The debate over the upcoming District 200 referendum has given little attention to the one aspect of Oak Park that originally drew my family here a decade ago: its historic commitment to diversity. Yet the fact is that an approved referendum would price many people out of Oak Park, especially middle-class families, seniors, and people of color.
In the 10 years we have lived here, we have seen several neighbors in these demographic categories leave Oak Park because of the tax burden. In each case, they were replaced by young, white, professional families with children. While these new neighbors are all lovely people, the overall trend is worrying. The diversity of Oak Park — racial, economic, and generational — is threatened, and without this diversity, Oak Park is just another suburb.
It’s not hard to see why some residents have decided to leave. In the five years I have owned my home in Oak Park, my property taxes have increased about 20 percent without any increase in the assessed value of my home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation during that same five-year period was only 7 percent. This incongruous, automatic increase in property taxes is simply unsustainable for many households.
If we want to preserve Oak Park’s tradition of offering quality education to rich and poor children alike, the school districts must set their spending priorities wisely. Why would we increase taxes to pour tens of millions of dollars into a swimming pool? Surely there are projects closer to the core mission of D200 than a swimming pool! (I realize that smaller amounts for other facilities projects were added to this referendum, but that 11th-hour change is clearly a thinly-veiled attempt to appeal to more constituencies, not a genuine commitment to other activities.)
Every curricular and extracurricular offering has the potential to benefit students, but in the real world of limited resources and unlimited wish lists, we have to make choices. One activity simply cannot gobble up this much funding.
If taxes are raised to fund this project, our schools will become accessible only to wealthy kids. In the long run, that would be much more regrettable than a sub-optimal pool. Each tax increase in Oak Park makes it less distinctive and more like every other wealthy suburb in Chicagoland.
My husband and I chose to live in Oak Park because we believe that children of all incomes and skin colors deserve a great education, that diverse communities are healthy communities, and that Oak Park is unique. If we keep increasing taxes, Oak Park will be indistinct from Glencoe/Hinsdale/insert-name-here.
Voting no on this referendum is not a vote against our schools or our community. It’s a vote for the values that have made Oak Park an exceptional community for over 50 years. And aren’t those values more important than a swimming pool?