By Dan Haley
I was skimming down the list of names on the new OPRF Finance Advisory Committee Monday. And there, at number 12, was the name of Oak Park's newest ex-president.
"David Pope," I said laughing out loud. "I thought you might find that amusing," said John Phelan, the new District 200 school board president, sitting across a table from me at George's Restaurant. In fact, he pointed out, three of the eight community reps on this intriguing new committee were last seen together on the mediation committee trying to end the divisive lawsuit the high school brought against village government and the District 97 elementary schools over TIF funding.
And right there at No. 13 and 14 were Bob Spatz, currently the president of the D97 board, and Peter Traczyk, former D97 board president and still a board member there.
You want proof that it is a new day at OPRF, that its voter-rebuilt school board is determined to close its trust deficit with the community over its high-flying finances? This committee is it — and not just that past critics and some financially very bright citizens have been appointed to the group.
Look at the charge Phelan's board has put in front of this committee: Sort out an appropriate dollar range for this district's currently gigantic fund balance. It was $120 million the last time I asked, but it is growing more topsy than turvy.
Yes, after years of community questions and concerns about why this district is stockpiling cash, the board has appointed an actual blue ribbon committee to study it and make recommendations to the school board before the next property tax levy is decided in December. This revenue-focused committee is also asked to set guidelines for future tax levies. The point seems to be to consider alternatives other than just taking the maximum allowed under tax cap law every single year. And the committee is being asked to consider strategies for an eventual — really eventual — tax referendum.
Might have been the advisory the board recently received from administrators on when a referendum could actually be required that stirred Phelan and others on the board to seriously question the giant fund balance. Board members were told that 2023 — that's 10 years from now and 21 years after the last referendum — might be the target for a citizen vote. Asked how much of a reserve the district would have at that point, Phelan said they were told there would be nine months of cash in the bank.
"Who'd vote for a tax referendum when we have nine months of reserves in the bank?" he asked. It was time, he said, to take a hard look at the district's revenues.
Phelan chose Jeff Weissglass, newly elected to the board and its vice president, to chair this new committee. He was typically direct Monday in setting up the issue. "People are concerned about the fund balance. There has been lingering unhappiness and distrust of the board over this. It has been percolating for a decade," he said.
The district has a committee planning a substantial and overdue upgrade of the Scoville Avenue facility. The Journal has reported that price estimate at $50 million. The district's demographer is predicting a 25 percent increase in enrollment in coming years. The state pension crisis is most certainly going to return future teacher pension costs to school districts. And this week the district will look at a new strategic plan which will include educational initiatives — think achievement gap — that will come at a cost.
Weissglass and Phelan suggested Monday that there might be a different financial model to follow and that this committee would look for it. The impetus to find it might be that Weissglass thinks D200's fund balance on a per-pupil basis is the highest in the state.
After a decade of school board denial that the fund balance was even unusual and possibly a legitimate concern, appointment of this committee is simply remarkable.