More than an hour had passed and nine people had already taken the podium to call out the board and administration at District 200.
The public hearing that night on the district’s proposed levy increase was heated and growing more so. Speaker after speaker criticized the board for considering a 2.5 percent increase in its 2012 levy from the previous year.
The 10th speaker was Oak Park resident John Palmisano, who had served in the military before moving to Oak Park in the 1940s. He was among the most passionate and echoed what many had said, and what others following would repeat: residents couldn’t bear another tax increase.
Grey-haired, medium height with a husky build, Palmisano left an impression on the large crowd sitting in Oak Park and River Forest High School’s library, where that night’s board meeting was relocated because of the large turnout. The military vet made a big impression on John Phelan, who sat with his fellow board members on this late December evening.
“Other people spoke but what he said really resonated with me,” said Phelan, sitting in George’s Restaurant on a recent afternoon.
The board would go on to vote for the levy increase later that evening after reconvening following the hearing. But Phelan recalled having mixed emotions about supporting it.
So mixed that he was among the board members who pushed for a tax abatement of roughly $2.4 million the following spring.
Elected to the board in 2011, Phelan won’t be running for re-election this April. Since becoming board president in 2013, Phelan has continued to push the district toward easing the tax burden on Oak Parkers and River Foresters — he’s a River Forest resident himself and an OPRF alum.
A year after that tense public hearing, Phelan’s board voted to reduce the 2013 levy by $10 million, and the board last month froze the 2014 levy at that amount. During his tenure, Phelan also pushed the district to rein in its stockpiled fund balance, which topped well over $100 million. The spend-down began taking shape 2013 with the creation of an ad hoc finance advisory committee — Phelan’s idea— to show the community how serious the district was about trimming the fund balance.
“It felt too high, especially after hearing what was being said in the community. And if this is being felt by so many people, I felt we couldn’t ignore that sentiment and it was incumbent upon us to address it in a responsible and transparent way,” he said.
Lou Vitullo, a longtime River Forest resident, sat on the finance advisory committee and has known Phelan for years. He told Phelan the district needed to look at the huge fund balance in terms of what it could cost in good will. The very real way of resolving this, Vitullo said, was to give back some of the money. Phelan, he recalled, was receptive to the idea.
Vitullo worked from July to December 2013 with more than a dozen other Oak Park and River Forest volunteer committee members, dissecting the fund balance and exploring ways to bring it down. An expert on TIF districts (tax increment financing) and municipal law, Vitullo praised Phelan for being able to examine issues from all sides and bringing answers to the table. That, he said, is leadership.
“Any leader has to consistently demonstrate respect for all people in the debate. He does that very well,” Vitullo said. “He looks for the contribution everyone can make. Collaboration becomes much easier as a result.”
Commitment to partnership
Collaboration is something Phelan, 49, says he strongly believes in. And while there’s much talk in the two villages about cooperation among taxing bodies, Phelan wanted to see more participation from D200. When he joined the board in 2011, the high school was in the midst of a nasty legal fight with the village of Oak Park and elementary school District 97 over distribution payments from Oak Park’s downtown TIF. The high school sued the village in 2010 over TIF payments due the district, estimated at more than $2 million (D97 was later added as a defendant). The suit stemmed from the 2003 agreement with the village that extended the life of the TIF.
As a lawyer specializing in labor relations, Phelan was added to D200’s negotiating team during its mediation with D97 and the village from summer 2011 through December of that year. The three taxing bodies settled the lawsuit that December, and he said his legal background helped.
“With the settlement of that lawsuit, I saw it as an opportunity to move toward being more of a partner with our fellow taxing bodies,” said Phelan, who has worked at AT&T as general counselfor more than a decade.
His efforts have led to several partnerships during his term. In 2013, D200 joined the village of Oak Park and D97 in funding the Collaboration for Early Childhood’s supportive care network initiative. The taxing bodies provided seed money, as well as ongoing financial support through 2018 for the initiative, which aims to integrate programs and services in the two villages for families of young children. D200’s total contribution is about $1.8 million.
Carolyn Newberry-Schwartz, executive director of the Collaboration, said Phelan was open to the idea of supporting the initiative, but was careful to understand the issue before moving forward.
“He understood that the disparities and early learning experiences were most likely contributing to some of the issues that they were experiencing, with very limited success, at the high school,” she said. “He was very open to the idea, but he also really wanted to have some information and to have the case substantiated; to make sure he could point back to the research and have a solid case to make for the expenditure of funds. He was very clear about that.
“And once that was provided, he completely embraced it and became, really, a very passionate and eloquent leader and spokesperson on the issue,” Newberry-Schwartz said.
River Forest Village President Catherine Adduci also acknowledged Phelan’s commitment to collaboration, which, she stressed, only works if two parties come together with an open mind. That’s why, she insists, D200 has worked well with Phelan as the leader.
“He’s reasonable, open-minded and level-headed in his approach,” Adduci said. “I enjoyed working with him. I’m confident I will continue to reach out to him for guidance and counsel.”
Ed Condon, superintendent of River Forest school District 90, recalled first encountering Phelan at a tri-district meeting a couple of years ago. Condon was impressed with Phelan’s interest in how school districts can talk and work together on issues of mutual concern.
“John works to find common ground with individuals from so many different groups. That brings thoughtful leadership to the work that he does,” Condon said. “He works on good collaborative efforts around programming to make them more cost-effective. He is a really good leader in both communities.”
Changing the image
Before his tenure, cooperation wasn’t the first word that occurred to people in describing District 200.
During the downtown TIF mediation in 2011, Phelan recalled the reaction he and the high school got from one elected official.
“As I was speaking on behalf of the high school, Tom Barwin (then Oak Park’s village manager) said somewhat loudly, ‘Oak Park and River Forest High School with its $100 million fund balance?’ I kind of paused and thought, should I stop what I was saying and address that directly? But I decided instead to continue with my statement. But that just demonstrated to me the kind of feeling that some had toward the high school,” Phelan recalled.
Such sentiments motivated Phelan to tackle the fund balance issue head on.
Unless the district changed how it operated, he thought, their efforts would prove fruitless. As board president, he did just that. A significant change was made to the board’s committee structure.
For years, D200’s various committees — finance, instruction, policy — comprised all seven board members, leading to lengthy, bogged down meetings.
“When I first joined the board, the committees were in the morning and all seven members participated. They had the breakfast buffet laid out and everything — like they were really getting ready to hunker down for the day.”
The monthly committee meetings eventually shifted to evenings. Under Phelan’s leadership as president, the committee-of-the-whole model was ditched in favor of three-member committees. Though not a perfect solution, Phelan believes the smaller committee structure has improved not only the process but board relationships.
“I wanted to create a sense of trust on the board, and put people in a position of leadership to utilize their talents, which we as a board and school could certainly benefit from,” he said.
That included placing Steven Gevinson, a former OPRF teacher, as chair of the instruction committee and Tom Cofsky, whose background is in business, over the finance committee. Jackie Moore was slated for policy because of her passion and interest in such matters as academic equity, Phelan noted. As a former OPRF biology teacher, Ralph Lee, seemed best suited to lead the technology committee.
Phelan describes Jeff Weissglass, the board’s vice president, as his “right hand” on the board. Weissglass also chaired and helped create the finance advisory committee.
Phelan believes that the current leadership on the board will help carry the district forward after he leaves, though Lee also declined to run again next April (Sharon Patchak-Layman is seeking a third term). Phelan said he decided against running again for “personal and professional” reasons.
A 1983 OPRF graduate, he and his wife, Amy, have six children, including one currently at the high school. Phelan was a wrestler and football player at OPRF. His son, also named John, followed in dad’s footsteps as a Huskie football player. Phelan said he has appreciated his family’s support and patience while he served on the board.
As a parent of OPRF students, Phelan noted how his work on the board has impacted his own household.
“When we voted to close the campus [in spring 2011], I had a freshman and sophomore at the time so I had to endure their wrath for a time,” he said with a smile.