It was approaching noon for what started as a Saturday morning study session to brainstorm which form District 97’s referendum should take—selling debt versus a traditional rate hike, among other options.
Peter Traczyk, the board’s president at the time, kept close watch of the clock. Not just to make sure his board got out of this meeting by noon as scheduled, but also because he had a family commitment later that afternoon.
“My wife is going to kill me if I’m not out of here by 12:30,” Traczyk said, perhaps jokingly—or perhaps not.
But this Saturday study session ended closer to 2 in the afternoon. Traczyk accepted the reality that he wasn’t going to make this family outing, and his own fate of having to face a disappointed spouse. At the board’s subsequent regular meeting, Traczyk and his fellow members were present. Traczyk survived his wife’s wrath and lived to tell about it.
Earlier this May, Traczyk stepped down as president, a promise he made to his wife, Cindy, if he won reelection to the D97 board this year, which he did in the uncontested April election.
“I would have happily continued being board president except for the sheer demand of time affecting the family,” he said.
A certified financial planner, Traczyk was elected to Oak Park’s elementary school board in 2007. That election was also uncontested.
This has been his first stint in elected office. He was elected board president in 2009. Prior to becoming a school trustee, he served on a D97 financial advisory committee, along with serving on the Beye School PTO.
In 2009, the school district was struggling to fix a nearly decades-old structural deficit. The following year, it would see the departure of its superintendent, Constance Collins, who left for a similar job in Round Lake in March 2010. The timing, however, would pose a dilemma for Traczyk and the board — should they hire an interim for the year or fast-track a search to have someone in place before the start of the school year? The board went the latter route and hired Albert Roberts that June.
Traczyk said hiring Roberts, a former suburban Detroit school superintendent, has been his and the board’s biggest achievement.
“I was very proud of our board for being able to tackle a search in such a manner. At that time the economy had turned bad already and there were school districts downsizing, so there were superintendents out there,” Traczyk said. “So being able to very quickly and efficiently move through that hiring process and then come with what I feel was the perfect fit for Oak Park —hands down I feel like that was my greatest achievement as a board member.”
Traczyk said passing the referendum —an effort much larger in scope than hiring a superintendent — would be his second biggest achievement.
Traczyk said he is flattered and happy to be recognized as Wednesday Journal’s Oak Park Villager of the Year. But he insists the district’s main accomplishment this year —namely successfully passing the tax hike referendum in April — was achieved by many. He specifically credited the Committee to Support Oak Park Schools as the main force behind the referendum’s passage. The group, led by D97 parent Jassen Strokosch, formed in January to support the referendum.
Traczyk, who has a child apiece at Beye, Percy Julian Middle School and Oak Park and River Forest High School, is known for his candor. He’s perhaps one of the most, if not the most candid public official to come along in recent memory in either River Forest or Oak Park. That candor also extended to the referendum and his doubts on whether it would pass in such a bad economy.
“I didn’t think it was going to pass either. I was as surprised as anyone on election night,” Traczyk said. “I thought we did, for those who were willing to sit and listen—I thought we did a good job in making our case.”
The referendum passed 55 percent to 45 percent.
But his earlier doubts increased weeks before the election when Wednesday Journal reported that the actual ballot language understated the referendum’s impact on property owners by a factor of three — a snafu caused by not including the state multiplier in the ballot’s calculations. The equalizer is used by property owners to determine how much they’re going to fork over in taxes.
But D97, and a dozen other municipalities, did not include the equalizer, following the advice of the same Chicago law firm that wrote the specific state law describing how tax hike referendums should read on ballot. The law doesn’t specifically say to use the equalizer. But Oak Park’s township assessor, Ali ElSaffar, was among those who pointed out that the state law never said to ignore the equalizer outright. But the district and board were given credit for their public campaign which did put out accurate, and understandable, numbers.
To Traczyk, the ballot controversy just weeks before the April 5 election signaled the referendum’s death nail.
“I thought the confusion created by the ballot language question had killed the referendum, because I thought people would then have the ability to say ‘Hey, maybe they weren’t being truthful with us,” he said. “Certainly, Ali ElSaffar validated that all of the public discussion that we had was accurate about the size of the referendum, but it was a legitimate question to say why is the ballot language different. And a lot of times, to hear anyone say ‘Well, that’s what the lawyer told me to do,’ is not very compelling to people.”
Too candid for a public official?
Traczyk also acknowledged that people can sometimes misread his candor, sometimes mistaking it as outright rudeness. But he insists he’s just speaking his mind and is always open to hearing other people’s views. Traczyk says he’s a “verbal thinker.”
As D97 board president, he was also forthright in wanting to streamline their lengthy meetings. But he credits the entire board, specifically fellow members Peter Barber and Robert Spatz, for leading that effort. During his tenure as president, Traczyk ran a pretty tight ship, which has continued under Barber as the current president. Now, meetings rarely run past 10:30 p.m. — sometimes not even that late, unless there’s an executive session scheduled. Along with just maintaining board efficiency, Traczyk also hoped the improved meeting structure would help attract future candidates.
Traczyk has not been a fan of D97’s most recent uncontested elections.
“I find that unhealthy. I think we’ve lucked out and had good people raise their hand to join the board … I think there is value to the healthy debate that comes through an election.”
Traczyk and his wife Cindy, an actuary who works for an insurance company, have lived in Oak Park for 14 years. They were living in Chicago in a three-flat apartment building with a lot of steps and no elevator—not a good thing, Traczyk recalled, for his then pregnant wife. They’ve lived at their same Scoville Avenue home since moving to Oak Park.
Traczyk was born in Connecticut but says he’s currently “the only Midwestern” among his four sisters and one brother. His father, Richard, was an engineer, and his mother, Gerry, who’s deceased, was a homemaker most of her life but also worked as a bilingual teacher and paralegal. Traczyk also recalled his parents being active in their neighborhood theater — his mom was a costume designer.
But other than performing in some junior high plays — he was a chimney sweeper in Mary Poppins — Traczyk has no professional theater background.
Though he’s no longer running meetings as D97 president, Traczyk remains a strong voice on the board, especially when it comes to financial matters. And his candor sometimes takes a tongue-in-cheek turn, as when the board spent several meetings wordsmithing a mission statement for its strategic plan, a task Traczyk made clear he wasn’t interested in spending a great deal of time on.
“I think a little levity goes a long way,” he said. “I think people take board service a little too seriously. Not all of our decisions are world-turning decisions.”