The school board at OPRF overrode a staff recommendation and voted Dec. 21 to take a lower hike in its 2017 property tax levy. The levy on existing property was left flat with last year while an increase was approved that will capture tax revenue from new construction in the villages.
The Oak Park and River Forest High School board voted 6 to 1 to keep its 2017 levy for existing property at $66.1 million. An additional 0.8 percent will be levied for tax revenue raised from new construction.
With Thursday’s vote, the school board decided against raising additional revenue by claiming an increase based on a 2.1 percent rise in the Consumer Price Index, or around $1.4 million. District staff had recommended claiming the full 2.91 percent levy increase possible under law.
The lost revenue, board members said, is worth the relief it would bring to taxpayers faced with an ever-increasing property tax burden.
During Thursday’s meeting, board member Tom Cofsky, who introduced the levy proposal, referenced the district’s financial condition, along with new state and federal measures that could hit taxpayers hard.
Cofsky said that he sat on the Finance Advisory Committee, launched in 2013 to right-size the district’s bloated $100 million-plus fund balance.
“Since then we have followed key recommendations, including two $10 million tax reductions, four years of consecutive tax abatement approaching somewhere near $10 million, as well as forgoing annual CPI increases on the levy,” he said.
Cofsky said that the district’s overall expenses have increased by 23 percent in four years, with the district’s costs per student jumping from $17,000 to just shy of $22,000 — driven largely, he said, by the district’s flat enrollment.
“Average daily attendance has been flat while our enrollment is up slightly,” Cofsky said. “Whereas long-term enrollment projections of FAC called for 3,900 students, now it’s aiming more toward 3,600 students. So there’s been a big adjustment.”
Cofsky also referenced the recent increase in the state income tax and a looming federal tax law that would limit to $10,000 the amount of state and local income and/or property taxes that taxpayers can deduct.
“There’s going to be a higher tax burden for our residents related to [these measures],” he said. “I cannot support a tax to the max approach … We need to cap our levy at last year’s level, plus growth and we need to focus on ways to contain our costs, holding flat or reducing per student cost while making sure we don’t [negatively impact] our students.”
Tod Altenburg, D200’s chief school business official, said that the board’s decision to forgo the 2.91 percent levy increase recommended by staff could mean that the district would have to go out for a referendum a year sooner than officials had projected.
“In fiscal year 2023, we would be receiving local revenues, which aren’t all property tax revenues, of around $81.2 million,” he said. “If we [don’t do a 2.91 percent increase], we’re at $79 million by 2023, which would push the potential for an operating referendum up a year.”
Board member Matt Baron, who provided the only vote against the levy proposal, said that the measure doesn’t go far enough. He had introduced an amendment that would have called for a 0 percent increase in the levy, without capturing new tax growth.
“This is a golden opportunity to dig even deeper,” Baron said.
Board members voted 5 to 2 against his amendment, with Cofsky and Baron voting in favor, before passing the proposal that Cofsky put forth.
Board President Jackie Moore said that capturing the new growth gives the district “a little wiggle room,” considering the amount of uncertainty currently surrounding issues of taxation and school funding.
The district won’t know until sometime in the spring how much tax revenue it will realize from new construction.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly noted that Baron’s amendment was voted on 6-1, instead of 5-2. This article has since been updated. Wednesday Journal regrets the error.