The passage, and now the implementation, of two historic racial equity policies at District 97 and District 200, the removal of controversial murals and safety concerns at the middle schools, the start of major capital improvements at OPRF after years of impasse and TIFs (tax increment financing) districts created some of Wednesday Journal’s most impactful education-related news in 2019. 

Racial equity

In March, the District 97 school board unanimously approved a much-anticipated racial equity policy for Oak Park’s elementary schools that had been months, if not years, in the making. A month later, the District 200 school board unanimously approved a racial equity policy for Oak Park and River Forest High School. 

During the 2019-20 school year, administrators in both districts focused on making those policies reality. Administrators at D200 made front page headlines when they hired a new equity director at OPRF and they created waves of public reaction that have yet to crest when they announced that starting in 2021-22, freshman will no longer be separated into college preparatory and honors course levels. 

‘Too white’ murals 

In the spring, multiple murals deemed “too white” by local activists were removed by administrators at Brooks and Julian middle schools, prompting a conversation about whether or not racial equity measures and the activists involved in them had crossed the line. 

A February protest against racism planned by an African American student at OPRF that involved high schoolers who met up with middle schoolers in frigid weather to cross busy streets resulted in a minor fracas outside of village hall, the suspension of two employees at the high school and a public debate about when protest is appropriate.

The mural removals and the winter protest sparked a debate among racial equity advocates about tactics and techniques. 

Discipline at the middle schools

A major survey obtained by Wednesday Journal in May showed that the vast majority of teachers at Brooks and Julian had serious concerns with discipline, safety and security in the middle schools. In response, D97 did not back away from behavioral measures they believe are more restorative than punitive. 

Capital improvements finally happening at OPRF

Before Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams recommended the formation of a working group to take an in-depth look at all of OPRF’s facilities, years of stalemate and tense public wrangling over what to do with the high school’s two nearly century-old swimming pools had clouded other chronic problems with the aging campus — antiquated classrooms and a serious lack of ADA-compliant features among them. 

In August — two years after the formation of that working group, Imagine OPRF — the D200 school board voted unanimously on a contract with Chicago-based Pepper Construction Company to oversee first-phase capital improvement projects totaling $32.6 million. The first phase work, set to start summer 2020, will include the renovation and/or relocation of dozens of classrooms, the cafeteria and the library, among other improvements that, once complete, will define the student experience at the high school for generations to come. 

Expiration of TIF districts sparks debate, backlash

As 2019 closed some residents united in opposition when, instead of giving it back to the taxpayers, most local taxing bodies decided to capture the surplus revenue from the expiration of Oak Park’s Madison Street and downtown tax increment financing (TIF) districts. 

The pushback was directed perhaps most intensely at D97 school board members, with residents alarmed at the relative size of the numbers — the district stands to gain $5.3 million in revenue from the expired TIFs and approved a 9.7 percent increase over last year’s tax levy for residents living in the village’s TIF districts and in new property (residents everywhere else would only see a 1.9 percent increase on the D97 portion of their tax bills, district officials said). 

The distinction wasn’t enough for some outspoken community members who indicated that the school board’s vote to capture the TIF revenue, which D97 officials said was necessary in order to avoid even higher tax increases, will become a dominant theme in the next election. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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