Where's the scrutiny on school district decisions?
Everyone who's had high school civics knows tax revenue is a big pie that is carved up and doled out to the various government boards and authorities.
In Downers Grove, the property tax pie has many slices. The sanitary district and airport authority get the thinnest of slivers. The forest preserve district, library and College of DuPage get somewhat more substantial pieces.
The two most hotly contested slices — the ones that generate the most controversy and debate on a continual basis — go to the village of Downers Grove and the Downers Grove Park District. Still, even these slices are pretty modest, with the village's take only 8.8 percent of the pie and the park district's even smaller.
By far the biggest pieces of the tax pie, the real gut-busters, go to our two local school districts, Grade School District 58 and Community High School District 99. Together, our public schools account for almost 70 percent of the Downers Grove property tax bills, some $3,200 on a $300,000 home in 2004.
So it was with considerable dismay that I learned the District 99 school board has instituted a new policy that will limit each visitor's comments to just three minutes per meeting. The policy also allows the board president to increase or shorten the amount of time a visitor may speak and to deny a visitor the opportunity to speak at all if they have previously addressed the board on a specific issue.
One has only to imagine the outcry that would result if the Village Council or park board tried such a stunt. Both of them have run afoul of public opinion with comparatively lesser affronts, such as neglecting to include an opportunity for visitors' comments on an agenda or by responding disrespectfully to citizens who comment.
Yet here we have one of our community's two biggest consumers of the tax pie literally biting the hand that feeds it. And to judge from the lack of irate letters to the editor, getting away with it, too.
It's a mystery to me how local taxpayers can practically come to blows over whether the half-percent home-rule sales tax is appropriate while consistently overlooking the taxing and spending decisions of our school districts.
With the exception of a handful of citizens who have spent years calling District 99 to account — and to whom the new policy was undoubtedly addressed — the operations of our school districts continue largely unquestioned by the taxpayers who foot the bill.
The result in District 58 is board meetings that are so carefully choreographed as to bear little resemblance to the meetings of the politically motivated Village Council or the sometimes contentious park board.
District 58 may take this as a compliment, but I find it difficult to understand how there can be so little substance in the monthly meeting of a board that has ultimate responsibility for $40 million in property tax revenue.
Politics and contention might never be welcome in that chamber, but there is every reason to expect members of both school boards to proactively surface issues and conduct substantive discussions in the public forum. And for the public to actually be on hand to witness it.
How to account for the lack of public interest in school district affairs? It might be that residents lose touch with the schools as their children grow up and move on, while maintaining their connection to village and park district issues.
It could be the kid card — the real or imagined sensitivity of some parents to doing or saying anything that could negatively impact their children. Or it might be the expertise mystique — the entrenched idea that the administrators are hired to run the district without undue involvement by the school board members elected to oversee them.
Whatever the reason, our local school districts operate a world apart from the Village Council or park board, which have their meetings broadcast on public access television for all interested citizens to watch.
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Elaine Johnson has been a resident of Downers Grove since 1984. Contact her c/o The Sun, 1500 W. Ogden Ave., Naperville, IL 60540, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.