By Terry Dean
The lawsuit against Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and Board of Education over the district's April 5 tax hike referendum was filed April 26 with the Circuit Court of Cook County.
The suit seeks to overturn the April 5 election, where the district's rate hike referendum was approved by voters 55-45 percent. The attorney for the plaintiffs — Oak Park resident Noel Kuriakos and Taxpayers United of America — charges that the April 5 ballot language "misrepresented" the true impact of the tax increase.
"We want a finding that the ballot was invalid, and we want the election set aside," said Andrew Spiegel, who represents Kuriakos and Taxpayers United.
All seven D97 board members are also named as defendants in the suit.
In response, the district released a statement expressing disappointment that "certain individuals have chosen to file a lawsuit that will seek to invalidate the important decision that the citizens of Oak Park made regarding the District 97 referendum."
The district also insists the allegation of "misleading" voters has no merit.
"It is unfortunate that fighting this lawsuit will force the district to waste valuable time, energy and money that should be invested in meeting the needs of the families we serve," the statement reads.
The ballot language has been disputed since well before the election. The state equalizer, which is used to calculate local tax bills, was not factored in when D97 finalized its ballot wording. That was also the case with nine other school taxing bodies in the area seeking a referendum April 5.
The district has said it was following the advice of its bond counsel, Chicago-based Chapman and Cutler, in not including the equalizer. Chapman also advised some of the other taxing bodies.
The firm cited an Illinois statute that does not expressly state that the equalizer has to be used. Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar was among those arguing that the same statute doesn't expressly state to ignore the equalizer either. An Oak Park resident first alerted ElSaffar and Wednesday Journal about the discrepancy on the local ballot. As a result of not factoring in the equalizer, the wording on D97's ballot question was off by a factor of three, ElSaffar has said.
That point is also made in the lawsuit against D97.
"Prior to the general election, the district and its members became aware that the tax rate increase, and the estimated amount of said increase on a property valued at $100,000 as stated on the ballot did not include the state equalizer ...," the suit reads. "As a result, the district and its members understated the estimated amount of the tax increase by approximately two-thirds — $37.40 per $100,000 of assessed valuation instead of $126.04 per $100,000."
The suit also charges that D97 was aware of this discrepancy and OK'd the ballot language anyway. The district and board used a different and more accurate figure — $38 per $1,000 in property taxes—in their public campaign, which all sides have agreed was a correct assessment of the impact.
"The district was fully transparent throughout the process, and supplemental information was widely available and communicated in a timely fashion, using resources that were easily assessable," according to the district's statement.
In related news, the Illinois House of Representatives voted April 15 to amend the statute. The law now specifically says to use the equalizer "for the first levy year for which the new rate or increased limiting rate will be applicable." The state Senate is currently deliberating the bill, sponsored in that chamber by Oak Park state Sen. Don Harmon.
Taxpayers United filed a separate suit last Tuesday against Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 and all seven members of its school board. That suit alleges that D208 engaged in "illegal electioneering activity" to advocate for yes votes in their April 5 tax rate referendum. Voters, however, defeated that ballot measure with nearly 77 percent of voters opposed.
The RB lawsuit is asking for damages not to exceed $50,000 and that the school board members be required to pay, out of their own individual funds, any damages that might be awarded.
The Oak Park suit is not seeking any monetary damages.
Bob Skolnik contributed to this report.