As editor of the Viewpoints section, I’ve been following the OPRF pool plan debate for some time now. I’ve tried to give both sides — we’ll call them the Referendum Plan and the Opposition Plan — equal access and plenty of space to present their respective arguments.
But with the election imminent, it worries me that informed decisions aren’t being made. If you’re “in the No” but not “in the know,” you may be voting just because you’re itching to say No to some tax increase after voters have supported so many over the past 15-20 years. We’ve invested plenty in our community (new middle schools, new library, upgraded parks, etc.) so it’s understandable that residents are feeling tax fatigue.
In some ways, the Nov. 8 referendum may seem like an easy one to oppose. The process has been long and messy. The high school has a big reserve fund, which residents resent. The opposition has been determined and aggressive about providing reasons for people, who normally support referenda, to vote No this time.
But several of their reasons are misleading.
Comparing apples and oranges: Referendum opponents describe the key feature of the respective facilities proposals as a “40-meter pool” (the Referendum Plan) vs. a “25-yard pool” (the Opposition Plan). Since state competitions swim 25-yard lengths, the opposition has said, a 40-meter pool is excessive and the money spent on it wasteful. But the comparison isn’t fair. The lanes in the Referendum Plan pool are also 25 yards long. The pool they propose is 40 meters wide, which allows for a diving well and more lanes. The larger of the two Opposition Plan pools proposed is roughly 23 meters wide (so not as many lanes). The other pool in their plan, located on the opposite side of the field house, features a diving well with fewer swimming lanes.
Comparing length to width makes it sound as if the lanes of the Referendum Pool are 40 meters long, and that sounds excessive for competition purposes. Whether the opposition is doing this intentionally or unintentionally, it’s an unfair comparison. Length of lanes should be compared to length of lanes and width of pools to width of pools. The single Referendum Pool is 25 yards by 40 meters. The larger of the Opposition pools is 25 yards by 23 meters. (I don’t have the figures on the smaller pool, but it should be presented the same way.)
Price points: Referendum opponents say the two pools in their plan cost a total of roughly $22 million and that the single Referendum Plan pool costs $37 million. That’s also misleading. The pools in both plans cost approximately $22 million. To reach the $37 million figure, the opposition is adding the cost of demolishing the current parking garage and building a new one. They have every right to mention the garage costs, but they don’t have a right to characterize the pool itself as costing $15 million more. The garage costs — plus the costs of the performing arts and other educational spaces — are part of an overall facilities package. They need to compare the packages as a whole, not two elements of one package vs. one element of another.
The overall cost of the Referendum Plan is $44.5 million (the board reduced the original cost estimates by about $9 million to reach that figure). The overall cost of the Opposition Plan, according to the architectural firm that presented it to the board as one of the options earlier this year, is $39.9 million. The opposition claims that because the Referendum Plan was reduced, they should be allowed the same reductions, which would put their plan at $30 million, roughly a $15 million savings. But that’s based on questionable assumptions. The two site plans are quite different. The Opposition Plan would take place entirely within the old field house, which, like the current pools, is 88 years old and poses a number of expensive challenges. The Referendum Plan largely involves new construction outside the field house. The itemized costs of the opposition’s overall facilities package, therefore, would likely vary. So it’s misleading for them to figure in an automatic “deduction.”
The bottom line is that, based on the most solid estimates we have to go on, the Opposition Plan would save $5 million ($44.5M vs. $39.9M), not $15 million. Five million is still a lot of money, but $15 million sounds much more dramatic.
My reading of the opposition strategy is that they were trying too hard to give tax-weary voters sufficient reasons to vote against the referendum with the hope that the school board would then go back and choose their plan instead. But more than likely, a whole new plan would be devised. In fact, the school board has said just that.
According to Oak Park Township Assessor Ali El Saffar, on a tax bill of $10,000, the Referendum Plan, if approved, would add $75 a year in Oak Park, $85 in River Forest. But voters need to know that any pool/learning spaces plan is going to be expensive, and the difference on their tax bills with the Opposition Plan would be relatively small. There are no “super-discount” solutions because they’re dealing with a land-locked campus and a very old building.
The opposition deserves a lot of credit for having made a real impact on the pool/facilities planning process thus far. They forced the school board to go for a referendum and also forced them to re-evaluate their plan and reduce both the size of the pool and the costs. The referendum plan is better because of their efforts. The opposition has already saved taxpayers millions of dollars. But however well-intentioned, they seem to have gotten carried away by their dedication to defeating the Referendum Plan.
No doubt the opponents will rebut that referendum supporters have also been misleading. For instance, they accuse the school board of merging the pool plan and the long-term facilities plan (performing arts spaces, etc.) as a ploy to more easily sell the new pool concept to the public.
But there is no question that the high school has significant long-term facility needs, including the pools, that must be addressed sooner than later, and the long-term facilities planning process has been ongoing for a number of years.
Whichever way the final vote goes, the arguments, pro and con, should be presented in a more straightforward manner.