The Case For Vote Voting 'No'
by Erik Carrier, Lake Forest
On Tuesday, February 7th, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Montgomery defend the upcoming $105.7 million April 4th District 115 Bond Referendum vote. Dr. Montgomery is a polished politician and orator and his administration and the volunteer board have worked hard to produce a strategic plan and should be applauded for their effort. That said, the presentation Tuesday and the information made public thus far by the District 115 marketing department and other organizations leave me with doubts about whether this referendum is right for Lake Forest. This referendum can and should be reworked for reconsideration in 2025. Before I get into why, let me introduce myself.
I am a father of two who returned to Lake Forest, my hometown, in 2020 after an 18-year hiatus. My parents moved to Lake Forest in 1985 because of its exemplary school system. The reputation of Lake Forest for excellence preceded me in my application to the University of Iowa and the core writing, reading and math skills developed here allowed me to start a thriving construction and property management business and function as an independent adult. My wife and I moved back to Lake Forest to offer our children the same standard of excellence. I was dismayed, upon moving, by the general disenchantment with Lake Forest public schools and the high enrollment in private education. My concerns compelled me to research the referendum and write this letter. Though my opinions are wholly independent of Parents Care and developed prior to their inception, we harbor similar misgivings about education in Lake Forest today.
On Tuesday, Dr. Montgomery emphasized making District 115 programming competitive with neighboring districts in extracurricular offerings, classroom environments and welcoming spaces for students. Pervasive in arguments for the $105.7 million bond issuance is the notion that our children deserve the best and, as a parent of two, how could I disagree? Of course, I believe students at Lake Forest should be offered the same extracurricular programming as students at Stevenson and New Trier. Of course, I believe students should have the best classroom acoustics, the most flexible and comfortable desks and a temperature-controlled learning environment. But at what cost? Too often politicians offer voters “solutions” while ignoring the more fundamental question of “tradeoffs”. Lake Forest taxpayers are luckier than most, but we have limited resources and must spend them wisely. We must ask ourselves what the goal of education in Lake Forest is. Is it for students to be comfortable in their learning environment or is it to arm them with the basic skills and knowledge to succeed in adulthood?
As voters prepare to invest over $50 million into improvements such as more welcoming lighting, state of the art acoustics and flexible furniture, it’s noteworthy that 50% of the high school classrooms were already redesigned with money from the 2006 bond referendum. Yet, when asked, Dr. Montgomery could reference no study showing that such improvements positively affect outcomes on standardized tests at Lake Forest or elsewhere. In fact, the mean SAT scores (ELA:601.5 composite / Math:616) in academic year 2007-08, the year classroom renovations were completed, exceeded any of the publicly available mean scores between 2017-2022 except one (2019 ELA:604.2). Likewise, the data made available at the December 6th Board of Education meeting on ACT scores between 2014-2022 (avg. 26.5) show little to no improvement over the 2007-08 composite score (25.5). We indulged this pedagogical fashion in 2006, the results are in and our children did not benefit. Why would we do it again?
Test scores are often criticized for not telling the whole story of student success. Indeed, standardized tests are not perfect but serious objective alternatives are never offered by detractors. Alternatively, the educators promote improvements in student mental health and self-esteem through affective education curriculums and greater availability of counseling at school. The 2006 bond issuance was in part a fulfillment of that vision and the April referendum asks voters to fund its fruition. But how has our $54 million investment improved student mental health? Over the past 15-years of intensive investment in counseling and classroom environment at Lake Forest and nationally, a student mental health catastrophe has ensued. According to a 2021 study by the CDC, more than 4 in 10 (42%) students felt persistently sad or hopeless and nearly one-third (29%) experienced poor mental health. The same study found that between 2011 and 2019, the percentage of adolescents experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness jumped from 28% to 37%. Although the causes are complex and community specific data is not readily available, Lake Forest was recently featured in a 2022 Chicago Health article on suicide clusters, which belies arguments that our community is exempt. Although there is no evidence that the 2006 $54 million bond has done any harm to mental health, it is equally true that it hasn’t done any good either. So, how can Lake Forest support children? The Chicago Health article highlights CROYA, a local public/private partnership established in 1980 with a 2022 budget of $640,000 that operates out of existing Lake Forest Parks and Rec facilities. Why are we doubling down on facility improvements with a dubious history of results, when we have an established program utilizing existing facilities with a decades-long history of success?
Dr. Montgomery stressed the imperative nature of infrastructure to the 88-year-old East Campus. Although some repairs are needed and should be performed, they represent a fraction of the infrastructure budget. The school has received substantial upgrades and additions since 1935 including the referendum’s two largest budget line items, HVAC and electrical. In fact, the north wing of East Campus, including the cafeteria, auditorium, library and laboratories, was newly constructed just 15-years ago. Highlighted as examples of necessary improvements by Dr. Montgomery were the single pane windows and 30-year-old electrical panel. Inefficient though they are, District 115 has achieved academic excellence with single pane windows for eight decades and electrical codes have not undergone any substantive change in the past 30-years. So, what is going on here? Why these improvements now? Staff Writer, Grace Thomas, sheds some light in her article, What is Lake Forest High School doing for the environment? for The Forest Scout, a student newspaper. According to the September 16th article, electrical upgrades are necessary to implement renewable energy, including solar and wind power, at East campus as soon as the next 5-years. Windows, too, are part of this green initiative. Inconspicuously hidden at the bottom of a list of anticipated benefits of the referendum on lakeforestschools.org FAQs are “improving energy efficiency” and “possible photovoltaic solar roof panels.” Should voters finance ideological indulgences dressed up as infrastructure necessities at a time when at least a quarter of students lack the basic science and math proficiencies to evaluate how solar panels work let alone the financial implications?
In a tellingly feeble attempt to link the $21 million HVAC spending to academic performance, Lakeforestschools.org cites a 2018 study finding “Whether it’s too hot or too cold, uncomfortable temperatures will cause a distraction to students.” Temperature-controlled rooms and state-of-the-art acoustics are ideal, but to say they prepare students for life outside academia or most collegiate lecture halls is out of touch at best. These are luxury frills many parents and employers can’t or choose not to afford in their own homes and offices. Capital is finite; money put into acoustics is not put into teacher salaries, college funds or supplementary tutoring. At a time of low academic performance in the aftermath of pandemic shutdowns, are these improvements timely or even wise?
Print and online advertising by District 115 tout the unassailable causes of Safety & Security and ADA Accessibility as two of the top five benefits of the referendum. However, ADA Accessibility and Safety & Security represent a modest 1.5% and 6.4% of the overall spending. That is almost half the budget for green energy initiatives referenced above. One observer at a November 15th board of education meeting, reported that a board member estimated roughly $1 million of the $6.76 million would go to cameras and rapid lockdown systems meant to protect students from an active shooter or similar incident. That any parent reading “Safety and Security” in the wake of unspeakable school violence nationwide had sprinklers in mind strains credulity. Is this the candor we should expect in return for our money?
Taxpayers are being asked to spend quite a bit of money; much more than we might be led to believe. The same promotional materials sent out to residents by District 115 disingenuously cite $475.50 per year for a $500,000 home as the average tax increase. However, the average January median home price in Lake Forest noted by Dr. Montgomery is $1.1 million; that’s an average increase of $1,046.10, not $475. Hidden in those promotions, too, is the maximum 5% annual increase clause. Having administered dozens of large long-term agreements over the course of my career, I have yet to see an increase less than the maximum allowable by contract. Over the life of the bond, the average individual households will pay $65,502. Even for an upper middle-class home, that is a substantial investment and money not saved for college or used for other academic purposes.
Dr. Montgomery justified the tax burden by saying it will help Lake Forest remain competitive in the North Shore housing market by supporting academic excellence, but will this referendum raise academic excellence standard? It hasn’t in the past. Further, prospective homeowners rarely dig into the extracurricular offerings, flexibility of classroom furniture or the energy efficiency of school windows when considering a home. Buyers do look at quantifiable academic achievement and they do look at prevailing tax rates. My wife and I both work downtown and tax rates were one factor that attracted us to Lake Forest compared with, say, Highland Park or Glencoe further south. If our community is going to become less attractive from a tax perspective, we need to use those resources to become more attractive from an academic perspective in a way statistically proven to work.
Dr. Montgomery concluded his Tuesday remarks with a word about Parents Care. He argued that Parents Care is not a 501(c)(3), but instead an LLC and therefore out to make profit. This pointless slight-of-hand is offered to voters in lieu of a real intellectual argument on the merits and is an insult to free inquiry. He went on to blame Parents Care’s many FOIA requests for the same high administrative costs criticized by the group. Not only is this sophistry absurd as the referenced costs were incurred prior to the group’s formation, but the voting public has a right to information about the institution charged with its children’s wellbeing, especially when that institution is seeking an unprecedented $105.7 million. Dr. Montgomery’s closing remarks underscore an intellectual contempt for voters underlying the referendum campaign and a dismissal of its detractors.
Like most parents, I do everything I can to safeguard the future success and happiness of my children. Part of my role is ensuring comfort and providing the best of everything when possible. However, in a world where resources are limited and decisions have tradeoffs, those goals of comfort and luxury are subordinate, if not contrary, to the higher calling to develop successful, independent, productive future adults. The 2006 referendum proved ineffective at serving our community’s higher calling and this proposal is a continuation of that same failed vision. The admiration has dealt with voters dishonestly by shaming naysayers with claims about accessibility and security while concealing larger spending on social crusades under misleading titles. When challenged, administrators offer straw man arguments and unsupported promises. In the indelible words of Thomas Sowell, "They have taken our money, betrayed our trust, failed our children and then lied about the failures with inflated grades and pretty words." Vote No April 4th to the District 115 Bond Referendum. A new proposal earnestly outlining District 115 infrastructure “needs” and offering evidence based District “wants” focused on core competency improvements can and should be presented to the community for a vote in 2025.
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