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By Terry Dean
Oak Park property owners have spoken concerning their schools, and decisively.
District 97's rate hike referendum was approved by a 54.4 percent to 45.6 percent margin. The Yes votes totaled 6,067. No votes totaled 5,084.
The district won its $6 million increase, bringing its total levy to $48 million for the upcoming school year. The yes votes held a steady lead throughout the evening, 55 to 45 percent. All 45 precincts were reporting results by 9 p.m.
As a result, the eight elementary schools and two middle schools will avoid significant cuts in the 2011-12 school. Those reductions, which were approved last month, were set to take effect only if the referendum failed.
The last time the elementary school district raised the tax rate through a referendum was in 1989, more than 20 years ago. A successful referendum was passed in the early 2000s to sell bonds to build the two new middle schools.
Supporters of the referendum, including school board members, gathered Tuesday evening at Trattoria 225 on Harrison Street in Oak Park to watch the returns. About 75 people showed up and a festive mood prevailed as the final precincts reported.
"We are feeling pretty good about it," said Peter Traczyk, president of the District 97 school board.
Traczyk credited the success to the pro-referendum group, the Committee to Support Oak Park Schools.
"Absolutely it was the citizens to support Oak Park schools who were the key, and the steady number of volunteers that put it over the top," he said.
The road to Tuesday's vote was paved over nearly a decade as the school district made cuts, planned, postponed and then finally scheduled a referendum vote this spring.
And the referendum's likely impact on the district was known well before the final votes were cast.
With a referendum victory, the district would be able to plug a roughly $6 million hole in its budget. The district would also use the additional revenue to improve school grounds and make significant investments in technology. If rejected, deep cuts would take place to programs and staff in every building and at the central office.
But a few stumbling blocks occurred during the final stretch of the campaign. The language of the ballot question was scrutinized and questioned by the Oak Park Township Assessor, charging that it understated the impact to property owners.
The district had initially settled on a working cash bond sale referendum, last fall, which was a smaller amount and would eventually come off tax bills when the bonds were paid off. The district switched to a rate hike in mid-January just as the April ballots needed to be finalized. The change was made after the state raised taxes that month, giving the district a reasonable expectation that state aid would be paid in a timely fashion. District officials acknowledged that voters might be confused by the switch.
But officials and supporters nonetheless were optimistic that the measure would pass.
"We appreciate the voters listening to both sides and ultimately deciding to support Oak Park schools as we hoped they would," Traczyk said.
Referendum opponents waged what amounted to an unsuccessful campaign against the tax increase that began earlier this spring. They argued that taxes have steadily increased on property owners in recent years and that the current economic downturn was no time for another. They also argued that spending, especially on administrators and teacher salaries, should be cut before coming to voters.
The board in March had approved the elimination of 50 positions, including tenured and non-tenured teachers, to take effect in the upcoming school year if the referendum failed. Popular programs such as CAST and BRAVO, sports and arts were on the chopping block, but those programs are now spared.