The District 97 referendum is not about the kids. In the near term the referendum's goal is to maintain teachers', certified employees' and administrators' current salaries and benefits. The long-term ramification of the referendum is it maintains a base level of compensation for future increases in salaries and benefits. The context of the referendum is the aftermath of the "Great Recession," a transformational economic event that most of us have never experienced in our lifetimes.
We are mired in debt nationally, statewide and locally. Our focus should be not only to provide a great education, but to also provide an economic environment where our children can apply their knowledge and hard work to prosper. Instead we are burying the kids in debt and virtually guaranteeing them a dismal future with less opportunity and a lower standard of living.
Salaries and benefits will consume at least 75 percent of District 97's 2010-2011 budget of nearly $79 million. The current average teacher salary, not including benefits, is now over $72,000 and is 37 percent higher than the average salary in 2002. In 2011 there is 55 percent more teachers in the district than there was in 1990, yet enrollment is up only 15 percent in the same period. And the contention that people are drawn to Oak Park because of its quality schools seems to be wrong in light of the village's population drop from over 65,000 in 1970 to less than 52,000 in 2010. Ominously, a new teacher contract is on the horizon in 2013, and District 97 is already planning another tax referendum for 2018 even if the referendum passes next month.
Value is a condition that most in the private sector must provide or perish. Even with one of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the state, no Oak Park elementary school is mentioned in Chicago Magazine's top 50 schools. In state testing, District 97 schools are only in the top 9 percent statewide, and four of the six elementary schools failed to achieve federal "annual yearly progress" requirements.
Yet, if the referendum fails, proposed cuts aren't designed to address the largest portion of the budget: salary and benefits. Instead the focus is on items that directly affect the kids. To maintain rising salary and benefits for a select group, the solution comes in the form of reduced staff resulting in larger class sizes and the elimination of sports, arts, languages, and programs for gifted kids and kids with special needs. If we're really concerned about our children and their futures, the debate should be about sharing the burden in difficult economic times, and most importantly getting our financial house in order. Recent events have shown that neither a great education nor deep experience are a guarantee of security or success. Both are essential, but without a sensible and sustainable approach to our finances, their value is highly diminished.
If it's really about the kids then vote no on April 5.
Richard Gorman is an Oak Park resident.
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