An op-ed was published March 25 by Meghan Keenan, a communication analyst for the Illinois Policy Institute, a group based in Chicago and Springfield. She interjected her outside opinion into our local debate over the county sales tax initiatives being considered. In the piece, she attacks the O’Fallon Township High School’s educators and our collective bargaining agreement. Had Keenan visited our community, she would have found a population that deeply values a quality public education. She would have found one of the top academically performing schools south of Chicago, with a nationally recognized performing arts program and a competitive athletic program that uplifts hundreds of students each year through college athletic scholarships.
As an Advanced Placement history instructor who teaches writing on a daily basis, I decided to have some of my students read her essay and consider her arguments. My students and I gave Keenan a failing grade for her lack of understanding of the issues, attempting to mislead the readers of southern Illinois and incorrectly interpreting the facts.
It is likely difficult for Keenan to understand our growing funding issues. Keenan grew up in the affluent Chicago suburb of Lake Zurich where the median household income is more than $114,000. The high school spends an amount per pupil that far exceeds the state average and what we are able to spend here in St. Clair County. I doubt that Keenan has ever been to our county or the community of O’Fallon nor does she realize that we have critical manpower shortages in many of our policing and protection services.
Her editorial also attempts to mislead her readers. Resorting to scare tactics, Keenan uses a large multi-million dollar figure to dissuade support for the initiatives that would prop up important public services. She fails in her analysis to discuss that most county school districts intend to use as much as half of this revenue to provide property tax relief as they try to repair and maintain their school buildings. Nor does she discuss that the revenue will be fairly and evenly generated among all taxpayers. Additionally, anyone who visits our county will share this burden when they shop and dine at all the places that make our communities a destination for southern Illinoisans.
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Using O’Fallon Township High School District 203’s collective bargaining agreement, Keenan erroneously implies that any revenue generated will be wasted by school boards who will hand out expensive contract perks to its employees. This is simply not true and Keenan obviously did not do her homework. The state law clearly establishes that the tax can only be used for capital projects or tax abatement, a point she either does not grasp or intentionally omits from her editorial. Furthermore, her portrayal of the high school’s contract is shortsighted and dishonest. The benefits agreed to by the community’s elected school board are typical in public school contracts and are meant to draw talented young college graduates into the classroom. This is definitely true in O’Fallon. Had Keenan stepped foot in O’Fallon, she would find a school board that has worked responsibly to encourage older, experienced and thus more expensive salaried teachers to retire through severance language and accumulation of sick days that enables early retirement.
Regardless of what voters decide on April 4, I know our future is bright in St. Clair County. We do not need the advice of someone with an agenda from the affluent neighborhoods of Chicago providing us guidance.
Michael Day is president of the O’Fallon Federation of Teachers and teaches history at O’Fallon Township High School.