Well-funded schools good for all, kids or no kids – Chicago Sun-Times

6 Mar

When my family moved out of Chicago, we left for only one reason: the schools. Our neighborhood school was substandard, we couldn’t afford to send the boys to private school and weren’t willing to take our chances with the musical chairs game of getting into a magnet school.

So off to Northbrook we fled. And nothing in nearly a dozen years of closely observing two students move through the school system, day by day, from crayoning smiley yellow suns to studying calculus, has made me question the wisdom of that decision. Now we’re seeing the next school generation — families with toddlers moving to our block, following the same path we did. To us, school trumps almost everything.

Not everyone believes that, of course. Most Chicago suburban tax referendums failed last year. From Prospect Heights to Mokena, residents heard the words “tax increase” and said forget it. Times are tight. Who needs good schools?

But look at the result. One of those districts rejecting a referendum last year was West Northfield School District 31. One subdivision — the district covers parts of Northbrook and Glenview — voted 12-to-1 against it. Still the district is trying again this year, but if the referendum doesn’t pass this time, the results will be dire.

“No sports, no band program, no buses,” said Dr. Alexandra Nicholson, the district 31 superintendent. “We’ve already cut our budget by $1.8 million and are going to have to make another million in cuts. All of our extracurricular programs. All regular educational instruction assistants. The learning center and computer labs. They will all be gone. Our Spanish bilingual assistant, our Korean social worker. Our entire gifted program.”

If “our Korean social worker” stood out, you’re behind the times. The suburbs are not the lily-white Levittowns of a few generations back. Half of the new students entering District 31 last year were termed “ELL” — English Language Learners.

“There are more and more children coming in who don’t speak English,” Nicholson said. “We have more kids in our ELL program than in all the districts surrounding us combined.” Why? Plentiful low-income housing and a far-flung reputation.

“We have a lot of parents who come from Korea,” said Nicholson. I asked her if the rumor is true that advertisements in Korea encourage people to move there.

“Our Korean parents have told us they have fliers at their places of worship in South Korea that says if you want a good education for your children in the United States, go to District 31,’’ she said.

There’s another twist. District 31 contains the corporate headquarters of Allstate Insurance, which has been successfully appealing its property taxes. It received a refund that sucked $2.3 million out of the local budget, and the company is trying to get $10 million more back, the prospect of which sent District 31 on bended knee to the insurance giant, begging for its money back.

“I’ve met with Allstate, explained our whole financial situation, and said ‘please consider a large donation,’” said Nicholson. “They’re not willing to forgo the refunds.”

I contacted Allstate, which issued a statement beginning, “Allstate desires to pay its fair and equitable share of property taxes… ” and continuing in that vein.

“We’re looking at about a million dollars a year in lost revenue,” said Nicholson. “Which in a $12.9 million dollar-a-year budget is huge. There’s nowhere for that money to come from.”

Well, there are taxpayers, who are being asked on March 20 to pony up more. The referendum would increase property taxes $89 for every $100,000 a home is worth. Not insignificant, but I imagine the increase is far less than what property values would drop in District 31 if the referendum fails.

How could home prices, already staggering, not fall more? Imagine the scenario — you’ve got a young family, you’re looking at the suburbs, you see a house you like. Then you look at the school — no sports, no clubs, no music. Maybe there breathes a parent who would shrug and buy anyway, but I just can’t imagine it. Before we found our place in Northbrook, we fell in love with a house in Skokie — a big old brick bungalow. Then we looked at the local school. Overcrowded. Classes taught in trailers. Classes taught in trailers is suburbanese for “Keep looking.” Ditto for “No sports.”

Bare bones school district = less interest in homes = lower real estate values. You don’t need kids to understand that math.

via Well-funded schools good for all, kids or no kids – Chicago Sun-Times.

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