Wilmette School District 39 officials are applauding a judge’s refusal on Monday to consolidate a lawsuit brought earlier this year by Taxpayers United of America and Wilmette resident Herb Sorock with a similar lawsuit filed against Oak Park School District 97.
The lawsuits, which challenge the legality of ballot language used by Districts 39 and 97 in their successful April 5 tax rate hike referendums, are based on disputes with the same statutory language, Cook County Court Judge Moshe Jacobius acknowledged in his decision.
But there wasn’t sufficient cause to merge the actions, he ruled, because other factors and parties in the two cases differ.
Monday’s decision maintains the current status of the District 39 lawsuit; attorneys for the district, and for Sorock and Taxpayers United, are scheduled to appear in court June 23 before Cook County Court Judge Rita M. Novak.
Novak is expected to rule then on Taxpayers United’s request for a temporary restraining order preventing the district from collecting taxes, and also on the district’s motion to dismiss the case entirely.
A representative of Taxpayers United, which requested the consolidation, insisted Tuesday that this latest setback won’t slow its efforts to overturn both districts’ referendums.
“Regardless of this, we’re going to move forward,” Taxpayers United Vice President Christina Tobin said. “If necessary, we will fight all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court.”
Tobin also accused District 39 officials of hypocrisy, saying that merging the two legal actions would save money: “The board says (the lawsuit) is going to cost taxpayers money, but this could have cut those costs.”
District 39 Superintendent Raymond Lechner lauded Jacobius Tuesday, saying in a prepared statement that consolidation could have delayed the district’s efforts to have its lawsuit dismissed — and could have interfered with the county’s ability to collect district taxes, including money generated by the successful April 5 referendum.
“We are doing everything possible to make certain that we follow the wishes of the voters who approved the tax rate increase,” Lechner continued.
Sorock, who unsuccessfully fought the district’s 35 cent rate hike campaign, joined forces with Taxpayers United May 16 to sue the district, alleging it knew before April 5 that its referendum language understated that actual tax increase by not including the state-imposed tax equalizer in its formula.
The lawsuit asked the courts to overturn the referendum results. It also originally named individual school board members as codefendants, and asked the courts to force them to pay for their own defense.
The language used in the referendum would allow the district to collect more than $49 million in taxes, including new taxes generated by the referendum. However, district officials said they made no secret how much they actually wanted to collect, and even passed a resolution promising to collect no more than the $43.93 million they said they needed.
They also argue that the ballot language was not only checked by district legal counsel, but required by state law.
Taxpayers United’s progress in both lawsuits has been bumpy thus far. On May 23, Novak removed District 39 board members as defendants. On May 24, Cook County Judge Mary Mikva refused to grant a temporary restraining order against District 97 in that case.