How did we get into this mess? I’ve been seeing that question a lot on Facebook groups, so I thought it might help to draw some connections.
1) Illinois is in a severe budget crisis. Previous administrations borrowed from the pension fund and overspent, and then were told by a judge that they couldn’t simply not pay the pensions (deferred compensation that workers were entitled to by law). Gridlock between Republicans and Democrats in Springfield have resulted in years of failure to pass a budget, with drastic results for the state overall — many social services have already been shut down, such as mental health care, homelessness prevention programs, domestic violence shelters, etc., and I just heard them on NPR talking about not making payments to foster families. I go into work at UIC every day knowing that we don’t have a budget, that we’re working off the university’s ever-dwindling reserves, and I don’t know if my program will still exist next year, or if the university will exist in five years.
2) There are two direct consequences for Oak Park. The first has to do with the new students, far more than were projected by our demographer. The collapse of Chicago’s public schools, due in large part to failure to fund them, has led to an influx of new families in Oak Park. (If I had a kid in a CPS school in the last few years, I’d be doing my damnedest to move to Oak Park.) Evanston and other suburban school districts are seeing similar effects. That trend is exacerbated by a boom in West Loop development, which has made Oak Park even more desirable for families with parents who work in the West Loop.
3) The second consequence is that the state has failed to pay us the money pledged for our schools, and there’s no sign of it coming any time soon. If I’m remembering right, they owe us about $9 million. If they actually paid it, then the schools would be in the black (rather than heading off a cliff into the red), and if we *were* still discussing a referendum, it would be a much smaller one. That extra $9 million annually is what’s precipitating this crisis; it adds up, over time.
Honestly, I’m not happy about paying this much more in property taxes. I’m pretty sure no one is happy about it, especially not the school board that’s been forced to come ask us, hat in hand, for the funds to maintain our schools. But this is a clear cascade of consequences from the state budget crisis, and all the local suburban schools are facing the same issues, and having to make the same tough choices.