Oak Park residents for and against two District 97 referenda that will appear on the April 4 ballot presented their respective arguments during two separate, hour-long Wednesday Journal endorsement interviews on March 14.

The two sides agree that the district needs more money, but they disagreed about when the district should ask taxpayers for it, with Michael Nevins, an opponent of the referenda, calling the district’s projection of the deep budget cuts that might be made if the two referenda don’t pass next month “scare tactics.”

Nevins argued that residents should “vote no today and vote yes in one year,” he said, arguing that the $4 million in cash reserves that the district projects it will have in its operating funds balance a year from now should be enough to pay for existing programs next academic year.

“We think that this is a good thing for the community,” Nevins said. “Not just the schools, but the whole community. You can say no and it isn’t Armageddon.”

The district is running a limiting rate operating funds referendum with an increase totaling around $13.3 million in order to pay for day-to-day expenses, such as salaries and programs. If it passes, the average property taxpayer in the district could see an increase of roughly $74 on every $1,000 of their current tax bill.

A separate building funds referendum calls for issuance of up to $57.5 million in bonds, which will go to pay for numerous capital expenses, such as basic building maintenance and the expansion of three elementary schools that are almost overcapacity. It will have no effect on tax bills, district officials said. In informational literature, officials explain that this is “due to the expiration of the 1999 referendum bonds that helped build” the two middle schools in Oak Park.

If either of these ballot measures fail, the district’s plans for building expansions, classroom upgrades and basic building maintenance would be indefinitely suspended, officials have said.

If they both fail, around $14 million in budget cuts over the next three years could result in the loss of approximately 170 full-time positions, the elimination of non-mandated programs (including art, world language, music, teacher mentoring and International Baccalaureate), an increase in class sizes “across all grade levels” and the possible “installation of trailers as temporary classrooms,” among other belt-tightening measures, district officials have said.

During a board presentation of the financial projections in February, school board member Graham Brisben said that this scenario, which D97 Supt. Carol Kelley described then as “not a scare tactic,” is the result of a “perfect storm” of structural disadvantage and historical happenstance.

Brisben said that a 1,000 student spike in enrollment, the district’s restricted ability to raise sufficient revenues from property taxes due to a Cook County tax cap law and the state’s withholding $9 million of general aid to the district since 2012 all contributed to the current scenario.

During the March 14 endorsement interview, Libbey Paul, a board member at the Oak Park Education Foundation and referenda supporter, said that the stakes this year are much higher than in the 2011 referendum year.

“This feels substantially different,” said Paul, who added that she was not speaking out about the ballot measures in any official capacity. “It feels very different than 2011. Some parents and community members are saying, ‘Oh, you’re just crying wolf.’ Unfortunately, I wish that were true, but I don’t believe it is.”

Paul and her pro-referendum colleague Jassen Strokosch, who also attended the endorsement interview and has organized past District 97 referendum efforts, lauded the school board’s fiscal stewardship. They referenced the cost-savings associated with the district’s new administration building and the hiring of Kelley, whose performance they also lauded, among other factors.

But Nevins and his anti-referendum colleagues, Maureen Kleinman and Amanda Massie, said that the district hasn’t been as frugal as it claims. Nevins said that, although the district’s enrollment has increased by 28 percent, its full-time staff has gradually increased by 65 percent. He also said that some of the district’s investment areas need more vetting.

“The administration has identified three key investment areas for teaching and learning to support our vision achievement,” Nevins said, reading a piece of district literature. “What does this even mean? ‘Providing a comprehensive system of support for staffing.’ You’re not doing that now? ‘Initiate planning to provide enhanced early childhood options.'”

Nevins said he “strongly believes” that the district is looking to provide pre K-3 and pre K-4 options, which don’t currently exist. He said he doesn’t immediately see the value in the programs.

In an email response, Strokosch said that expanded preschool programming has been discussed by the board as a long-term goal to explore, but that the district isn’t pursuing money from the operating funds referendum to pay for it.

Nevins was an outspoken critic of a 1995 referendum proposed by Oak Park and River Forest High School which called for a 40-percent tax hike. That referendum failed before another one at a notably lower rate passed the next year. Nevins said he supported that second referendum and he’s hoping history repeats itself this year. He did eventually concede that comparing this year’s D97 referendum and the 1995 OPRF referendum isn’t exactly “apples and apples.”

According to district data provided by Chris Jasculca, District 97’s senior director of policy, planning and communication, the district’s full-time personnel have grown by approximately 19 percent over the last 10 years while student enrollment has grown by approximately 23 percent during the same period of time.

According to district data, which appears on informational literature it has circulated throughout the community, the district’s operating fund balance next spring will be around $3.2 million.

“This represents approximately three weeks of money that we would have available from an operational standpoint to protect us against the continued loss of revenue from the state, which has totaled $9 million since 2012,” Jasculca said, adding that to draw down this remaining fund balance in anticipation of a new referenda vote next year “would be financially irresponsible.”

“None of the other financial challenges would go away,” he said.

Neither are Oak Park’s high property taxes, which both the referenda’s opponents and supporters conceded.

“I’m concerned that our taxes are getting so high that people aren’t going to [continue to] move into the community,” said Kleinman, who said she fears that Oak Park will no longer be affordable to those in the middle class.

Nevins cited a Federal Reserve survey that showed that the majority of Americans don’t have $400 for emergency expenses on hand.

“They don’t have any money,” he said. “We need to get [the referenda] right, so we have a win-win essentially.”

Paul and Strokosch said that, even though the financial cost to taxpayers may be high, the cost of not funding the community’s schools is even higher.

“I believe in the power of public education and I believe in the power of the community to provide that public education and it just feels at the heart of a progressive community to support kids’ public education,” Paul said. “There are certain things in Oak Park that are hallmarks. I believe our education is one of those. It’s what makes us distinct and different from other communities like Naperville. It’s not about numbers and charts and graphs. It’s about where the gravity of the community lives.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Paul is no longer a staff member at the Oak Park Education Foundation. She is a board member, but was not speaking out in support of the referenda in any official capacity. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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