Oak Park and River Forest High School’s board has approved a tax levy significantly increasing the burden on local property taxpayers. It will bring in a projected $50 million next year and purportedly put off District 200’s next referendum request until 2018. We’re skeptical about the latter claim, but it’s hard to blame this board for taking the available funds, given the utterly insane system of school finance in Illinois. The increased levy is legal?#34;a heretofore little known “phase-in” option that allows the district to capture all of the dollars originally approved in the 2002 referendum. Why passing a referendum doesn’t automatically bring a school system all of the dollars approved is part of the aforementioned insanity, and though we editorialized against taking the option, the board opted not to phase in our advice.
The board members clearly have their priorities straight: Institution first, taxpayers second. Many would argue that’s as it should be. Good schools are expensive and becoming more so. In the short run, however, the maneuver will frost a lot of taxpayers who will (rightly) ask what they’re getting for their higher taxes.
Which leads us to the next phase of our advice to the Dist. 200 school board. Don’t hide behind the legality/evil tax cap arguments. That won’t go very far in winning over disgruntled taxpayers. The only way to do that is to show the proverbial bang for their buck. To those who argue “no taxation without referendum representation,” another form of accountability is required. Not surprisingly, we have a suggestion:
Measurable progress on the achievement gap. OPRF, to its credit, has made closing the gap its number one goal for the last several years. We like the acknowledgement. We like the priority. What we haven’t seen is measurable progress. Yes, the gap afflicts school districts nationwide?#34;elementary schools, too, as District 97 has acknowledged. But it’s no longer enough to say we’re not alone. It’s time to see progress.
When Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced increased education spending by the state (choosing OPRF as his stage) earlier this year, he tried to offset the tax burden with promises of higher standards and increased accountability from the educational system. The same should apply to this Dist. 200 tax windfall. With increased funding must come measurable progress. The entire community benefits from progress on the achievement gap.
If taxpayers don’t see results from their increased spending, their simmer will turn into a burn and possibly a full-scale revolt. That means Dist. 97, which will need to go for a referendum soon, could be punished for it.
To whom much is given, much will be expected. Taxpayer expectations just went up?#34;along with their tax bills.Beye: a good place to start
As mentioned above, Dist. 97’s new administration is taking a more proactive stance in addressing the minority student achievement gap in the elementary schools. That’s both gratifying and encouraging. But as OPRF has shown, acknowledgement doesn’t necessarily translate into progress. Beye School, 230 N. Cuyler Ave., has become the district’s immediate focus since the gap is widest there, as measured by standardized test scores.
The good news is that Beye may well be the best laboratory to introduce serious initiatives that address the gap. The school has long enjoyed a reputation as a strong, tight-knit community. The principal is respected and the parents feel good about their school. That makes it an ideal setting for innovation.
We hope it also means the administration, staff, and parents will be able to handle the serious soul-searching required to identify whatever is causing the gap. No doubt that cause is multidimensional, which means the many elements that make up a school community will need to pull together and avoid finger-pointing defensiveness.