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 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. 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.
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