The District 97 board recently voted on a resolution urging village trustees to pay more attention to the impact of their economic redevelopment decisions on school funding.
The resolution urges the village to:
Expedite redevelopment to maximize revenue-generating potential
Be aware of the tax revenue implications of its redevelopment decisions on other taxing bodies
Grant substantial weight to the tax revenue implications of these decisions
Prioritize redevelopment opportunities to ensure outcomes that will meet the future funding needs of our schools
Given recent village board action?#34;and inaction?#34;on key redevelopment projects as well as Dist. 97’s current financial problems, the resolution couldn’t come at a better time. At its packed Feb. 22 meeting, the Dist. 97 board first heard from parents upset over teacher cuts being made to resolve a $600,000 deficit in FY ’06-’07, then heard a sobering review of long-term Dist. 97 finances. It was not a pretty picture.
The previous night, by contrast, with only a few in the audience, a village board majority voted to spend an initial $5 million to start the lengthy and costly process of trying to save an old building without considering any of the concerns expressed in the Dist. 97 resolution. It was an indication of just how badly this resolution is needed.
Our schools, Oak Park’s crown jewels, are facing serious quality-threatening financial challenges. While we would all like to see the State of Illinois support education at a higher level and in a more responsible way, the reality is that help is not likely from Springfield any time soon.
For the foreseeable future, we are dependent on local property tax revenue to fund our schools, a problem made more difficult because rising property values have resulted in significant increases in property taxes for Oak Park homeowners.
One very important way?#34;actually the only way?#34;to increase funding for our schools without adding to the property tax burden on existing homeowners is for our village board to make smart and timely economic redevelopment decisions.
It’s time for us all to acknowledge that these two issues?#34;school funding and village economic redevelopment?#34;are intimately connected.
Yet over at village hall, when area redevelopment plans are formulated and when specific redevelopment decisions are made, seldom are there any voices speaking up on behalf of our schools at either the board table or during public comment. Out of respect for our history, we are understandably reluctant to embrace physical changes to Oak Park, and let’s be clear. Historic preservation, architectural significance, traffic, and density are important issues, but so are the quality of our schools and the burden of property taxes. Let’s make sure these issues are fully considered so that as a community we can clearly understand the trade-offs involved when we make key redevelopment decisions.
To take just one example, consider the redevelopment proposal for the parking lot at Harlem and Ontario that includes apartments, townhomes, retail stores, and a Trader Joe’s grocery. That project was scheduled to break ground last summer for a planned completion in mid-2007, when it would have begun to generate tax revenue for our community. The project has been stalled by the current village board (without a word of public explanation although the NLP Trustees’ opposition to the project is well-known).
As a result of the delay, we have already lost an estimated $2.5 million in tax revenue that a completed project would have generated in 2007 and 2008. (These numbers are based on the most conservative estimates provided at the time the project was approved.) About $1.3 million of that was slated to go towards the village’s financial commitment to Dist. 97 and Dist. 200 as part of the TIF carve-out agreement.
The good news for our schools is that the village still has to make good on that financial commitment. The bad news is it will have to look elsewhere for the cash?#34;perhaps eventually in the pockets of taxpayers?#34;because the money won’t be coming from a parking lot at Harlem and Ontario.
Make no mistake, deterioration of school quality and steadily increasing property taxes will bring about community changes markedly greater than a new building in downtown Oak Park. We urge all those concerned about the financial condition of Dist. 97 and the quality of all our schools to demand that village trustees consider our children’s future at least as much as they do buildings from the past when they make redevelopment decisions.