Often on this page we have lauded the school board at Oak Park and River Forest High School for its efforts on issues of equity. Those are deserved plaudits though there is unending hard work ahead.
There is, though, another critical area of concern where the past handful of District 200 school boards have sought to do cleanup on the grievous errors of earlier boards. That is taxation and finance.
Short of calling it theft, there was a long period when the school board and the administration of our high school intentionally overtaxed property taxpayers in River Forest and Oak Park. It went on for years, allowed by a loophole in state law. It was deceitful and it permitted the district to pile up an absurd — north of $100 million — reserve of cash. This was money taken directly from the wallets of taxpayers and stockpiled without purpose in district accounts.
Perhaps it gave school officials a warm feeling knowing they had more cash than they could ever spend. But it has proven to be an albatross for a district and cost it the trust of its constituents for more than a decade.
More recently, the school board has foregone taking every penny possible from taxpayers in its annual levy, has at times actually abated money to taxpayers and has insisted on spending down a portion of the reserve on the long-overdue renovation projects at the school.
This has been a thoughtful process. Don’t get us wrong, we’re still paying a pretty penny to operate this high school. But finally it feels we sometimes operate from the same side of the table.
Now, in this pandemic year when ordinary taxpayers are seriously pressed by lost wages and stress-filled uncertainty, the high school board asked its administration and financial advisors for options as it crafted its annual tax levy.
Three options came back to the board and it chose the path least expensive to current taxpayers. There would be no levy increase for existing taxpayers. The board would tax only new construction in the villages. It is wise to tax new construction as it permanently captures these hard-won additions to our tax base.
Coupled with foregoing a 2.3 percent hike on everyone else, a hike based on an increase in the Consumer Price Index, the board directed staff to find a commensurate $1.7 million in cost savings. Perfectly reasonable.
When the proposed cuts came back to the board, seemingly pre-leaked to constituent groups, this mild-mannered board went into apoplexy stating, to a person, that they felt manipulated by the administration and its proposed cuts to programs directly of interest to students and families. Reductions in field trips, cutting unspecified extracurriculars, summer camps, and some sports seemed straight out of the playbook cynical school districts deploy when going for a tax hike.
We’ve heard it a million times. “Raise your taxes by the price of a measly pizza a week and we can save arts and music. Vote this down and, well …”
The school board wasn’t buying it. Instead they agreed to cover any immediate revenue losses out of that still super-sized cash reserve while the administration is given another opportunity to find legitimate waste and create a few efficiencies as a way to balance its budget.
Good for the school board.