By Dan Haley
Well, this has never happened before. In 33 years at the Journal, I have never been invited out for breakfast by the presidents of the village of Oak Park, the OPRF High School board and the District 97 Board of Education.
I mean simultaneously. Around one table. With one message.
It happened on Monday. And the immediate news is that the two school districts will sign on to a village request for cooperation in amending the Downtown TIF and give the village more money and more tools to clinch a deal with a developer for the Colt site on Lake Street — aka the world's most expensive surface parking lot.
As both Bob Spatz of D97 and John Phelan of D200 said over breakfast at George's, these properties are owned by the village right now, and they aren't throwing off any property taxes to the schools anyhow.
"When you ain't got nothing, you've got nothing to lose," was Phelan's summary.
So before the month is out, both 200 and 97 will have agreed to amend the 2011 TIF settlement, ending a discouraging, expensive and revealing lawsuit that saw the high school suing the elementary schools and the village amid raw feelings and intense mistrust.
And this was the larger message, the bigger news as Phelan put it: "If 2011 was the end of the era of litigation, then 2013 is the beginning of the era of collaboration." And, he added, he hoped River Forest's village government and its elementary schools would also actively join the discussions on shared initiatives.
Phelan was still new to the D200 board as the long litigation process was forced into mediation by a federal judge. A labor lawyer by trade, Phelan joined the high school's negotiating team and progress was quickly made toward a settlement — a settlement that favored the high school but a settlement that sharply eased the rhetoric and set aside the personal mistrust among the parties.
Spatz talked about the convoluted TIF agreement of 2003 and said that by 2009 no one was left at any of the three bodies to decipher it, its appendix, its footnotes. He talked about the failures of the bodies to meet regularly to talk about the TIF and solve issues as they came up. That led to the lawsuit, which pitted elected officials against each other and put any shared ventures on hold.
"I can't judge the people of 2003 or the litigation period because I wasn't there," said Phelan. "But it has made clear the importance of meeting regularly and building trust. We have all been schooled by that experience."
A lot has been made of the import of the April election on Oak Park's village government and rightly so. But if there is an elected body that was smartly remade by voters this spring it is at the high school. With four new members, a majority, and the still-new Phelan installed as president, this board has had a fresh psyche appended to its traditional ways. We are seeing results already.
At Monday's breakfast, Village President Anan Abu-Taleb was the quiet one. With the help of outgoing president David Pope, he had set this scenario in place and was happy to have the school board leaders do the talking. And while this TIF amendment is something of a no-brainer, the collaboration earlier this spring among the three bodies to fund an initiative in early childhood education was bold and courageous.
The table is set for more shared efforts. Leaders are in place who are ready to measure success not solely in building their own institutions but in the power of cooperation.
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