Our community is comprised of individuals who differ on many issues. We stand united in our desire for safety, excellent education for our children, and the numerous attributes of our neighborhoods.
As homeowners, we realize the high taxes we pay for the above. We also realize that we want, and expect quality for those dollars. We are stakeholders.
I recently attended the District 113 community presentation sponsored by the Board of Education regarding capital expenditures for our two high schools. There are costly improvements that must be done.
I am in favor of spending money on our schools, but have reservations on how this money is spent.
It seems apparent that routine maintenance - for whatever reason - has been woefully neglected. When we see for ourselves or are informed about stair treads in heavy traffic areas, either missing or in disrepair; when banisters and stair railings are loose and insecure; when toilets do not function for long periods of time; no excuses are acceptable.
For a district that has over 35% of our budget in reserves (approximately $35 million), a dual question looms. Who are the individuals deemed responsible for the buildings, and what are their qualifications? Why haven't the buildings been maintained over the years?
We have two schools, representing less than 3800 students, with an operating budget of over $90 million. This exceeds the operating budget of the ENTIRE City of Highland Park, with 30,000 residents. The City's budget is responsible for all streets, sewers, snow removal, police departments, fire departments, and a multitude of other services. Something is wrong with this picture.
The consensus of well-respected and documented demographic studies project a DECLINE of 15%-20% in student enrollment over the next 10-15 years. This fact must be acknowledged and incorporated into any "Master Plan." Why do the "powers that be" seemingly ignore the credibility of this data?
Last year, after a failed referendum, many people stayed closely involved in the next steps for the schools, because we care. To date, over $300,000 of taxpayer money has been spent on a combination of failed plans, PR firms, market research groups, and hiring new firms. All of this money designed to make a new plan.
The same Board of Education that pushed for the referendum now takes the position that we should forget about the first price tag of $133 million, which was said to be absolutely necessary: Let’s try again.
The District-sponsored market research committee found that the community at large had credibility issues with what the Board of Education was saying. A community-wide survey was issued to all households, and there were even hard copies available at libraries. As citizens, we were given a recap of what the community said, but were never given access to the data from the responses. The Board provided several various excuses for not disclosing the raw data, including that the general public was not educated enough to understand it, all the way to finger-pointing over who actually had the data.
The Board of Education missed a good opportunity to restore their tarnished reputation. Sadly, now it is too late. Any creditability factor has vanished, even if the data still exists.
We all have heard numerous times about the 100 or so people who served on the committees, all their hours invested, and their findings. On paper, all of this sounds great, but when looking past the statements, the working groups were heavily weighted by Board of Education members, paid employees, vendors who work for the District, and then finally some well-intentioned community members. The deck was stacked from the start.
An oversight committee, which became a steering committee, and then became a cheering committee, was supposed to sort through all the input.
Within the past month, parents and guardians of Highland Park High School students received a letter notifying them that they had the option to transfer students to Deerfield High School due to No Child Left Behind. HPHS has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for FIVE years, and is being forced to plan a school restructuring as a result. In the SIXTH year, the restructuring must be implemented.
Why wasn't this important piece of information given to the community at large when it affects our schools? Where is the transparency here? The public relations department at District 113 has certainly been active publicizing the study groups and presentations. The lack of disclosure on NCLB casts doubt on what the Board of Education is sending out.
We pay tremendous salaries to those in charge ….. some of the highest in the country, and deserve the top notch service our high property taxes reflect. Yet last Tuesday evening, at the community presentation from Perkins + Will, the new architectural firm, hired for $120,000, our expectations were again let down.
At this presentation, paid for by us the taxpayers, and sponsored by the Board of Education, no one expected that forms would be handed out for questions or that two people, volunteers from the Leadership committee would glance at the questions and statements in a five-minute break, and then, at their discretion, decide what to read and answer giving their own views. WHERE were the decision makers, and why weren't they answering the hard questions? This Board would NOT answer our questions. It was an insult to the community.
The germane issue here is that we the taxpayers will likely again be asked to pay for a multi-million dollar referendum, and the Board of Education has not yet given us answers.
If 113 wants the support of this community, they need to be more forthright, and answer questions directly. Accountability and transparency are powerful words, concepts that must have meaning, and held true to their definition. The members of this Board of Education asked for the stewardship of our schools. One-third of our tax bills go to these schools, we must have a voice, along with the elected officials, as to where that money is spent going forward.