Oak Park Elementary School District 97 is interested in contracting the Park District of Oak Park to provide landscaping services for its schools. And the park district’s board of commissioners is willing to at least consider it.

Park district Executive Director Jan Arnold brought the topic to the park board during its April 5 committee of the whole meeting. She explained that school district officials and members of some Parent Teacher Organizations were impressed with how the park district maintained its own facilities. 

It offered to either bring the park district on board this year or contract someone temporarily for one year and seal a deal with the park district the following year. 

After some discussion, the board decided that they needed more time to research the idea before making the final decision. 

However, commissioners agreed that, even if the board ultimately decides against it, they were willing to help the school district find a contractor that would suit their needs.

As Arnold explained to commissioners, she was contacted by the school district on April 4. The school district was planning to reject all bids for its landscaping contract, and they wanted to know if the park district would be interested in stepping in – either this year or next year. 

Arnold said she could see both pros and cons to it. On one hand, she believed that cooperation between Oak Park governing bodies would be well-received by the residents and benefit the park district. 

On the other hand, Arnold had concerns about timing, noting that if they started this year, they would only have a week to prepare. Given that staff suddenly would be taking care of 35 properties instead of the current 24, taking on the job would require more staff and resources. 

When asked about the scope of services District 97 wanted, Arnold said it was something that would need to be worked out, But, the school district indicated it wanted its properties to look like the park district’s and that the costs involved to accomplish that didn’t seem to put them off. 

Commissioner Kassie Porecca said the first clause in the park district’s mission statement was partnering with the community, and that this would fit. Plus, she was aware that one of the District 97 PTOs “was very interested in working with us,” because concerns about landscaping went back years. 

However, she wasn’t entirely sold on it.

“But my question is, are we turning into a landscaping service?” Porecca said.

Board Treasurer David Wick said that while he supported collaboration, he wanted to make sure the benefits weren’t one-sided.

“I’m all for collaboration, 100 percent, but we’re not getting anything out of it,” he said. “That’s a lot of extra work, a lot of extra burden for us.”

Porreca said that she thought the community would appreciate two governing bodies collaborating, because it would eliminate some “redundancies.”

“The community will appreciate that at least [the money] is going back to the park district, instead of a private company,” she said.

Board Secretary Sandy Lentz said she was leaning against a deal, arguing that Oak Park has “perfectly good” private landscapers, and that she was worried that it would be a slippery slope. At the same time, she could see some benefits.

“We also have an opportunity to [do] better landscaping in terms of making it more sustainable,” Lentz said. “The question is, is it something that’s our job? I’m not there yet.”

Board Vice President Vic Guarino argued that there were many issues that should be worked out before the commissioners decide whether to take the contract. Different schools have different landscaping needs, and the park district needs time to figure out what they are. 

Hiring more people would require more full-time employees, which would affect how much money the district spends on benefits and how it would affect existing union contracts.

If the park district’s contract started next year, it would have plenty of time to work this out, he said, but not if they start this spring.

Commissioners agreed that if the school district was willing to hire someone else for this year, they would be willing to have the staff research the landscaping needs and other issues over the next few months and give District 97 an answer sometime this fall.

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...