A few hundred people, mostly current and former District 97 students and their parents, crowded into Scoville Park on Saturday afternoon to show support for the district's two referenda that will appear on the ballot on April 4.
The first referendum calls for a one percent limiting rate property tax increase that amounts to around $13.3 million that would go toward operating funds to pay for employee salaries, benefits, classroom technology and programs, among other day-to-day expenses. On average taxpayers will see an increase of $74 for every $1,000 they currently pay in property taxes.
The second referendum calls for the issuance of $57.5 million in school building bonds that would pay for basic maintenance and repair, mandatory life and safety upgrades, classroom modernizations and building expansions at three elementary schools, among other capital expenses. District officials have said that this capital referenda will not increase taxes due to the expiration of bonds that were used to help pay for the construction of Julian and Brooks middle schools in 2002.
Last month, district officials laid out a worst-case scenario if both referenda fail that entails making at least $14 million in cuts over three years, which would mean the elimination of dozens of teachers, support staff, teacher librarians and most non-essential programming like music, foreign language and art. Many basic building maintenance operations and proposed building expansions and classroom modernization will be put on hold.
The many past and present D97 students who spoke during the March 18 demonstration expressed anxiety with the proposed cuts and delivered testimonials about the importance of those non-essential programs.
"My life would not be the same if it weren't for the arts," said Paul Berleman, a Julian 6th grader. "Every day, I look forward to going to school, singing in chorus and going to Bravo afterward."
Josh Czuba, a former Brooks student and current sophomore at Oak Park and River Forest, recalled his first audition with Bravo, the performing arts program at Brooks.
"I walked in and learned so much more in that one moment about being able to work with others to create something incredible," he said. "I learned so much about taking risks, choosing to be a leader and creating positive change in yourself and the people around you."
Emmy Belmont, a 1st grader at Irving, took to an elevated podium to list all of her favorite subjects, many of which district officials say would be cut if the referenda don't pass.
"My favorite classes are Spanish, arts and computer labs," she said. "When I am in middle school, I want to do tap and put on plays. Support our schools."
After an hour-long rally inside Scoville Park, the crowd walked west on Lake Street and back, chanting, "Whose schools? Our Schools!"
Jassen Strokosch, a representative with the pro-referendum group Ref Yes, said that the gathering was the result of roughly two weeks of planning by parents and students.
"It was mainly students and parents, they sort of did this on their own," he said. "It was a sort of grassroots effort that led to this."
Strokosch said that the district officials, who by law are prohibited from advocating for or against the referendum, had nothing to do with the planning. There were, however, at least two District 97 school board members in attendance — Board Vice President Amy Felton and board member Holly Spurlock.
"The most important reason for the referendum is our kids," said Spurlock, whose daughter attends school in the district. "I am so happy to see all these kids here … It's really important that we're all here making this decision together as a community. We all support public education."