Oak Park.com, powered by Wednesday Journal, has reported that a Nov. 6 advisory referendum will ask Oak Parkers if the village should further study consolidating village government with three other taxing bodies — Oak Park Township, the Park District of Oak Park and the Oak Park Public Library. The advisory referendum rationale is to determine if consolidation could result in efficiencies and economies of scale and the elimination of redundancies that would lead to property tax reduction for the residents of Oak Park.
While I absolutely support intergovernmental conversation, collaboration, and actions designed to improve the quality of life in Oak Park and to provide the best and most cost-effective village services, this referendum does not address the key issue related to long-term property tax relief in Oak Park and across the state. That is the continuous failure of the Illinois General Assembly to honor its commitment stated in the Article X, Section 1, of the Illinois Constitution: “The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.”
I am certain that our local legislators will strenuously object to my use and application of that quote. They will parse the meaning of the word “primary” and tell you it does not mean “majority.” However, even a cursory review of dictionary definitions of “primary” will reveal that, as it is used in the Illinois Constitution, the word is not synonymous with “majority.” So that is an exercise in dissembling and political spin, in direct opposition to the intentions of those who wrote that language during the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention to ensure that state government is constitutionally mandated to and always reminded that “The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.” As Chicago Sun Times journalist Phil Kadner wrote, “That’s clear language. The goal is to educate every child in this state to their fullest potential, and it is the state’s primary responsibility to fund that system of education.” (1)
A Chicago Tribune article on March 26, 2015 offered, “The state, by constitutional mandate, has the primary responsibility for funding its public schools but has never come close to covering even 50 percent of the cost. In recent years, the state’s contribution has dipped below 30 percent, forcing local school districts to raise their property tax levy or cut programs.” (2)
Data from National Center for Education studies revealed that, in school year 2014-15, Illinois ranked dead last in the percentage of public school revenue coming from state sources at 25%, while the national state average is 46.8%. (3) An Oak Park resident’s local property tax bill would almost be cut in half if the Illinois General Assembly were as truly committed to funding public education with state revenues like Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan — all well over 50%.
The Illinois General Assembly and the governor talk about property tax freezes, schemes to redistribute property taxes from a community like Oak Park to other communities, and their undying love and support for public education. They will talk about data like statewide, per-pupil spending to avoid what most needs to be talked about: Why they choose not to honor Constitutional mandate for the state government to be the primary funding source for public education.
While I strongly support discussions between taxing bodies to identify efficiencies and redundancies, I do fear a rush to judgment and action by village leadership to combine taxing bodies without the requisite time, study, due diligence, and, all-important, the village-wide resident input such a momentous action requires. Before the village even considers undoing structures that have provided Oak Park decades of high-quality youth and senior services, and nationally recognized and award-winning park district and library services, village leadership should look 198 miles south to all branches of state government.
As Oak Park is often in the vanguard of change, I suggest it once again assume that mantle of leadership and launch a statewide campaign with a stark and strong message to our local legislators and legislators across the state: honor your mandate in the Illinois Constitution and use the taxpayers’ hard-earned tax dollars to take primary responsibility for funding public education in Illinois. I have never created a hash tag, but I am certain my talented fellow Oak Parkers could create an effective one that admonishes the G.A. and compels them to commit 51%+ to state level public education funding.
When the inevitable local and state level pushback and language parsing legislators’ responses to this One View are presented, I encourage you to take out your local property tax bill and look at the percentages supporting our public-school systems in Oak Park, districts 97 and 200. Now imagine (or calculate) your total property taxes if those two taxing body percentages were reduced by at least 1/3 to 1/2. However, that will only happen when Springfield legislators are given no choice but to honor Article X, Section 1 and the oath they swore to uphold.
Jim Gates, an Oak Park resident, is a retired District 97 instructor and a former D97 school board president.