A crowd of at least 300 packed the South Cafeteria at Oak Park and River Forest High School on Oct. 30 to chime in on the preliminary long-term facilities plan drafted by Imagine OPRF.
The plan comprises a vast array of construction projects that could take up to a decade to complete and could cost nearly $220 million — a number that is only a rough estimate, since, as architects and Imagine members have repeatedly emphasized, it is hard to estimate construction-related costs for projects that are more than four or five years out.
That caveat, however, was not enough to calm the sticker shock that seized most of those in the room and was manifest in many of the roughly three dozen public comments.
Most people who voiced opposition to the plan brought up the village’s already heavy tax burden and “America to Me,” the documentary series that recently aired on Starz, for reasons why they didn’t support the long-term facilities plan — framing an equity versus facilities debate that many District 200 board members insisted was not accurate.
Marty Bernstein, who said that he once coached a Little League baseball team that included Kendale McCoy, one of the subjects of the documentary, urged the board to “send the plan back to the architects” with instructions to remove the part that calls for demolishing the south end of campus.
“This plan is so expensive it’s hard to imagine this board taking it seriously,” Bernstein said.
Amanda Massey, echoing a familiar refrain among many opponents of the plan, said that the majority of the plan was focused on athletics.
“After watching ‘America to Me,’ it has become more obvious that this isn’t what the community wants,” she said.
Jack Powers, along with many other commenters, referenced rising taxes in Oak Park. A recent Taxing Bodies Efficiency Report presented to the Oak Park Village Board earlier this year showed that tax levels among all of the village’s taxing bodies have increased by nearly 140 percent since 2000. Powers said that taxes on his small frame bungalow are about $16,000.
“Is this really where we want to put our money, with all of the other problems the school has?” Powers asked.
Those residents who spoke out in support of the plan cited the district’s critical need for improving a campus with infrastructure that is inadequate and hazardous, particularly for special needs students, as a video that played during the town hall demonstrated.
“We finally have a board stepping up to its responsibility, and I commend them for that,” said resident Deborah Wess.
“I wish people upset about taxes would direct that energy at the state level,” West said, referencing the fact that state funds allocated to Oak Park school districts have decreased over the last several years.
Matt Kosterman, of River Forest, said that he “wholeheartedly endorses” the Imagine plan and challenged critics of the plan, namely the group OP-RF Pragmatic Solutions, to present an alternative plan.
“Where’s the alternative plan?” Hosterman said, “you know, the one that gets the community [capital improvements to address long-neglected infrastructure] for free?”
“We need to be forward-thinking and imagine the future and what it can be,” said resident Steven Schuler. “That’s what this community has been about. I support this process and I’m in favor of putting [the decision to fund the plan] to the board.”
There was at least one point of agreement among both supporters and critics of the plan — the idea of selling naming rights to buildings on campus in order to offset costs.
“I’d love the idea of naming rights,” Schuler said. “I would be the first one to raise my hand to join a committee [on that].”
Board member Sara Dixon Spivy said that she was “a little concerned” about framing the plan as one that pits educational equity against facility needs.
“Those are not mutually exclusive,” she said, adding that the master plan attempts to “address what the holistic needs of the school are.”
This “is not a plan about just a pool,” Spivy said.
She also tried tempering the passions of those who think that the plan is luxurious, promising those in the audience that taxes will not be spent on an extreme plan.
A draft of the Imagine group’s master plan will be presented to the board on Nov. 15.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the names of Matt Kosterman and Deborah Wess. Wednesday Journal regrets the errors.