Citizens and school officials backing a tax referendum for Riverside-Brookfield High School found themselves on the defensive last week, countering anti-referendum arguments by Riverside resident Chris Robling during a two-hour forum on the subject at Komarek School in North Riverside on March 2.

During a half-hour presentation, Robling – looking part preacher, part scholastic debater, part seasoned campaigner – argued that until governance and accountability at the high school change, voters should take a pass.

Robling characterized the referendum question as “the largest tax hike in your community’s history.”

“Money is not going to solve the problem,” Robling said. “You’ve got to have vision, you’ve got to have oversight. … If the board sets a policy, [they have] a concurrent responsibility to make sure that policy is being executed in accordance with the board mandate. That’s not what is happening. That’s been our governance problem.”

Robling pointed to what he believes represents the past mismanagement of the school board – from the creating and funding of The Paw/Cyberdog Café concept to the issuance of working cash bonds without seeking voter approval to the lack of an audit of the 2006 building bond issuance – as the reason to be wary of the current referendum request.

“How can the school board come to us and say, ‘Give us a new, permanent, largest tax hike in your community’s history if it has not accounted for the money it has already received?” Robling said. “The bucks start and stop with us. … We don’t have to bail them out because they made a mistake.”

Instead, Robling said he believes the referendum will fail, which will give district officials a chance to craft a better referendum proposal, which, he agrees, is inevitable.

“I have no illusions. I anticipate another referendum,” Robling said. “I think everybody’s going to have to sharpen their pencils, and all of us … have got to be prepared to roll up our sleeves, work harder and come back to the whole community with a better proposal.”

Tim Scanlon, assistant principal for curriculum and instruction at RBHS, chided Robling for holding onto a grudge against the former board and for implying guilt by association to the current board. The financial audits Robling is looking for, he said, would take place when those funds are completely spent.

“I keep hearing Baldermann and Herbst, Baldermann and Herbst,” said Scanlon, referring to former Superintendent Jack Baldermann and former school board President Larry Herbst. “Larry hasn’t been the board president for two years and [Jack] hasn’t been superintendent for two years. … Hey, Baldermann and Herbst are gone now.”

According to MariAnn Leibrandt, a school board member and one of five people presenting the need for a referendum in District 208, a successful vote would mean an additional $4.54 million annually for RBHS.

But that number and the $90 million that would be collected over the first 20 years after a successful referendum, represents the base-line amount, says Robling.

“Folks, nobody knows the right numbers,” said Robling, who estimated that the cost over 20 years could be as high as $102 million, based on figures cited by district officials in the past.

Darcy Lewis, the parent of an RB student and member of Communities United for RBHS District 208, the pro-referendum citizens committee, also addressed the 100-plus members of the audience gathered in the Komarek School gymnasium.

Relating her experience as a student in the Detroit-area public schools in the early 1980s, she worried that a failed referendum would affect everything from class sizes to extracurricular activities.

“That’s the kind of gamble I would hope we really don’t want to make,” Lewis said. “I think we have a good thing going, and I hope we can find it within us to offer them support.”

RB officials have outlined nearly $2 million in cuts that would happen in 2011-12 if a referendum fails. They include the elimination of some teachers and support staff, a host of extracurricular programs and clubs, cutting coaching positions and some sports.

James Landahl, co-chairman of Communities United, said the school would continue to function if the referendum fails, but a “no” vote would determine the kind of experience students get at RB.

“The school will always be there, no matter what form or shape it takes, but it’s the community’s decision on how well and what programs you’ll provide in your school.”

Landahl called the referendum an investment in the district’s children.

“At $25 a month, every time I look at my tax bill and I see that money go to District 95 and Dist. 208, that’s an investment in our children and an investment in our community high school.”

North Riverside resident Donald Matarese, who has a son in preschool at Komarek, said he came to the forum leaning toward voting for the referendum but left re-thinking his position.

“It was good to see both sides of the argument,” Matarese said. “I kind of agree [about] the need for more money, but [Robling] made some great points. I’m kind of leaving with a different view.”

But Ted Watylyk, a North Riverside resident with a daughter at RBHS, said he’s still leaning toward supporting the referendum.

“It reinforced what I thought,” he said. “The key thing is people who made decisions in the past no longer play a role. You have to deal with the reality of what’s there today.”