The OPRF Imagine facility committee town halls are over. Now, hopefully, the really hard work starts. That’s because it’s time for the District 200 Board of Education to take the core ideas of the Imagine vision and turn it into an action plan that more closely matches the community’s financial situation and priorities.
Since Imagine didn’t consider costs or taxpayer impact in its work, the final plan is just too expensive at more than $200 million (the fourth most expensive public high school construction project in the U.S., according to Public School Review data) and places too high a priority on athletics.
Taxes for Oak Parkers have gone up more than 140% in the past decade and are shockingly outpacing inflation and wage growth. A “back of the napkin” estimate shows that if the entire Imagine plan is adopted, it will cost the owners of a $400,000 home around an additional $600 per year in taxes for 25 years. That’s outside of any increases for D200 operating costs, elementary districts, and the villages (which are imminent). Increases like this can be the difference between middle-class folks, especially seniors, deciding to stay in Oak Park or not. Should we be accelerating this exodus with a $120 million+ new athletics facility/pool?
The board has already created financing plans that could fund phases 1 and 2 without seeking voter approval, and appears to want to move toward construction next year by completing planning this December. Such an aggressive timeline without scaling back the plan and funding schemes will put key academic and arts portions of the plan at risk.
D200 has said they need an operating funds referendum before 2023. Now picture board members in 2021 lobbying the community on the referendum and warning about cuts to academics, arts programs and progress on the achievement gap if it does not pass, while standing outside a newly completed $66 million athletics/swimming palace. I don’t predict a referendum victory. Or that Imagine phases 3-5, the bulk of the academic, arts, vocational training and student life modernizations, will ever be completed.
That’s not to say we should ignore the Imagine work (like nearly all Oak Parkers, I’m not a nay-sayer against any improvements to the school). Get started on the ADA and academic Phase 1. Then take the most meaningful part of the Imagine work — the needs and core ideas — and turn them over to a new architectural firm (or a few), along with a defined financial envelope and priority list of ADA, classroom modernization, commons, rehabbed athletic spaces and vocational training. Spend some of the reserve. And don’t start with the assumption we require much more pool capacity or a regional natatorium. I’m confident fresh eyes with clear priorities and budgets can turn the Imagine vision into a high school that performs and that the community can afford.