The Illinois system for financing public education is in desperate need of repair, as was highlighted in the Tribune’s recent “From Here to Excellence” editorial series.

Here in Oak Park, our schools rely on local property tax dollars for about two-thirds of their funding, and about two-thirds of our property tax dollars goes to the schools. High residential property taxes today pose a threat to our ability to support quality education in our community.

As village trustees, we can’t solve the school finance problem, but we can take action to improve local support for education.

First, we need to develop and maintain a healthy business climate to diversify our tax base so that residential taxpayers don’t shoulder the entire burden for local education funding. In 2001, residential homeowners paid 69 percent of the property taxes collected in Oak Park; in 2005, they paid 78 percent. Attracting new business to Oak Park will spread the tax burden.

Second, we need to support and implement thoughtful, sustainable redevelopment plans that will expand the property tax base because that helps schools. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is essentially an investment pool to which the schools, parks, and libraries contribute with the expectation that their investments will generate significant returns over time.

Some want to admit failure, end the TIF, and return the money to the schools and other taxing bodies. That’s a short-sighted, do-nothing solution, particularly given that the schools are paid an annual “dividend” through the carve-out agreement. In 2005, it was about $700,000. Ending the TIF also leaves the village without the main redevelopment financing tool used by communities all over the country, including those in this area that compete with Oak Park for business and investment.

As the investment manager for these funds, village trustees are responsible for investing the money wisely. We believe the current NLP board has shirked this responsibility by not moving decisively to implement the downtown master plan and unnecessarily delaying other projects. Their Colt building purchase has tied up at least $7.5 million in TIF money on a project that will never result in a positive return on investment for our schools.

That’s one reason why the District 97 school board voted 6-1 last year urging village trustees to “make a priority” of supporting redevelopment policies that will “meet the future funding needs of other taxing bodies, such as Dist. 97, which have contributed to making Oak Park a community of choice.”

We couldn’t agree more and we pledge to do just that for our schools.

What we can’t afford is doing nothing. If we shut off growth in our commercial and multi-family sectors, there is no place left to raise money for schools (or parks, libraries, and essential village services) other than existing single-family homeowners and our remaining small businesses.

For our full Action Agenda on education, please visit www.progressiveaction.net. Let’s get Oak Park moving again on April 17!

Ray Johnson, Jan Pate, Jon Hale, John Hedges
Citizens for Progressive Action

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