It’s time for District 97 to start making its case for a referendum, which likely will be on the ballot in spring 2011, says its board president.

Peter Traczyk, elected to the board in 2007 and its president since April of this year, cautioned that no firm date has been set and no formal vote has been taken by the school board, but said that “the handwriting is on the wall.”

A planning meeting of the board is tentatively set for Feb. 16. Traczyk said by 2013, the district will begin running out of “mid-year money” in its fund balances and be unable to meet its payroll without borrowing. The district has been in deficit spending for more than a decade as it used earlier reserves to pay operating costs. District 97 has gradually slashed more than $4 million from its budget since 2002, including eliminating three teachers at the elementary schools in 2006. But all those moves – the teacher cuts among the most divisive and painful issues in the community at that time – were meant to set up for a referendum in spring 2007. That didn’t happen.

After various other taxing bodies ran and won levy increases, Dist. 97 opted against seeking theirs, not wanting to anger already weary taxpayers. Not since 1989, 20 years to date, has the district sought an operating fund referendum, though it successfully passed a referendum in 1999 to construct the new middle school buildings.

The district, Traczyk said, can’t push off the inevitable any longer. Spring of 2010 would have been a likely date to consider, he noted, until the economy tanked.

“We’re not going to do that; we couldn’t have done that,” Traczyk said. “I wouldn’t want to go to my neighbor who’s facing foreclosure and start talking about raising property taxes. It’s untenable; I couldn’t do it as a taxpayer myself.”

So board members are now considering a 2011 ballot measure. He added that since the district is also on Cook County’s budget cycle, even if they do pass a successful referendum in spring ’11, they won’t receive that revenue until a year later.

“We want to extend out as far as we can go, but we’re still cognizant of the fact that we can’t go right to the edge and risk failing. That’s my fear,” he said.

That, Traczyk also noted, would be a nightmare-type scenario, among the outcomes being cuts to the ranks of teachers, which would result in larger classroom sizes.

“We can go and maybe run a referendum in 2012 and getting that money in ’13, maybe we’re hunky dory. But if we don’t pass, then what happens? And I don’t want to put the district in position where we have to have drastic and dramatic cuts or, realistically, the result in increased class sizes. The only way we can cut majorly is to cut teaching-staff positions.”

He estimates that number would be in the range of 20 to 30 teachers. A short-term alternative would be to slash more positions out of administration, he noted, but that won’t solve the district’s budget crisis.

Another factor necessitating the district’s early start in planning a referendum campaign is the perception by some in the community that it’s in better shape financially than previously advertised, Traczyk said.

But that perception is not entirely true. The district, for instance, will lose about 40 teachers at the end of the year to scheduled retirements, all taking advantage of the state’s lucrative program providing a bump in salary in their final years of service. In turn, the district will record a savings next fall by hiring new instructors at lower salaries. After backing off its intended ’07 levy increase, the district sought assistance from the Village of Oak Park. The village and other taxing bodies pony upped up a one-time cash infusion of about $2 million.

The village’s “leaseback” deal with Dist. 97 for its 970 Madison headquarters also netted another $2.4 million. The deal called for the village to buy the central office building and lease it back for $1 a year until 2011, when the district is expected to buy the property back. As a result of this assistance, Dist. 97 actually showed a surplus of a million dollars in 2007, but that was never going to be long-term.

But Traczyk noted that the village can’t help anymore given its own budget issues. It’s even looking for the elementary school district to take on certain financial burdens, such as paying for crossing guards.

“The village has been helpful,” Traczyk said. “Over the years, they’ve given us explicitly some money. Well, the tide has turned. The village is in a cash crunch. They’re asking us to take on some expenses that we in the past have not had in the history of the board that anyone can remember.”

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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