I thank Wednesday Journal for its excellent Feb. 23 editorial on OPRF High School’s finances and attempt to build a very big new pool [OPRF’s $96M albatross, Our Views, Viewpoints]. Per the editorial, D200’s $96 million cash reserve was collected illicitly from taxpayers and is a continuing source of mistrust. The editorial notes efforts of recent boards to reduce this cash hoard, which are appreciated. But substantial distrust remains.

In addition to the bloated cash reserve, the high school’s actions and inactions on the pools inspire suspicion. Consider:

• In 2015, the high school attempted to pay for a 23-lane pool by issuing non-referendum bonds. A successful petition drive forced a narrowly defeated 18-lane pool referendum in 2016, despite deceptive marketing that it was for “academic and performing arts” purposes.

• Undeterred, the administration recommended avoiding a referendum again this year by issuing debt certificates. Its finance committee vetoed this in a unanimous, welcomed vote. 

• The administration has apparently tried to avoid/minimize public comment. A finance committee meeting was held without providing opportunity for public comment, violating the Open Meetings Act. A facilities committee meeting was held on Valentine’s Day evening. Other than Christmas Eve, when would such a meeting receive fewer public comments?

• D200 seems to be low-balling the cost of Project 2’s 17-lane pool and 600-seat natatorium. The new pool’s cost is supposedly $14 million. But the administration estimated pool renovation costs at $46 million this January and last fall. 

• Pre-2016 referendum, we were told the pools were so far past their useful life that they’d soon be unusable. But they’ve been used another six years.

• Now the high school seems to be self-fulfilling its 2016 prophecy by deliberately failing to maintain the pools. It has not made the repairs recommended by Larson Engineering in at least seven years. Larson’s reports were not shared with the public until after FOIA request and disclosure. (The 2021 report is now posted on oprfhs.org; search term, Larson Report.) 

I completely agree with the editorial’s recommendation for direct, public discussion of what kind of pool(s) is really needed. Two thoughts:

• WJ asks indirectly what pool capacity is needed to teach every student to swim. Many students enter high school already knowing how to swim. Yet D200 continues to require everyone to take two sessions of swimming. At numerous other high schools, any student passing a reasonable swimming test can opt out of these classes. How much instructional capacity is needed if OPRF adopts this policy?

• The editorial also asks what’s needed to house a competitive swimming program. In many communities, high schools and park districts share pools of this size. How about such a collaboration in Oak Park, whether by enclosing the Ridgeland Common pool or co-designing a suitable pool for the new community center?

As the editorial suggests, it makes sense that residents who will benefit from major high school capital investments pay for them over many years via referendum bonds. If D200 seeks to fund the pool(s) it really needs, it need not fear a referendum.

Judith Alexander is a resident of Oak Park.

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