The Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214 Board of Education voted Thursday night to move forward with hiring a lobbyist to represent the school district’s interests, in response to recently filed legislation that would create tax breaks for “mega projects” like a potential Chicago Bears stadium at Arlington International Racecourse.
Board member Dan Petro said the move is “basically so [a lobbyist] can go to Springfield and make sure our part of the story gets heard” as the district seeks to influence how much property tax money is skimmed off the bill of a potential developer – and therefore kept out of schools’ coffers.
District 214 is the second local school district to approve hiring a lobbyist this week. The Palatine-based Community Consolidated School District 15 Board of Education greenlit a similar measure at its meeting Wednesday.
Interim SD214 co-Superintendent Kenneth Arndt said he had been meeting with the superintendents of District 15 — an elementary school district — and Palatine-based Township High School District 211 daily and interviewing candidates, and planned to narrow down a list of eight candidates in the coming days.
SD214 board attorney Ares Dalianis said the informal plan among the three districts, which all stand to see financial impacts from a potential Bears stadium district, is to split the costs of a lobbying team three ways. The estimated cost of a lobbyist would be between $7,000 and $11,000 each month, he said.
Board President Bill Dussling said he and the board have major outstanding questions about how the proposed development would impact the district’s operations, from the number of students in the proposed residential area who would enroll in the district to the amount of money that wouldn’t flow to the district due to property tax incentives.
“Our focus is to try to get to the point where we understand what’s going on,” he said.
Dussling said he would be meeting with the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Ann Gillespie, D-Arlington Heights, “in the next few days just to explore what is going on and where we’re all headed.”
He said the school district has also been in communication with the village of Arlington Heights.
“This whole thing is fluid. It’s moving so rapidly,” the board leader said.
Dussling added that he and the board are committed to collaborating with Arlington Heights officials throughout the process.
“We always want to be good partners with the village,” he said. “We’re in a community that appreciates the schools. But we also have to protect the district because that’s what we’re about and that’s where our focus is.”
The Bears have not yet closed on the sale of the 326-acre property after signing a $197.2 million purchase agreement in September 2021.
In September 2022, team officials revealed a set of plans for a multi-billion dollar redevelopment that would include a stadium and sprawling mixed-use entertainment, commercial and residential district on the racetrack site.
However, Arlington Heights leaders and Bears brass have both emphasized that a potential development is still preliminary, with the only formal pact between the village and team so far being a “predevelopment agreement” that provides a road map for how the village and team could work together should a purchase move forward.
The Bears have stated that they will seek public assistance to build the mixed-use commercial, entertainment and residential district. Mayor Tom Hayes has said Arlington Heights would only provide public funding as a “last resort.”
Senate Bill 1350, which Gillespie filed Monday, could create up to 40 years worth of tax breaks to a developer investing at least $500 million in a project. The bill proposes to freeze property taxes on a site for an additional 17 years after an initial period of 23 years.
To get the 17 year extension, the municipality where the development is located would need to find that a project is of “substantial public benefit,” thus making a developer eligible for a certification from the Illinois Department of Revenue.
In lieu of full property tax payments, the legislation provides for a “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILOT, that a developer would pay to the host municipality. Dalianis told the SD214 board Feb. 2 that the payment would be less than what the developer would otherwise pay in property taxes.
Dalianis also told the board District 214 is currently “on the outside looking in” as legislators, Arlington Heights officials, team representatives and other stakeholders push the bill through the lawmaking process.
He said Thursday that it’s in the district’s interest to be involved in setting the special payment, particularly since the residential district could increase the student population.
SD214 currently enrolls nearly 12,000 students across six schools, including John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights and Buffalo Grove High School in Buffalo Grove.
“Once the base is frozen, if there’s a residential component, you are not getting those tax dollars. There’s going to be a mismatch between taxes generated and what the need is,” said Dalianis.
Since the payment in lieu of taxes would make up some of that mismatch, “it’s hugely important that you have a seat at the table to determine that special payment,” he told the board.
Arlington Heights Village Manager Randy Recklaus previously told Pioneer Press that the village was “encouraging the parties who are working on this (bill) to listen to the school districts.”