D300 won’t give up Sears tax dollars without a fight
By Emily McFarlan firstname.lastname@example.org September 29, 2011 8:26PM
Steve Fiorentino, District 300 Board Legislative Committee co-chair, speaks during a meeting at Westfield Community School in Algonquin on Monday. | Andrew A. Nelles~For Sun-Times Media SearsEDA-ECN-0928.jpg
Updated: November 30, 2011 12:42AM
“EDA is not the way.”
Allison Strupeck, director of communication services in Community Unit School District 300 admitted, “I’ve been thinking a little too much about what the slogans might be.”
Those are slogans Strupeck said she hopes to see and hear soon around the Carpentersville-area school district as it treads into uncharted waters to stop the extension of the EDA — economic development area — special property tax status around Sears’ Prairie Stone corporate headquarters in Hoffman Estates.
District 300 is working with students, staff, parents, community groups and legislators to remove an amendment to Illinois Senate Bill 540 that would extend the EDA past its expiration in mid-2012. That’s because those tax incentives hand about $14 million in tax dollars each year that would go to District 300 instead to the EDA generally bordered by I-90, Route 72, Beverly Road and Prairie Stone Parkway, school district officials say.
“This is unusual in a way, for our part, to take a political side, but we are at a point right now where we are desperate,” Superintendent Michael Bregy said. “And because of what happened in the past with the Sears EDA being placed onto a bill and, at the 11th hour, almost being passed without any knowledge of our school district, we have taken a very vocal position in the issue because we have not been asked to be at the table.”
Bregy made those comments at a school board meeting earlier this month during which the board approved a contract with attorney Scott Nemanich of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP to act as governmental relations counsel to the district.
Also at that meeting, the school board created its first-ever Board Legislative Committee, chaired by board members Steve Fiorentino and Susie Kopacz. The panel has named four legislative priorities, although it first is focused on Senate Bill 540 because, Kopacz said, “time is of the essence.”
Senate Bill 540 was filed by Illinois Senate President John Cullerton in February and passed the Illinois House in May. In July, it was referred to the Senate’s veto session, where it will come up for a vote in October, according to district officials.
“Really, all we’re asking them to do is wait,” Strupeck said. “The rush is an artificial rush — it’s a scare tactic. All we want them to do is have enough concern to put the brakes on this.”
Sears Holdings Corp. announced in May it was considering moving its Hoffman Estates headquarters out of Illinois, should its property tax incentives come to an end after 23 years.
And Gov. Pat Quinn said in May that his Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity had been reviewing a possible renewal for tax incentives for the company. Cullerton said last month he would work to bring that legislation to a vote in the veto session.
“It’s not that anybody is against Sears. Our own parents in our district work at Sears. We’re not drawing a line in the sand against Sears,” Bregy said.
“We absolutely understand when the EDA was developed 23 years ago, there was a time and place for the EDA, and we want to respect the development that has happened over the past 23 years. But that time has come, and we believe that area can no longer be considered an economically deprived area and that school money that has been provided for Sears should be coming to the school district as outlined in the agreement with its expiration.”
Sears employs 6,200 people at its 200-acre Prairie Stone campus, within both the EDA and District 300 boundaries. No District 300 students live in that sliver of the district, according to Strupeck, and she did not believe any voters do, either.
The Board Legislative Committee now has three members — Kopacz, Fiorentino and Strupeck — and room for up to 10 more: an additional administrator, up to three community members, a student representative from each of the district’s three high schools and a representative from each of its three unions. Board President Anne Miller is reviewing several applications for the committee.
At its second meeting on Monday, the committee and nine potential members worked through with the district’s new governmental relations counsel on how involved District 300 can be with community groups in “taking a political side.”
“We’re spinning our minds, trying to figure out what’s OK here, because we need to figure it out quickly,” Fiorentino said.
District 300 already has met with many state legislators, as well as representatives of other taxing bodies it believes are affected by the EDA, Strupeck said. And several state senators have responded to the hundreds of letters Bregy and Miller hand-signed and sent to every senator.
The district has gotten a “good reception” from those it has spoken with, District 300 CFO Cheryl Crates said earlier this month. But, she added, legislative action at the state level is like sausage: “You never know what you’re going to come out with.”
The committee also agreed Monday to have Nemanich draw up a resolution against the extension of tax incentives in Hoffman Estates that will be passed on to the school board.
The board plans to vote on that resolution at its regular meeting Tuesday — the same night the village of Algonquin is set to vote on its own resolution “supporting involvement of Community Unit School District 300 in Sears Economic Development Area discussions.” That resolution passed through the Algonquin Village Board’s Committee of the Whole on Tuesday.
Nemanich said he also would look into whether the district can send links to online petitions by community groups or allow a paper petition to be passed at schools. And he encouraged community groups, such as Advance 300 and parent-teacher organizations at District 300 schools, to get involved.
“They can do things we can’t do,” he said. “Likewise, the board of education can’t send them money.”
Advance 300 first pushed for two referendums in District 300 in 2006. Since then, chairperson Nancy Zettler of Algonquin said, “every time there’s a major issue, there’s been an incarnation of parents that get involved.”
“We get together and do what we can to drive opinion one way or another.”
The community group first began discussing the legislation with the district in March, Zettler said. It spent the summer attending meetings with district representatives and legislators, sending Freedom Of Information Act requests to the village of Hoffman Estates and “investigating what’s really going on.”
“In the next couple of weeks, we should be hitting the ground running as far as getting out information,” she said.
Zettler, a retired lawyer, said the group has had a harder time getting that information from the village. She is one of four District 300 parents who announced this week their FOIA requests for information about the EDA had been “preliminarily denied” by Hoffman Estates.
“I filed my FOIAs because as a parent and taxpayer in District 300, I would like to know how the property tax dollars were spent by Sears and Hoffman Estates — Hoffman Estates in particular — over the past 21 years,” said Kathleen Burley of Algonquin.
And it’s not just parents siding politically with District 300. Kelsey Moss, a senior at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville, was one of the hopefuls who attended Monday’s meeting.
The 17-year-old Algonquin resident began getting involved when the school board voted last year to lay off 363 teachers — all since recalled — to balance its budget, she said.
“We can yell and scream about the teachers being laid off, but if we don’t have the money to hire them, there isn’t much the board can do,” Moss said.
The $14 million the district loses to the EDA could pay for 250 teachers each year, Strupeck noted.
Before the veto session, District 300 will hold an informational meeting for the public about the legislation, at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 13, in the gymnasium at Westfield Community School, 2100 Sleepy Hollow Road, Algonquin. Kopacz said she hopes to see the same turnout that packed the gym when the school board voted there to lay off the 363 teachers.
District representatives also plan to visit Springfield to talk to legislators about the effect of the EDA on the school district.
“I want to make it very clear that we have a story to tell in our school district to a lot of representatives,” Bregy said.
“If you just look at the last two years, we have collectively — all employees — cut $14 million from our school budget. And we are at a place where there is nowhere else to go. We have cut just about everything we can cut. If we do not take a very strong action against what is happening without our consultation and negotiation, it will be our students who are at a loss, and it is at a time right now where we are protecting the best interest of our students,” Bregy said.