John Harris, a volunteer with the pro-referendum group Vote Yes!, stood on the sidewalk along Lake Street during last Saturday’s Oak Park Farmers Market — the second to last of the season.
The father of an Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate was trying to persuade passersby that an estimated $44.5 million, five-year facilities plan at the high school is worth paying for.
The high school’s plan would include the demolition of the village-owned 300-space garage, the construction of an estimated $21.4 million, 25-yard by 40-meter swimming pool plus a roughly 240-space new parking garage on the site of the old one, and expanded performing arts and learning spaces.
“As an Oak Park resident for 20 years, it’s hard to find people who don’t think our taxes are too high,” said Harris. “But when you look at the average tax bill, you’re talking about $100 a year for an investment in the future.”
In a tent on the other side of Farmers Market — pitched on Scoville Avenue, behind Pilgrim Congregational Church, 460 Lake St. — Bruce Kleinman, a volunteer with the anti-referendum group OPRF Pragmatic Pool Solutions, passionately shared why he believes that what Harris considers an investment is actually an extravagance.
“The core mission of the school is not about swimming,” Kleinman said. “It’s about academic success for all our students and we have some deficits on that score.”
On Nov. 8, less than two weeks from now, voters in Oak Park and River Forest will decide whether to approve a referendum bond that would pay for up to $25 million of the facilities plan (with the rest paid from the reserve fund), which the District 200 school board approved unanimously in August.
The clock is ticking, but Harris and Kleinman are among the relatively small crowd of passionate, active partisans who feel in its pulsations enough urgency to hand out informational literature in sub-50-degree weather and/or go door-to-door evangelizing the rightness of their cause.
The reality, said the roughly half-dozen campaign volunteers, both for and against the bond referendum, who were interviewed last Saturday, is that the ballot measure is a race for the hearts and minds of a voting majority that doesn’t really know much, if anything, about what’s at stake.
The referendum’s relative obscurity as a voting issue, in addition to the lack of professional polling, has created a lot of uncertainty for volunteers. None of them could say with total confidence that their side would prevail. Virtually all said the measure’s passage is a toss-up.
“It’s very hard to say,” said Maureen Kleinman, who manned the Pragmatic Pools tent with her husband. “Sometimes, I come away feeling like, ‘Wow, we’ve really got momentum on our side. And other times, you hear from people who say they really need this new pool.”
Given the relatively strong anti-tax-increase position of many voters, the extent of the public’s lack of knowledge could be more dangerous for the pro-referendum side.
“I’m yes for the future of the high school, but no for higher taxes,” Oak Park homeowner Ronald Page told Vote Yes! volunteer Ellen Pimentel.
Pimentel had rung Page’s doorbell while canvassing the 800 block of North Taylor Ave. She presented to Page a short tutorial on the referendum that was largely based on information available on the high school’s website.
“It makes me wonder what the argument for yes is and you’re giving me the information I need to make a decision based off acts or assumptions, instead of all the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ signs I see,” said Page, who noted that he was still leaning toward voting against the referendum.
Allen Matthews, a 32-year Oak Park resident, said he also didn’t have too many details about the high school’s plan, but his mind was already made up.
“I don’t know enough details to know all the options, but this is wrong and I’m voting no,” he said. “It’s outrageously wasteful. They’re tearing down the parking garage and building a Taj Mahal here. It’s outrageous.”
Most of the Taylor Avenue residents who voiced support for the referendum brought up the urgency of replacing the high school’s old pools.
“I’ve known that the high school has needed new pools for a long time,” said homeowner Alice Merrifield, whose children graduated from OPRF. “It’s been talked about for years and years. So it’s time.”
Vote Yes! campaign manager Lynn Kamenitsa said one of the most frequent concerns she and other volunteers encounter is about the potential tax impact of the proposal. So, she went to the high school’s online tax calculator, plugged in a variety of 2015 tax bill amounts and created a chart that pro-referendum volunteers take door-to-door.
Kamenitsa said that, in addition to tax concerns, she also encounters confusion about the nature of the referendum, with some voters convinced that the bond will only pay for a pool.
“People are busy and their lives are full of commitments and information,” said Kamenitsa, who has two children at OPRF. “Not everyone’s paying close attention to this. But in recent weeks, people have been paying more attention and asking more informed questions.”
According to the online calculator, the estimated annual tax increase resulting from the referendum ranges from $60 for an Oak Park household paying $8,000, and $224 for an Oak Park household paying $30,000 in 2016 taxes. For River Forest residents, the tax increase ranges from $68 to $255 at the same 2016 tax levels.
“Typically, when people see that, they say, ‘Oh, is that all?'” said Kamenitsa, a former political science and woman’s studies professor who joked that her position as campaign manager pays around a dime an hour. “We want people to make informed decisions and vote based on facts.”
Not all facts, however, are the same. In its literature, the Pragmatic Pools group pegs the high school’s plan at $37.3 million. The group is also pushing for an option that wasn’t approved by the school board — one that would keep the garage and build two new pools in the spaces where the existing 88-year-old pools are — which it says would cost $15 million less than the high school’s approved plan.
High school officials and referendum supporters argue that the $37.3 million and $15 million figures are misleading. The former figure, they argue, includes numerous components of the high school’s approved plan, such as the acquisition and demolition of the garage, that aren’t pool-related costs. And the $15 million savings figure, they say, is inflated.
If the costs of facilities improvements, such as the expansion of performing arts spaces and updated locker rooms, were modified for the two-pool plan, the total costs related to it would come out to an estimated $40.2 million — around $4 million less, referendum supporters say.
That nuanced point of contention, however, wasn’t on the mind of one Oak Park man, who requested anonymity since he works for a firm that’s done business with the high school.
“The high school’s plan may be great, but I don’t know enough about it,” he said, before repeating that Pragmatic group’s point about the $15 million cost addition.
“If I’m going to vote on a referendum to increase my taxes, I suppose I ought to know more about it and there ought to be an obvious winner for the best solution,” he said. “I don’t know if one scheme is any better than the other, so I’m ignorant about what the solution is and based on that ignorance, I’m going to vote not to spend any money. That’s just my gut reaction. I don’t know if it’s a good process, but hey.”
Some residents, like Kelly Oxer, are much clearer about the facts, but are still struggling to come to terms with another tax increase.
“Yeah, it’s like a hundred bucks, but it’s over the course of 20 years [the lifetime of the bond], not just next year,” Oxer said. “You add that up over the years and it’s a lot of money. We already pay high taxes.”
Oxer, who has children in the fifth and eighth grades, said she’s still considering voting for the proposal because the opportunity to replace the high school’s deteriorating 88-year-old pools may not come back around for another several years. Her husband, she said, is leaning toward voting against the ballot measure.
When asked whether the disagreement has been a source of tension in their household, Oxer offered up a light-hearted dismissal.
“It’s no big deal,” she said. “It would be different if he were voting for Trump.”
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify, and correct, the critiques made by referendum supporters of the Pragmatic Pools option.