District 97 sent a delegation of about 30 to Springfield last Wednesday to join a statewide rally supporting a "tax swap" measure that would raise state income taxes, lower property taxes and increase school funding.
Boarding a bus that left Oak Park at 6:30 a.m., parents, school board members (past and current), school employees and representatives of the League of Women Voters donned school-bus-yellow T-shirts to show their support for House Bill 755, a compromise bill based on House Bill/Senate Bill 750.
"Our message is relatively simple: the system as it is right now isn't working," Dan Burke, Dist. 97 school board member, told the Oak Park lobbyists.
"It's important to me as a teacher that the schools in Illinois need equal funding, [so all students have access to a good education] not just the wealthy ones," said Mary Alheim, a Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School teacher.
Alheim added that taking the burden off local property taxes would lessen the "sense of control" taxpaying parents would have regarding school operations, and return it to "the educators' hands."
Burke and board President Carolyn Newberry Schwartz are liaisons to the district's Legislative Advocacy Committee. Formed in January 2004, the committee tracks legislation and makes recommendations to the board on which bills to support. The Dist. 97 board passed a resolution in support of HB 750.
Last year, Burke and Newberry Schwartz headed up a similar Springfield trip, but with fewer people, to promote school funding increases. This year not only did Oak Park send more people to ask for school funding increases, but the trip coincided with a rally led by The Better Funding for Better Schools Coalition, a lobbyist organization pushing for better school funding. Estimates ranged from 750 to more than 1,000 people who crowded the capital Rotunda for a rally, then addressed their representatives.
Burke prepped the Oak Park delegation when the bus was about an hour from Springfield. He said HB 755 lacked funding for early childhood education and capital improvements, but that it was a worthy step forward in state funding for schools.
At the rally, speakers preached to the choir of education supporters, most of whom wore pro-HB 750 or other yellow shirts. Sen. James Meeks, after rhetorically asking how long the state would fund education based on "how drunk Uncle Willie gets," a reference to Gov. Rod Blagojevich's proposal to increase school funding by expanding gambling (which he announced at an April press conference at Oak Park and River Forest High School), stirred the crowd like no other, leaving the dais with everyone chanting, "We want change now!"
"If your legislator's not going to fund education, switch 'em," said Sharon Voliva, chair of Better Funding for Better Schools.
Speakers also criticized a Chicago Tribune front-page article from that morning that said taxpayers would pay on average 20 percent more each year as a result of the tax swap proposal. The author of HB 750 has said that 60 percent of Illinoisans would pay less in combined property and income taxes.
River Forester Bruno Behrend, state director of FreedomWorks, a conservative lobbying organization pushing for lower taxes, passed around a double-sided paper that argued against the tax swap proposal.
In general, the tax swap would raise the state income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent, raise the corporate income tax and expand sales taxes to cover services such as haircuts and massages. In return, the schools' portion of local property tax bills would be rebated up to 30 percent by the state.
School funding would rise by approximately $2 billion. Opponents say the measure is anti-business, but the author of one version of the legislation says the measure would mean $400 million in lower taxes overall for businesses, and that it puts more burden on variable expenses (income tax) as opposed to fixed expenses (property tax).
Proponents of the legislation say increasing state school funding reduces the disparity between the quality of education at rich and poor schools.
After the rally, the Oak Park group met with its legislators, mostly with disappointing results. Except for state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, none expressed total support for the bill. State Sen. Don Harmon supports the bill's theory, but said he needed to see figures of how the bill would affect Oak Parkers, didn't want to vote for a watered-down bill and didn't want to vote for a bill that did not have enough support to override the governor's veto, which Blagojevich has pledged to do.
"I don't think there's any doubt it's the right thing to do," said Harmon. "The political process is an ugly, divisive and not always genuine process."
Harmon said he was a "fan of compromise," but not if it produces an unworthy bill. "I don't want to sell out," he said.
Harmon said he needed to hear from constituents about whether they support the legislation. "There's a certain element of theater to all this," and being able to hold up a fistful of letters while arguing before the senate helps," Harmon said.
On the bus ride home, Oak Parkers said Harmon sounded more positive about the proposal than he did at a February Dist. 97 forum.
Lobbyists were disappointed in the responses of state Rep. Calvin Giles, who they said suggested building a grassroots campaign and address their concerns to the governor's office.
"If anyplace is grassroots it's Oak Park," said Martha Brock, a village trustee. "He's totally out of tune. He's totally out of step with us." The village of Oak Park also passed a resolution supporting the state school funding increase.
The Dist. 97 group had a meeting scheduled with Elliot Regenstein, the governor's director of education reform, but Regenstein was called into a meeting with the governor just as the Dist. 97 meeting was about to start.
A receptionist at the governor's office two hours later confirmed Regenstein was with the governor in a "school reform" meeting.