Madigan, Chicago Dems eye Maine Township school board
Maine Township District 207 School Board candidate Aurora Austriaco has friends in high places.
A State House speaker once helped her raise more than $497,000 to run for state representative.
One Illinois governor awarded her law firm nearly $1.5 million in state contracts.
A second appointed her to a powerful state commission.
Last month, when Austriaco faced a challenge to her nominating petitions that threatened to derail her candidacy, a top counselor to the powerful Cook County assessor stepped up to represent her before the Cook County Electoral Board.
Why would someone as well-connected as Austriaco -- a powerbroker who has rubbed shoulders with Democratic party luminaries like Michael Madigan, Rod Blagojevich, Pat Quinn and Joe Berrios -- bother to vie for a seat on a sleepy suburban school board?
She isn't saying.
A quiet campaign
Austriaco’s campaign has no website and no Facebook page.
She hasn’t announced a campaign platform, opened a campaign committee or sent out a single press release.
It’s not that Maine Township High School District 207 doesn’t have pressing issues.
Enrollment is down 10 percent over the past seven years, according to the Illinois State Board of Education, but District 207 spending remains among the highest in the state. At $18,722 per student last year, it ranked 27th of 292 districts in the Chicago area.
Yet only 39 percent of District 207 students passed the statewide standardized “PARCC” exam, which deemed 6 in 10 of them “not ready” to move on to the next grade. And only 57 percent of seniors are deemed “college ready,” scoring more than 21 on the ACT.
Students Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights (65 percent), Evanston Township High School District 202 (63 percent), Northfield Township High School District 225 (81 percent) and Stevenson High School District 125 in Lincolnshire (88 percent) all performed better.
Meanwhile, property values in the district are falling and property taxes are rising.
The median home price in Des Plaines fell 42 percent from 2007 to 2015. In Park Ridge, it fell 33 percent.In 2015, the Chicago Tribune calculated the effective property tax rate in Park Ridge as 2.87 percent, or a bill of $8,610 on a $300,000 home.
Asked why she was running at a recent candidate forum, Austriaco avoided addressing issues, only saying that she “wants to get involved and give back to the community.”
Candidate Dan Gott of Des Plaines called for more transparency and a balanced budget, pointing out that the district has enormous unfunded pension liabilities that someone will eventually have to pay.
Candidate Linda Coyle of Park Ridge has addressed school performance and spending issues on her campaign website, pledging to “(promote) efforts to increase student success within budget.”
“It is my mission to ensure that each tax dollar is carefully and vigilantly spent on providing the highest quality education possible for our students,” Coyle wrote.
$130 million annual budget
Once a Republican stronghold, Park Ridge and Des Plaines are now increasingly the domain of House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago). The state Democratic party, led by Madigan, largely funded the campaigns of three-term State Rep. Marty Moylan (D-Des Plaines) and, last year, of State Sen. Laura Murphy (D-Park Ridge), who was appointed to office in 2015. Accordingly, both have been strong allies of Chicago interests in Springfield.
But school boards represent an even bigger opportunity. High school districts are typically the biggest pot of public money in local government. And their budgets -- and automatic annual tax increases -- are vigorously defended by teacher’s unions, often the most politically organized group in a suburban community.
District 207 spends $130 million per year -- $115 million of which comes from local property taxpayers. That total includes hundreds of employees and tens of millions spent on outside contracts that can be steered to politically connected vendors.
Austriaco had once hoped to serve Madigan in Springfield herself.
Madigan initiated an Austriaco run for state representative in 2008 against longtime Republican incumbent Rep. Rosemary Mulligan of Park Ridge. Her campaign raised $497,962 from the state’s most committed Democrat interests, including tens of thousands from trial lawyers and public employee unions.
But her law firm’s $109,000 in donations to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and the state contracts it received, ultimately did in Austriaco. She denied the donations were “pay to play,” but the connection proved too damaging.
Austriaco lost by 3,600 votes. But she stayed involved, serving as campaign treasurer in Murphy’s Senate campaign in 2016.
If she wins a spot on the Maine Township School Board, Madigan might get a return on his investment, just yet.