No one is more concerned about the school funding situation in Illinois than the Oak Park village board. A recent editorial spelled out a series of facts that point to the structural problems facing Illinois schools with 80 percent of school districts facing routine deficit spending. As underlying costs to operate schools grow at nearly double the rate that revenues can grow (due to state-imposed tax caps), this structural problem will only continue to deepen.

Against this backdrop, the village board has been very focused on economic growth, cost containment, sensible business incentives, and support for schools:

 The budget approved by the village board includes $5.8 million in new spending to support business districts along Harrison Street, Chicago Avenue, Roosevelt Road, North Avenue, and on Lake Street.

 The board has expanded the Retail Rehab matching grant program, previously available solely to Downtown Oak Park (DTOP) businesses, to all business districts in the village.

 The board has increased the caps on grants and loans available from OPDC to businesses along Oak Park’s gateway streets.

 Even with all of these new initiatives, this village board approved its first budget with a net zero increase in spending?#34;the first board to hold the line on spending in 50 years.

 With one (quite) notable exception, the village board has adopted and begun acting on the Downtown Sub-Area Committee’s plan for revitalizing downtown Oak Park.

As for the Colt building acquisition, this decision, while perhaps controversial, has absolutely no bearing on the current school’s structural funding gap in Oak Park. The development contemplated in whatever DTOP plan you favor was within the downtown TIF district. Given the way that TIFs work and the specifics of the TIF carve-out agreement between the village and the schools, the amount of revenue to be delivered to the schools is basically a fixed number. Completing (or not completing) any specific project does not alter the village’s commitment to deliver revenue to the schools in any way. So the schools are neither gaining nor losing any revenue from these decisions?#34;any argument to the contrary is simply false or misinformed.

What is bringing more money into the schools is continued enhancement of the TIF carve-out. The first carve-out took previous VMA boards over 20 years to enact, the NLC elected board expanded the carve-out to the tune of another $6 million in taxable property value within months of taking office. This decision alone will bring another nearly $700,000 a year in funding to the schools.

Some have argued, that the solution to school funding in Oak Park is to aggressively drive commercial development. While no one opposes economic growth, the idea that the village can solve the structural funding issues plaguing Illinois schools by putting up a few more commercial buildings is just plain wrong.

The village has a total of approximately $1.2 billion of EAV (a fancy acronym that basically means taxable property value). Of that $1.2 billion, commercial property represents a little over $200 million. In 2000, Oak Park commercial property represented only $164 million in EAV. So over the course of the last few years, the taxable property value of commercial property has increased by over 20 percent, but the schools still don’t have enough money. Even worse, TIF districts have experienced a substantial share of this commercial development and TIF districts contribute almost none of the tax collected to schools.

Secondly, over 80 percent of taxes collected come from residential property owners and nearly 65 percent of tax dollars are in turn paid to the schools. Just by sheer numbers trying to fix a gap in school funding when it consumes such a large share of taxes collected by increasing the smallest category of taxable property values is just unfeasible. The underlying structural problem in school financing cannot be fixed by incentives for commercial development in Oak Park; the commercial effect is too small and the problem is too big. Commercial development is desirable, should be encouraged, and is contributory, but is spit in the ocean in the context of the broader school funding problem.

The village board has neither done everything right, nor everything wrong. But to say that they have been fiscally irresponsible to the detriment of school funding, or to any other taxing body, is simply not supported by the facts. They need to do more, they can do more, and they deserve our help and support.

Brian Farrar is president of the New Leadership Coalition.

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