D97 says time played role in $2.6M tax surprise

District officials say they only had about a week to catch the problem

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

During an interview last week, Alicia Evans, District 97's assistant superintendent for finance, said the district had a very narrow window of time to prevent the infusion of an extra $2.6 million of additional revenue they collected as a result of their successful referendum on April 4.

Since learning about the additional revenue on June 17, which was more than the $13.3 million the district had anticipated the referendum generating, district officials have been searching for ways to return the extra funds.

The extra money, district officials explained in a statement released on June 29, is "due to an unexpected increase of 5 percent in the equalization factor that occurred after the Board of Education approved the district's levy for 2016 and finalized the sizing of the April referenda."

The D97 school board is considering either issuing refund checks to the roughly 19,000 property taxpayers in Oak Park or using the money to pay down around $4.45 million on bonds the district issued to help fund the construction of its two middle schools 15 years ago.

In an interview on July 1, Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar said he alerted D97 officials of the extra revenue on June 17.

ElSaffar added that the district might have averted the problem of dealing with the unwanted cash if it had caught the unexpected increase in the equalization factor in the draft tax reports that the Cook County Clerk's Office emails taxing bodies in April before issuing final reports.

"There were opportunities to learn about this earlier and for whatever reason they didn't," ElSaffar said, adding that the D97 school board could have approved an amended levy to avoid the unanticipated cash infusion.

Although Evans said the school board could have made the change if the discrepancy was caught early enough, the window of opportunity was narrow — about a week.

"The [draft tax rate reports] were released on April 14 and we got notice from the county that the reports were due on April 21," Evans said. "The information we received was very limited. Basically, we were verifying whether or not the levy amount we requested in November was correct. They were correct at the time we received the levy edit report."

Evans said she and another district official verified the draft reports and "it wasn't obvious that there was an issue that needed to be corrected." She noted that, in an email, the clerk's office stated the reports needed to be returned to their office no later than April 21.

At least one other school district in suburban Cook County, Evanston/Skokie School District 65, also experienced an unexpected infusion of cash after a limiting rate referendum passed in April. District 65 got $1.5 million over the $14.5 million the district had anticipated.

D97 school board members may vote on how to return the extra $2.6 million they received at a regular meeting on July 18. They may meet during special session "prior to July 18 if there are time-sensitive aspects or elements of either option that require more immediate discussion and action," according to the district's June 29 statement.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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