By Terry Dean
The District 200 Board of Education will decide on Feb. 28 whether to give Oak Park and River Forest property owners some welcome tax relief via an abatement that would impact next year's tax bills.
It's an about-face from the board's previous stance, or more specifically the stance of some board members. The abatement proposal was discussed by the D200 finance committee on Feb. 19. The board's regular meeting is on Thursday.
The idea of giving some kind of relief to taxpayers had been shot down previously for various reasons. But the board is now considering offering some relief to property owners who have been asking for such relief for some time.
The plan is for a one-time abatement impacting 2014 tax bills. Two options are on the table: a full abatement totaling $2.4 million or a partial one for $1.6 million. The high school board last December levied about $1.6 million, a 2.5 percent increase, despite vocal opposition from many in the community.
If they go the partial abatement route, the school would not levy that 2.5 percent rate next year, resulting in no change in tax bills. The full abatement would actually result in a lower tax bill, but only for one year. A homeowner whose home is valued at $315,000 would see their taxes reduced by $55, according to school officials.
The school would pay for the one-time abatement from its working cash fund rather than its education fund, school officials said. The school has about $9 million in working cash, according to the 2013 fiscal year budget.
Board members John Phelan and Valerie Fisher broached the idea of providing a tax abatement, asking that it be put on the finance committee's agenda for discussion. Members spent more than an hour on the issue. Some cited previously-stated concerns in opposing such abatement.
With enrollment increasing at historic rates, the school's pool situation still unsettled, and long-term facility planning still in the works, some worried that an abatement, at this time, might not be wise. They also discussed whether it was more of a symbolic gesture on their part.
Only one board member, Ralph Lee, opposed the abatement outright.
"I'm convinced that what we're talking about here is pushing a burden today into the future. I'm convinced it's going to be a much greater burden to deal with in the future. I think we're talking more about a principle than we are real hardship. I'd like to see us do away with the idea of an abatement."
Amy McCormack, who chairs the finance committee, echoed Lee's concerns but did not say whether she supported an abatement or not. McCormack, though, insisted the school was in danger of putting itself in financial risk in the future.
"What I'm struggling with is also the benefit versus the burden," she said.
McCormack noted that the board and school are facing financial challenges now, such as sharply-rising enrollment and the need for new pools that weren't fully addressed in the four years since she began a member.
"What scares me a little bit is that four years from now, we'll be looking at another four scenarios," she said, "and I think we have to be very very cautious not to do something as a matter of principle, but to truly look at it, as Ralph is suggesting, as a benefit versus burden sort of argument."
Phelan, however, didn't think a one-year abatement would put the school in a "dooms-day scenario."
"For some people, that 55 dollars is going to make a difference, and we're telling them we recognize that it's a difficult time and we're doing what we can," Phelan said.
Board President Terry Finnegan noted that the abatement proposal was not a huge dollar amount for the school and that it was sending a message to the community that it's the right thing to do.
Sharon Patchak-Layman, who didn't vote for the 2.5 percent levy increase last December, has called for the school to give tax relief but was surprisingly cool to the idea of the abatement. That position even surprised Phelan, who said so after her comments.
Patchak-Layman insisted the school missed its opportunity back in December. She added that even the larger abatement amount was not enough compared to the school's 100-plus million fund balance.
"I think the numbers are just way off, whether on the partial or the full," she said.
D200 likely to support Collaboration initiative
The District 200 school board on Thursday is set to approve a resolution, setting the stage for OPRF to offer financial support to the Collaboration for Early Childhood's initiative for at-risk preschoolers. The Village of Oak Park has already approved funding for the program. District 97 has approved a resolution directing its superintendent to start allocating funding. The D200 board will vote on its own resolution at its regular meeting on Feb. 28.