WJ Endorsements: D97 referenda

Sober support for District 97 tax hikes

Opinion: Editorials

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With a clear recognition that the property tax burden in Oak Park has reached a level that is directly impacting the housing choices of villagers — spurring families who have aged out of the schools to consider leaving, and potentially impacting the ability of lower-income minority families to stay — we offer a sober but sincere endorsement of the twin referenda being put forward on April 4 by the District 97 Oak Park elementary schools. 

Advocates for the increases point to two forces driving the need for an increase in the operations portion of the tax levy six years after voters approved the last hike. Enrollment in the 10 elementary and middle schools has risen a quite staggering 1,000 children (to a total of 6,055) in recent years. And the continuing meltdown of state government has already cost the district $9 million in Springfield funding with no earthly reason to feel optimistic about what comes next.

Those are compelling arguments for a voter-backed tax hike. To them we'd add two points for backing the operations referendum. Taxpayers in D97 have benefitted from a decidedly frugal and progressive school board over the past 15 years. While critics will point, with reason, to a misguided expenditure such as the half-million-dollar FastForward software expenditure, we'd say such misfires have been rare in this district.  Instead, we see a school district that has spent wisely, implemented the most fiscally and educationally progressive faculty contract this town has seen and, when compared to the past obscene overtaxing which still rightly hounds the high school, has been a study in fiscal accountability.

Equally critical, Oak Park has ridden the excellence of these elementary schools, even with the raft of challenges our highly diverse student mix brings, to its current status as a highly sought after and wonderfully stable community. If the district is going to invest more in achieving educational equity — and the new superintendent is impressive on this critical issue — this is not the time to starve the district of funds.

When Wednesday Journal invited critics of these referenda in to make their case, there was not any clear, organized opposition to the added tax, just a suggestion that the vote be delayed a year through defeating the referendum to allow further financial review. Running the cash balance to break even, however, is no way to run a complex educational program in our opinion.

We also support the D97 facilities referendum though, like all involved, we'd have preferred a more clearly delineated building plan. Expansions at three schools to absorb the enrollment spike is broadly logical. Air conditioning and bringing each building to ADA compliance is worthy. But we'd have preferred more details. Approving this second referendum will not directly hike property taxes as the bonds approved will replace the expiring bonds used to pay for the middle schools a generation ago.

This is not an easy choice. We respect those who cannot bring themselves to vote yes. Tax capacity has been reached. Wider solutions are necessary. But right now they are nowhere in view.

Reader Comments

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Ben Conley from Oak Park  

Posted: April 3rd, 2017 8:31 PM

Jay - well stated, and I agree regarding where the blame lies here.

Jay Arbetman from Oak Park  

Posted: April 3rd, 2017 8:04 PM

One thing we know for sure. If you want to point the finger of blame at someone, drive south down I-55 and get off in Springfield, IL and visit the deeply entrenched corruption that is present on both sides of the political aisle in Springfield This is all exemplfied by the State's premier tax lawyer, M. Madigan. Illinois is a State government that is only rivalled in corruption with Arizona. Nice company to keep! Vote yes since we are a community that values education. Vote no the next time a state office holder wants your vote.

Ben Conley from Oak Park  

Posted: April 3rd, 2017 7:49 PM

Oh, and on the impact of enrollment increases and the resulting mitigation to the tax base, I agree it's very counter-intuitive. The reality though is that it costs $13k (roughly) to put a kid through the school system each year. So, at best, a family moving in with one kid is a wash. If they have two kids, it's a big money loser.

Ben Conley from Oak Park  

Posted: April 3rd, 2017 7:47 PM

Ali ElSaffar had a great piece that was included in the most recent OP/FYI and I think is available on the WJ online. The short take-away here is that a reassessment does not, in and of itself, cause your taxes to do up. That only results if your reassessment outstrips that of your neighbors. So, for instance, a 25% increase in your assessment actually could result in a tax decrease if all of your neighbors properties were reassessed at a 40% increase.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: April 3rd, 2017 12:11 PM

Meg: Our illustrious taxing bodies use the increased students to support arguments as they see fit. On one hand the Village Trustees and the Mayor says we need more density and population to increase our tax base. The schools turn this argument on its head by saying increased density and population leads to increased needs for services therefore increased needs for more taxes. It truly is a theatre of the absurd. A pox on both their houses! Send 'em a message: Vote NO! on the D97 referendum and Vote NO! on the present Village Trustee incumbents.

Meg Reynolds from Oak Park  

Posted: April 3rd, 2017 11:48 AM

No, no, no to more Oak Park tax increases!!! My family cannot handle our OP tax burden now. What are we going to do when it increases along with the triennial assessment increase? It's time for D97's Board members to do their job and pull in the belt. I also don't get how a 10 percent increase in schoolchildren in the district does not translate to an increase in the tax base? This is a poor argument for a tax referendum for D97. The average family size in Oak Park is a little over 3, according to the US Census.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: March 22nd, 2017 10:05 PM

I guess readers can interpret Haley's D97 endorsement as "Do as Dan did, vote yes and then move to Berwyn!" As Mr. T used to say: "I pity the fool."

Nick A Binotti  

Posted: March 22nd, 2017 12:46 PM

I stand by my previous comment. The structure of the D97 contract is a big step forward. I would wager other school districts will emulate this model. Now, you could argue the dollars within the contract, but you weren't going to resolve all those issues in one contract. The board has explained this contract was put in place because the board didn't want to come to taxpayers with this referendum and not have significant change in how compensation is measured. There is a risk that, if/when the referendum passes, the teachers union will ask for a larger slice in the next contract, thinking they gave something up in the current contract. That will be up to the future board to hold strong.

Ben Conley from Oak Park  

Posted: March 22nd, 2017 10:51 AM

You're certainly entitled to your opinion, although I'm not sure of the basis for it. Nick Binotti, who is very well versed in these issues, who has been a vocal opponent of the referendum, and who I respect because he does a good job of sticking to the facts, said the following: "For the record, I was actually defending the board and the current contract. It's an evolutionary step for the public sector that is long overdue and one which D200 should emulate." Don't get me wrong, there are certainly many valid reasons for opposing the referendum. But pointing to the WJ's call for a new approach to teacher compensation then trying to argue that didn't happen is, in my opinion, disingenuous.

Nick Polido  

Posted: March 22nd, 2017 9:27 AM

I have read the most recent Collective Bargaining agreement ( see link). This by no means can be construed as an accomplishment nor a overhaul. If it was such a revolutionary contract we would not find the district with its extended hand out once again! http://www.op97.org/hr/documents/OPTACBA.pdf

Ben Conley from Oak Park  

Posted: March 22nd, 2017 8:56 AM

@Nick - thanks for sharing. It is somewhat heartening to see that D97 heeded the WJ's call to overhaul the teacher CBA. Those in the know (on both sides of the aisle) seem to agree that D97 accomplished this with the most recent negotiations process.

Nick Polido  

Posted: March 22nd, 2017 8:26 AM

Continued: The end of "steps" ?" an invisible extra annual pay raise built quietly into contracts for decades ?" has already been broached with the Oak Park Teachers Association, according to the superintendent. Extraordinarily, two tenured teachers have been shown the door this year with the cooperation of the union. Jim O'Connor, a charter school founder, will join the Dist. 97 board this spring and will bring with him the aggressive yet nuanced "Performance Counts" standard of teacher evaluation and compensation planning. Peter Traczyk, the board president, understands that the nationwide practice of permanent pay raises for teachers who roll up more post graduate hours "is not highly correlated to success in the classroom." Those lane changes ought to be dumped in favor of more effective performance measures. District leaders are ready to push the state hard on reform of a pension system that was grievously overpromised, actively larded as retirements neared, and cynically underfunded. We ask the district, the faculty, and the administration to get serious now in setting Dist. 97 on an aggressive path toward education reform and the profound overhaul of school finance that must go hand in hand with it. Current methods of teaching are no longer adequate. The current model of funding our schools is cracking. The wise alternative is to create great change. Dist. 97 is poised to do that. The tempting option is to cut off funds in frustration. Don't do it. We strongly urge a yes vote for Dist. 97's changed future.

Nick Polido  

Posted: March 22nd, 2017 8:26 AM

Continued: other local taxing bodies. They are setting a foundation for serious education reform and for a rational financial deal with faculty. This school board has spent a decade scouring its budget. Year after year, it has cut costs in administration, in operations, in programs. It has been a relentless process that has allowed the district to forestall a referendum for many years. While the district waited, every other taxing body has passed tax hikes and, in the case of Oak Park and River Forest High School, run up fund reserves that are unconscionable and which make the current request from Dist. 97 seem unaffordable for some residents. Yes, costs have risen in District 97 as critics contend. Those increases are, in part, tied to a rapid rise in enrollment, to added programs such as foreign language and full-day kindergarten, and to an expansion of special education that needs to be continuously evaluated from both a cost and a service perspective. And don't forget that costs have risen because we are still paying off the bonds that built the two middle schools. Currently that's $4 million a year. The bonds will be paid in 2018. Costs have also increased because in past years this school board, and all others, have abrogated the responsibility to represent taxpayers at contract time. The contracts and the benefits have been too rich, the givebacks paltry. If we did not believe that the current school board, its administrators, and, yes, even the faculty union, fully grasp that the days of 4- to 6-percent raises, salary bumps and early retirements were long past, we would not be supporting this referendum. We are confident, though, that the Dist. 97 board does understand that, in an entirely new way, Oak Park has reached tax saturation. There is no more to give ?" no matter how supportive residents are of our schools. This is not simply a leap of blind faith. The pay freeze for next year, approved by faculty and other staff, was a positive sign.

Nick Polido  

Posted: March 22nd, 2017 8:21 AM

FLASH BACK TO WJ ENDORSEMENT FOR DISTRICT 97 REFERENDUM IN 3/22/2011: Transforming education in Oak Park is the goal. Such bold change involves building on genuine strengths evident in the District 97 elementary and middle schools. But it also demands embracing dynamic change in how we teach kids via technology and differentiation. How we grab hold all of our children early on, especially those at profound risk. Such change inevitably involves, not solely but significantly, how we look at teaching and teachers. How do we motivate teachers to change and grow? How is compensation linked to performance in innovative, substantive ways? How do we actively winnow out the relative handful of bad teachers who undermine the shared effort? How do we make our schools ?" principals, superintendents, teachers, parents, students ?" actively more accountable for innovation and success? How do we do it in a framework that is affordable in deeply challenging financial circumstances so that taxpayers, who almost universally care about education and understand the essential role good schools play in this village, can clearly see how it supports our long-term property values. For us, this is what the April 5 tax hike referendum for Dist. 97 is about. Is the best way to accomplish this change by defeating the referendum and sending a message to the school board that deep program cuts and a stick with which to whack administrators and teachers in future contract talks are the only tools they have? We understand the impulse. We respect the detractors who are determined to build a better educational system by taking down the current version. But we reject their conclusion. Wednesday Journal strongly supports passage of this referendum. Here's why. After years of intensely watching all local elected officials at work, we are particularly enthusiastic about the Dist. 97 school board. They get it. They have actively cut spending year after year. They have worked cooperatively with o

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