Chicago-area voters reject long list of referenda

February 3, 2010 2:26:48 PM PST
Tough economic times had voters across the region rejecting referenda Tuesday night for a host of projects and budget needs.

However, in south suburban Lansing, voters cast ballots in favor of a tax increase for extracurricular in the Sunnybrook school district. But, in north suburban Winnetka, residents voted against a referendum for a renovation project for New Trier High School.

It's one of the most well-known school districts in the Chicago region, but a solid majority of 62 percent rejected a sweeping renovation plan for New Trier High School's Winnetka campus. It called for 40 new classrooms, eight renovated ones, a new gym and field house, plus space for arts facilities and underground parking. In a statement, the board superintendent said she accepted the will of the voters, but "We look forward to continuing the dialogue about how best to provide a modern, accessible campus for our students now and into the future."

It is wording that signals proponents will likely return in the fall to ask about the project again, as is the case with so many referenda that went down to defeat Tuesday night.

A partial list shows the breadth of projects that were rejected by cash-strapped taxpayers:

- a Midlothian recreation center

- a River Forest tax increase

- a new Sugar Grove library

- in Wheeling, no increase to a monthly 911 surcharge

- a Bensenville fire surtax

- a bond for Villa Park roadwork

- a new Winfield library

- in Hampshire, two new parks

- and, in Marengo-Union Elementary School District 165, a bond to reduce class size.

"If you can make it hardcore about technology, about people being able to learn so they can find a job, then you've got a winning message," said Pete Giangreco, The Strategy Group.

Political strategist Pete Giangreco has advised the most powerful in a range of political races. He says getting local taxpayers to just say "yes" to what school boards and activists want to get done is just as challenging -- especially in tough economic times.

"You have to have stakeholders in it that are really motivated. Parents are really the driving force," said Giangreco. "If the parents are really interested and really involved, it works. If it is just the administrators or just the teachers union out there by themselves, it often fails."

That's advice that appears to have worked in Lansing, where the school board's request for a tax increase to avoid cutting $1.2 million from the operating budget of Sunnybrook District 171 actually met with voter approval.

"If this referendum did not pass, the next cuts were going to be in the classroom, which means we were going to lose teachers, which means the quality of education would go down, which inevitably would make our property values go down," said Sheryl Black, What's Best for Sunnybrook Kids Committee.

Typically, what happens is these questions, especially in a primary, are way down the ballot, and typically seniors and parents of school children are the only ones who know more than a passing amount about the issue. Without generalizing too much, analysts say the seniors tend to reject calls to spend more money.