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History Repeats Itself in District 113

We have lessons to learn from the past when we consider the referendum in 113.

On April 9, 2013, voters in District 113 will be asked to vote Yes or No to an $89 million referendum to improve our high schools. The choice is clear, vote yes.

The proposed measure which includes basic improvements to both schools should be a simple decision for our community which has long supported education. But community improvements always spark some controversy, as citizens struggle to balance the needs of the community with individual views on taxes, and this proposal is no different.

Sometimes it helps to look back before moving forward.

Highland Park, founded in 1869 had become a “delightful little suburb,” by 1872, notes historian Michael Ebner, author of the 1988 book, “Creating Chicago’s North Shore.” Yet even in its earliest days, Ebner describes how Highland Park struggled to attract new families from the city to the fledgling North Shore. A reputation for tolerance and early investments in public education and infrastructure became important factors distinguishing our town from others, and a source of pride and citizens of the era.

Yet these investments didn’t come easily. Ebner notes that our forbearers had an “admirable streak of public mindedness,” he also points out that from our founding, Highland Park seemed “obsessed by fear of fiscal imprudence to the point of carefully calculating whether each further appropriation for public improvement, large or small, was warranted.”

The need to balance public improvement with taxation grew as the turn of the 20th century brought a period of remarkable growth. The City of Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world between 1860 and 1900 and Highland Park, fueled by the new railroad, grew alongside its parent city.

By 1899, the Highland Park high school located above a paint store on Central Avenue in 1887, had become cramped and crowded and lacked basic facilities for physical education. The school served children from the rapidly growing Deerfield Township, which at the time included Deerfield, Highland Park, and Lake Forest. The school board and local citizens identified a new school location at St. Johns and Vine Avenues, but the path to its construction was anything but certain.

The farmers on the west side the Township made a vocal case that they didn’t need to spend their tax dollars educating the children from the east side of town. Noisy protests ensued as farmers decreed that investing in education had little relevance to their lives.

The High School controversy at the turn of the century split the township. Literally. The uproar over the development spawned the creation of the Township of West Deerfield, separate from Deerfield Township.

Yet, the citizens of our community who understood the value of investing in public education prevailed. In March 1901, the first building of the Deerfield Township High School was dedicated as the Shields building.

As the town expanded in the early 1900s, so did the High School. The “B and C” buildings still in use on the Highland Park campus date to this early period. This 1914 infrastructure was built when Woodrow Wilson presided over a nervous nation on the verge of World War I, and women had not yet been granted the right to vote.

Additional improvements have been made in the decades that followed. The original Shields building came down. Lake Forest, long dependent on private education, came to terms with the need for secondary public education and built its own high school in 1936. The baby boom of the 1950s brought an expansion of the Highland Park campus and the creation of the Deerfield school.

Our school board at the beginning of the 20th century had to convince the residents and farmers of our community that while kids could learn in the cramped space above a paint store – investing in a better option and preparing for the future made sense. At the beginning of the 21st century, we find a school board with similar issues working to create a balance in our community. The lines aren’t as clear – we don’t have angry farmers waving pitchforks threatening to divest from our township, but we do have citizens concerned about taxes who fail to see how investments in education will bring them any personal benefit.

Detractors will complain about the cost, scope, and necessity of the high school improvements. Every change we make to our public façade is bound to create controversy. But we have had an unprecedented opportunity for community involvement in this process, and our community has identified real needs that must be corrected. The investments made in 1914 were good ones, maintained for 100 years. But the time has come to ask, can we do better for our kids? And the answer is a resounding yes. Our pools have exceeded their expected life by three decades. Some mechanical systems in our buildings date back to Roosevelt’s presidency. It’s time.

In 1900 good public education attracted young families, and that attraction was critical to the development of the area as we know it. Nothing has changed. Good education attracts young families and ensures the growth and stability of our town.

While the farmers of West Deerfield Township struggled to see how investing tax dollars in education would impact their lives – we have the benefit of hindsight. We know and can testify to the results of those investments. Education has transformed our community, created a productive work force, and remains a source of pride for residents.

We must learn from the past. Investments we make today in education will continue to drive our community’s growth and success. The forward thinking residents at the turn of the last century understood the value of education and stood up to the small minded thinkers who couldn’t see beyond the impact to their own personal tax bill. It’s time for this generation to do the same.

Vote Yes to the District 113 referendum on April 9.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ken Robertson March 03, 2013 at 04:23 AM
And that same report shows that D113 spends less than Lake Forest, Glenbrook, New Trier and Evanston. Comparing to the state average for spending isn't really appropriate - The state average for PSAE performance is 51%, and D113 is 85%, and I don't think we should shoot for average there, do you?
Mike Levinsohn March 03, 2013 at 01:14 PM
I guess what concerns me is the tax rate. If you look and Cook and Lake County tax bills you find that the New Trier 203 rate is 1.67%, the Lake Forest H.S. rate is 1.18%, Glenbrook North & South is 1.82% and Dist.113 is 2.16%. On top of that it appears Dist. 112 is preparing us for an increase or bond issue to address aging facilities. I think this all translates into property taxes which are higher than our neighbors. Or increasing at a higher rate than our neighbors.
Ken Robertson March 03, 2013 at 03:16 PM
Mike (by the way, I appreciate that you post under your real name) - you're hitting on one of the most misunderstood parts of taxing. The "tax rate" is only part of the picture (I think you actually know this) - your rate times your assessment gets you what you pay in taxes. From 2004-2011, the total EAV in 113 rose almost 20% (that includes drops in the last 3 years) . The tax rate (outside of bond/interest payments, which we will address shortly) only rose 16%. Overall, 113 has consistently accounted for about 24-25% of your total property tax bill for that period (excluding bind/interest). What many people see as taxes going up in the last few years was due to the end of bond/interest payments. For 2011 (taxes paid in 2012), that amounted to $317/$100k assessment. Over the last 8 years, it has averaged $198. With this referendum, that number will still drop to $155-173 (depending upon 25 or 20-year bonds). In 2013, with no referendum, it's $126, then $15 in 2014. So - either way, your taxes for B&I will be lower than the last 8 years average. Your choice is to lower taxes and get the improvements needed in the schools, or lower your taxes and kick the can down the road (which, of course, will cost more to fix later). For the flip side of the "tax rate" equation - check Redfin for listings under $500k in 113, NT or LF districts...it's 172 vs 60 vs 24. For $1MM+, it's 115, 261, 132. Chances are, you'd be sacrificing a bunch of house for that lower rate...
Mike Levinsohn March 03, 2013 at 03:41 PM
You're right, I like most residents don't have a full understanding of the taxing and spending at the district level. I just see the tax bill. I can live with my current bill. ( I wouldn't mind if it were a little lower) I think my fear (or the collective fear) is unrestrained or uncontrollable increases. Thank you for pulling apart the details and allaying those fears. I'm sure this was explained in previous newspaper articles which I missed. I think this is a message that needs to get out. There should be a little less focus on how the schools need these repairs and maybe more focus on they need these repairs and your overall tax bill won't go up because previously issued bonds are being retired. Hard to fit in a sound bite.
Ken Robertson March 03, 2013 at 03:57 PM
It is difficult. The key issue for people to understand is the counter-factual to voting "no". The needs will still exist (just as they still exist now after the 2011 referendum failed), and capital money will be needed (beyond what is budgeted annually). That money, though, will cost more in the future after continuing to through good money after bad on maintaining old outdated systems and facilities.

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