By Terry Dean
In an about-face, Oak Park Elementary School District 97 is backing away from the idea of building a new headquarters on the parking lot at Oak Park Village Hall.
Talks between the two taxing bodies about that plan have hit a major snag, with D97 looking for the village to state publicly, and by Jan. 14, whether it thinks a headquarters on its property is worth exploring.
In a letter sent to the village on Wednesday, D97 officials say they plan to take the village hall site off the table by Jan. 14, unless the village decides what it wants to do with that plan.
"If we decide to further explore the possibility of constructing a new building behind village hall, we will do so only with clear direction and support from our village colleagues," according to the letter.
The D97 and village of Oak Park boards met publicly Dec. 14, to discuss the headquarters option, as well as the future of Madison Street TIF, which has direct ties to a potential D97 headquarters building on the parking lot.
A potential deal struck could swap the parking lot land in exchange for money owed to D97 from the Madison TIF. That idea was raised and briefly discussed at the Dec. 14, meeting, stemming from a question raised by village Trustee Collette Lueck. But nothing was decided on that idea, nor did the two sides agree or finalize any decision on whether to continue pursuing the parking lot option.
According to its letter to the village, D97's interest in the parking lot site is two-fold: to participate in the 2006 Madison Street plan, which calls for a "civic campus" utilizing the parking lot space; and to help spur economic development on Madison Street through the sale of D97's current headquarters at 970 Madison St.
D97 is looking for answers to those two points by Jan. 14; otherwise it will explore other potential sites.
"During the village president's opening statement and the village board's questions during the joint board meeting, there was a noticeable lack of affirmation about either of these key pieces of information," the statement read.
The letter goes on to state that the parking lot site will be dropped on Jan. 14 — the school board's next scheduled meeting date — unless D97 "receives public communication from the village indicating reasons why the administration offices behind village hall is in the community's best interest."
D97 spokesman Chris Jasculca says the school district has worked with the village on the proposal in the belief that it would advance the Madison Street Plan and spur economic growth on that thoroughfare.
"We have arrived, however, at an important crossroads in the process where we must make a decision about the future of our administration building. That is why we have asked the Village board to share its thoughts and ideas regarding this option by Jan. 14, 2014," Jasculca said. "If we decide to no longer pursue this option, we will still need to find suitable office space."
Speaking to Wednesday Journal late Friday, Village President Anan Abu-Taleb stressed the importance of the village and D97 working together to find a solution on where to locate the proposed administration building.
"I can tell you for a fact that I respect everyone on the D97 board and they work hard," he said. "But I can tell you, speaking for myself, I don't like to put myself in a position to make a decision I haven't fully studied."
He noted that it "wouldn't be prudent for us as leaders to walk away from an option that may be the best option in the long-run."
The village president would not speculate whether trustees would have an answer to the question following by the January board meeting.
D97 board weighs in
At the school board's Dec. 17 regular meeting, board members discussed the possibility of moving away from village hall parking lot site.
"We're just trying to get clear statement [from the village]," said D97 board President Bob Spatz. "We need them to affirm that a civic campus is still a goal."
Spatz noted that the Madison Street Plan was approved by a prior village board, and that current trustees, including the new village president, might not be aware of its details.
Spatz and other board members said they're looking for the village to state whether they think it's beneficial to the community to build their headquarters behind village hall. At the Dec. 14, joint meeting, officials from both sides noted that D97 could use village hall council chamber for its regular meetings, among other potential shared services.
But Spatz added that the Dec. 14, joint meeting was too short — it lasted roughly two hours — to really get a sense of what the village's interest is. The Saturday session included about an hour or public comments and mostly clarifying questions asked by trustees about the proposed plan.
"The meeting was so abbreviated last Saturday that we didn't get a chance to basically ask them directly: 'Are you interested in doing this?'" Spatz said.
Board member Graham Brisben noted that a benefit to both taxing bodies would be providing D97 with land in exchange for required payments to the school district from the Madison TIF. Such a deal, he noted, would allow money to remain in the TIF to be used for developments on Madison Street.
"That's how something like that — behind village hall — constitutes improvements on Madison," Brisben said. "It preserves more cash in the TIF. But we have to decide that we're OK with accepting that land value equal to cash."
Spatz said that scenario is among the potential options under consideration with the village.
But in the end, Spatz said if the village wants to make a proposal to D97, the district is willing to listen.
"And if they're not willing to make a proposal, then we're done," Spatz added.
D97 Superintendent Albert Roberts added that the parking lot site has not been driven by D97, but has been a joint idea discussed between the two taxing bodies.
"This has been a joint conversation. If there's interest on their side, they need to say it. And if there's not, they need to say it," Roberts said.
The district, he added, is looking for feedback from the village before it decides what it wants to do concerning the parking lot site.
"We have other options; we are looking at other options," Roberts said. "We need to hear from them."
The board, however, stressed that a decision by the village doesn't mean the parking lot idea is a done deal. D97 could still opt for another site, they said. But board members stressed that they want to work collaboratively with the Village in whatever decision is reached. Some members, though, said they wouldn't back the parking lot plan even if it came up for a board vote.
Tim Inklebarger contrubuted to this story