‘Follow the science.” We’ve heard that a lot in recent years. As OPRF High School District 200 considers spending plans and spending methods in renovating the school, we hope they will follow the data, and especially the feedback of residents.

During the November 2020 election, two advisory referendums about spending by our taxing bodies were on the ballot. These were:

Referendum 1: “Shall the Operating Cash Balances of local Oak Park Governments be limited to one-half year’s Operating Expenses, as measured at the start of the fiscal year, with the excess returned as soon as possible to the taxpayers through temporarily lowered taxes?” Election result: 74.27% or about 15,881 taxpayers voted in favor of the referendum. OPRF’s operating budget is approximately $80 million. Per the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), D200 only needs to keep $20 million in reserve (it currently has $96 million) to earn the highest financial rating from the ISBE. It recommends a school keep the equivalent of three months of its annual operating expenses in reserve to cover any possible funding delays during the year. That’s the purpose of a fund reserve, not to stockpile taxpayers’ dollars. D200 had five times the ISBE recommendation at the end of fiscal 2021.

Referendum 2: “Shall any capital expenditure of $5 million or more by any local taxing body within Oak Park be subject to a binding referendum for approval or rejection by the voters?” Election result: Out of 21,383 votes cast, 77.24% or about 16,516 taxpayers voted yes. 

Phase 2 of the Imagine Plan envisions a 600-seat natatorium and larger-than-necessary pool that would cost an estimated $65 million, and require demolishing the southeast corner of the building, which is structurally sound. 

In 2016, D200 paid Fako Research & Strategies to complete a community survey about replacing the pools at OPRF. The results of that survey were: 

  • $40 million pool plan: 46% for, 47% against, 8% undecided
  • $54 million pool plan: 37% for, 56% against, 7% undecided
  • $68 million pool plan: 27% for, 69% against, 4% undecided 

Imagine’s Phase 2 and its pool are still under board consideration at $65 million. Its pool is just three meters smaller than the $54 million and $68 million pool plans presented in the Fako Survey.

In 2013, the D200 school board also commissioned Stantec Consulting Services to review the pool issue, resulting in the 2013 OPRF Competition Pool Upgrade/Relocation Study. Stantec’s Report recommended one 8-lane, 25-yard, standard-size high school competition pool in the East Pool/South Gym to replace the two existing pools. Stantec stated that the school’s current 11-swim lanes are a luxury for a high school. This report was ignored (why?) by D200 and the Imagine Group, which recommended a plan with a much larger pool and 600-seat natatorium.

The D200 board is currently considering two spending issues. One, to issue $20 million in debt certificates despite its $96 million bank balance to pay for ongoing maintenance. There is no need to incur debt, especially using a vehicle that carries higher interest rates than other borrowing methods. This would result in at least $320,000 in annual interest payments x 20 years = $6,400,000. How much tutoring and remedial academic help would $320,000 or more annually provide to close the achievement gap?

The other issue the board is considering is a 5% levy increase. This is the same district that in 2005 exploited a loophole so egregiously that it led to a 16% levy increase and a $130 million surplus in 2013, of which $96 million remains. This same district in 2019 voted to take $800,000 in retiring TIF money that it could have declined, returning it to the taxpayers. This district now seeks to borrow $20 million by bypassing the voters, and to spend an estimated $65 million on Phase 2 and its 17-lane pool and 600-seat natatorium that voters have said any number of ways is not a priority and certainly not to be done without a referendum.

Enough. More than enough.

Jack Powers is an Oak Park resident.

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