First reported 6/23/2010 1:58 p.m.

After several months of eyeing spring 2011 as a likely time to go for an operating fund referendum, the District 97 Board of Education last week officially gave the go-ahead for launching its roughly 10-month campaign to pass a tax hike in next April’s election.

The board did not take a formal vote at its June 22 regular meeting to seek a referendum. Instead, a general consensus was taken among members, all agreeing that spring 2011 was the time to go. A formal resolution would need to be drafted and voted on, a move that will be laid out as part of a timeline the board will start developing. The resolution would also be part of a process leading up to the April 5 municipal election, one that will include public forums for the community to provide feedback.

The five members present all agreed the district can’t put off a referendum any longer as it faces a budget trending in the red and uncertainty from the state concerning education funding. Administrators that evening also proposed $2.6 million in staffing and program cuts as a backup if a referendum fails.

The members present were Peter Traczyk Rance Clouser, Peter Barber, Bob Spatz, and Michelle Harton. Jennifer Reddy and James Gates were absent.

Traczyk, the board’s president, said if the district’s financial picture were not so dim, he would not ask voters for a tax increase. Clouser said he would prefer to hold off on a referendum for a couple of years but acknowledged that that is not a viable option given the district’s circumstances.

Barber maintained that no one wants to see their taxes raised, but that it was something the district must explore.

“We as a community are going to have to make some hard choices like this and agree to cut, or we’re going to have to pony up more money,” he said. “It’s not an easy choice. It’s not a comfortable choice. I am just as selfish as anyone and would not like my already-high Oak Park taxes to go up even higher for such a noble cause. But that’s the choice we’re all going to have to make.”

Barber also urged community members with objections to specific cuts listed to advise the board and administration of any alternative reductions. Spatz added that those alternatives should include comparable dollar amounts to what’s being taken off the list.

The Oak Park elementary school district has not gone for an operating referendum since 1989. It successfully passed a referendum in 1999 in order to construct its two middle school buildings. The board in the last year has discussed pursuing a possible 2011 or 2012 referendum, and as early as the mid-2000s has talked about the need to pursue a tax increase.

There was no discussion at last Tuesday’s meeting about how much the district would seek from voters. Traczyk and other members stressed that the community will have an opportunity to provide input during the district’s campaign.

In earlier related board action, members unanimously approved the sale of $6.7 million in working cash bonds. The bond issuance is needed in order to meet financial obligations and make payroll at year’s end, Dist. 97 officials have said.

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