Advisory committee to help chart direction for OPRF's $100M fund balance

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Just how much money can, and should, a school district pile up in the bank?

A newly appointed District 200 school board finance committee will look to address that issue in the coming months. The Finance Advisory Committee was approved in the spring. This week, the committee members were announced by Oak Park and River Forest High School. The group's charge is to help the high school figure out what is a reasonable fund balance and how to reach that level, said Jeff Weissglass, chair of the committee and a recently elected school board member. Two other newly elected school board members -- Tom Cofsky and Jackie Moore -- are also committee members.

The 15-person group includes D200 Supt. Steven Isoye, former Oak Park Village President David Pope and two members of the District 97 elementary school board. Several community members with a background in finance and other school officials round out the committee.

The high school has received praise and criticism from community members concerning its $100 million-plus fund balance. The committee is expected to help explain OPRF's finances better to the community.

"What I heard through the campaign were people who were certainly concerned about the size of the fund balance," said Weissglass, who was elected in April.

The high school's fund balance grew greatly between 2005 and the present. OPRF successfully passed a referendum in 2002, it's last time going to the voters for more money. But later the high school was able to collect millions more via the state's "phase-in" provision. The provision allows a taxing body to collect any monies that weren't initially collected in a referendum. OPRF's use of the phase-in continues to rub many Oak Park voters the wrong way.

"There's lingering unhappiness about that; a distrust of a board that was sitting 10 years ago and what they did," Weissglass said. "It feels like it's just been percolating in the community."

Weissglass added that he's not looking to relitigate past decisions but to look toward the future.

As a board committee, the group's meetings, slated for twice a month beginning July 15, will be open to the public. Meetings will also be recorded and posted on OPRF's website (www.oprfhs.org). The committee will meet through December and is expected to make a recommendation to the board as it finalizes its end-of-the-year levy. The board will decide then if the committee should continue, says John Phelan, D200's board president.

The pros and cons of high fund balances

Supporters of OPRF's fund balance, which is currently around $123 million, say the money is needed to deal with pressing issues, such as upcoming renovations to OPRF, as well as the state's unsettled pension crisis. Opponents argue, among other things, that stockpiling cash is a way to avoid going back to voters for a referendum — OPRF has looked to push its next referendum off for at least another six years.

Phelan acknowledges those concerns but gives previous board some slack over their decisions.

"The comment keeps coming up that we have too much money, which is the easy question. The hard questions are how much should we have and how do we get there in a responsible way that preserves the district's interest long-term," he said.

Weissglass noted that along with pensions and renovations, the high school is projecting a jump in overall enrollment in the coming decade, requiring the need for more staff and space in the building.

"One piece of what this committee is is let's take a deeper dive into those things and ask what kind of expenses are we actually looking at in what timeframe, and what's the appropriate way to finance each of those," he said.

Around the time of the phase-in, supporters said that money would help with, among other things, the school's lingering achievement gap.

Opponents argue that the gap hasn't budged, and that much of the money hasn't been spent at all. Phelan, however, believes the issue isn't that simple.

"I didn't just want to go and spend that taxpayers' money so that we could spend it and get rid of it so that we wouldn't be criticized," he said. "But the question was, we're in sort of uncharted territory in terms of how do you find a way out of this, and that's what I'm hopeful this committee will do."

Reader Comments

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Comment Policy

dystOPia from OP  

Posted: July 15th, 2013 9:36 AM

The fact that David Pope's mismanagement of DTOP TIF funds led to the D200 lawsuit, makes it unacceptable that he is being included on the financial advisory committee. The same applies to Spatz and Traczyk, who supported Pope and the village in the lawsuit. There is a long line of applicants with actual financial expertise for the advisory committee who may better represent the community, w/o the inherent bias and conflict of interest of Pope, Traczck and Spatz. What is John Phelan's intent?

Analysis  

Posted: July 13th, 2013 8:58 AM

The 2012-13 expenditures were 4.6% under budget. The 2013-14 budget projects a 7.74% increase in expenditures. In other words, the money NOT spent in 2012-13 is budgeted to be spent in 2013-14, plus some more. The year over year BUDGETED expenditure increase is 2.72%. So, regarding the combined 2012-14 budgets, there are no real savings unless the 2.72% growth rate is considered low.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 12th, 2013 12:49 AM

I stand by my compliment about the availability of a comprehensive report of current financial conditions. I think their transparency is evidence of good intent.

Unfortunately  

Posted: July 11th, 2013 11:50 PM

Mr. Traczyk, thank you. I did review the link and because it did not include any info except for 2012-13 and the 2013-14 budget, it's incomplete in that it did not include actual/comparable spending for 2011-12 and 2010-11. Also, your link stated that this "savings" was mostly either for expenses deferred or beyond your control - not at all the impression left in your "Finance Promise Kept" flyer. Or did I misunderstand? What did the board actually do to generate that $3M in savings?

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 11th, 2013 5:12 PM

Excellent financial report - D97 is to be congratulated for taking transparency in government several bars higher.

Peter Traczyk from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 11th, 2013 1:29 PM

@Unfortunately. The analysis of the 2013-14 D97 budget savings was presented at the 7/9 Board Meeting. Here's a direct link to the appropriate section: https://v3.boardbook.org/Public/PublicItemDownload.aspx?ik=34030087. All of the Board Packet materials are online, as is a more detailed report on the Referendum promises and results.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 11th, 2013 11:47 AM

Perhaps, part of the effort to have the taxing bodies to work more together and collaborate should include a consolidated report on revenue/expenditures, fund balances, debt, etc. would give the residents a clearer view of the status of financial conditions overall. Residents think in consolidated taxes not individual taxing body results.

Unfortunately  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 4:17 PM

@muntz - I agree. @Bridgett - I'm always baffled trying to understand the logic/math/rationale behind the county numbers, but I do know that D97 and D200 play games with the figures that they present to us. I again refer to my post from yesterday about D97 and their back slapping about "saving $3million!" Notice that they don't provide any info on HOW they did that? Which of course leads in to the "backslapping" by D200 and how they are so smart and prudent with their thievery "for the children"

Speedway from Oak Park  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 2:35 PM

Well, I guess I will stick around and fight D200 to get my money back. Thanks everyone for the info.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 1:28 PM

@Unfortuately, You're right. I missed typing the word "variable." The variable Homeowner Exemption is being phased out. It's going to be just a flat rate for everyone. It used to be that you could have an exemption of over $2,000. Now it's $811.

muntz  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 11:19 AM

@Unf-More accurately...The politically connected corporations and real estate investment firms that can afford to lobbyists and lawyers are the ones that most benefit.

Unfortunately  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 9:41 AM

I don't believe that they are eliminating the HO exemption, but reducing it back to, sort of, what it once was: http://tax.illinois.gov/localgovernment/PropertyTax/taxrelief.htm. Who benefits? Commercial property owners and non-owner-occupied residential owners. Loses? Owner-occupied residents. Change? I don't think that it's a lot. You should better worry about the foxes from D97 and D200 guarding the hen house of the OPRF surplus!

Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 9:30 AM

At Bridget - Didn't realize that they were doing away with the homeowner's exemption. That's too bad. I have some difficult decisions about whether to remain in Oak Park. I personally do not feel the level of services I utilize are worth the taxes I pay on the small property I own. I could buy a small house somewhere else with lower taxes and put in my own inground swim pool and still be ahead. Crime would be lower and there would be no Violet Aura pushing me to take the #66 bus for diversit

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 8:44 AM

@Speedway, Yeah, I know...and it's county wide. Remember when we got that lovely insert in our property tax bill last year, explaining this? Letting us know that Cook County was a BILLION dollars in debt? Translation:"We have done a terrible job with your money, and so we need more of it, regardless of the fact that the value of your home has gone down." And now they are phasing out the homeowners exemption. Resulting in an even higher tax bill.

Unfortunately  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 6:29 AM

@Speedway & Bridget: don't forget that during the faux real estate boom last decade, village "leaders" were proclaiming that the reason for the real estate increases in OP (and RF) were due to THEIR stewardship/spending AND therefore increasing property taxes/home rule (and their spending plans - looking at you Rigas, park district and library, too!) were a good thing! Yes, honestly - can you believe it!?!

Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 2:57 AM

Bridget just to remind you, property taxes are up and property values are still down.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 12:25 AM

Whether a homeowner takes advantage of XYZ the Village has to offer, whether it be the 11 schools, the 3 libraries, the 25 parks and centers, the various township social services, all of it adds value to your property. I certainly am not of the opinion of having high taxes just to have high taxes. And I do think government can be way more fiscally responsible. However, I do think we sometimes forget how much this town has to offer.

Bridgett from Oak Park  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 12:12 AM

Just an FYI about seniors and property taxes--they pay less taxes than non-seniors. Not only are they entitled to a homeowners exemption, but they get a senior exemption and are eligible for a senior freeze exemption. So they already get a break for not taking part in the schools, AND they get the benefit of their property value being high because they live in a town with good schools.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 10:17 PM

Great posts. D200 has asked for feedback from residents, and hopefully they are reading the posts.. The OPV elections this year wandered into the D200 subjects. I am glad the district did ignore the feedback from the spring and are moving forward on the spirit of the 2013 elections. We should all thank those elected officials, staff members, and citizens for serving on ah advisory committee that has a challenging subject.

Unfortunately  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 9:24 PM

I have in front of me the latest newsletter from D97 and they are bragging, under "Finance Promise Kept" that "expenditures for this past year were about $3 million under the forecasts used when planning the referendum" Question: Was it a lie when they claimed, based on this "savings," that they'd have to lay people off, etc if the referendum failed? I think that I know the answer and several people commented then that D97 was lying with this claim. And the same D97 people are on this cmte?!?

OP Resident # 545 from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 6:17 PM

Lad, you are correct. The poor aren't going away. In fact, give the Current Occupant two more years and we'll all be poor. Of course, that's been the plan all along.

muntz  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 5:54 PM

In a district where two of the Asst Superintendents received over 10% raises and two Asst Principles received 8% raises; and a district that has that many levels of admin that actually employs $130K Assistant Anythings, don't expect a refund. Just pray it doesn't get invested in IL bonds.

James Sally  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 5:34 PM

GIVE IT BACK

Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 5:23 PM

Sorry, but I am done. I simply want my share of any surplus. The HS benefitted far more from the referendum than I voted for. Then they continued to pass yearly levies that it didn't need. The HS was not upfront with the taxpayers on how much surplus they were sitting on until WJ brought it to our attention. Then they hit us with another tax levy. Sorry, I don't want to discuss it, I want my money back. The current school board should think twice or I'll vote them out again.

Dale from River Forest  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 4:45 PM

I agree with those who are calling for a reduction in the levy until the surplus is within reasonable limits. When you get a group of Oak Park and River Forest Progressives together to figure out how to spend a surplus, you come up with more cockamamie schemes like the Early Childhood Collaboration. Make sure any new spending is for sensible post secondary education initiatives ONLY.

The Hypocrisy Police  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 4:33 PM

These discussions of Oak Park's burdensome taxes never fail to show the true nature of Oak Park's vaunted 'diversity' when those who are too old or not well-off enough to keep up with the rising taxes are are inevitably shown the door by the likes of Lad. Lad doesn't even recognize the laughable hypocrisy of preaching "the poor aren't going away" less than an hour after telling struggling seniors to get the hell out. Pathetic and disgusting indeed.

The Lad from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 4:08 PM

545, why are schools exempt and not libraries (I have books at home - where's my tax break?), fire department (I have my extinguisher), or parks (I don't swim)? Please tell me the difference. You talk like someone who would directly benefit. I see the private schools don't teach apostrophes show possession, not the plural. You need to live in a fortified bunker if you are unwilling to share the costs. Sorry, the poor aren't going away, no matter how much you want it.

Uncommon Sense  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 3:56 PM

Sending your kids to private school is a personal choice. Not having kids is not a reason to not have to contribute to the well being of the community. With that said, the property tax burden is getting burdensome. I wouldn't mind so much if the district gave some pretense of actually trying to save money or spend it wisely. Just actively cracking down on nonresident students would be a good place to start building some good will with those us that pay for this nonsense.

OP Resident # 545 from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 3:36 PM

Lad, we are "sharing" ourselves into oblivion with the massive wealth transfer and confiscation going on. OP residents who send kids to private HS's should absolutely get a voucher/rebate as they're saving D200 considerable $$, just as private/parochial kids save D97 & 90 $$$. Seniors & childless families should not, however. When one invests in a community you invest for the long haul. though private schools parents have chosen to give more than should be required.

Tired of Taxes from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 3:34 PM

Personally, I find the most outrageous part of our tax bill to be the amount we pay for the library each year. Compared with other communities is is quite excessive.

Tired of Taxes from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 3:31 PM

At first glance, the committee seems stacked with school officials, which would lead one to assume that they will justify the large balance. Hopefully they will also conclude that no referendum is needed for a long time.

The Lad from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 3:23 PM

It is pathetic and disgusting to see people suggest that those who don't use schools get a tax rebate. Seniors who say they can't afford tax rates should get a reverse mortgage or move out. Getting older means planning and anyone in OP knows we have no tax base and plenty of kids to educate. People that send their kids to private schools should be grateful they have ther resources. We live in a society, and that means sharing the cost of things that will benefit all: schools, parks, etc.

Overtaxed Geezer from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 3:15 PM

Second the motion by Foley. Agree with Justine.

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 3:13 PM

When reviewing the advisory committee roster, why do I have a really bad feeling that the D200 fund balance is going to be re-purposed to replace the expired DTOP TIF?

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 3:00 PM

"Just how much money can, and should, a school district pile up in the bank?" My guess is that the answer is going to be, oh, whatever the fund balance is as of now. Let's see a show of hands of those who think that the board will decide to give some back in the form of a rebate? And if the board is going to do anything with it, fund the unfunded pension balance so that it is 100% funded - NOW! Unless the board wants to use that as a reason to ask for more money six years from now.

no voucher system here  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 2:52 PM

seniors ok, maybe, but not private school families. that is a choice, just like not having children.

K from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 2:46 PM

Since there is so much in reserves why not stop making senior citizens and residents sending their kids to private schools pay taxes to D200? Many seniors don't have the money, and why should people who opt for private schools get dinged twice (tuition & public schools)? My parents, like many others, were born & raised in OP and can't afford to live here anymore and this is (one of) the many reasons. Not to mention the fact that they haven't used the school system in nearly 30 years.

Maggie from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 2:41 PM

Of our 5 children only two went to OP/RF. The rest went to private schools by our choice. What would OP/RF do if all the students in private schools went to OP/RF With the economy as is, many citizens are struggling to pay their taxes. They would gladly welcome some sort of refund. What about the students in our schools who do not live in this District? We need tougher laws to keep them out, After living here for 51 years I think we need to do something re. our. school taxes.

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 2:37 PM

Why no representative from District 90 or the Village of River Forest. While I am sure that Karen and Lou, both of whom are excellent choices for this board, will do an outstanding job representing our interests, why are there no other River Forest reps on this board?

Pro  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 2:31 PM

Those of us who like the fund balance are never going to convince those of you who do not like it. But the least we can do is spend it wisely. Good to see some thought going into this!

Greg from RF  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 2:30 PM

I am also optimistic that this board understands the voter's justified outrage at past boards who offered no sensible reason for the increasing balance and need for funds. I hope that this excess balance will not be used by the board to justify increase teacher pay. It should not be there in the first place. I for one will watch and hope for a reasonable solution. If not, I will gladly support and encourage a referendum to roll-back which is always at the voter's disposal.

Greg from RF  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 2:24 PM

This seems pretty simple to me, follow the direction of the County Treasurer and seek to have 8 months of reserves. With Toni P doing her job collections are more regular and can be counted on. Secondly set aside a reasonable pension cushion until the State can figure things out. Lastly do not raise tax collection until the fund has been worked down to the target balance. Whats done is done. BTW...I think the fund cannot be used for Capital projects or so I was told.

Justine from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 1:48 PM

Most people do not realize that referendums can be reversed. With a certain percentage of signatures from registered voters on a petition to reverse a referendum, (don't recall the number but it's not a lot) it can be placed on the next election ballot as a question for vote. Just letting you guys know. Perhaps someone frustrated enough with the obscene amount of $ being given to this entity will begin the process. I'll sign up!

Daniel Foley from River Forest, Il  

Posted: July 9th, 2013 1:31 PM

OPRF has a fund balance of +$123M; wow. More money in 'surplus' than most medium sized insurance companies, and no plans to reduce the tax levy. Given the excess in the fund, I'd support an immediate rebate to all taxpayers, based on time in the district, retroactive to 2005 (inception of the program) of $25M. That would leave close to $100M in the bank.

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