River Forest Villager of the Year runner-up: John Phelan

Phelan tackles OPRF's financial surplus, trust deficit

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By Deb Kadin

Contributing Reporter

John Phelan rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Under his leadership, Oak Park and River Forest High School made significant efforts in tackling its finances – and at the same time took steps toward rebuilding trust in the community. 

The president of the District 200 school board, Phelan, the runner-up for River Forest Villager of the Year, proposed the formation of an ad-hoc committee that would assess what OPRF should do with its fund balance, which topped $118 million.

A 15-member panel, chaired by newly-elected school board member Jeff Weissglass, met in open session over a number of months to sort it all out. The panel had members with the skill sets to answer a complicated question. "Do we have too much money," Phelan said. "The harder question was how much should we have and how do we get there."

Another difficult question that had to be answered was how far the district should push out the need for another tax rate referendum, which the district noted that it would eventually need. 

Phelan admitted he needed to understand school finances and the district's financial condition as quickly as he could before putting the question about a committee before the board.

When all was said and done the committee recommended – and the school board approved – a $10 million reduction in its tax levy for this year. The school board also approved a bond levy abatement of $2.5 million.

It would be the first in a series of levy decisions that would push District 200 on a path of long-term prosperity and short-term reasonable finances, he said.

The reductions will help restore public trust and set a course for a smaller referendum in the future, Phelan said.

The finance advisory committee has since been dissolved. The next related task will be improving communications with the public concerning its finances. That, too, will likely help rebuild trust inside and outside the District 200 community. That work will be taken on by the school board.

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Bill Dwyer  

Posted: December 31st, 2013 11:42 AM

In all my years of covering River Forest Nad Oak Park, I never saw a newly elected official hit the ground running quite like John. As a neophyte D200 board member, he played a central and essential role in resolving the contentious TIF fund situation. Since then, as you note, he's tackled an array of important issues. OPRF is lucky to have his service and skill sets.

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