Over the top: District 97 school board President Peter Traczyk celebrates the referendum victory at Trattoria 225 on Harrison Street on April 5. FRANK PINC/Contributor

School news in 2011 in Oak Park was highlighted by twists, turns and surprises — before, during and after the April 5 elections. District 97 got its long-awaited tax hike referendum, but also some unwanted publicity before the election because of confusing ballot wording and a lawsuit after the election by referendum opponents stemming from said ballot wording. New members were voted onto the D97 and Oak Park and River Forest High School (District 200) boards. One member from each board, neither of whom were up for election this year, stepped down before the end of their terms. At the high school, a former, long-serving member rejoined the school board after a popular member resigned. The 2011 highs — and a few lows — included:

Voters say yes to D97 referendum

It was an easy win for elementary school District 97’s referendum in the spring election. Voters approved a $6 million levy increase for the district, which faced deep cuts to teachers and programs if the referendum failed. The victory — by a margin of 55 to 45 percent — was the culmination of a referendum campaign that started, stalled, stopped and restarted over roughly four years. The victors were not only the D97 board and Supt. Albert Roberts, but a vocal group of supporters who backed the referendum from the beginning.

Voters say ‘Huh?’ to referendum ballot wording

About a month before the election, Wednesday Journal learned that D97’s referendum ballot question contained a conspicuous discrepancy in the amount property owners would expect to pay the district in property taxes. The ballot understated the impact of the referendum by a factor of three. The reason: the state “multiplier,” used to calculate property tax bills, was not factored in. Why? Because the state law that governs how ballot questions should be written with respect to tax hike referendums doesn’t expressly say to use the multiplier. Making matters even stickier — the Chicago law firm that helped write the state statute was also advising D97 and about a dozen other municipalities with tax hike initiatives on how to write their ballot questions. While D97’s public campaign did, by all accounts, present accurate numbers on the referendum’s impact as far as they knew, officials admitted that the ballot language was confusing. Nonetheless, they stood by the advice of their law firm.

Anti-referendum group says ‘sue’

While the referendum was supported by most, the opposition was dedicated. Former Oak Park resident and D97 parent Noel Kuriakos was among the naysayers. Kuriakos publicly campaigned against the tax hike and later joined an Illinois-based, anti-tax group in suing D97 after the April 5 election. Taxpayers United of America filed the suit three weeks after the election, accusing the district and school board of “misrepresenting” the true impact of the tax hike on property owners. Opponents of the suit argued it had no merit, namely because of a “safety clause” in the state statute covering “unintended mistakes” that end up on the ballot. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed in the Cook County courts in June.

Old and new on D200, D97 boards

The twists and turns extended to each school board this year. The April election saw River Forest resident John Phelan, an OPRF alum, elected to the board. Incumbents Ralph Lee and Sharon Patchak-Layman were reelected, while fellow first-termer John Allen lost his seat. The uncontested race in D97 saw the reelection of incumbents Robert Spatz and Peter Traczyk, along with new members James O’Connor and Denise Sacks. But each board would gain another new member outside of the election this year. Jacques Conway resigned from the OPRF school board in May, citing a personal financial matter and a new job as the reason. He was in his second term at the time. As his replacement, the board chose former three-term member Valerie Fisher in June. In September, Jennifer Reddy, a first-term member, resigned from the D97 board because of her husband’s new job out of state. She was replaced by Amy Felton, a D97 parent and part-time real estate attorney, in November.

OPRF’s partly closed campus

In May, the OPRF board voted to partially close the high school campus during lunchtime. Seniors and juniors can go off campus with parental permission and no F’s or unexcused absences, among other specified conditions. Freshmen and sophomores are restricted to the campus whereas previously only freshmen had to stay on campus. The policy went into effect this school year. The closing of the campus, even in this modified version, was a victory for IMPACT, the anti-substance abuse group comprised mostly of OPRF parents. That group formed out of the anti-drug and alcohol abuse campaign spearheaded by The Citizens Council in 2010 (named last year’s Villagers of the Year for Oak Park and River Forest by Wednesday Journal). The modified closed campus, according to the school, has resulted in improved student behavior. Recently, though, some sophomores have been acting up in protest during lunchtime by engaging in food fights. The school has disciplined those students and remains steadfast in cracking down on inappropriate behavior.

Other notable news items

A ‘girl ranking list’ surfaced at OPRF in January, created by a male student who was suspended. In 2009, a similar list was circulated, also by a male student. In response this time around, female students and staff created “Respect” T-shirts, worn by male and female staff and students on campus.

A D97 family filed suit against the school district in September over their child’s residency status. The family disputed the results of D97’s investigation on whether the child was a resident of Oak Park. The district ultimately allowed the student to enroll after the suit was filed.

OPRF’s BOSS (Black Organization for Student Success) hosted its second annual “We’ve Got Talent Show” in March. Singer Annie Riles, a senior at the time, won the competition and a $300 prize.

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