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.