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Anti-referendum speakers challenge Avoca School Board on necessity of new school

Opponents of Avoca School District 37’s bond referendum, which will appear on the March 19 primary ballot, took their grievances and concerns directly to the School Board on Thursday, Feb. 22.

District 37 is asking voters to support an $89.8 million referendum that, if approved, will be used to finance the construction of a new elementary school in Wilmette, replacing the current school, Avoca West, in Glenview. The new school would be built adjacent to Marie Murphy junior high, while funds from the referendum will also be used to update the junior high.

Over the past year, D37 has hosted open houses and town halls explaining the state of the district’s facilities and finances. In December, the board unanimously voted to place the referendum on the ballot.

More recently, a $10,000 donation from the Avoca PTC to support the referendum effort was returned after drawing criticism from the community.

That was just one of the issues brought up by eight opponents of the referendum who spoke at the Thursday meeting. In addition to the speakers, audience members held up signs encouraging a “No” vote on the referendum.

Jasmina de la Torre, who said she has lived in D37 for 11 years, shared multiple reasons for her opposition to the referendum, including her belief that the increased taxes will harm the diversity of the D37 community.

According to Illinois School Card data, the district’s student body is 49.8 percent white, 27.3 percent Asian, 12.5 percent Hispanic and 9.3 percent multiracial. Comparatively, the other five New Trier High School feeder districts have significantly fewer minority students. All five other districts consist of around 74 percent white students.

“There are families who will be priced out of the district as a result of the tax increases,” de la Torre said. “There are families who will have to sell their home and others who will not be able to sell their house because the tax burden is not something that a buyer will be willing to bear.”

She also criticized the School Board for its recent actions, including the hiring of a “superintendent-elect” who will take over for Dr. Kaine Osburn when he retires this summer. De la Torre made requests of the board, including asking them to abide by the Illinois Council of School Attorneys’ guidelines “for what actions are and not allowed when a board is pursuing a referendum.”

“I will close by saying that this referendum is not going to pass and you have yourselves to blame,” she said. “On March 19, when the votes come in, I hope that you will all take the time to remind yourselves of the many wonderful qualities that make our Avoca 37 community unlike any other.”

Another resident, Cecilia Dunn, said she was going to be voting against the referendum because she doesn’t want to see the elementary school relocated from Glenview to Wilmette.

“I believe moving the elementary school to the other side of the (Edens Expressway) is detrimental to those community members on the west side of the highway,” she said.

Other referendum opponents said now isn’t the right time to be borrowing money and encouraged the board to defer a vote until later, while others accused the district of being misleading in fliers distributed to every household in D37.

While those arguing against the referendum represented the majority of the speakers Thursday, there were also four people who spoke in support of it.

John Rick said he is both a D37 parent and the husband of an Avoca West teacher. He described some of the changes he’s seen over the past 20 years, including support staff cuts and facilities that need to be replaced.

“I’m afraid that, without passing this, we’re going to continue to increase fees and we’re going to have to cut … programs,” he said. “I don’t want to see that happen.”

Rick also said he empathizes with the neighbors, saying he understands not wanting a tax increase or Avoca West moving, “but the reality is that something needs to be done to move our district forward and making it something better than it is.”

Another referendum supporter, Melanie Zenisek, said she is a D37 alumna in addition to a parent. She said when her son started kindergarten, she was “super surprised that (Avoca West) looked exactly the same as when I had left in fifth grade.”

Zenisek added that she is “excited” about the possibility of updating the schools within D37.

“My kids spend the majority of their time and waking hours at school, and I want that environment to be a safe place, but I also want it to be an engaging place, a place to think and a space to grow,” she said.

Just prior to public comment, Board President Dr. Sumitrajit Dhar thanked everybody who was planning to speak and sharing their varying opinions.

“We very much appreciate that we are asking the community to make a larger contribution toward the school; no question about that,” he said. “The job for all of us, each of us, now is to decide how we are going to vote on March 19. And I’m so grateful, and so are my colleagues, that you’re here to share your views with us and the community.”

The board did not directly respond to any public commentary; however, Dhar asked anyone with questions to reach out to either the School Board or district administration and expect a response.

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Peter Kaspari

Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.

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