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."