A Cook County judge has ruled against an anti-tax Illinois group and a local citizen who had filed a lawsuit against Oak Park Elementary School District 97’s April 5 referendum in hopes of the judge overturning the election result.
Judge Mary Mikva on July 1 ruled against plaintiffs Taxpayers United of America, a nonprofit organization, and Oak Park resident Noel Kuriakos.
The suit was filed in April, weeks after Oak Park voters approved D97’s tax-hike referendum. The lawsuit accused the district and school board of knowingly placing misinformation on the ballot concerning the rate hike’s true impact on property owners, maintaining that it understated that impact by two-thirds.
The district said it was made aware of the ballot discrepancy and focused its public campaign around more accurate figures. In addition, the school district noted that it was protected by a clause in a state statute concerning “unintentional mistakes” that might appear on an election ballot. Such mistakes would not invalidate the election result, according to the statute.
The controversy stemmed from the state’s use of an equalizer to calculate property tax bills. The statute concerning how such ballots should be written doesn’t specify that the equalizer must be included by local jurisdictions when drawing up their ballots. Opponents argued that the law doesn’t expressly state that the equalizer should be ignored altogether. About a dozen other jurisdictions that sought tax increases on April 5 also did not factor in the equalizer, and many of them, including D97, were advised by the same law firm when drawing up their ballots.
In her five-page ruling, the judge found that D97’s interpretation of the statute and its “safety clause” was correct.
“Even if the district’s understanding of the calculation instructions were wrong, the statute makes clear that this would not affect the validity of the tax increase,” wrote Mikva, who also cited the safety clause in her ruling.
D97 released a statement late last Friday after the judge’s ruling.
“We applaud Judge Mikva’s ruling, which validates the important decision the citizens of Oak Park made regarding the District 97 referendum, and represents a significant victory for the future of public education in our community.”
The district in its statement also thanked the Committee to Support Oak Park Schools, a group of parents and residents who supported the referendum.
“Now that this case has been dismissed,” the district stated, “we can fully focus our efforts and invest our time, energy and resources into what is most important — providing our students with a high quality education that will help them succeed in and out of the classroom.”
D97 school board president Peter Barber told Wednesday Journal on Tuesday that the judge’s decision basically validates what the district had been saying all along.
“We were transparent with the voters. We followed the advice of our attorneys and followed that ballot language as written in the statute as best we could,” he said. “It’s satisfying to know that she saw things the way we did.”
D97’s referendum was approved by voters in April, 55-45 percent.
In May, Judge Mikva ruled against the Oak Park plaintiff’s petition to slap a temporary restraining order against D97’s referendum. Taxpayers United also has lawsuits pending against other jurisdictions. But on June 23, its suit against Wilmette School District 39 was dismissed in the Cook County courts. Taxpayers United, along with a resident of Wilmette who was a plaintiff in the suit, are considering an appeal. The anti-tax group has not officially stated whether it will appeal the Oak Park decision.
In late April, as the ballot controversy intensified, the Illinois legislature voted to amend the statute to factor in the state equalizer when drawing up their ballots. That legislation, though, has not been finalized.