Oak Park is at a tipping point

Opinion: Letters To The Editor

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The proposed District 97 referendum should be voted down.

This proposed increase will push our village closer to the edge — or over the edge — of a real estate tax cliff that will scare homebuyers away from Oak Park. All of our advantages will be squandered if we continue on this path.

Let's look at a number, the ratio of home sale price to tax rate. This ratio is becoming increasingly out of whack in Oak Park, compared to other nearby communities with good schools, even before the proposed tax increase. According to a real estate formula, taxes (on new construction) are generally expected to be around 2 percent of a sale price. But recent sales in Oak Park are sometimes coming in much higher, at 3.5 percent or more.

Comparing real estate numbers with neighboring towns is unsettling. For example, a three-bedroom home on South Oak Park Avenue sold in January for $335,000, according to the Multiple Listing Service. The assessed tax bill in 2008 was $11,842, a 3.6 ratio. A one-story house sold on the north side last year for $255,000 and had an $11,690 tax bill, a whopping 4.6 ratio. In comparison, a three-bed, two-bath home in Elmhurst sold around the same time for $435,000 and had 2009 property tax bill of $7,415.64 — or 1.9 percent.

Oak Park is objectively out of step on property taxes, according to general standards, and by comparison with our neighbors. We should not let it get worse than it is now.

Our neighbors tell us: "We moved to Oak Park for the schools." I am a Catholic school parent, but I have a strong stake in the quality of the public schools as well. Good schools mean solid property values, involved parents, interesting and educated neighbors — in fact, the whole Oak Park experience.

But the current economic downturn is hurting everyone. People are losing jobs, losing overtime, being forced to take furlough days, losing business, losing customers and losing sales. We have all seen our 401(k) reduced, and our property values fall. Meanwhile grocery prices are going up, and gas prices are going up. These are tough times. And on top of that, our tax bill has doubled in the 10 years we have lived in Oak Park. The village is earning a well-deserved reputation for having crushing taxes. Our housing market, our property values and ultimately the future of our schools will all suffer if we continue down this road.

District 97: This is a terrible time for a tax increase.

Michael Lotus
Oak Park

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Reader Comments

57 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Posted: March 15th, 2011 9:15 PM

@Frustrated. Thank you for understanding and the kind words. At this point I am leaning toward voting against this referendum, too.


Posted: March 15th, 2011 9:06 PM

@Violet - Answer could be "yes" to both of your questions. At this point, I don't know or really care anymore. A lot of discipline and/or entitlement problems are a reflection of the home environment. That being said, I am still extremely disappointed by the quality of education our child has received at the Oak Park public schools.

Frustrated from Oak Park  

Posted: March 15th, 2011 8:04 PM

@Daphne: I'm sorry you're going through all that. Oak Park is really a great village, but many agree that District 97 schools need to regain some focus. I'm voting NO on the referendum to try and keep the crushing tax burden from increasing and force the District to re-set its priorities. I'm not sure it will work, but voting YES only seems like it will perpetuate the issues. Blessings to you and your family.

Violet Aura  

Posted: March 15th, 2011 7:56 PM

@Daphne: Why is your teacher burned out? Could it be because she has to deal with yuppie helicopter parents who march into class after hours and bitch at her when little Reagan gets a B-? Or she has to deal with all those "discipline problems" you mentioned, walking a fine line so that the parents of these ill-bred kids don't fight her? Yes, I feel for you because OP schools ain't what they used to be! And I still cannot figure out what they are doing with all that moola...


Posted: March 15th, 2011 7:29 PM

The Oak Park schools have been a terrible disappointment. Our child has been overlooked at best; every year he has a teacher who is a "burn out" case; the schools as a whole, focus on the discipline problems and the geniuses - the rest of the kids are ignored. The platitudes, bromides and anti-bullying campaigns don't work. I am sick of the empty promises we hear every fall. Our property tax is crushing us. It's more than our mortgage. I'm sorry our family moved here.

scary math problem from oak park  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 9:40 PM

According to this two percent formula: Divide your property tax by two. Now multiply by $100K. That's how much your house should be worth. Our tax is $9000, so that means our house should be worth $450K. A real estate agent told me our house MIGHT sell for $340K. Sigh.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 7:21 PM

@Jassen: That's honestly the best news I've heard all week. Glad to hear it. I'm a big fan of the Park District and its President, Mark Gartland. Thanks for the info!

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 6:36 PM

There is a group in OP called the Council of Government. Represented on the council are the Presidents or Lead Executives of each taxing body (Village, Township, Parks Rec, and Library, D97, and D200.) Seemingly, there role is to make the governments more efficient and less expensive by sharing ideas, services, and working to find solutions to problems -- for example, common computer systems. Best as I can tell They meet once a year. There are no minutes. It is the mystery govt.?

Jassen Strokosch from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 3:13 PM

@Alan - "has there been any effort to coordinate with the Park District on sharing costs.." Great question. The answer is yes. Lincoln's new outdoor space is a great example. That playground was funded by the Park District. Most outdoor improvements that take place in D97 are either PTO funded or have been done in partnership with the Park District. There is also a facilities agreement in place that allows the Park District to use the gyms etc. at the schools to cost save that way.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 1:33 PM

@jassen: Thanks for the info. It's helpful, but I wish that the Referendum was a last resort after all other options had been exhausted. Guess not. Regarding the "outdoor exploration zones" proposed, has there been any effort to coordinate with the Park District on sharing costs? As Mary Ellen has indicated, there's money...it's just not allocated fairly it seems and the taxpayer is left to fill all the gaps. Perhaps we need to be more vocal about coordination between taxing bodies

Mary Ellen Eads from Oak Park  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 1:01 PM

I completely agree with Mr. Lotus' concerns and I also agree with those who suggest that there may be a distribution problem here. If we want to pay more for schools, we should be able to hold the line on property taxes by reducing expenses elsewhere and transferring the money to the schools. If that is not possible now, it should be. The TIF funds are an example. Simply saying not my problem, it's the Village's problem is insufficient. We all live here, including the Village Board.

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 9:47 AM

Thankfully, a previous D97 board did not share the view they had no control over the TIF when they successfully sued the village (School District No. 97 v. Village of Oak Park, 84 L 51363), which led to the 1985 Settlement Agreement. The difference being the current D97 board supports the TIF, by not supporting D200 in their dispute with the village involving the village's decision to allocate less than the required amount of TIF funds, and distribute them on a schedule later than agreed upon.

River Forest Resident from River Forest  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 9:44 AM

Here is a great idea, why don't people start pushing back on the state for more money, they did after all just increase the Income Tax. You can't increase both, it's one or the other. Also, education shouldn't be fully funded by Real Estate Taxes. We need other sources of revenue, gee novel idea how about we bring casino's...no that will cause crime, do the research, the crime levels don't go up as much as people say. I am firmly against this referendum, too bad so sad.


Posted: March 13th, 2011 9:09 AM

I largely agree with how you have framed the issues, Alan. But I am not convinced that we can set a budget merely by reference to other districts' expenditures per pupil, without regard to existing contractual commitments and without regard to existing educational programs that are likely to be affected. I.e., I don't think we can arbitrarily set a budget without making informed suggestions on what cuts can be made and how they will affect the delivery of educational services.

Jassen Strokosch from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 9:05 AM

@DJ - " I suspect we will find that D97 has no legal entitlement to the TIF money or that such an entitlement is at least disputed." That is correct. The TIF is controlled by the Village. Other than the agreement from 2003 that sets the terms for what revenue the schools get out of the TIF, neither D97 or D200 have any 'control' of the TIF. The Village would have to end the TIF of their own accord.

Jassen Strokosch from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 9:01 AM

@Alan Reed/epic lulz: "The Village Board should pop the TIF and redistribute the funds...They have not been discussed at any of the forums or on the referendumyes site. Perhaps I have overlooked them? Jassen?" As an organizations, We have focused our efforts on solutions within the ability of D97 to do so we haven't discussed in on our site. I would encourage anyone supporting that approach to talk to the Village Trustees. I am sure D97 would be thrilled with that solution.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 9:00 AM

@DJ: Agreed. But I'd at least like to know that the Board did their due diligence and checked. In this case, they need to show their work (and heavens knows that the Village may have "accidentally" had a backroom meeting and forgotten to post the minutes)


Posted: March 13th, 2011 8:57 AM

I agree that Epic's proposal is an attractive one and worth taking a look at. I suspect we will find that D97 has no legal entitlement to the TIF money or that such an entitlement is at least disputed.


Posted: March 13th, 2011 8:55 AM

The "golden age of education spending may have ended" http://ti.me/ijdCik

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 7:58 AM

@I'mconfused: I think that there are two issues here getting twisted up. #1 is the D97 ref where voters are being asked if more money is needed to fund schools. The voters will effectively set the budget going forward based on the outcome. And, importantly, 75-80% of district funding goes to salary and benefits. Which drags some into #2 the raging nat'l debate on collective bargaining, etc. In the end tho we are just voting on #1 and whether D97 is properly funded. Many believe it is.

Alan Reed from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 7:50 AM

@epic lulz: I agree that this is one solution that it doesn't appear D97 has fully pursued. I'd be interested in understanding any and all explorations that have taken place in this vein. They have not been discussed at any of the forums or on the referendumyes site. Perhaps I have overlooked them? Jassen?

epic lulz from OP  

Posted: March 13th, 2011 12:20 AM

Instead of OP voting to raise taxes for D97, the Village Board should pop the TIF and redistribute the funds to the various taxing bodies. Once the economy rebounds, then the Village can once again consider hoarding tax money to funnel to well-connected developers, but for now the schools should be the priority.


Posted: March 12th, 2011 11:20 PM

@I'm confused. I cannot tell you how much I agree with your sentiments. The best reaction is to not take the purveyors of such hostility seriously.

jerry from Oak Park from oak park  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 11:12 PM

Dean, Ex Gov from Oak Park is correct. Robinson and other believe the fraud started during the middle school contruction when Peggy Wilson was Business Manager.The Board should be asked to relaease the closed session minutes on the Building and Grounds direction's fraud. It appears some Board members were unwilling to pursaue legal action against him The total amount exceeded a million.

I'm confused  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 11:05 PM

I cannot understand why everyone is so against teachers & the elementary district. Are village employees, park dist employees, library employees and Dist 200 employees parasites as well? Are they all overpaid & shouldn't receive pensions? I really don't understand this disrespect. I can't see how the people who are teaching our children are suddenly so bad. If you are against the referendum because you can't afford it, fine. These other reasons don't make sense to me.


Posted: March 12th, 2011 10:31 PM

And why is it MY referendum? I am not on the D97 board, nor do I have any other connection with D97.


Posted: March 12th, 2011 10:27 PM

Well Player, I guess I don't have any reason to regard the D97 administrators or teachers as "parasites." I think they work hard at their jobs just like everyone else. Nor has anyone demonstrated to me that D97 does not have a handle on the finances. Eventually, costs outstrip revenue, and tax increases are required. We all pay taxes for benefits that only others enjoy. But its reciprocal. We all pay into the pot. And we all benefit in one way or the other.

Player not Payer to Mr. DJ from Oak Park  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 9:05 PM

If your referendum passes, then I hope you realize that 68 cents of every dollar goes to keeping the administrative parasites thriving and unsustainable pensions life. The rest go to the Arts and whatever else is the flavor of the day in the district consultants minds. It is one thing to spend your own money frivolously, it is another to lay hands on my checkbook. Let's get a handle on the finances at both the High School and D 97 before we beg for more dough.


Posted: March 12th, 2011 7:28 PM

Sorry, "genuinely" care abou that.


Posted: March 12th, 2011 7:25 PM

How is it that you know that OP? Answer: You don't know that, because it is false. I personally know parents, including myself, who have contributed even though their kids don't get starring roles. In any event, the best way to make it "fair," if you generally care about that, is for it to be completely publicly funded.


Posted: March 12th, 2011 7:08 PM

@DJ the parents that already contribute to CAST and BRAVO have the kids that are getting the main roles and this is because they have already reached into their pockets to pay for private lessons to prepare for their starring roles. This is because they have DEEP pockets and it is not democratic. How many "underserved" get main roles? Thing about it...c'mon none. This is not a fair playing field in Oak Park.


Posted: March 12th, 2011 6:28 PM

Well, Pay, many of the parents already do contribute to the funding of CAST and BRAVO, and also engage in fundraising activities for them. If the referendum fails, they will no doubt reach even deeper into their own pockets. Of course, this is a democracy and you don't have to vote in favor of providing partial funding for these opportunities for our kids. But I would like think that you would want to do that.

Pay to Play  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 4:55 PM

If this referendum fails as I believe it will, why don't the folks with kids just pony up extra money for the extra activities at school. Music, Bravo, sports, etc. The free spending days are long gone. Just like Drivers Ed and getting braces, the users should and can absorb the costs. If not then do without these perks. The school district has cried wolf for the last time. Start paying and quit shifting costs. Live within your means like the rest of us. Teach the Children fiscal sanity.

tax info from the district  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 4:25 PM

http://www.op97.k12.il.us/ "The wording of District 97's referendum ballot question has recently sparked debate among tax legislation experts. However, what all parties involved in this matter have and will continue to agree upon is that the increase in the limiting rate that the district is seeking on April 5, 2011 will cost taxpayers $38 per $1000 on a property tax bill. This is the figure the Board of Education has been communicating since it adopted the referendum resolution 1/18/11."

Confused by tax formula from Oak Park  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 3:11 PM

I can't understand why District 97 can't be more forthcoming with the amount of money it is asking per taxpayer? I guess they think we don't need to know how much the bill is that we have to pay. I am still waiting for any superintendent or the yes group to support pension reform. That would also be too hard to calculate what is fair and equitable. Any un tenured Math teachers up to the daunting task? Put your best pupils on this task. The current course is not economically viable anymore


Posted: March 12th, 2011 12:49 PM

@Ex-Gov: You said "Millions have been wasted and or stolen on Fagan's watch." Fagan was two superintendents ago. Update your rolodex, kiddo.

Tom Smith  

Posted: March 10th, 2011 9:29 PM

Why do more expensive homes pay lower taxes in Oak Park? For example, 8** S. Taylor sold for $372k and pays $7,644 in taxes (2.1% rate), but 6** N. East sold for $1,040,000 and pays $12,683 in taxes (1.2% rate). 7** N. Fair Oaks sold for $1,280,000 and pays $19,592 in taxes (1.5% rate) and 1*** S. Clarence sold for $370k and pays $8,718 in taxes (2.4% rate). The property tax rate should be the same for all in Oak Park and no tax increase should be passed until parity in tax rates is achieved.

Ex-Gov from Oak Park  

Posted: March 10th, 2011 2:31 PM

I am telling anyone who will listen. Millions have been wasted and or stolen on Fagan's watch. The person who exposed the fraud, Don Robinson(former finance director) was not retained because he exposed the schemer. Massive government fraud is hard to sell at referendum time. Does anyone at District 97 know if they recovered any money from Malatesta's brazen scheme. Just sweep it under the rug and pass the cost to those rich Oak Parkers who can't say no to The Children and The Arts. Big joke

Washington Blvd  

Posted: March 10th, 2011 1:43 PM

@Ex-Gov: Do you know the story behind the window replacement at Emerson (now Brooks)? I lived across the street at the time and was shocked to see a crew of workers teaming to replace every single window in the building with a custom replacment at the same time D97 was advocating a referendum to tear it down. I always wondered about that.

When Pigs Fly from Oak Park  

Posted: March 10th, 2011 12:46 PM

@ Taxpayer from RF: I agree that it's unlikely at prsent, but if state legislation comes down mandating consolidation (however unlikely), District 97 will look like a great choice compared to Berwyn, Maywood, Bellwood, Forest Park, and many others. The RF community hasn't squealed until they've squealed about marrying Maywood!! (it'll never happen, but the thought is amusing)

Michael Lotus from Oak Park  

Posted: March 10th, 2011 11:18 AM

"Is there ever a "right" time to raise taxes?" Yes. You raise taxes during an economic expansion, you do not impose higher taxes during the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression. That is basic. "And no, you can't just look at your own tax bill on this issue." Wrong. That is precisely what anyone looks at because they have to. Unlike District 97, their assets are limited and they cannot compel anyone else to pay their expenses. When its gone its gone.

Ex-Government Employee from Oak Park  

Posted: March 10th, 2011 10:26 AM

As a former employee for District 97. I can tell you that it has grossly mismanaged its funds(Jerome Malatesta's Fraud indictment ring any bells?). New windows installed in the old Emerson school 1 year before they tore it down. That is prudent fiscal responsibility. They are a government beast that has been at the feedbag too long. You wonder why the High School is hoarding cash? They want to keep binging. Hard earned cash from you and me. Why can't we consolidate these pigs?

Taxpayer from River Forest  

Posted: March 10th, 2011 8:20 AM

Steve-A consolidation or either or both D90 and D200 with D97 would require approval of the majority of voters in RF. Your statement that it would not happen in time is incorrect. It would never happen.

Fair and Balanced from Oak Park  

Posted: March 10th, 2011 6:06 AM

See an article on a community strugling with a similar issue: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/09/business/09bronxville.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&ref=nyregion&adxnnlx=1299758646-N2YLSFLVDrJiiTD70 zPbQ Relevant for OP quote: "You are looking at a community of people who saw their property taxes go up for years, and now their incomes aren't going up," she said. "The board is trying to budget with this in mind while still fielding a 'sustainable model of excellence.' I believe that is the phrase they use.

Steve from Oak Park  

Posted: March 10th, 2011 12:33 AM

@Michael L.-Is there ever a "right" time to raise taxes? And no, you can't just look at your own tax bill on this issue. It's unfair to compare OP to Elmhurst - different tax base is one - lets all focus on attracting more business to share the tax burden. Also, Elmhurst has a consolidated school system. You think D90 & D200 would ever agree to consolidate with D97? Savings would be huge if they did, but it won't happen before D97 needs the funds.

Michael Lotus from Oak Park  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 8:05 PM

"... all the necessary details..." The tax bill each homeowner actually pays is all the necessary detail you need. There is no need to go deep into the weeds on this vote or to understand it. You don't raise taxes on people in a recession. This is the wrong time to do this. .

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 5:44 PM

Seems to me that the village passed the Tipping Point in the mid decade 1 - 21 Century by overspending and putting the residents in debt for specious, and expensive project. The Public Works building comes to mind for one. It is not the only one. It has been all downhill since and there is no sign of recovery if we treat projects as icons.

Peter R.  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 3:50 PM

How does the shift in tax burdens between commercial and residential properties affect this writer's analysis? I'm not sure he's including all the necessary details in his comparison. How about the Township Assessor's (Ali) input here?

chet21 from Oak Park  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 3:43 PM

@momof3. Start with OPRF. They have an 80M surplus and are about to receive a windfall from RF TIF. How about they lower tax rate by this amount? They won't, claiming "fiduciary stewardship," but that's the same as telling the plunger from the Titanic that you can't fit them in because it'll ruin the "balance" on the lifeboat. Perhaps if the D97 ref fails they'll reconsider their rich man/poor man relationship? Or will they step aside as more Oak Parkers flee the OP "Titanic?"

I see the light in Oak Park from Oak Park  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 3:29 PM

Michael, you are absolutely right. Oak Park is out of step. The village reputation for crushing taxes has become more widespread than the reputation of the schools. This referendum adds nothing but risk and misery. The future of our village and our schools hangs in the balance. I will vote NO, I don't want to see us out of balance, I don't want to see Oak Park fall.


Posted: March 9th, 2011 2:56 PM

time for the other taxing bodies to take a cut-the park distict, village, township etc. this is not d97's fault, but the other bodies have increasedour taxes at the expense ofour schools. we must re-evaluate our priorities in this community.


Posted: March 9th, 2011 10:31 AM

The RefYes website justifies D97's high teacher salaries by comparison to 11 wealthy districts such as Glencoe and Wilmette. RefYes's comps have an average of $644,000 in property tax base behind each student vs OP's $322,000. OPer's therefore already shoulder a much higher tax burden to support the district's high salaries, and this rate will only go up with the proposed referendum tax increase. Not everyone moving to OP is an executive looking at $1M homes.

Noel Kuriakos  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 10:12 AM

@OP Mom, Real Estate prices are not affected by various factors. If you believe that property values are going to go down if we don't pass this referendum then take a look at these graps. https://sites.google.com/site/referendumno/veritas/property-values Property values are going to decline regardless of this referendum because of the huge run up. The district should have been fiscally prudent when they were flush with cash when our assessed valued increased DRAMATICALLY. Vote NO.

Noel Kuriakos  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 10:09 AM

@Oak Park Mom voting yes. IF you believe the flawed structural forecasts and the proposed cuts by the Sup (based on this flawed forecast) then it is rational to come to a conclusion that the schools are going to decline. But there is an alternative. The board can create a zero based budget focused on direct instructional costs, surgically remove systemic indirect costs (there are over 300 non teaching positions, for what?) and then assess if we still need $49 Mil. ACCOUNTABILITY.

Tom Miller  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 9:56 AM

Excellent point that is missed on those who support the referendum. Oak Park is an excellent place to live, but it has one of the highest tax burdens in Illinois. D97 cannot continue to tax this way out of their problem, especially on the backs of the middle class in Oak Park. I am voting No to preserve my property values and Oak Park Schools. D97 just needs to ask the Village to give them their fair share of TIF money.

Oak Park mom voting yes  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 8:53 AM

I could not agree more that we are at a tipping point. Are we going to continue to be a community that is known and recognized by name thoughout the country as an excellent place to live? Are we going to stay on the top of the list of places executive relocation firms and premier retailers consider? Are our schools going to continue to be a shining success envied by our neighbors? Allow our schools to decline, and our property values will go even more quickly. Please vote YES.

Another Concerned Parent from Oak Park  

Posted: March 9th, 2011 6:17 AM

Thank you for stating this so well! The proponents of this tax hike are only looking at District 97's needs, not the whole picture of what Oak Parkers are already saddled with and the possible unintended consequences of continually piling more taxes on residents. Thank you!

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