By Dan Haley
How will Oak Parkers know that the District 97 school board, now flush with cash from last week's surprisingly lopsided referendum win, isn't going to just start spending the money? You know, iPads all around as the unfair rap went during the campaign.
I asked school board President Peter Traczyk that question on Monday afternoon because I wanted to know the specific things we should all be looking for beyond the usual platitudes like, "Voters have displayed great trust in us and it is now incumbent on each of us to spend those resources wisely." Not that Traczyk would ever say anything remotely like that. He talks like a real person and is the most candid and unguarded public official currently on the loose in Oak Park.
So he told me what to look for.
First, he said, watch Dist. 97's next property tax levy. The levy is the gross amount of tax that a public body seeks to raise via property taxes. "We're going to levy exactly what we said we'd ask for," said Traczyk. "Regardless of the game that other bodies play — and I shouldn't call it a game — we're not going to raise our levy to try and capture that extra little bit of EAV [Equalized Assessed Valuation]."
Yes, we've lapsed into tax speak. And I am not a skilled translator, but what he's saying is that most other taxing bodies (and not just in Oak Park) juice their levy requests by a couple of points in the event the community's overall assessed value is a fraction higher than expected. That way, the taxing body gets to collect the absolute full measure of tax dollars even if it is somewhat more than the body really needs.
Shorthand translation: Don't be a sap and leave even a dollar on the table.
Second, he said, as early as June, but no later than September, the school board will "invite" the Oak Park Teachers Association to start a "conversation" about notably changing the compensation system in the next contract which starts in 2014. "We are going to talk about steps and lanes. Is that the most effective way to compensate people in this era of school reform?" Clearly, Traczyk thinks not.
Yes, we've lapsed into contract speak. But every person in Oak Park who voted vehemently against the referendum, and all those who voted yes but with great trepidation, need to pay attention to "steps and lanes." From both a cost standpoint and a performance-based pay perspective, these two distinct, traditional, invisible methods of substantially raising faculty pay are where the action is going to be in the coming "conversation."
Eliminating steps and lanes, and that ought to be the only satisfactory goal, will allow costs to be controlled in the only area of real note in a school budget: faculty salaries. Equally important, if you get rid of lanes, which are automatic pay hikes every time a teacher adds post-graduate hours or degrees, it opens up all sorts of interesting merit pay options. And that is where real education reform will happen.
"We want to see what the progressive school districts in Illinois, in the country, are doing on compensation," says Traczyk. "Can we be a leader in school reform?" Clearly Traczyk intends for Dist. 97 to take that role.
What else to watch? Traczyk said the permanent cost cuts previously announced by the district will remain in place. That means the end of the Multicultural Resource Center, an iconic program in the district, and the elimination of a top administrative post. More cuts will continue each year, he has said. Traczyk also said he wants to maintain the emphasis on the district's website of posting all information regarding finances, cost cutting, budget projection models. "We want to make it easier for the public to track stuff," he said.
I voted for this referendum because I believe this school district is serious about controlling costs and reforming how we teach kids. On Monday, Peter Traczyk said nothing to dissuade me that I cast the right vote.