Last year, District 97 correctly budgeted income from local property taxes at $39,499,067, even though taxpayers actually authorized and paid $41,099,067. The missing $1.6 million went to the Village of Oak Park (VOP). The village government gets “first dibs” on the tax dollars collected by Dist. 97 (and every other taxing body in Oak Park).

How was the Village of Oak Park legally able to have first dibs on all this tax money? Over the past several years, the village board established three Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts which divert the money to support property development. It is this action that created first dibs. The three TIF districts have diverted a lot of property tax dollars from the Dist. 97 budget, even though a 1985 out-of-court settlement requires the village to rebate 25 percent of its first dibs dollars to each taxing body. Thus, after the rebate of $400,000, Dist. 97 lost “only” $1.2 million last year.

What has this loss done to the elementary schools? Last year was the third consecutive year that Dist. 97 was forced to reduce its budget-this time by $700,000. The district cut teaching staff, support staff and supply budgets.

So who benefits from the first dibs actions of the VOP? Not the children. While the schools were cutting teachers and classroom supplies, the village board paid for lawyers, consultants and flowers. Since the beginning of first dibs TIFs, $19 million has been diverted from Dist. 97.

The village board will report that the benefit of first dibs is having a better economic future. But we have a responsibility for each child today. To say that the schools will have more money in 10 years is no comfort to a child needing our support now.

Recently, there has been much talk of a plan to help Dist. 97 ease its deficit. The village president is calling for all the taxing bodies to work together. The obvious solution, but one not supported by the village board, is to end the practice of first dibs TIFs. In 2007, the village will receive $8.5 million first dibs TIF dollars. After the 25 percent rebate, $6.4 million will be diverted. That is a lot of money taken from Dist. 97, the library, the park district, the township and the high school. Dist. 97’s share ($1.7 million next year) would go a long way toward reducing the schools’ deficit. By ending the practice of first dibs, these dollars would continue to be available every year.

Dist. 97 does work with other taxing bodies. It shares an interest with the township in the interventionist program and after school programs; with the library in information sharing computer software; with the park district in facility and land use; and with the high school in food service and summer programs. This work would be greatly enhanced if ‘first dibs’ dollars were returned to each taxing body.

The village board, of course, likes spending those tax dollars. But is has got to stop. Fairness requires it. Call your trustee today. Show up at the next village board meeting. Tell the trustees to give the money back. Stop the practice of first dibs.

Sharon Patchak-Layman is a member of the District 97 school board.

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