With a wary eye on deteriorating state finances, Oak Park’s public elementary schools are tentatively planning to ask local voters to raise property taxes in an April 2011 referendum, the District 97 school board decided in a Monday evening special meeting.

The decision remains tentative pending a late spring assessment of state finances. District 97 officials believe the schools could lose more than $2 million in state support for the next school year. Such a shortfall, coupled with the district’s own pending deficits could force the district to seek a referendum despite the gloomy national economy.

“With the information I have in front of me I’m comfortable planning for 2011,” said Peter Traczyk, school board president.

At Monday’s special meeting and study session the board heard presentations from Steven Miller of PMA Financial Network, a financial advisory firm, and from Theresa O’Neill, District 97’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

Under the projections presented District 97 will run an operating deficit of about $2.5 million in fiscal year 2010. That deficit will more than double to about $5.7 million in 2011. The district could run out of cash reserves by 2014 or even sooner depending on the level of state aid.

“It is clear that we need some cold hard cash,” O’Neill said.

The board’s decision to ask for a referendum in 2011 is only tentative and subject to change. The board will not make a final decision on when to hold a referendum until after the current session of the Illinois General Assembly which is scheduled to end on May 31.

It was the prospect of cuts in state aid that persuaded the majority of the board to ask the voters for more money next year.

The district may face cuts in state aid of more than $2 million in the coming year as the state of Illinois struggles with a $13 billion deficit.

“If they cut that kind of money I think we have to go to the community and say you have a choice: either we raise taxes or we’ll increase class sizes,” said school board member Bob Spatz. “If the state doesn’t come through we can’t cover two to five million (dollars) with smoke and mirrors.”

Over the past five years the District 97 board has repeatedly cut spending in an effort to forestall a referendum vote.

Jennifer Reddy, a board member, said the district’s deteriorating financial condition makes it necessary to seek a referendum sooner rather than later. “I don’t think we should wait much longer,” she said. “We need money. That’s what it comes down to. We need a significant amount of money.”

Board members James Gates and Rance Clouser favored waiting until 2013 to hold a referendum saying that would give the district more time to make its case for more money to the voters.

“I’m very concerned at looking for 2011 because I think it will be rushed,” Clouser said. “I think it would have a higher chance of success in 2013 than 2011.”

Gates also said that he thought 2011 was too soon noting that the board will not make its final decision on the timing of the referendum until this summer. “I have great reservations about us doing this in 10-and-one-half-months,” Gates said. “I think it’s a rushed time line.”

The board will hold another study session on March 16.

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