Judge us by results, not by reserves

Opinion: Columns

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Ralph Lee

Was the OPRF High School Board of Education wrong to build up a $120 million fund balance for which it had no immediate need? My personal answer is: "Maybe and maybe not."

I feel no real urgency in passing judgment on myself and my fellow board members for our past actions. However, I do feel an urgency in deciding our future actions. My actions will be influenced by my understanding that our tax levies, and especially our tax levy increases, place a real burden on our taxpayers. They will also be influenced by my understanding that our taxpayers were willing to bear that burden to a greater extent than the average American taxpayer for one reason: They want the very best that we can offer all of our children in educational opportunity.

It appears that most of the criticism of our large surplus is based on the assumption that it is wise to create enough of a surplus to cover known and unforeseen needs that are 6-18 months in the future, but both unwise and perhaps even immoral to have enough cash on hand to extend even farther into the future than that. The fact is that about 85 percent of our revenues are derived from property taxes, most of which are residential. Most changes in that revenue stream are brought about by changes in property evaluations and state laws and by our own tax referenda.

On the other hand, about 84 percent of our expenditures are in employee compensation costs. Most changes in expenditure patterns are caused by changes in wage and salary rates and health-care costs, and by changes in student enrollment. The factors that affect our revenues have very little to do with the factors that affect our expenditures. Yet some expect school districts to follow the same "sound financial practices" that are recommended for taxing jurisdictions whose relationship between revenues and expenditures have little in common with our own.

Right now, we have sound evidence that our enrollment 10 years from now will be 20 percent higher than it is now. (After all, those children have already been born.) We have no reason to believe that there will be an accompanying increase in property tax revenues. In my book, it makes no sense to limit our financial preparedness to those really brief periods of time that we hear being recommended.

A few weeks ago, I indicated publicly what I felt our priorities should be. It is my hope that, 20-30 years from now, we will be able to show the rest of the country just how we were able to develop effective programs that train young people how to make personal decisions (especially regarding sex and drugs) that are in their own long-range self interest; and just how we were able to almost close the "academic achievement gap" by helping to assure that all of our children had a fair shot at making use of that window of opportunity that exists for brain development between the ages of five and under, regardless of their family's economic and social status; and how we were able to become the kind of village it takes to raise a child.

I won't be able to see it, but I am still willing to bet your money on it.

Ralph Lee is a member of the District 200 Board of Education.

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Reader Comments

16 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Ed from Oak Park  

Posted: January 5th, 2013 10:45 PM

I have not received a pay increase since 2007. I drive a car that is 20 years old, I canceled trash pick up (dump it at work now), buy all my clothes on ebay or the Brown Elephant, eat ramen soup for lunch everyday, take public transportation 4 days a week, all while the value of my 920 square foot bungalow has dropped 25% and my taxes are now up to $7,200 per year. Residents make sacrifices so we can live in quality towns like Oak Park. What sacrifices are YOU making on behalf of us?

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: December 21st, 2012 3:53 PM

Mr. Lee please remind me when you ever told us during your election campaigns that you were going to build up obscene reserves so that a high school district can spend significant money on 5 year olds? Cause I am pretty sure that I would have remembered that?

Who reps the Community  

Posted: December 21st, 2012 11:24 AM

Understand that Mr Lee was a recipient of the high taxes of this community. He taught for many yrs at OPRF. He clearly knows where his bread was and is buttered. His monthly pension from his retirement in 1999 is $3587.

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: December 21st, 2012 10:38 AM

Mr. Lee - my son will be in the graduating class of 2024. If I haven't tapped my 401K and credit cards enough to keep up with the increase in taxes this community demands to be forced to move sooner, I will be gone soon after graduation in 2024. I can't afford to pay now for the graduating class of 2032 nor for the retiring teachers then. These issues need to be addressed for the parents of the classes of 2014 and 2015 and 2016. And I WILL put a "for sale" sign in my front yard.

Greg Lamacki from RF  

Posted: December 21st, 2012 9:56 AM

Mr. Lee I have added my name to this post and ask you to consider the following? Is there a difference between a bet and an investment? If a public works Dept. build a bad road with an unproven process is that not an unreasonable use of tax-payer $. Is that not the same when a school board provides little improvement but asks for more $. Your anger/frustration in your last post is telling. You have encouraged us to vote you out but not question your judgement. Very interesting.

Ralph H. Lee from Oak Park, IL  

Posted: December 21st, 2012 9:25 AM

For those who are disturbed by my willingness to "bet your money": Wake up!!! ALL elected officials are elected to invest tawpayer resources in activities and ventures that NEVER have a guaranteed outcome. We make bets with your money. You, therefore, are required to select people whose values you share, and in whose judgement you trust. I have not been bashful about sharing my values, and you have had almost six years to observe my judgement. Act accordingly!

Ralph H. Lee from Oak Park, IL  

Posted: December 21st, 2012 9:08 AM

I am willing to attempt the kind of justification you request, because I am fairly sure that we all will learn something of importance. I am unwilling to accept a time deadline, but I think I can do it within the next several weeks. Please send me at rhlee@comcast.net the specific assumptions and parameters that GFOA uses to justify its recommendations, as well as your own real name and address. I can also email all interested parties the population projections more quickly.

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: December 20th, 2012 12:11 PM

Mr. Ralph Lee ... the Government Finance Officers Assoc. (GFOA) recommended amount for a budgetary unrestricted reserve fund balance is 17-20% of annual operating expenses. Please justify OPRFHS's reserve fund in this context. If there are special considerations, such as projected increased enrollment in 10 years, please provide your population projections that substantiate your claim.


Posted: December 19th, 2012 5:06 PM

Did you read what you wrote? 20 to 30 years: trust us, we need all this money and more to fix OPRF's problems. Ralph, it is clear that it is time for you and Finnegan to resign. We need fiscally responsible board members who can get the job done on a timely basis!

Jim from Oak Park  

Posted: December 19th, 2012 4:30 PM

". . . 20-30 years from now . . ." What a pitch; in essence is says, "Trust us. Things will be fine in 2035." Second pitch that Lee's not alone is trying to put across: D200's finances are so different from anyone else, that it can't be held to any kind of reasonable tax structure. It's time for a taxpayer voice on the D200 board.

He's Kidding, Right?  

Posted: December 19th, 2012 3:53 PM

Accountability and fixing the achievement gap: that's what Rigas and the Board promised when it passed "back-door tax hike" many many years ago. Unless you think 49th in the Tribune's top 50 is success you have failed. I guess you forgot to tell us it was going to take 20--30 years and even more tax hikes. The absolute cluelessness and arrogance of your last sentence that you were willing to "bet our money" just demonstrates your lack of judgment and fitness for your position.

Mary Rodrigo from Oak Park  

Posted: December 19th, 2012 2:59 PM

Tell Mr. Lee in person what you think. Go to the D200 school board meeting. Dec. 20th, at 7:30pm in the board room. Its time to stand up and do something.

Mary Rodrigo from Oak Park  

Posted: December 19th, 2012 2:56 PM

Mr. Lee, May I remind you as a school board member you oversee the workings of OPRFHS but you are elected by the taxpayers of this district. It is your duty and your responsibility to act for the interests of the current taxpayers. Not the taxpayers of 10-30years from now. Your educational idealism is wonderful. But Not with my money!

Taxpayer from Oak Park  

Posted: December 19th, 2012 10:24 AM

I can understand property tax stress and disdain. However, having lived in the area for 40+ years I really believe Oak Park offers a lot for the $$$. One thing that might help would be to require all employees of the Village and the schools to live in Oak Park and pay these same taxes and contribute to the neighborhood. This is required in Chicago and seems to work pretty well. Residency should be required to be an employee in Oak Park. Also, please appeal your taxes every couple of years.

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: December 19th, 2012 9:57 AM

Mr. Lee, why is it that you and the board only look at the revenue side of the equation? How about controlling your costs. I think that it is safe to say that in the past couple of years, most tax payers in Dist. 200 have not gotten salary increases and yet our teachers do every year. Similarly, most taxpayers have had to absorb more of the cost of health care and yet Dist. 200 employees do not. Why?

Greg from RF  

Posted: December 19th, 2012 8:56 AM

Ralph...you said it all. You want to bet "your" money on it. A bet is a risk and a gamble and it has no consequences to you if you waste/lose other people's money. As a public official you have no business placing bets. You are suppose to be competent and reasonable. I am sure you may want to reword what you said...however your statement is chilling and should make everyone think twice in supporting your views.

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