A vocal opponent of District 97s tax hike proposal has surfaced and for the third time this week joined a referendum debate hosted at a local school. Tuesday night the traveling series of referendum presentations came to Irving School, 1125 S. Cuyler Ave. Noel Kuriakos represented the Citizens Alliance of Oak Park and debated Carollina Song, co-chair of the Referendum Yes’s Steering Committee. School board President Peter Traczyk also participated.
In one or two minute responses to questions from the audience, the well-prepared Yes and No camps traded statistics in a 90-minute debate that included allegations of fiscal mismanagement and appeals to emotion. Kuriakos, a CPA, presented several slides and graphs. More than 50 people attended the debate, co-sponsored by South East Oak Park Community Organization, the Irving PTO and Wednesday Journal. In earlier presentations, PTO organizers had invited opponents to presentations, but no one stepped up.
Both Yes and No camps agreed that the proposed permanent tax levy increase comes at a bad economic time for residents. “Our timing is God-awful and terrible,” said Traczyk. “Quite simply District 97 is running out of money. It will not be able to make payroll in 2013… The fat is gone.”
Both Song and Kuriakos are District 97 parents, and both serve on school PTOs, but they disagree on the causes for the cash crunch at District 97. Song pointed out that an inequitable state and federal education tax formula put too much pressure on property taxes to fund education. Kuriakos agreed that funding was not equitable, but that District 97 had failed -- through mismanagement -- to negotiate sustainable collective bargaining agreements with the teachers unions. Using charts and graphs, Kuriakos showed what he called “ballooning pension costs.” “Some teachers have doubled their salaries over the past years. Has anyone here doubled their salary?” Kuriakos asked. He said District 97 would get an automatic CPI budget increase of 2.7 percent yearly without the referendum and that the district needed to live within its budgets like employers in the public and non-profit sectors.
Under the state’s tax cap legislation, school districts annual tax increases are limited to the Consumer Price Index. In the past year that amounted to 2.7 percent. Traczyk pointed out that a year earlier that number had been much lower but acknowledged that the CPI increase had averaged 2.5 percent over the past decade.
When responding to a question about what would happen if the referendum fails, Traczyk returned to the list of programs the district has said it would cut -- arts, music, drama, sports, and foreign languages. He acknowledged that recent voluntary one-year pay freezes among teachers and staff might give room in the budget for somewhat less draconian cuts. “Some positions might be spared by that dollar,” he said.
If the referendum fails and class sizes must ultimately be increased, he said the district would consider reorganizing elementary schools into “grade centers” focusing on grades K-2 and 3-5. By clustering grades, the district might have greater flexibility in managing class size. Forest Park implemented this strategy 18 months ago.
Kuriakos suggested that the surplus dollars in the District 200 Oak Park and River Forest High School budget might be used to fund language, arts, music and sports in the middle schools. He suggested that the absence of discussions along these lines between the school districts was a “failure of leadership.”
Song cited the importance of public education in her life, saying that when she grew up “my family qualified for free-and reduced lunches” and that now two of her siblings were now working toward PhDs. “Public education has been the ladder to my family’s success and I’m here as a partial repayment of a debt of honor….The question to ask ourselves as we decide what to do on April 5 is which choice is likely to lead to better schools?” Song called the Yes vote the right choice, “even if it’s not an easy choice.”
Kuriakos, who was laid off 11 months ago from a job in software product management, said that the anti-referendum voters oppose “this referendum, not public education… I value my community that’s why we want to keep it affordable.” In a post debate interview he said he stepped forward to oppose the referendum because he represents the “silent majority. The rhetoric is causing many of my neighbors to be silent. Someone has to stand up.”
Early voting has begun at Oak Park’s village hall.