Historically crowded field for D200 election
Current District 200 school board president Terry Finnigan is seeking re-election, though three members of the board are not. Here, Finnigan is shown speaking at last June's commencement at Oak Park-River Forest High School. | Michael Jarecki~for Sun-Time
Updated: May 3, 2013 8:09PM
In the wake of a contentious
debate over the handling of Oak Park River-Forest High School’s budget surplus, 15 candidates, the largest field in recent memory, have filed to run in the April 9 election.
Current board president Terry Finnegan is seeking re-election, but three incumbents -- Dietra Millard, Amy McCormack, and 2011 interim appointee Valerie Fischer -- are not.
Finnegan said while there’s a levy increase every year, “the feeling is very different this time. Normally it doesn’t grab attention. This time it’s a lightning rod.”
The majority of the challengers are opposed to the district’s tax and financial policies. In particular, they oppose the high school’s tax policy, which has resulted in a surplus estimated at $117 to $123 million.
Finnegan and other board members have stressed that the school district must, under state law, follow the dictates of a school funding process that punishes school districts that don’t avail themselves of all funding on the table each year.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Don Harmon (D-39) of Oak Park, SB 410, 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. One of its primary sponsors in the Illinois House of Representatives is Oak Park state representative Camille Lilly.
Senate Bill 410 passed the State Senate in March by a 55-0 vote. This Sunday, Jan. 6, the House Revenue and Finance committee will address the bill, which would amend the state’s Property Tax Extension Limitation law.
Not all candidates, however, are motivated by the recent tax levy.
Oak Park Township trustee Eric Davis announced his candidacy months ago, as did Collaboration for Early Childhood member Jeff Weissglass.
Former teacher and administrator Steve Gervinson calls the current management “rigidly hierarchical.”
“There’s a lot of expertise on the faculty that’s not drawn upon enough,” he said. “There’s a fetish for top-down management.”
Still, a rising anti-tax sentiment is apparent. River Forest voters resoundingly rejected a February 2010 referendum seeking $8 million for a new recreational center. A November 2012 village referendum seeking home rule powers that would have empowered trustees with greater authority to increase fees and taxes was also shot down.
Both failed by 4-1 margins.
The current D200 board has at least one member opposed to its current tax and financial policies. Sharon Paychek-Layman has said the school has no business “hoarding” cash.
Among the board’s harshest critics are John B. Bokum Jr., a former OPRF substitute teacher, and Barbara Langer, who organized opposition to the tax levy that passed 6-1 after more than two hours of public comment on Dec. 20.
Bokum, who lost a court battle with the school district over unemployment compensation in 2011, was an unsuccessful candidate for the board that year. He has been a regular presence at D200 board meetings since then, voicing concerns over fiscal policies, among other things.
Langer has ripped the school board for “lying” about the facts of their fiscal condition in a 2002 referendum authorizing the last tax rate hike, saying, “Such deception used to only happen on Wall Street. Now it’s happening on Lake Street.”
She urged voters to “fire” Finnegan in the April election, and called for others to file to run for the board.
“We suspect candidates who have announced so far are agents of the status quo,” Langer said at a December board meeting.
Robert M. Gale of River Forest, a retired manufacturing engineer, said he was tired of ever-rising property taxes.
“We need to start holding the line on taxes,” he said.
Steve Nations, who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 1999, said he chose to run again because be believes the board is “dysfunctional” and “needs some responsible leadership.”
The crowded field was fine with several sitting board members.
“I’m all for it,” Finnegan said of the flood of candidates. “The marketplace of free ideas is a wonderful concept.”
Dietra Millard noted that, while many people at that Dec. 20 board meeting opposed the tax levy increase, “I’ve heard from many others with a different opinion,” adding a challenge to critics: “I’d tell you, any of you, run for the (school) board.”~.