D200 Board President John Phelan. File PHOTO

District 200 Board of Education President John Phelan will not seek a second term in next spring’s school board election, Phelan said Friday.

A River Forest resident and Oak Park and River Forest High School alum, Phelan was the largest vote-getter in the 2011 D200 election. He was elected that year along with incumbents Ralph Lee and Sharon Patchak-Layman. Lee has said he will not run for a second term; Patchak-Layman has not announced a decision yet.

In a letter set to be published in next week’s Wednesday Journal, Phelan cited “personal and professional commitments in the coming years” in his decision not to run. Phelan was elected board president two years ago midway through his first term, moving up from the vice president’s chair.

Anan Abu-Taleb, Oak Park’s village president and a fan of Phelan’s desire to find collaboration and compromise, said Friday that “it’s a big loss that he is not running again.”

The high school board met Thursday for its regular monthly meeting but Phelan made no mention of his intentions not to run again. As board president, Phelan oversaw a number of key board and district initiatives, including the formation of a strategic plan for the high school. Establishment of the ad hoc Finance Advisory Committee last year and this fall’s pool site evaluation committee were spearheaded by Phelan.

As for achievements, Phelan, in his letter, cited the ending the “destructive” downtown Oak Park TIF lawsuit brought by the high school against the village government and the District 97 elementary schools. That suit was settled in late 2011. The newly-elected Phelan, who is an attorney, played a key role in the lawsuit’s settlement as a member of the district’s negotiating team.

Resolving the TIF issue, in particular, was key for the district, not just financially but in rebuilding trust in the community, Phelan said in a Wednesday Journal interview Friday afternoon.

“I saw that this would be more of a service to the community, as taxing bodies, if we worked more collaborative together,” he said.

  Phelan was also among the board members looking to reign in the district’s ever-growing fund balance. Forming the FAC, along with fellow member and Vice President Jeff Weissglass, was the mechanism to do that openly and transparently, Phelan has said.

One of the results of the FAC, which has since been dissolved, was the board last year approving a $10 million reduction in its levy, which was among the committee’s recommendations. The board is currently considering a second-year levy freeze, another FAC recommendation.

The TIF lawsuit and fund balance pile-up, however, caused much distrust in the community, Phelan acknowledged. Though he doesn’t believe the school was greedy in its handling of those issues, Phelan noted the school’s reputation was damaged as a result.

“I think the school was very proud, and still is and I hope we stay proud. But the fund balance and the TIF were reasons behind this wall built up between the building and the community. I think we’ve taken some steps in building trust,” Phelan said.

Moving forward, Phelan would like to see the district continue implementing its strategic plan and building a new pool, as well as restructuring its compensation model for administrators. 

In an interview Friday following Phelan’s announcement, Abu-Taleb called Phelan “a remarkable man. People like that come in once in a while to help bring others together.”

Phelan, Abu-Taleb said, knows priorities and knows what’s important.

“He knows how to respect others and bring them in together so the outcome would be best for the group and the community as a whole. It’s a big loss that he is not running again. I know we’ve exchanged phone calls. If there’s anything I can do to twist his arm, I would like to do it.

“I’m sure he has thought about this a lot. I’m sure this wasn’t an easy decision for him,” Abu-Taleb said. “He is a great listener and a great friend. We need leaders on our board today who can understand we have to come together to maintain the culture and value of our village we love so much.”

Contacts: tim@oakpark.comtdean@wjinc.com

Phelan supports D97 TIF plan

  The District 200 school board Thursday informally threw its support behind village officials to use Madison Street tax increment financing to build a new headquarters for school District 97, according to D200 board President John Phelan.

  The Joint Review Board, a group of representatives from each of the village’s taxing bodies, approved the plan to use TIF funds for the administrative building in an 8-1 vote, with D200 CFO Tod Altenburg casting the lone no vote.

  But Phelan said the no vote does not represent the view of the D200 board. At their regular board meeting Thursday, Phelan asked fellow members whether they supported plans to disburse $6.3 million from the TIF to build D97’s headquarters. In an informal straw poll, five members expressed support while one, Sharon Patchak-Layman, opposed the plan outright, arguing that TIF dollars should not be used for municipal buildings. It was Phelan who put the TIF item on the board’s agenda.

  “I heard about the Joint Review Board vote and I wanted the board to discuss and address where we were on it,” Phelan said Friday.

  Phelan noted that it is in the interest of parents and other residents to develop Madison Street, where the new administrative building will be located, “and create some businesses that can shoulder some of the tax burden from the residents.”

  Altenburg, who has been in the position for about a year and a half, told Wednesday Journal last week that his vote was not representative of the board but more a reflection of his lack of familiarity with Oak Park’s TIF district. Altenburg reiterated that point to D200 members at their meeting Thursday.

  “I think Tod went to that meeting without being prepared with the history or what the board had preferred,” Phelan said. “We wanted to make sure (the vote) didn’t confuse taxpayers or misrepresent the board.”

                                                                                                                —TIM INKLEBARGER

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