With a clear recognition that the property tax burden in Oak Park has reached a level that is directly impacting the housing choices of villagers — spurring families who have aged out of the schools to consider leaving, and potentially impacting the ability of lower-income minority families to stay — we offer a sober but sincere endorsement of the twin referenda being put forward on April 4 by the District 97 Oak Park elementary schools.
Advocates for the increases point to two forces driving the need for an increase in the operations portion of the tax levy six years after voters approved the last hike. Enrollment in the 10 elementary and middle schools has risen a quite staggering 1,000 children (to a total of 6,055) in recent years. And the continuing meltdown of state government has already cost the district $9 million in Springfield funding with no earthly reason to feel optimistic about what comes next.
Those are compelling arguments for a voter-backed tax hike. To them we’d add two points for backing the operations referendum. Taxpayers in D97 have benefitted from a decidedly frugal and progressive school board over the past 15 years. While critics will point, with reason, to a misguided expenditure such as the half-million-dollar FastForward software expenditure, we’d say such misfires have been rare in this district. Instead, we see a school district that has spent wisely, implemented the most fiscally and educationally progressive faculty contract this town has seen and, when compared to the past obscene overtaxing which still rightly hounds the high school, has been a study in fiscal accountability.
Equally critical, Oak Park has ridden the excellence of these elementary schools, even with the raft of challenges our highly diverse student mix brings, to its current status as a highly sought after and wonderfully stable community. If the district is going to invest more in achieving educational equity — and the new superintendent is impressive on this critical issue — this is not the time to starve the district of funds.
When Wednesday Journal invited critics of these referenda in to make their case, there was not any clear, organized opposition to the added tax, just a suggestion that the vote be delayed a year through defeating the referendum to allow further financial review. Running the cash balance to break even, however, is no way to run a complex educational program in our opinion.
We also support the D97 facilities referendum though, like all involved, we’d have preferred a more clearly delineated building plan. Expansions at three schools to absorb the enrollment spike is broadly logical. Air conditioning and bringing each building to ADA compliance is worthy. But we’d have preferred more details. Approving this second referendum will not directly hike property taxes as the bonds approved will replace the expiring bonds used to pay for the middle schools a generation ago.
This is not an easy choice. We respect those who cannot bring themselves to vote yes. Tax capacity has been reached. Wider solutions are necessary. But right now they are nowhere in view.