District 79 mulls new property tax increase referendum

Options range from renovations to a $28 million new building

Norridge School District 79 is considering putting yet another property tax increase referendum on the ballot.

If approved by the District 79 board, it would be the fourth referendum attempt since 2014, the previous three having been defeated, including a $25 million bond sale in 2018.

The D-79 referendum discussion comes as local property owners reel from higher property taxes resulting from higher tax levies, including a District 207 high school bond referendum passed in 2018.

The first of these D-207 bond sale payments are being seen in this year’s second property tax bill, due in August.

The increases are compounded by property value re-assessments conducted in 2019, with many homeowners reporting property tax bills rising by 20% or more.

District 79 consists solely of Pennoyer school, and its boundaries include parts of Norridge, Harwood Heights, and unincorporated Norwood Park Township.

Most Pennoyer homes flow into D-207 for high school, with a small number going to District 234 Ridgewood.

Pennoyer hires consultants

As a side effect of the COVID-19 lockdowns, public bodies have been required to publish recordings of meetings held remotely.

District 79 has posted recordings of these virtual meetings on its YouTube channel, including Facilities Committee meetings on June 2 and July 1, where the referendum was discussed at length.

At the June 2 meeting, District 79 board president Michael Malusa and board member Phil LaPalermo appeared to be pushing for a $28 million new school building.

Malusa and LaPalermo advocated a similar expensive strategy in 2018 that failed to show results.

D-207’s 2018 referendum, while successful overall, did not pass in the areas served by D-79.

Pennoyer taxpayers are paying consultants, including EO Sullivan, who was paid $7,500 to conduct robocall phone surveys of 252 residents the week of June 15th 2020.

Those polled by the consultant reported the strongest support for a new school over the other options, but heavy opposition to the $28 million cost.

However, the data shows an over-sampling of left-wing respondents, as well as under-sampling for people over 65.

Seniors are a key active voting demographic in the areas where the referendum will take place.

$10 million now…  $28 million later?

The Facilities Committee discussed various options

  • $7 million dollar renovation
  • $10 million renovation and small addition
  • $18 million renovation and large addition
  • $28 million new school

The committee made a recommendation July 1 for the $10 million renovation and expansion of the existing school building.

LaPalermo indicated Pennoyer would still be looking to spend tens of millions more on a new school further down the road.

“A low end [referendum] would be worthwhile”, LaPalermo said.

“If we can get a yes, get a referendum approved, I think it greatly enhances our chances of getting another one approved 1, 2, 3 years down the road”.

LaPalermo admitted doing a renovation now and a new building later would be wasteful of taxpayer dollars.

“Even though it’s wasteful, because if we do a new building ultimately, that … money is wasted, but you know what, we can’t control that”.

But LaPalermo didn’t want the public to know of more planned tax increase referendum(s), saying it was “too much information”.

“Sometimes too much information to the community is too much, you know”, LaPalermo said.

Higher enrollment

One of the justifications for the referendum was higher enrollment at District 79. Pennoyer says it needs to add multiple new classrooms as a result.

Overcapacity at District 80, and school district consolidation to reduce expenses, were only discussed in passing.

Consolidation of Districts 79 and 80 would make it possible for overflow students to attend Leigh or Giles.

D-79’s school board could take up the committee’s referendum recommendation as soon as the next board meeting, scheduled for July 15 2020.

If the ballot question were to be put on the November 2020 Presidential Election, it must do so by mid-August.

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