D200 passes tax levy amid criticism
After three hours of debate, the Oak Park-River Forest High School board passed a 2.5 percent levy hike Thursday night. The measure will add $1.6 million to the high school’s treasury.
The 6-1 board vote came after nearly three hours of sometimes acrimonious public comment during which school board members endured an extended tongue-lashing over the levy increase from an audience weary of tax hikes.
Critics complained bitterly that the D200 school district is taking precious resources from taxpayers despite sitting on a $117 million surplus. Board members responded that their actions stem from the reality of arcane details in state school funding laws that strictly limit their options in dealing with tax levies.
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.”
Several other board members spoke strongly for the tax levy increase, saying the alternative was to go to referendum for a tax rate increase sooner. All said they wished they had better options.
“I was elected to provide for this district and this community on a long term basis,” said school board vice-president John Phelan,
Phelan said that while he was touched by the pain several speakers conveyed as they try to maintain households in Oak Park, he noted that 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.~.