District 97 board members take an oath at the beginning of the term which includes the following:
I further swear (or affirm) that: I shall respect taxpayer interests by serving as a faithful protector of the school district's assets.
As stewards of the taxpayers' money, any inefficient use by District 97 is considered mismanagement. Over the last 10 years the board of District 97 has not faithfully protected District 97's financial assets. Every year the board and administration has spent more than what the tax levies have brought in. The Illinois State Board of Education has placed District 97 on financial review status, year after year, giving District 97 the dubious distinction of joining the 20 percent of Illinois districts that are in financial straits. Close to 70 percent of the districts in Illinois have been given the ISBE seal of approval because they were fiscally prudent.
This should not have happened to District 97. Over the last 10 years, the district's tax levy has increased close to 50 percent. At the same time the consumer price index only rose about half that rate. A fiscally prudent board with the best interests of the taxpayers would have controlled costs, and banked the difference for rainy days.
Those rainy days are here and we find District 97's finances in dire straits. The cause of this financial problem stems from generous increases in total compensation to teachers and administrators, without a commiserate increase in teaching effectiveness or an increase in educational outcomes. For example, in 2010, four schools in District 97 failed the annual yearly progress set by the ISBE, even as District 97 spent well over $13,000 per pupil (all certified employees still got a pay raise).
A permanent tax increase of 3.8 percent (which is three times higher than what is stated on the ballot) will not address District 97's tax-and-spend behavior. It will only hurt our community more, as our property values continue to decrease, with young families opting to look at other communities that are more affordable, with lower taxes and better schools with higher test scores.
Even without a tax increase, District 97's levy will automatically increase by close to 3 percent (the average CPI increase over the years).
Voting no is a clear message to the board to sober up and face reality. It is time for a new normal. It is time for the board to cut back some of the generous compensation increases to District 97 employees, instead of cutting core curriculum programs like music and the visual arts. A small reduction in pay, about 2-5 percent (on $44 million of salary expense) and shifting more of the increases in benefits to employees, will allow District 97 to keep expenses in line with levies.
Voting no is a message from taxpayers to the board: keep your oath, be fiscally prudent. When District 97 shows us credible evidence that they can manage their finances, then the taxpayers will be ready to listen to their funding requests.
Noel Kuriakos is an Oak Park resident and coordinator of Citizens Alliance of Oak Park, a group organized in opposition to District 97's tax increase referendum.