Here’s a speed read of the Oak Park and River Forest stories we will be avidly watching in the new year. And, of course, we offer our opinions on how they ought to turn out.

Schools: Come April, Oak Parkers will be voting on the District 97 tax hike referendum. Passing a tax hike in this environment is all uphill. The elementary schools have, to their credit, done a strong cost-cutting job in past years. A pre-election staff pay freeze deal would help. …The most contested election is going to be at OPRF where seven people will compete for the seats of three incumbents. This is a curious situation in towns where contested elections are not always the norm. Yes, we’re curious as to the motivations of the new candidates. The current board has frustrated us with its absurd lawsuit against Dist. 97 and the Village of Oak Park. The mountain of money the high school is sitting on is a frustration as the elementary schools go bust. The extended and expensive teacher contract signed by the previous board still rankles. That said, the incumbents have been aggressive in tackling tough, insider issues of hiring and accountability that have been ignored for decades. Not sexy but essential to moving this school ahead. … Both OPRF and Dist. 97 have new superintendents who are just coming into their own. Dist. 97’s Al Roberts plans to appoint a task force to look at the achievement gap. This ought to be his signature effort and we have high hopes of action. His tenure will turn, in part, on the outcome of the referendum. OPRF’s Steven Isoye has more time to make assessments but the choices he makes will be impacted by who wins the school board election.

River Forest: The attention will turn to the coming election and the end of the bickering on the village board as the Steves — Hoke and Dudek — depart. But the real story is inside village hall where Eric Palm, the new village administrator, is now in place. The choices he makes to rebuild hollowed management will be critical. More important will be the relationship and the role he plays with the village president and board. The administrator has been squashed in River Forest for nearly two decades. That’s a bad model for everybody. River Forest needs Palm to be an active leader and for the village board to focus on policy. … With an economy that we believe will slowly improve, slow steps ought to come at Lake and Lathrop, too.

Oak Park: The affordable apartment complex on Madison Street will garner headlines through the summer. This project may or may not ever be built. Having a discussion that involves race and class issues that doesn’t cause ruptures in the village is a primary goal. The discussion is fair and essential. The tone is in our control. … Economic development investments continue on Roosevelt, Madison, South Marion and South (100 block) Oak Park Avenue. Retail sales continue to rebound. Forest and Lake? No construction in 2011 but the fate of the project will be settled. We are enthusiastic supporters.

Out and about: The local theater scene is shifting in collaborative ways. Open Door will open on Harrison Street. We like the direction of the old Village Players space on Madison and hope Circle Theatre becomes a permanent addition. … Stevenson Park on Lake Street will be the final space to receive the park district’s masterful master planning process.

Drugs, alcohol and community: 2010 has seen a sustained community conversation about alcohol and drug excess among our teens. We like the grassroots effort and the prolonged energy. In 2011, we will need decisions on an open campus at OPRF and other intervention efforts. Stay strong.

Beyond the borders: These villages can seem like islands but they are decidedly not. The resolve of state officials to begin addressing the implosion of the state’s finances and its direct impact on schools, social service agencies and municipalities is critical. And any fix of state finances also requires more ambitious pension reform. History tells us abject failure is ahead. Go ahead, Don Harmon and Kimberly Lightford. Make us eat our words. … We are, on balance, big fans of Mayor Richard Daley. Oak Park without Mayor Daley is a changed place. We need a Chicago mayor who thinks regionally on transit, sustainability, crime fighting and planning, and we need a mayor who will invest in Austin’s strengths.

That ought to hold us.

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