In a hastily called, special meeting on Oct. 14, the Oak Park and River Forest High School Board of Education (BoE) voted to deny taxpayers the right to vote on the proposed $54 million, Olympic-size pool project.
This decision is the BoE’s single most egregious act of overreach. It used a loophole in Illinois law to avoid putting the issue before voters in a referendum. Yet it is the taxpayers of Oak Park and River Forest who should decide the fate of the project rather than the seven members of the board. Policy matters should be decided at the board level, not a $54 million dollar public works project.
The BoE voted to fund the project with non-referendum bonds of $17.5 million and with $20 million from fund balances. The cash funding is also problematic. As a policy, large, long-term capital projects should be funded entirely with bonds to spread out the financial obligation. The BoE’s funding doesn’t cover the total cost of the project as the BoE fails to include the additional $17 million needed to repurpose the existing pool spaces.
The BoE plan will demolish the relatively new parking garage and build the pool in its place. Parking is already an issue around the high school. The loss of the 300 parking spaces will negatively impact the school, the neighborhood and the village at large.
Transparency is an issue with the board. It refuses to acknowledge that the proposed new Olympic-size pool, with its higher maintenance costs, is a want and not a need. Most high schools have no pool, and swimming is not a state high school graduation requirement.
Just as the Lake Park High School Board of Education put its proposed $9 million pool project to referendum, the BoE should have followed suit. What was the BoE afraid of in putting this to a referendum? The public now has one opportunity to either voice support or reject the BoE’s plan. By law, the BoE must hold a public hearing, and there must be a petition period. If enough taxpayers sign a petition opposing the use of the bonds, it should force a referendum on funding the pool.
A seat on the BoE isn’t supposed to equate to a blank check.
Monica Rogers Sheehan