D200 board members defend tax hike
Barb Langer spoke at Thursday's meeting to urge the board not to impose the tax levy. She said it was wrong to do so when District 200 already has a healthy cash reserve. | William Dwyer~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 28, 2013 3:02PM
Members of the Oak Park-River Forest High School board said they had no choice but to pass a 2.5-percent tax levy last week.
State law ties their hands, they tried to explain to a raucous crowd that packed the meeting and voiced its displeasure for about three hours.
Most board members at the Dec. 20 meeting spoke strongly for the tax levy increase, which passed by a 6-1 vote, saying the alternative was to go to referendum for a tax rate increase sooner. All said they wished they had better options.
Board vice president John Phelan said the school district is caught in the wires of a state school funding law that punishes school districts that don’t avail themselves of all funding on the table each year.
He noted that a bill in the state senate -- S.B. 410, sponsored by Sen. Don Harmon (D-39) of Oak Park -- would allow school districts to pass up an annual levy in a specific year, for whatever reasons, and go back the following year without losing the accrued levy authority.
That didn’t placate critics who complained about the levy adding $1.6 million to the D200 treasury while the district is sitting on a $117 million surplus.
Of the 37 people who signed up to speak, only one person spoke in favor of the levy hike. A total of 17 people ceded their three-minute speaking allotments to one of three other speakers: River Forest resident Barbara Langer, who founded Protect District 200 Property Taxpayers; Dr. Barry Epstein, a Chicago forensic accountant; and Oak Park resident and former D200 board candidate John Bokum.
Speaker after speaker expressed dismay and outrage over an “unassigned” surplus that has swollen from $4.5 million in 2002 to $98 million in 2012.
At Langer’s request, Epstein reviewed D200’s published Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports and Projections for the last 10 years and found “no justification for a new levy at this time.”
Epstein noted that the district’s available cash on hand has increased more than 400 percent, from 180 days to 801 days.
Langer ripped the school board for “lying” about the facts of their fiscal condition in a 2002 referendum authorizing the last tax rate hike.
“Such deception used to only happen on Wall Street. Now it’s happening on Lake Street,” said Langer, who said the in approving the 2002 referendum, voters “consigned ourselves to perpetual, unilateral tax increases.”
Langer also took the opportunity lobby audience members to take political steps to assure the reversal of the current tax structure.
“We suspect candidates who have announced so far are agents of the status quo,” she said. With four seats up for election, she said, individuals need to collect the necessary petition signatures to get their names on the ballot.
South Oak Park resident Jim Kelly said huge surpluses like D200’s “tempt administrative bloat,” adding, “I assume a lot of Oak Parkers are running out of money faster than you are.”
Others said the D200 board did not trust the very citizens they are expecting to support them financially.
“It astonished me that you are so contemptuous of the process of subjecting yourselves to the taxpayers review,” said John Abbott of Oak Park.
John Palmisano of Oak Park, who made a point of his veteran status, was blunt.
“If you want to raise taxes, there’s going to be a battle -- not a physical one, a legal one,” he warned.
Board member Dee Millard said while many opponents were there Thursday, “I’ve heard from many others with a different opinion.”
Board member Sharon Paychek-Layman was the only “no” vote. Long a critic of board tax policies, she said the school had no business “hoarding” that much cash.
“We’re not educating the children that are here with that money,” she said. “We shouldn’t be subsidizing what we’ll do in 10 years.”
Phelan didn’t see it that way.
“I was elected to provide for this district and this community on a long-term basis,” he said,~.