The Business and Civic Council of Oak Park cannot support the April 5 school referendum that seeks a huge tax increase for District 97.
We come to this conclusion reluctantly but firmly — reluctantly because education is instrumental to the quality of life in Oak Park, and a magnet for families moving here, but firmly because higher and higher property taxes are making Oak Park increasingly unaffordable for many families with school-age children. We hope that defeat of the referendum proposal calling for $45 million in additional taxes through 2018 leads to a rethinking of pay practices, tenure policies and staffing levels that have contributed to a budget deficit projected at $5.3 million next school year and rising to $11.8 million by 2016.
We reject the portrayal of a no vote as anti-teacher or anti-student. Even without the tax increase, revenues are expected to grow steadily over the next five years — just not enough to cover faster-rising expenditures. Since 1990, the number of teachers, on a fulltime-equivalent basis, has soared more than 50 percent, outstripping the 15 percent increase in enrollment. A yes vote would only postpone the day of reckoning for District 97's structural imbalance.
It is true, as proponents of the tax increase point out, that District 97 tax levies have lagged behind other local levies, which have nearly doubled over the last decade. Still, according to the township assessor, the 49 percent increase in District 97's levy easily exceeded inflationary growth of 30 percent over the same period. The BCC is counting on defeat of the proposed tax increase to slow this disturbing trend — and to lead to necessary shock therapy during the next round of labor negotiations in two years. Oak Park is hardly alone in yearning for fiscal sanity and brakes on public-sector spending.
To help win support for a yes vote, teachers and other employees have agreed to a one-year wage freeze, saving a little over $1 million. While admirable, the move ignores longer-term solutions and is a blip compared with an accumulated deficit of $42 million projected through fiscal 2016. As it is, more than 70 teachers and administrators in a system of about 500 made more than $100,000 last year, and six topped $150,000, according to the website familytaxpayers.org. This is partly the result of pension-sweetening pay boosts for personnel close to retirement.
But at the heart of the matter are salary increases year-after-year that exceeded inflation by a factor of two or three and sometimes closer to four. Add to that automatic raises based on tenure and advanced degrees, despite little evidence that graduate education outside of math and science improves teacher performance at the elementary level. District 97 labor costs are set to grow at least 4.2 percent annually over the next five years in a near-zero inflation environment. Add it all up, and it is clearly a sweet deal for teachers: The district received 2,550 applications for 49 teaching positions between November 2009 and June 2010, according to the school board president.
To cope in the absence of a tax increase, school board members have approved a list of recommended cuts totaling $4.5 million and focused on popular extracurricular activities: sports and theatre programs, plus elementary art, and fourth- and fifth-grade instrumental music. Although personnel reductions also are on the menu, the BCC regards the doomsday scenario as unreasonably narrow. It should also factor in bold alternatives for productivity gains, including merit-based pay incentives, changes in tenure policy and increased class sizes. According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the latter wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing: He says better-performing educational systems in Japan and Korea have up to 36 students in each class, compared with a U.S. average of 25: "In fact, teachers in Asia sometimes request larger class sizes because they think a broad distribution of students and skill levels can accelerate learning."
The BCC realizes that sweeping reform can't take place overnight. But it can be speeded along by rejecting the call for higher taxes.
This letter was submitted by board members of the Business and Civic Council of Oak Park, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that pushes for public policy that stimulates economic growth, according to its website. Signees of this letter include Marty Noll, Willis Johnson, Bill Planek, Frank Pellegrini, Greg Melnyk and Mike Fox.