Oak Park and River Forest High School has agreed to try resolving out of court an ongoing dispute with the village. However, the year-long legal battle will, at the same time, continue playing out in front of a judge, a school board member said last week.
For almost a year, the village and the high school have been wrangling over how much money village hall owes the high school in a dispute over tax increment financing dollars. To date, the two sides — plus Elementary School District 97, which was added to the lawsuit last year — have amassed more than $100,000 in legal bills. On Jan. 31, Cook County Court Judge Peter Flynn suggested the three sides resolve their differences in front of a mediator, rather than in a courtroom.
The District 200 school board met in a closed meeting on Feb. 8 and decided to go along with the judge's suggestion, said board member John Allen. Now the three sides need to figure out the specifics, he said — such as whether the mediator's suggestions will be binding, where the talks should take place, and how they will choose the peacemaker.
The high school doesn't plan to file an amended complaint, as the judge suggested last month. However, Allen believes the lawsuit will continue playing out in court, while the three governmental bodies are simultaneously working out their differences in front of an arbitrator.
"Nothing will end the lawsuit until we come to an agreement, whether it's through a mediator or through ourselves," Allen said.
Village Attorney Ray Heise disagrees with OPRF's approach, saying it "defeats the purpose." The whole point is to try and come to a resolution without paying for lawyers.
"It doesn't make sense," Heise said.
OPRF has until March 1 to submit a letter to Flynn, indicating that they agree to talk in front of a mediator. The village already submitted its letter on Feb. 3.
Dist. 97 also is interested in the idea of using outside mediation to help solve the dispute, said board President Peter Traczyk. They plan to meet with the school district's attorney this week to discuss the details.
"We have been willing to sit down with anyone who will talk to us at all to try and resolve this outside of the courts," he said.
The dispute involves how much village hall owes the high school from its controversial downtown tax increment financing (TIF) district. Back when the complaint was first filed last year, Dist. 200 claimed it was owed $3.3 million, while the village pegged that amount at $1.79 million.
A source with the high school, last week, said they believe they're owed as much as $40 million over the life of the TIF, which ends in 2018. However, Traczyk believes that amount is far overstated.
"Anyone making that statement is merely trying to play politics with the issue and has oversimplified it to the point of not really making any sense," he said. "That's not a number you could hang your hat on."
Village Manager Tom Barwin said Monday he believes the village is up to date on its past payouts from the TIF. Village hall distributed about $4.9 million in "true-up" payments to local taxing bodies during the past year ($1.5 million to OPRF), and had to borrow $2.4 million to meet those obligations, he said.