The District 200 school board unanimously voted Thursday night to disenfranchise the other 48,801 voters in the district on the funding of a $102 million physical education addition. The board’s vote to issue debt certificates, with no recourse to put the funding on the ballot, reveals that it fears another defeated referendum or a backdoor referendum for an oversized pool project. The vote was no surprise.
The precursor to the board’s funding plan, Option 2, was unveiled at the Aug. 16, 2022 Community Finance Committee (CFC) meeting. The administration and its bond consultant presented a singular draft funding proposal for Project 2 with all borrowing in debt certificates, the opposite of best practices, defying all norms, that clearly had tacit board approval. Debt certificates are intended for short-term borrowing by a school to pay for an emergency building repair it can’t cover with its cash reserve. In voting for Option 2, the board ignored the CFC’s expert financial advice.
D200 has not been forthcoming with the community on the source of its operating surplus with which it plans to repay Option 2’s debt certificates. Most of the surplus consists of grant dollars intended to provide tax relief to property owners. D200 kept Property Tax Relief Grant money annually since fiscal 2020, failing to adhere to the intent of the law. It’s a misuse of grant funds. It’s unethical.
The administration’s misleading promotion of Option 2’s $45.3 million in debt certificates, costing taxpayers $0 annually, and their false narrative that peer schools have funded similar projects in the same way tainted the funding discussion. It became clear that it was a charade when the board pivoted in its directive to the CFC to prevent it from making a funding recommendation. The board’s shift, allowing the CFC to provide only pros and cons of funding plans, came after CFC members stated that Project 2 should go to referendum, debt certificate borrowing should be short-term only, five years or less, and donation dollars should not be included in a funding plan until the money is received. Option 2 defies all three.
The legacy of this vote extends far beyond Project 2. The vote of these seven board members marks the end of referenda funding, a basic public finance principle providing checks and balances, at D200. No future board will feel compelled to put a project to referendum when this board blew past one for a $102 million. It’s a sad day for democracy in Oak Park and River Forest.
The board’s act of extreme overreach serves as the exclamation point on the decade-long pool saga. It’s the story of the outsized influence of a small, special interest group to drive the spending of an expensive, larger-than-necessary pool on the space-constrained campus to the detriment of other students and taxpayers, and the captured administrations and boards who enabled it.
Their slogan should be, “D200: unaccountable to taxpayers on spending since 2005.”
Monica Sheehan is an Oak Park resident.
Cook County Records: 48,808 registered voters in District 200:
Funding document presented at the 8/16/22 CFC meeting (p. 17):
8/16/22 CFC meeting agenda:
8/16/22 CFC meeting minutes:
Wednesday Journal articles: