Oak Brook neighborhood wants to switch schools
Jim Kosowski loves the Oak Brook neighborhood where he grew up so much he's raising his family there.
There's just one problem: The neighborhood kids go to so many different schools.
Of approximately 80 school-age children living in the Timber Trails/Merry Lane neighborhood, fewer than 20 are enrolled in public school. Most attend private or parochial schools in other suburbs, resulting in "a very dysfunctional community," Kosowski said.
"People are heading in all different directions, and they don't have the common ground of the school system," he said.
That's why many families were thrilled when the DuPage County Regional Board of School trustees in June approved their petition to split from Salt Creek Elementary District 48 and Willowbrook High School in Villa Park and annex to the school districts that enroll the majority of Oak Brook children.
District 48 and DuPage High School District 88 appealed, setting the stage for a protracted legal battle. A similar case in Bloomingdale has been in the courts for two years.
"We don't have the kind of money and resources that are available to the school district," said Ann E. Scott, chairwoman of the Timber Trails/Merry Lane detachment committee. "Over 70 percent of the registered voters in this community support this effort, and they won, and the children still don't get to go (to these schools)."
School district boundaries frequently crisscross communities, but Oak Brook is more chopped up than most. The suburb of 7,900 people is served by five elementary districts and four high schools.
Still, school officials say, people know -- or should know -- what school districts they're in when they buy their homes.
Allowing a group of homeowners "to essentially decide which district to be a part of, despite the location of their home, would set a detrimental precedent," said Mark McDonald, superintendent in Downers Grove High School District 99, which is fighting another Oak Brook detachment petition.
Officials in District 48 argue the detachment would be financially devastating, causing a loss of $450,000 in tax revenues at a time when school districts throughout the state are struggling.
In the end, though, the regional board didn't buy that it would be such a big financial blow.
The Timber Trails/Merry Lane detachment effort played out over eight evening hearings at the Regional Board of School Trustees headquarters in Wheaton. School officials and parents testified on behalf of both sides.
Parents favoring the detachment spoke about their children not being able to play on sports teams or participate in library programs with their schoolmates.
Kids are 'outsiders'
District 48 has kindergarten in Elmhurst, grades 2-4 in Oakbrook Terrace and middle school in Villa Park. Willowbrook High School is in Villa Park, and of its approximately 2,140 students, typically only three or four are from Oak Brook.
"If you try to go over to the Oak Brook Park District and sign your child up (for a sports team), nobody knows them. They sit there while they pick teams, and your kid is sitting there left over," Scott said. "If you try to go to Elmhurst ... you can't get in unless there's room for you. There's always a waiting list, they always have priority for their residents.
"The children, they're outsiders wherever they go. It just doesn't work for them."
But the Timber Trails/Merry Lane detachment also raises a sticky question: Should a neighborhood be allowed to leave its school district because residents think another one is better?
Many of the parents believe their children will get a superior education in Butler Elementary District 53, which has higher test scores than Dist. 48, and at Hinsdale Central, eight miles from the neighborhood but considered one of the top high schools in the country. Both districts also have more cachet with potential homebuyers.
"A parent's job is to get their children the best education, but it also should be in the community where you live so children can develop relationships and families can develop relationships," said Scott Grove, whose two middle school-age children attend Timothy Christian School in Elmhurst. (His older daughter, now in college, went to District 48 and Willowbrook High School.)
Oak Brook parents share similar educational expectations and aspirations for their children, he said.
"There's little bit of a different life plan going on with the rank and file in District 48," he said.
The financial impact on Districts 48 and 88 was a key issue in the hearings.
Timber Trails/Merry Lane residents specifically challenged Dist. 48's budget figures as well as its revenue projections. Ultimately, the regional board concluded "the loss of tax revenue to the detaching districts was minimal compared to the schools' overall budgets."
Further, the ruling states, the board found some of the evidence submitted to be flawed, "presenting a skewed calculation of the possible financial loss to the districts."
Detachment supporters say the "flurry of misinformation" dragged out the hearings, driving up the costs. But Darlene Ruscitti, Regional Superintendent of Schools in DuPage County, said there is no question of the schools' integrity or professionalism.
"I would argue if it was a mistake, they corrected the mistake," she said.
"It's a very complicated formula," she said. "It depends on what year you were using, what date you're using ... What we will do in this next (detachment) petition for Ginger Creek, we will sit down with all parties (to decide) which dollar amount we will agree to."
Ginger Creek wants out
Homeowners in the Ginger Creek neighborhood in Oak Brook filed a petition in April to detach from Downers Grove Elementary District 58 and High School District 99 and annex to Butler and Hinsdale Central.
Fourteen homes are seeking to separate, and there are no children currently registered in the public schools.
District 53 is neutral on both the detachments, Superintendent Sandra Martin said.
A couple of years ago, a board member in District 53 wrote a letter suggesting that the small number of Oak Brook residents living in Hinsdale Elementary District 181, which was having overcrowding issues, detach and annex to District 53, where enrollment was declining. Residents didn't pursue it.
"It was a very specific invitation," said Dist. 53 Superintendent Sandra Martin. "He was trying to address a problem for both parties. Over time, it has been misinterpreted as a more global invitation for any community within the bounds of Oak Brook but outside of Butler 53."
The school districts' decision to appeal puts the ruling on hold, so no Timber Trails/Merry Lane children will be changing schools this fall.
Meanwhile, Jim Kosowski sends his four sons to Visitation Catholic School in Elmhurst; his daughter is in kindergarten in District 48.
Growing up in Timber Trails/Merry Lane, Kosowski went to a Montessori school, then to Albright Middle School in Villa Park and Fenwick High School in Oak Park. To this day, he says, "I'm still very close friends with a lot of people I went to Albright with."
But times were different and parents had fewer worries about safety, he said.
"We just had a big old group and everybody knew everybody and it didn't matter so much what school you went to," he said. "I'd ride my bike over to Willowbrook (high school) and I'd ride on Roosevelt Road and (Route) 83 at midnight."
He can't imagine ever letting his kids do that. Today, it's all about organized activities, and children who don't go to school in their communities are at a disadvantage, he said.
"We were all very much looking forward to sending our kids to the Oak Brook schools," Kosowski said. "We believe strongly in the benefit not just for our kids, but for future generations of kids, and we will do everything we can to win the appeal."
It's not easy to detach from a school districtDetachment petitions don't come up very often, partly because they are so expensive and time-consuming for residents.
And DuPage County school districts have shown they're not willing to let go easily.
So it's not surprising the Timber Trails/Merry Lane detachment petition, affecting 200 homes, is only the second Darlene Ruscitti has dealt with in nine years as regional superintendent.
In the first case, in Bloomingdale, the regional board also ruled in favor of granting the detachment.
Residents of the Chateaus of Medinah and Vittoria Brook Estates petitioned to leave Marquardt Elementary District 15 and Glenbard Township High School District 87 and attach to Bloomingdale Elementary District 13 and Lake Park High School District 108. There are 35 homes in the two subdivisions.
The school districts petitioned for administrative review, which again favored the residents. The case is now in the appellate court in Elgin. A ruling is expected in September.
Also next month, the regional board is slated to hold an evidentiary hearing on the petition by residents of the Ginger Creek in Oak Brook. Homeowners want to leave Downers Grove Elementary District 58 and Downers Grove High School District 99 to join Butler Elementary District 53 and Hinsdale High School District 86.
The two Downers Grove districts stand to lose $180,000 in tax revenues from the 14 homes seeking to leave.
There are no children registered in school. Taxes in Districts 53 and 86 are lower than in the Downers Grove districts, school officials say.
"To protect our taxpayers, who would absorb the loss of this revenue source, we are contesting the petition," said District 58 Superintendent Paul Zaander.
"We believe that both District 58 and District 99 offer high quality educational programs, and don't believe there's any educational benefit to detaching from our districts."