As this chapter in the OPRF High School “pool saga” closes, I expected to encounter magnanimous celebratory comments from OPRF folks. Instead, in his public comments and letter to this paper, OPRF Board President Tom Cofsky made some odd rationalizations and characterized Project 2 referendum proponents like me and the Wednesday Journal as spreading “misinformation.”

Let’s talk misinformation.

Mr. Cofsky implies the OPRF Community Finance Committee (CFC), made up of experts in school finance, supported debt certificate financing. Several CFC members, in fact, said this was inappropriate for Project 2.

Cofsky and supporters implied referendum funding would be added to tax bills. Yes, taxpayers would have seen another line on their bill, but the amount they paid for D200 would have been basically the same if the board simply reduced its operating taxes by the same amount. The CFC objected more than once to district documents presenting the referendum option as a tax increase; they were never corrected.

Cofsky said the plan would not put an additional burden on the taxpayers.

Board members contended Project 2 was just too urgent to wait a year for voters to weigh in, yet they had the Imagine Project 2 plan since 2018. There were at least a half-dozen opportunities to put the project on the ballot since then and they did not.

Cofsky says those of us who advocated a Project 2 referendum are disingenuous because we criticized the 2002 referendum. No one I’ve ever encountered had a problem with the school asking for more taxes in 2002 to operate and getting them. Like many residents (and the Wednesday Journal), we objected to OPRF using a loophole in that referendum in 2005 to take millions more in taxes than voters approved — overtaxing that OPRF on its own website says led to “high tax levels in our villages and eroded community trust.” OPRF’s exploitation of this loophole was so bad, the state legislature changed the law to prevent others from doing it.

Cofsky again says that not taking the maximum taxes allowed by law each year demonstrates OPRF’s sensitivity to high taxes. This doesn’t make sense.

His most incredible contention is that the school had to use debt certificates to prevent growth of the reserve — in other words, they needed to spend more to keep up with the amount they were taxing the community. Surely, Cofsky and the board know it’s possible to reduce revenues — our taxes — to stay in line with expenses and not build a reserve? They choose their revenue level every year.

Many supporters of not going to a referendum for Project 2 argued that we elected our board members to make this decision. Then why does referendum financing exist at all? Because Illinois (and most other states) believe that schools should get explicit permission from taxpayers to spend large sums. Some schools don’t have a choice whether to go to referendum to fund major projects. OPRF could bypass this requirement because it used a now-closed loophole to take more taxes than it needed year-after-year for almost 20 years and our communities never demanded strongly enough that they stop.

Voter approval of Project 2 or Project 2 plus, a package accelerating other building improvements, would have gone a long way to remedying these sins of the past and simplified its financial structure. Instead, OPRF and the board committed more sins.

I don’t think anyone — even the most ardent pool supporters — would disagree that debt certificates were never about reserves or future fiscal discipline or urgency. OPRF was not confident it could convince 50% + 1 voters to approve Project 2, so it used every legal means necessary to move forward. Were the tax surpluses over the past decade another facility funding scheme to bypass voters?

OPRF has three new board members, and from our campaign interactions, I’m confident all three are good people. I hope they will be strong advocates for greater transparency, honesty, keeping promises, actual fiscal responsibility and a greater respect for the community.

Good luck to them.

Brian Souders is an Oak Park resident who ran for the District 200 Board of Education in last month’s election.

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