shows, if one compares apples to apples, the per-pupil spending in each school district is fairly comparable. But assuming District 97 does spend more than Scottsdale, where does Dagnon think the "extra money" goes? Does he think it is being somehow wasted? If so, how?

Dagnon's rhetorical questions fare no better. He asks why teachers will not take a "small" pay cut. As he probably knows, the teachers have agreed to a pay freeze, which amounts to a pay cut. But to completely address the shortfall, each teacher would have to take a cut of around $10,000 or more. That is not a "small" pay cut. It dwarfs the "pay cut" — the additional tax burden — of a few hundred dollars that would result to each property owner from passage of the referendum. For the life of me, I don't understand the sentiment that it is the teachers' responsibility, not the community's, to make sure our schools are financially healthy. Our schools don't exist for the teachers. They exist for the students and for the community.

Dagnon asks about "school choice." Whatever its merits (a wholly different debate), school choice would do nothing to address District 97's financial shortfall. Indeed, it would very likely drain money away from the public schools.

Dagnon asks about the teacher union. Does he think District 97 has the power to bust the union? Does he want Gov. Quinn to do what Gov. Walker did in Wisconsin? Is antipathy toward unions a fact-driven basis for opposing the referendum? And how does the fact that payroll is 75 percent of the budget show that District 97 has not "cut to the bone," if that is in fact what the board has said?

Does Dagnon have any data to show that, of the 700 recent applications received for a teaching position (assuming that to be true), there were comparably qualified applicants who would have worked for less than the applicant hired? If so, he does not share it with us.

And there are several big holes in Dagnon's implied argument that we should have seen an increase in the quality of education commensurate with the increase in property taxes over the past eight years. First, the argument assumes that all of the increase went to District 97. Second, he assumes that District 97's costs of operation did not also increase over the past eight years. Third, he provides no data to show that the "quality of education" has not improved over the past eight years. Indeed, he does not even tell us how he is measuring the quality of the schools.

Finally, Dagnon wants District 200 to give some if its "surplus" to District 97. As online commentators have pointed out, District 97 has no control over that money. And the money belongs in part to River Forest residents, as well as to Oak Parkers. So it can't be used to fund District 97 schools.

So much for "empirical data and logic."

Daniel Hurtado is a 20-year Oak Park who has one daughter currently attending OPRF. He says he is "concerned about maintaining the quality and offerings of our schools."

Reader Comments

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Gail Moran from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 22nd, 2011 1:15 PM

Thank you for this thoughtful rebuttal, Daniel.

Interested Parent  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 9:14 PM

@Alan - I don't know the number of tenured teachers who are let go each year. I would guess it is quite low in number. However, I do know that probationary teachers (years 1-4) are more routinely released. This means they are not reaching tenure. Those that do make it to year 5 should be very satisfactory in the classroom. The new teacher evaluation tool talked about at Board meetings should also result in fewer "weak" teachers making to tenure.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 7:59 PM

@interested Parent: Do you know the District 97 statistics on firing tenured teachers? I don't either, but would be very interested in understanding just how often that has happened and under what specific circumstances. In the end, I don't think that teacher performance evaluations need to be made public, but some reassurances that good teachers are being rewarded while ineffective ones are being replaced would be reassuring to taxpayers. Just a thought.

Interested Parent  

Posted: March 20th, 2011 6:49 PM

@MaryEllen- Transparency regarding teacher evaluations is quite difficult since it is illegal. You can get your hands on almost anything else you want if you ask or look for it. Lack of transparency is just a convenient excuse. And releasing a tenured teacher is not impossible. The issue seems to be that you don't trust the evaluators either. There is more to evaluating a teacher than just asking your kid how s/he liked them.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 19th, 2011 6:02 AM

@Mary Ellen: Agreed. Nicely stated.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 19th, 2011 6:02 AM

@Daniel: Again, we agree that looking to schools who do more for less makes sense...and yet I see no D97 efforts to do so. Instead, I hear discussion about Evanston and Glencoe. In the end, it's not the sole reason I oppose the Referendum, but it is another data point that shows me a pattern of behavior where D97 looks out solely to keep its structure intact, and is not looking for solutions that will benefit taxpayers and the broader Oak Park community.

Mary Ellen Eads from Oak Park  

Posted: March 19th, 2011 4:04 AM

I don't think that anyone is vilifying teachers here, although such rhetoric from teachers' unions is very common these days. The problem is that teachers are very well compensated whether they perform well or not. And it is virtually impossible to to fire them. In addition, teacher performance data over time is not available to parents or taxpayers. Transparency continues to be a significant problem for Dist 97, despite the increased price of its services. This is a bad bargain for taxpayers.

Arc light from Oak Park   

Posted: March 19th, 2011 12:27 AM

Broken System from Oak Park: I agree wholeheartly - the time is coming fast that what's happening in WI, OH, MI, IN, and soon in these states: TN,KY,ID,NY, NJ,FL,and Virginia. IL will down the road, dump the politicians that are married to the unions and strip the unions of collective bargaining and pension reform. Remember, it is not what the unions can take, but what the taxpayers can afford to pay - the taxpayers will win the war.....

Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 9:45 PM

Alan. Of course, I think any reasonable person would be willling to look at schools who have achieved better test scores for less money to see what they are doing. But if you believe the fact that other schools achieve better test scores for less cost is a reason to oppose the referendum, then, again, that is a non sequitur.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 11:36 AM

@Daniel Hurtado: Then we are in agreement on looking at schools who deliver better scores for less cost. I mentioned nothing about teacher pay...but think that it should be looked at as part of a benchmarking. As for "cherrypicking", the concern isn't mine...but with PTOs running the forums at public schools it seems like it could be a possibility. Again, I haven't experieced it myself.

Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 10:15 AM

I am all for looking to schools who achieve better test scores to see what they are doing -- particularly if it turns out that they are actually doing better when controlling for all the variables. But to say we should reduce teacher salaries because other schools asre achieving better test scores with less money is a non sequitur.

Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 9:24 AM

The last comment was directed to Mr. Kuriakos, but could just as easily be directed to Mr. Reed. As to Mr. Reed's comment to Ms. Song, I have not yet been to a forum, but do you contend there has been no "cherrypicking" on the NO side?

Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 9:19 AM

I do not argue that D97 needs more $$ for better test scores. I do not think there IS a direct relationship between $$ and test scores. I believe D97 needs more $$ to meet legitimate expenses and keep valued programs. You make my point, though, about OP schools facing challenges that outer districts my not face. The "achievement gap" has been an intractable problem across the country. Just what "systemic" problems do you have in mind?

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 9:09 AM

@Carolina: There have been concerns regarding "cherry picking" of questions (i.e., not mine, but raised nonetheless). So, will you do your part to ensure that these questions are raised and that a full discussion ensues?

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 9:06 AM

@Daniel Hurtado: There are differences between all schools and no district will look the same as D97. However, if we always look to those who spend more (Glencoe, Skokie, Morton Grove), we'll only come up with answers that try to do that. But if we look to those who do better and spend less and set our sights there, we might learn something about what we can do better as a district and community.

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 9:03 AM

So in other words Mr. Kuriakos, your plan is to have River Forest taxpayers subsidize Oak Park's problems yet again?

Noel Kuriakos  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 8:29 AM

@Hurtado, if you look at D97 ISAT scores they are approaching the upper limits & starting to show diminishing returns. That is it will take greater amounts of $ to move from 90 to 91. Also our minority student population continues to lag their white & Asian peers. This is appalling considering we spend $13K per student. We have schools in D97 that FAILED Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) & the solution is more $$? There are systemic issues we need to fix in the fiscal & edu mgmt of D97 first.

Noel Kuriakos  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 8:23 AM

@EJackson. What I have been saying is that D200 can INVEST in programs not loan funds. There is a big difference. Again D200 spends on programs outside of it's school such as the substance abuse program run by the township. The township receives funds directly from D200 for these programs because D200 believes it will help its student population. Since D97 sends 75% of D200 students, D200 can invest in D97 programs that send better prepared students, lowering D200s costs in the long run.

E. Jackson  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 8:15 AM

I actually believe Peter Traczyk has said all along that there are laws in place that prohibit D200 from loaning or transferring money to D97. However, Mr. Kuriakos, if you have found information that contradicts that, can you please share it.

Carollina Song from Oak Park  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 7:42 AM

At the two remaining referendum forums (Lincoln on 3/23, and Holmes on 3/24), I am sure that we can have a full discussion of how Oak Park compares to LaGrange, Elmhurst, etc.

Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 6:53 AM

Well, Mr. Reed, assuming that is accurate, then what? Do you think there is a relationship between expenditures per student and test scores? If so, then D97 must be facing challenges that the outer suburbs are not, and therefore the way to higher test scores would be additional funding. If there is not a relationship between test scores and spending, then test scores are not relevant to the issue of whether D97 needs additional funding.

Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 6:20 AM

Mr. Kuriakos, I make no claim that D200 is legally prohibited from giving money to D97. My point is that D97 cannot compel D200 to give it money.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 17th, 2011 5:38 AM

Mr. Dagnon's point was that there are schools who are delivering the same or better education for less cost per student that D97 does currently before the requested tax hike. We have only to look at Elmhurst, LaGrange, and Western Springs schools to find examples of local districts (who compete for new families with Oak Park, btw) who deliver higher test scores, for less cost, in areas that are arguably more similar to OP than what the Board calls "peers" like Glencoe, Morton Grove, Skokie...

Noel Kuriakos  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 9:57 PM

Mr. Hurtado should research his claim that D200 cannot give $ to D97. If D200 gave money to D90 and D97 in their respective proportions (25%, 75%) to fund programs that benefits D200, then it would skirt any law.

OP parent  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 9:10 PM

I am sick to death of people vilifying teachers. They work hard and are underpaid even with a summer break. Instead of blaming them, why aren't we asking why the certain political interests are so interested in destroying the unions? It's pure opportunism.

Thank you!  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 9:08 PM

I was disheartened by the mean-spiritedness of Dagnon's attack on a little kid's defense of his school, but also disappointed by the fact that he didn't deliver what he promised in the way of data or analysis. Thank you for pointing that out.

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 1:39 PM

(cont. from below). Mr. Hurtado's observation reflects the attitude of too many teachers who have come to expect annual raises even when the taxpayers can't afford them. It is safe to say that a lot of workers in private industry have not gotten pay raises of late. Why can't public employees follow suit in rough times?

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 1:36 PM

While Mr. Hurtado makes many valid points in his otherwise well-written letter, he does make one argument that serves to exemplify the problem that a lot of people have with school funding. In his defense of the referendum, Mr. Hurtado notes that the OP teachers have agreed to a pay freeze, which Mr. Hurtado says "amount to a pay cut." No Mr. Hurtado, it does not. A loss of a job is a "pay cut." Mandatory unpaid furloughs are a "pay cut."

Broken System from Oak Park  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 10:09 AM

I respect Daniel Hurtado's passion for this issue. But what he describes is a fundamentally broken system dominated by unions, uncoordinated taxing bodies, and little accountability for improvement. Some feel that dumping more taxpayer dollars into the broken system may keep it afloat a while longer. I don't buy into that and will be voting no on the referendum in hopes that it will cause a wholesale reconsideration of the structure and mission of District 97 schools.

Peter R.  

Posted: March 16th, 2011 9:05 AM

Right on brother!

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