District 97 back tracks on talk of new Oak Park administration building

Facilities committee to report on options in late September

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By Terry Dean and Jean Lotus

Staff Reporter and Contributing Reporter

District 97 officials insist that they have no immediate plans to spend $4 million for a new central office building and that any such talk about that prospect is only conceptual on their part. A district committee is scheduled to report on options for the central office building late in September.

The Oak Park elementary school district apparently felt some backlash from a skeptical community after Wednesday Journal's report on last week's board discussion of the issue was posted on OakPark.com.

Peter Barber, president of the D97 school board, who spoke with the Journal Tuesday, reiterated that talk of the administration building's future was part of a larger discussion about the district's debt service extension base. Elizabeth Hennessey, the district's financial advisor, gave a presentation at an Aug. 23, school board meeting showing a projection of the district's borrowing plan.

The presentation grouped together the district's capital project wish-lists, including $1.8 million for next year's capital improvements, and a series of items encompassed in the referendum campaign. Added technology in classrooms, and greening of outdoor spaces at the middle schools were among the campaign items.

Barber said board members discussed but ultimately opted against the idea of taking advantage of historically low interest rates to borrow money to pay for a new headquarters.

"I want to reassure the community that the board is fully committed to being as open and transparent as possible and that this topic has been somewhat taken out of context," he said. "There has been no decision made about anything concerning the future of the building and no decision would be made without input from our community."

The district's Financial Advisory Committee (FAC), he added, has been looking at about a dozen options concerning the administration building, including housing it with a therapeutic day school or pre-kindergarten program—the FAC is a D97 sanctioned, volunteer group of roughly a dozen community members that advises the board on facilities-related issues. On Sept. 29, that group will formally present their options for the administration building to the board.

Barber added that the $4 million mentioned was the biggest price tag among the various options, which Hennessey ultimately used in her presentation. Barber said the idea would be to house the central office with some other educational entity.

The district's central office at 970 W. Madison near Home Avenue is a former auto dealership that the district purchased in the 1970s. It's currently owned by the Village of Oak Park through a "lease-back" agreement the two entities signed in 2007. The deal was made as a way to help out D97 as it was struggling with a structural financial deficit. The village bought the property and agreed to lease it back to the district for $1 a year. The deal is expected to end this year. Barber added that the village would make no plans for the building without consulting with the district first.

Barber said the district over the years opted not to take on extensive renovation of the building beyond day-to-day maintenance. He noted that the building does have a leaky roof, as well as cooling and heating issues.

According to the district, the central office covers about 20,000 square feet, including a second floor that's virtually invisible from Madison Street. The building currently houses 42 full-time and part-time employees. Along with administration and support staff, the Oak Park Education Foundation has a two-person, staffed office there. Before the real estate market tanked, the district was exploring selling the administration building and its warehouse, located at 541 Madison.

The most recent appraisal conducted by the district in 2008 listed the warehouse at $1.6 million and the central office building at $2.37 million. The district has since had no discussions about selling either building. Barber added that the FAC is currently looking at the options of either renovating the current central office or constructing a new one.

"All of the discussion about costs and details are very preliminary," he said. "The board agreed that we were not in a position to put this on the table until the Facilities Advisory Committee makes its report."

Barber maintained that the district is also open to partnering with the village or other local jurisdictions concerning sharing facilities.

"That's an absolutely great idea," he said. "The Facility Advisory Committee has discussed that possibility as well, and I know the village has expressed interest in that."

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

Reader Comments

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Dave from Oak Park  

Posted: September 7th, 2011 3:29 PM

What a typical myopic Oak Park discussion. Journalism, class size, it all spins out into nothingness. We only talk about what we care about, not about the real issues. The real issue here is that the head of the school board, doesn't seem to care that the people of Oak Park don't want $4 million spent on a new building. They want to be able to stay in Oak Park, which requires taxes they can afford. As pointed out by one person, where's the justification? Who elects this clown posse?

Johnny from Oak Park  

Posted: September 7th, 2011 12:47 PM

Stephen Miller, the Village 3 do whatever they want regardless what it takes to make what they want happen. The school district is just following their lead.

Stephen Miller from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: September 7th, 2011 9:06 AM

Whether the WJ accurately reported these events (I agree with Dan: you can't backtrack from what you never said in the first place), I still think there is cause for concern when D97 is initiating a discussion of options for an administration building, without first establishing the need. Did we skip the step where the District lays the groundwork for this idea by establishing there is a need for even the exploration of this idea? Please convince me that D97 has the means to fully fund all its educational programs before embarking on this debate. Please tell me there is more than leaky roof at stake. In this day and age, the least hint of anything less than the most responsible use of public funds is unwelcome and unwise. Make your case first; then, if the public supports you, you can start pondering alternatives.

OP parent  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 10:12 PM

Illinois State Board of Education is a good source of information. See http://webprod.isbe.net/ereportcard/publicsite/getReport.aspx?year=2010&code=140160970_e.pdf for info on D97, including an average of 1 teacher for every 15.5 students, and average class size of no more than 20 students per class and spending $13,348 per student per year compared to the state average of $11,197.

Question from Oak Park  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 6:16 PM

Something to think about. If you placed 2 of every race in the world into one house hold as babies, and they all had the same teachers and advantages, which two in what race would score the highest and what would be the first piece of information that you would need to know to make your determination?

Setting the bar too low  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 4:35 PM

Interested Parent thanks for the clarification, backed with pertinent information. My contention is that all students (excluding SPED) can learn at a high level, and should be expected to exceed ISAT standards. Comparing our minority groups scores, with similar groups is an ok gauge, but not an acceptable achievement bar. All students can and should be expected to exceed state standards. Until OP sets this achievement bar, we will still expect and accept lower achievement from some students.

Interested Parent  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 2:55 PM

(continued) Looking at the progress made by all subgroups over the past 6 years shows substantial gains in the percentage of students meeting ISAT targets. Only as the targets have reached over 75% passing have some groups started to "fail" to gain fast enough. Remember, the target bar goes up 7.5% each year, so group progress must be at or above 7.5% EACH YEAR. That's generally unattainable for students who need more help to learn daily lessons. D97 has done great work but it's not finished.

Interested Parent  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 2:51 PM

@Setting the Bar - I did not mean that the D97 White students are at or above other districts and the other groups were low. While White scores are high, the predominant minority group (Black) has scored consistently better than a similar group in other districts, though lower than Whites. SPED students also score much better than in other districts. The same is true for Low Income. However, many students are in all three groups, so scores are impacted across the board. (continued)

Setting the bar too low  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 1:38 PM

@Interested Parent. Could you clarify your statement that "scores at D97 on the ISAT are at or above scores from districts with similar student populations? I assume that you meant that our scores taken as a whole look low. But if you break out the low-income, minority scores, we compare equitably with other districts. I think that this is one of the problems with D97 and D200. We don't expect, or have a specific plan, to teach all students so they meet and EXCEED state stadards.

Interested Parent  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 12:57 PM

@Math - Your comment about "students not scoring well" uses the same tired cry from the Tribune and other conservative rags. While D97 is still working to address the learning needs of its many diverse learners, the scores at D97 on the ISAT are at or above scores from districts with similar student populations. This is not just total student numbers, but also the number of low income, minority, and SPED students. Is there work to still be done? Yes. Is the district not scoring well? NO.

Interested Parent  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 12:53 PM

For those of you scoring at home, there area about 460 certified "teachers" in D97. This number includes regular classroom teachers, SPED teachers (smaller classes),librarians, nurses, psychologists, social workers, OT-PTs, etc. Many of these folks see varying caseloads of students, but they are all averaged together to get the teacher to student ratio. The remaining 340 or so staff are about 100 teaching aides (mostly for SPED), custodians, secretaries, admin assistants, administrators, etc.

Math from Oak Park  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 11:26 AM

Doing Some Math from Oak Park, how can the ratio be 15.5 students to 1 teacher? Where is the other half? So that doesn't work out either. Lets round it up to 16 to 1. With only 16 students per teacher, there must be other reasons why students aren't scoring well.

Doing Some Math from Oak Park  

Posted: September 1st, 2011 6:33 AM

@Math-you really need to know more facts before trying to do math problems. Look at the D97 website, like the school report card. Student to teacher ratio isn't 25, it's 15.5. There are also certified staff (1 to 11.4) and administrators (1 to 177.7) as well. Students in 2010 were 5421, so that works out to about 350 teachers and 507 others for 857 total staff.

Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 10:02 PM

OP Parent, there were 165 comments in response to last week's article, of which I was a full participant. People, including you, are now just repeating themselves. I think journalistic integrity is important, because without it, we cannot have an informed discussion of the issues.

Ham bone from Oak Park  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 8:12 PM

Sally Laurent-Muehleisen. I don't find any back tracking with the W.J.. I do with Peter Barber, which seems to be doing back tracking to cover the fact that the board members discusses borrowing money with low rates. Why were they discussing that? You may think it was because they had nothing else to do, but most people know because there were plans being developed. 1 dollar per year lease back? Who pays the rest? Leaking roof, and other problems? Call the landlord, they are just down street.

OP parent  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 6:45 PM

It is really sad that the first comment on this article was an attack on WJ rather than a comment on the issue. And the issue is - regardless of what any committee suggests or proposes, the BOE is responsible for making prudent decisions about how to spend our tax dollars. And yes, having used scare tactics to get more tax money (they had no plans for what they would do with the students taught by the fired teachers) they should be especially careful and tranparent with our money now.

Sally Laurent-Muehleisen from Oak Park  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 6:41 PM

Way to cover up the screw-up - of your reporters, Wednesday Journal! This is hilarious - last week's reporter totally misunderstood the budget presentation then this week call it D97's "backtracking". Committees are SUPPOSED to explore all options while a budget overview is SUPPOSED to consider all scenarios - including the most expensive one. Did your reporter doze off at the meeting, miss all the explanation of the budget presentation, then write something misleading just to grab headlines?

Math from Oak Park  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 6:00 PM

E. Jackson, those numbers can't be right. 5500 students and 800 employees? That's one employee for every 7 students. Alright, lets take out some who aren't teachers. Lets make it 600 teachers and 200 people other things. That's a ratio of 1 teacher to 9 students. Wait, that can't be right. So what are all of the employees doing if the ratio is 1 teacher to 25 students?

Jg Morales  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 4:46 PM

@E.Jackson- You make a great point about attending meetings, but... just because someone can find the time to read the WJ, it doesn't necessarily mean they have the time to attend meetings. What was said at the meetings is a little beside the point, in my opinion, in this case. Many people were against the referendum in general. If we're paying out the wazoo in taxes, we want to see the money used productively. More productively in fact than it has been used in recent years. Just because Joe Blow said he would use the money to build a time machine in a presentation doesn't mean the people magically agree simply because the referendum passed. Further, it JUST passed. Maybe after all the existing kinks are worked out we can move forward into bigger things. Imagine gifting 10Gs to your brother so he doesn't go bankrupt, only to have him open another line of credit a few months later, exclaiming "Think Big!" Sure, think big... once you've got all your ducks in a row. Now just isn't the time.

E. Jackson  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 8:08 AM

And to Daniel's point, this is exactly what happens when we rely on others to report what happens at these meetings. While I have a great deal of respect for the Journal's writers and editors, I believe it would behoove those of us who want to stay in the know about important issues being discussed by our taxing bodies to go to meetings, or read meeting minutes or review the presentations made at the meetings, all of which are public record, and seek the answers ourselves.

E. Jackson  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 7:59 AM

And for those of who say "live within your means," what exactly does that mean for a district that has more than 5500 students and 800 employees? Is your expectation that the district should simply stand pat and make no investments? Will you then be the same people in a year who are back on here bemoaning the decline in the quality of our local schools?

E. Jackson  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 7:57 AM

Furthermore, since so many people seem to have an opinion about how the district should spend its money to further the education of the more than 5500 students it serves, perhaps time on these message boards will be better spent talking constructively about possible ideas or solutions rather than complaining, criticizing and coming up with conspiracy theories.

E. Jackson  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 7:53 AM

Adele - perhaps you should actually read the presentation made at the board meeting, which includes information about the items the district said it would invest in if the referendum passed (http://www.op97.org/board-of-education/documents/PresentationaboutDSEBOptionsandOpportunities.pdf). Or, read the One View submitted by the district - http://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/08-30-2011/Our_referendum_priorities_haven't_changed.

Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 7:29 AM

The August 24 headline was not literally false, but was neverthless misleading and incendiary. If you read past the headline, you will see that the board took no action in the meeting, and that no action was imminent. There was only discussion of future possibilities, with at least two of the board members urging caution with regard to spending. Money, the fact that you didn't recognized that shows that the first headline was misleading. The current headline compounds the misleading message by stating that the board is "back tracking," even though it is doing nothing of the kind; it is simply clarifying what actually happened in the board meeting.

adele from OP  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 7:25 AM

I'm glad that Jo and Daniel point out that the WJ writes misleading and inflammatory headlines - I, too, thought this the case when they held their weekly series on "programs to be cut unless you vote YES for the referendum" I felt misled and inflamed.

adele from op  

Posted: August 31st, 2011 7:21 AM

Good to know that the "apparent backlash" registered on their radar. Most people wondered "where was this talk 4 months ago?" when they couldn't continue financing Bravo, art, music, and teachers without extra tax money from all OP citizens. If my family just discussed cutting most "extras" to tighten our belt, we would not consider moving to a more expensive house unless some "windfall" had occurred.


Posted: August 31st, 2011 7:09 AM

The WJ is known for its inflammatory and misleading headlines. Even Mr. Haley has fessed up to it on occasion, blaming deadline-head. But people tend to read headlines and then react here. How do you think they sell advertising on this site?

Money from Oak Park  

Posted: August 30th, 2011 11:57 PM

Daniel Hurtado, are you saying the the W.J. is writing misleading headlines? Couldn't just be that people complained and now they aren't going to spend the money until things cool down?

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: August 30th, 2011 11:44 PM

Ray Johnson suggested at one time that the Village consider partnering with other local bodies to create and share a new central facility. As I recall, this was based on the notion that Village Hall did not provide enough space, especially in regards to the needs of OPPD. I'm sure unfavorable economic conditions would prevent that from happening right now. But, it would be worth keeping the plan on a back burner. Getting more Madison St. properties back on the tax roll would be a bonus.

Daniel Hurtado  

Posted: August 30th, 2011 10:32 PM

Mr. Dean and Ms. Lotus- Why is the headline titled "D97 back tracks"? Barber is merely clarifying what actually happened to address the misleading headline of the prior article. Now this headline is equaling misleading.

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