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Oak Park School District 97 Levy Increase (April 2011)

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An Oak Park School District 97 Levy Increase measure was on the April 5, 2011 ballot in the Oak Park school district area which is in Cook County.

This measure was approved

  • YES 6,082 (54.44%)Approveda
  • NO 5,090 (45.56%)[1]

Background

This measure was going to ask residents in the school district area to increase local property taxes to pay for a bond in the amount of $75 million. Though school officials were considering reducing the size of the bond and also reducing the proposed tax increase to residents. The State legislature increased income tax rates so the school felt a smaller increase would be more likely to gain approval from voters. Though the board had been discussing how much and what would be asked, there was a referendum since the district is in need of further funds to ensure school services and programs are not hindered.[2] The school board decided to just ask for a tax increase and not for a bond in the school district. The tax increase would have averaged $38 a month for local residents and was thought to be a reduction in the first proposed bond measure.[3]

Tax formula dispute

It had been reported that the state tax formula used to estimate the proposed impact of this measure was in error, the estimated cost as reported on the ballot was about three times cheaper than the actual cost would be. On the ballot paper it stated that homeowners would pay on average $150 a year when actually it would be closer to $500. The ballot language cannot be changed now, the information was in the public so now district officials had to ensure that residents understood the misleading numbers and note what the actual costs would be. The law firm which was consulted by the school to calculate the levy impact did not factor in a part of Cook county law which requires a property tax equalizer.[4] School officials noted that they consulted lawyers on the issue but those against this noted that this proves the district does not care about the tax payer's needs. The township Assessor noted that other rural communities were also using this flawed formula to figure the tax impact for other measures.[5]

Official information released by the school district informing residents about the vote had a more accurate tax impact assessment and warned residents that the ballot language may not be entirely correct. The school board though denies that they were trying to mislead voters, having had long discussions beforehand about the tax assessment for the district.[6] Those opposed to the measure were using the flawed number noted on the ballot to encourage people not to vote in favor of the increase. Noting that confusing voters was not the way to get a tax approved, but also noting that the school district was not to blame for the faulty numbers. The fault was with the flawed statute which was used as the basis for calculating the tax assessment, opponents stated that if this was approved it will likely head to court after.[7]

Lawsuit

As opponents noted before the election, a lawsuit has now been filed to get approval of this measure overturned. The group Taxpayers United of American is the one who is filing the lawsuit with the county. The faulty numbers in the ballot language is the main argument for having the measure thrown out. The school board noted that it did not believe the suit had merit as they did inform voters after the fact about the numbers but those of the taxpayers group noted that they felt there was merit and it had a good chance of getting approved.[8] The question at the heart of the matter is whether or not the state's equalizer numbers had to be included with the assessed property value. The law firm advised the school board not to include this number, which gave way to the low assessed value.[9] The group who brought forth the lawsuit wants the vote to be deemed invalid and the results overturned.[10]

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Mary L. Mikva has dismissed the lawsuit against the school district, noting that the school did not intentionally mislead voters. It was stated that even if the school board had miscalculated the tax assessment, under the law that still would not invalidate the election results. The decision was given two weeks before the judge had said it would be issued, leading to stunned views. The School Board President Peter Barber stated that he was happy with the decision, validating resident's votes in April. Legal fees for the lawsuit have cost around $43,000.[11]

Support

A group had formed in support of this measure, the Committee to Support Oak Park Schools, and was looking to help educate voters on the issue and hosted informational meetings for residents. The head of the committee noted that the district had tried to make reductions in spending in previous years so asking for more money now showed that they are fiscally responsible in his eyes.[12]

Additional reading

References