At a packed special board meeting on Jan. 14, Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 Board of Education President Jeff Weissglass announced that board members will likely vote to abandon their resolution of intent to issue $17.5 million in working cash bonds when they meet Jan. 19.
Also, on Jan. 14, a three-person Cook County electoral board ruled to dismiss an objection, filed last month by Wayne Franklin and Matthew Kosterman, to the roughly 4,300 petition signatures gathered by residents in order to force the $17.5 million bond issue to referendum in March.
The referendum drive, led by Oak Park resident Monica Sheehan, may be moot. If the board goes through with its decision to abandon the bond resolution, the question will be removed from the ballot.
At the Jan. 14 special meeting, Sheehan and other referendum proponents questioned the board’s timing, with one petitioner even calling the board’s decision possibly “un-American.”
Sheehan said that the law should be changed to prevent school districts from financing long-term, big-ticket projects without putting them on the ballot first.
Judith Alexander, a petitioner who accompanied Sheehan to the Jan. 14 electoral board hearing, said that the general consensus of the roughly 4,300 people who signed the petition is that demolishing the high school’s parking garage should be off the table, that a workable parking plan must include all community stakeholders and that the high school should do more to educate citizens if a referendum is postponed.
“Denial of the ballot, or fear of the ballot, is fear of your fellow citizens,” said Bruce Kleinman, one of the key organizers of the petition drive.
But most board members — several of them doing little to conceal their battle fatigue and the emotional toll the debate has exacted — pushed back against the way they said their decision-making has been caricatured by some residents.
“Weariness has set in with the polarization of our community at a time when we are such a resource-rich community,” said board member Jackie Moore. “I’m struck by the vitriol that has come about because parking and a pool. We have kids that are homeless. We have kids that are struggling [not to commit] suicide because of depression [and] anxiety. We have kids that want to go college but don’t know if they can afford it.”
“I think there have been shots thrown at members of the board that are unfounded,” said board member Fred Arkin. “There are no ulterior or nefarious motives here.”
Most board members indicated that they were leaning toward withdrawing the $17.5 million bond resolution. So far, the “workable” parking plan that Weissglass has said would have to be in place before he could vote on the project is far from complete. And in recent months, several alternatives — such as a shared community facility financed by multiple taxing bodies and a much more expensive pool structure that includes more than 100 parking spaces — have come into play.
“The people who put forth the petitions did so because they didn’t agree with our plan,” said board member Sara Dixon Spivy. “That being said, we are hearing what you’re saying, hearing your concerns, and we’re trying to address them. I think it would be disingenuous of us to go forward with issuing these bonds not knowing what our plan is at this point.”