Over the last several years, community members have expressed concerns about Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200's fund balance and tax levies. To help address those concerns, the school board created a new Finance Advisory Committee that will recommend guidelines to the board about the target range for the fund balance, the timing and size of a future operating referendum, and the amount of this year's and future tax levies.
The 15-member committee includes eight members of the community and members of the faculty, administration, and board. Community members on the committee are from both Oak Park and River Forest and bring expertise in school finance, private sector finance, financial planning, pensions, state finance, public finance law, economic development, and government leadership. We are grateful to everyone involved for their time and varied perspectives.
The Finance Advisory Committee held its first meeting in July and plans to meet every two weeks until December. Meetings are open to the public and are also videotaped and available at www.oprfhs.org. To date, we have explored the basics of school finance; the school's current budget, most recent enrollment study, and five-year projections; and the potential impact on the budget of Illinois pension reform. We have also reviewed the school's historical experience in containing costs, a history of the fund balance, and a variety of financial comparisons with similar districts.
Tax levy requests are an inexact science with key information unavailable to the board when requests need to be made. In addition, since the adoption of tax caps in the mid-1990s, Illinois school boards have faced a dilemma. The law limits annual tax increases to the consumer price index (CPI) or 5%, whichever is less.
But the bulk of a school's costs are related to salaries and benefits, which have steadily increased by more than the CPI. In response, many tax-capped school districts build up reserves after a referendum, anticipating that annual costs will eventually exceed annual revenues and those reserves will need to be spent.
D200 has followed this common practice, but its fund balance, now nearly $123 million, has grown unusually large due to a controversial decision (known as the "phase-in") and rapid real estate value increases in the mid-2000s, together with cost containment measures that have been more successful than anticipated. This fund balance represents about 20 months of annual expenses and is one of the highest per student fund balances in the state.
As chair of the Finance Advisory Committee, I am committed to having its work be transparent and available to the community. I am also optimistic that the committee will develop recommendations that balance our common interest in a high-quality education for all students at OPRF and the need to address the significant tax burden on Oak Park and River Forest citizens. We welcome community input and invite you to either watch or join our meetings, including our next session on Sept. 9.
Jeff Weissglass is vice president of the District 200 school board.