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Is the District 113 Referendum Choice Clear?

Read why columnist Ed Brill believes the timing is critical for Highland Park and Deerfield to make a major investment in its high schools.

I don't like the road travelled to get here, but on the April municipal ballot, I will be voting in favor of the District 113 referendum.

For more than two years now, residents in District 113 have discussed and considered a funding plan to improve Highland Park and Deerfield High Schools.

Emotions have run high. Facts have been debated. Tempers have flared.

I have had one of those short tempers at times in the process. I believe District 113 has done a woeful job of educating voters on exactly why the referendum is needed, why the number is so similar to what was on the ballot two years ago, why they have large fiscal reserves that aren't being used for this project and why some of the projected costs of the project are so outsized. 

Further, District 113 has failed to rally the community around the process. People who participated in some of the committees and working groups tell me their opinions were ignored, or that the membership of certain committees was weighted in favor of a particular outcome. The data collected in the famous community survey was never released, and the flawed analysis was left to fester. 

So why am I voting in favor? Because listening to the process, the data, and most importantly,the independent voices from the pro-referendum group CLEAR113, I believe the timing is critical for us to be making a major investment in these schools. 

There is absolutely room for debate as to whether that investment should be $40 million or $120 million, but the people we have elected to run the schools have decided it needs to be the bigger number. They have hired the consultants, leveraged the community input and run the numbers. 

Could we get away with spending less? For sure. The Education First referendum opponents have demonstrated that some of the District 113 numbers seem inconsistent or exaggerated. They continue to correctly pressure the District over needs versus wants. They challenge whether a referendum is needed at all, versus reserve spending and budget reprioritization.

I admire both sides of the debate. I think even if the referendum passes as is, the opposition has helped shape the result. But they have also raised a lot of debate points that are irrelevant - projects like the Rosewood Beach update, Highland Park water plant and Waukegan court house have nothing to do with whether the District 113 schools need an update. 

The reality of infrastructure in America today is such that most taxing bodies are looking at major budget demands to maintain or improve service. That means more funding, and they aren't getting it from the state or federal government anymore. Taxpayers are the only source. 

A tax decrease would be wonderful. However I know that is at best a short-term proposition; eventually, all of the area taxing bodies will need a large investment to keep delivering on the quality of life we expect on the North Shore. 

What ultimately swayed me to pay attention to the pro-referendum voices this time was the sheer number of supporters who have nothing personal to gain from the passage of the referendum -- people without children who will be attending District 113 schools in the future. The advocacy for a spending plan that improves the community, including from people who opposed the 2011 referendum, was simply too significant to ignore. 

No plan is going to be perfect, and the magnitude of this plan still leaves me uncomfortable. It seems like we should never have gotten to the point where these two schools need $120 million in improvements. However, it seems this is where we are, and as such, I am ready to support the school board. The future of our community depends on our schools maintaining their standards.

The plan before us may be imperfect, but it is the only available approach to investing in that future, before it is too late.

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Eddie Jacobs February 20, 2013 at 05:55 PM
Well said. I am one of those people who did not support the previous referendum. I did not feel that all of the issues that surrounded the make up of the referendum had been sufficiently researched and communicated in a way that could be fully understood by the community as a whole. Now, although no plan is perfect, I am extremely confident that the work that has gone on to develop this master plan has removed my previous reservations or uncertainty. Yes, I have been a member of the citizen study groups and later the steering committee that helped develop a recommendation to the School Board. But those who know me realize that this was certainly not a rubber stamp. We had many hours of animated discussions based on analyzing the architect's, construction manager, and financial advisor's recommendations before we came up with our unanimous recommendations. Ed First has raised numerous viable questions that merit review and answers. I'm confident that the questions can and will be addressed. No one enjoys paying additional taxes. But, the district has shown that they operate efficiently and wisely by virtue of bond ratings, quality of teachers, etc. More importantly, look at our children within the community both past, present, and future that will pass through our school's doors. They perform well in a very challenging environment. As previous generations have done for us, we must support future generations by supporting this referendum. It is the right thing.
Ken Robertson February 21, 2013 at 01:57 AM
Ed - I, for one, appreciate that you have spent the time looking carefully at the process, and your conclusion about how this will benefit future generations. This is, by far, a much better vetted project than was proposed in 2011 (I was a supporter then also, but have reconciled with the flaws that led to its defeat). Your point about the opponents who engaged fully and helped shape this process (such as Ed Jacobs above, along with Richard Becker, David Greenberg and others) as partners is very accurate.
Mike Levinsohn March 01, 2013 at 10:13 PM
I appreciate the need to update facilities, that interest rates are low, and that the future of education in Dist. 113 hangs in the balance. The problem is that real estate taxes in this district are twice as much as taxes in surrounding suburbs (Lake Forest, Northbrook, Glenview). I know that these suburbs have larger commercial areas which are able to contribute to school district budgets. Maybe District 113 has to spend less money. Maybe we can't spend the highest amount per pupil in the state. Maybe I and others who are against this bond issue would drop our opposition if the district would agree to decrease its tax rate so that it came into line with other suburbs.
Enrique H. March 02, 2013 at 05:01 PM
Still a bloated, expensive plan that is primarily devoted to pools and gyms. It is almost comical how this is being sold as a carefully constructed, well-thought-out, intricate Master Plan when it's a repackaged version of a plan that already got voted down. It seems like so much thought was put into discussing the details of the plan that the big picture, which the general population is most concerned about, was ignored. Meanwhile teachers at the schools complain about increasing class sizes and lack of support, which is understandable.

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