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Community Groups Divided Over $133M School Referendum

Education First urges more research, CARE favors passage of District 113 ballot measure.

Following the District 113’s approval of a referendum on the April ballot, two community groups have formed to support and stymie the passage of the $133 million proposal.

Education First and Citizens Aiming for Responsible Enhancements (CARE) have joined to inform residents about how much the referendum will actually cost taxpayers over the long term. However, each group has a different perspective on the measure.

Much of the discussion hinges on two key issues: the effect on property values and completely reconstructing the athletic wings at both Deerfield and Highland Park high schools.

Calling for reassessment

Education First contends some of the planned improvements are vital to the buildings, but not all of them. It urges District 113 voters not to pass the referendum and ask the school board to reassess its action plan.

“This is an issue that’s being put before voters and has been poorly planned in our opinion,” said Pete Koukos, a Highland Park resident who leads the Education First meetings.

“We don’t think the board has done sufficient homework to come up with the numbers they should have before asking the public to vote on $133 million to add to the property tax levy,” he added.

His group says the current renovation plans contain more wants than needs and the school board has been dishonest in telling constituents that the proposed levy would not increase taxes.

“If it’s a ‘Yes,’ our taxes go up. If it’s a ‘No,’ our taxes go down. It’s as simple as that,” said Education First supporter Sam Shapiro.

The organization is wary of exactly how much money the proposed renovations are going to cost taxpayers and are worried that regardless of the outcome of the referendum vote, the district will still ask for more money in the future.

Education First contends that the schools certainly need improvements but the scope of the work has not been clearly defined.

“When people who think they’re for the referendum learn the facts, they often switch their minds,” said Elaine Soble, another supporter of the organization.

Offering a counterpoint

CARE takes the opposite position from Education First, saying the improvements will not cost taxpayers all that much money over the next 20 years. It also contends that all of the proposed upgrades are vital and necessary for the quality of education in District 113 to improve.

“The issue is what we need for the schools,” said Rick Heineman, a Highland Park resident who co-chairs CARE.

His organization notes that by maintaining the current tax rate, District 113 taxpayers will receive a much bigger payoff than if the levy drops and the high school facilities remained the same.

Heineman said concern over a tax increase would be valid if District 113 made up “a tremendous portion” of Deerfield's and Highland Park’s total tax levy. “But it’s not,” he said. “The part of the rate that is for paying off the bonds is less than 5 percent."

“If the quality of the schools, the education starts to be impacted, that’s going to have a direct impact on our prop values,” Heineman said. “If facilities look like they’re falling down--and they do--that has a tremendous impact on property values.

"If I were to sell my house, I would want my real estate agent to be able to go to the school and say, ‘Wow, doesn’t that look great,’ " he added. "That is what is going to protect my property values.”

The committee is in the process of putting together brochures and fliers as well as forming outreach groups to contact members of the District 113 community. But Heineman said if CARE can get the message out, he is highly confident the referendum will pass.

Challenged to a debate

Education First has tried to engage CARE in a public debate forum to exchange their different points of view. Education First supporter Phylis Bagan said that CARE has yet to respond to phone calls.

Heineman said that CARE has not discussed the possibility of a public debate.

“Who’s to say that they represent the opposition, and that we represent the people for it,” Heineman said. “We’re community groups. If you want to hear someone talk about it, go talk to the superintendent.”

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