By Terry Dean
With the vote less than a week away on District 97's tax hike referendum, here are a few of the questions the Journal's staff hears most often and the answers.
So what's the real cost of this vote to me? Everyone agrees on this – the district, the township assessor, the proponents, the opponents. For every $1,000 you paid this year for property taxes, a "yes" vote will add $38 to your tax bill. So, if your property taxes are $10,000, your bill goes up $380.
OK, then why is everyone talking about the wording and the math on the ballot question being wrong? This is both complicated and simple. The law firm advising District 97, and several other local government bodies, left out a key part of the equation when doing the math. The impact is that the ballot question substantially underestimates the cost of the tax hike. The law firm says it did the math the way the state law reads and that's why nine other ballot questions this spring across Cook County are wrong in exactly the same way.
What about that pay freeze the District 97 teachers took? It wasn't just teachers. Administrators, support staff and teachers all agreed to a one-year pay freeze for the next school year. The agreement freezes wages and the automatic step increases for teachers. The savings will amount to over $1 million next year. Teachers had two conditions for making the deal: Most of the savings had to be used largely to reduce the number of its fellow union members who would otherwise lose their jobs next year. And the current teachers' contract was extended out for another year. That takes it to 2014.
The district has set out a series of cuts it will make this fall if the referendum fails. Is it real? The list of proposed cuts is considerable—foreign language in elementary grades, art, music, drama across the district and after school activities in the middle schools. Critics call it a "scare list." School board members insist those cuts are undesirable but necessary if the referendum fails. The district has said that if it does fail they will still be able to mitigate a portion of the cuts for next year because of the money saved from the pay freeze. Critics contend the district won't make all those cuts this fall and will benefit from learning to live within its means.
Why did the district announce a more expensive referendum plan first? The district has been contemplating a referendum vote for several years. The first plan was announced late last fall and involved selling working cash bonds. In January they shifted gears and approved a less expensive plan that calls for a permanent tax hike. Why the change? Again complicated.
Until the state government passed the income tax increase early this year, District 97 was very worried about when, or if, it would receive the significant state aid it was already owed by the state—in the millions.
So the district initially planned for a working cash bond sale that would have cost voters $61 per $1,000 in property taxes. It would have raised more money for the district to cover the expected shortfall in state funding. It also would eventually have been paid off and left tax rates unchanged. When the state income tax was OK'd the district quickly shifted to a "limiting rate increase" otherwise known as a permanent tax hike.
Critics have claimed this is a "bait and switch" maneuver. The district would say it was a nimble response to changed circumstances and is much cheaper for taxpayers.
Has the district really been cutting costs every year for a decade? Yes, the district has absolutely been cutting costs every year. Programs, administrative staff, materials have all been cut. District officials make frequent references to duct tape holding facilities together.
So why have my taxes paid to District 97 kept increasing? What hasn't gone down are salaries for teachers, staff and administrators, health care costs, numbers of teachers (driven up in part by rising enrollment and special ed requirements). The district says some of those increases are inevitable but also pledges to take a harder line on future employee contracts. Critics say the cost increases are evidence of a profligate spending culture.
Where will the district spend the new money if the referendum passes? In addition to saving many of the programs on the current cut list, the district says it will "invest modestly" in classroom technology and fixing up long ignored schoolyards. Opponents criticize the district saying it has no specific technology plan to follow.