It is hard to celebrate a property tax increase just because it is lower than state tax cap laws would allow. But we give credit to the school board at Oak Park and River Forest High School for holding its annual hike to 3.96%. That’s the action we anticipate from the school board when it meets this week.

In an inflationary moment, this is about a point-and-a-half less than OPRF might have levied. More notably, it continues a very intentional taxing approach over the past 10 years for the school to not tax to its maximum. Of course, that came after a decade of intentionally overtaxing River Forest and Oak Park taxpayers while building up an absurd cash reserve of well over $100 million.

That greedy albatross understandably demolished good will toward the school even as the reserve has been thoughtfully diminished through smart policy. It continues to haunt discussions about the massive but overdue Imagine OPRF renovation projects. And it will be central to discussions of how to fund a next phase with the gargantuan $100 million price tag.

In our news report this week, Tom Cofsky, the OPRF school board president, and an architect of gradually reducing the reserve and limiting tax hikes, thoughtfully makes the case that property tax hikes ought to be used to fund ongoing school operations. Funding major overhauls of the campus after 50 years of not investing in the school’s facilities need other methods and approaches.

In the early months of 2023, the school board will need to decide on that funding. The current formula would likely include a major drawdown of the remaining reserve, some notable portion raised through philanthropy, and then rightly, some form of long-term debt. These are improvements for the generations of OPRF families and these villages. That debt will be repaid from funds raised from those future beneficiaries only makes sense.

The issue will be the form of debt incurred and whether taking on that debt is a decision approved via referendum by taxpayers. Increasingly we are certain that the only way past the albatross earlier boards and administrations created is through this school actively, confidently, enthusiastically making its case to voters and winning a referendum.

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