I attended a presentation by the Imagine OPRF team (IMAGINE) recently and now understand how the state of Illinois, city of Chicago and, Oak Park’s finances have gotten so deeply in trouble. IMAGINE should be commended on its hard work, dreaming what the high school could be if money were no object. Unfortunately, IMAGINE — and it appears now the District 200 Board of Education — also have become so vested in their own creativity, they are blind to the enormous financial implications. The effort has become an exercise in salesmanship.
Of the five phases planned for implementation over the next 6-10 years, only three were priced — approximately $150 million. The final two phases were left unpriced. Fortunately, various members of the community, familiar with estimating capital improvements were able to provide an estimate — approximately $100 million — resulting in a total of approximately one-quarter billion dollars.
IMAGINE had its team of architects, contractors and professional estimators at the presentation. These professionals have consulted on the plan over the past year and it seems unlikely these professionals gave no thought to the probable cost of the full plan. More likely, a decision was made at some point to avoid undue public sticker shock.
By any argument, $250 million is a great deal of taxpayer money. Particularly given the financial stress that Oak Park tax jurisdictions’ out-of-control spending has placed on home ownership. The village is now experiencing more units of for-rent apartments being built than for-sale, transitory residences. A troubling, but understandable trend.
The quarter-billion-dollar IMAGINE plan emphasizes extracurricular activities over the school’s core mission, educating. Over STEM. Over closing the gap. The first $150 million primarily comprises sports- and theater-related structures: gymnasium, lockers, swimming pool, athletic department offices, dance rooms, a green room, and a four-story building for wrestling and the performing arts. In the unpriced phases 4 and 5 are renovation of 26 classrooms and seven science labs, and renovation of remaining classrooms. Phase 5 also includes a new 200-meter indoor track, trainer and locker rooms.
Now we hear that the D200 board is looking at ways to circumvent a community vote on the project, using a combination of its reserve, plus some available borrowing. Recall the board’s own consultants recommended reducing the ill-gotten reserve, refunding much back to taxpayers. The board later refused to do so.
IMAGINE is misaligned with reality. Recognizing Oak Park’s taxes were spiraling out of control, IGOV was formed in 2012 to try to find ways to save taxpayer dollars. Recently, recognizing Oak Park’s taxes are reaching a critical point, the village of Oak Park Taxing Bodies Efficiency Task Force recommended a moratorium on tax hike referendums until at least 2030 because, “it poses risks to both current Oak Park residents and to the long-term viability of Oak Park’s core values of diversity, affordability and integration.”
Like the state, Oak Park is in trouble. IMAGINE exacerbates the problem.