The District 97 Board of Education won’t bite the hand that could potentially feed it needed funds to cover its structural budget deficit.

But school board member Sharon Patchak-Layman urged the board last week to insist on a longer extension of the village’s two-year offer to provide Dist. 97 with $5 million from tax increment financing districts (TIF), and even suggested pulling out of the TIF agreement with the village because of the constraints she says it places on the district.

The Village of Oak Park board agreed in principle two weeks ago to provide Dist. 97 with $5 million in TIF funds but has yet settled on a specific plan. Dist. 97’s structural deficit has resulted in the board cutting $4.7 million in the last five years. The board was set to go for a $5 million referendum next spring, but opted against it because of the anti-tax climate among voters. Instead, the district asked the village for help.

Board president Carolyn Newberry Schwartz told the board at its regular meeting last Wednesday that the village was planning to meet sometime this month with the chief financial officers of the various taxing bodies to work out the numbers for a two-year plan.

Schwartz said the district did discuss a longer option with the village, but was satisfied with the village’s current offer.

“This is what they feel that they can entertain at this point. That was the sense of the [village] board,” said Schwartz.

Patchak-Layman, however, said the village’s two-year proposal had yet to be discussed by the Dist. 97 board, and that the board should look at whether it should agree to the village’s two-year offer. She said the district’s financial problems were long-term, and that it shouldn’t be locked into only two years.

“We haven’t had a discussion here, as to say, that’s the agreement that will work best for us; that we want just two years and not looking at long-term,” she said. “That two-year caveat has been set by the [village] board but it hasn’t been vetted by us.”

Patchak-Layman, an opponent of TIFs altogether, said the district should pull out of the agreement because it ties up future funds that the district needs right now. She said the village received $1.6 million last year in Dist. 97 property taxes from the agreement, money that the district could’ve used instead cutting programs and teachers.

Patchak-Layman questioned whether the district should honor the existing TIF agreement.

Board member Julie Blankemeier, though, said that Dist. 97 was not in a position to tell the village how to spend TIF dollars, which set off a rapid and testy exchange among the usually non-confrontational board.

“The village sets the TIF,” Blankemeier said. “The contract was made to try to have carve-outs. We can’t say, ‘OK, you guys can’t do the TIF anymore.’ Community members can advocate for that, but we’re not in a legal position to tell the village whether or not it can do the TIF.”

“But we can tell them whether we can afford to keep putting money into it,” Patchak-Layman shot back.

“But what if they turn around and say, ‘That’s too bad,'” board member Marcia Frank quickly responded.

Patchak-Layman argued that the district is able to set line-item amounts in its budget for priorities offered by other taxing bodies, but not as freely with the village.

“We do that with all of the partners that we do programs with; the village has kind of taken itself out of that role,” she said.

Board member Dan Burke pointed out that the village has given $1.3 million for the district’s transportation and multicultural programs, and carve-outs that the district has used for operations.

Burke said the board can discuss other options in the future but that the village’s current offer was best one for the district right now.

“All I know is that as a practical matter, the village is working within a very complicated context with interest groups to carve out some important funding for us, and for us to come in and say, ‘The real answer is to end the TIF,’ that’s not going to solve the problem.”

Schwartz added that the village’s offer is a big first step in looking to direct money to Dist. 97.

“That, I think, is a very significant move for Oak Park to be taking,” she said.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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