It is a rare thing to see an elected board ignore a recommendation from its staff — especially by a unanimous vote. But it happened last week as all seven members of the school board at Oak Park and River Forest High School chose to move forward with long-planned construction projects at the school. That work includes rebuilding the library, reimagining the student center, a new cafeteria, relocating and expanding special-ed facilities. With the board’s determined decision, projects will start in the weeks ahead.
It took a global pandemic and the economic wreckage in its wake to convince administrators who had championed this project, resurrected it really from the chaos of an endless debate on the size of the school swimming pool, that this was not the time to take on the costs of this work.
Financial advisors told the board that the massive costs to the state of Illinois in coping with COVID-19 made it almost inevitable that state aid to schools was in jeopardy, that a freeze on property taxes was likely and that pressure to shift teacher pension costs from the state to local schools could prove undeniable. Spending down the district’s massive, yes, absurdly high, cash reserves on construction would hobble the district if their predictions on the state’s predicament came true.
The school board thought the perfect storm described by consultants was overly pessimistic. More basically, though, we believe this school board, several members of which may choose not to run again next spring, saw its years of hard work in aligning a strategic plan based on equity and the remaking of the campus to foster those equity initiatives as the core purpose of their board service.
We support this decision even as we recognize the gamble it represents. OPRF has stumbled and distracted itself on equity for decades, it has not invested substantially in its campus for a half century. This is the moment. As troubled a moment as it is.