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District 161 to study taking over Lincoln-Way North High School
Sunday, May 27, 2018

Susan DeMar Lafferty
reprinted from The Daily Southtown

Summit Hill District 161 officials are creating a committee to study a proposal by residents wanting to take over a portion of Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210 to reopen Lincoln-Way North.

Board president Richard Marron said in a May 23 meeting that he will create the panel of board members to evaluate the process, costs, impacts, benefits and feasibility of this proposal to convert 161 from being simply a elementary and middle school district but also include high school stuidents.

District resident Stephen Cook presented the plan to the board at its May 9 meeting, saying he and others have “deep concerns for future financial health of community,” their taxes, home values and quality of education, according to the audio recording of the meeting.

They have researched this for the past year, discussed it with legislators, the Illinois State Board of Education, bond dealers, and legal counsel to verify it, he said then.

“This is an opportunity for Districts 161 and 210. We are confident this is possible,” he said in the audio.

According to Cook`s presentation to the District 161 board, which the Daily Southtown obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, such a move would lower class sizes and increase opportunities for District 161 students, and ease Lincoln-Way`s financial burdens, lower its debt, give it an influx of capital, reduce the need for Tax Anticipation Warrants and eliminate the “burden of maintaining a closed building.”

The proposal would have to be approved in a referendum by voters in both District 161 and 210, according to the ISBE.

When North was operational, it only housed students from Summit Hill District 161 - about 1,700 students - as it takes in parts of Tinley Park, Mokena, Frankfort and unincorporated Frankfort Township.

District 161 makes up 23 percent of Lincoln-Way`s equalized assessed valuation, and 24.5 percent of its student enrollment, per Cook`s figures.

Since North closed in June 2016, Summit Hill Junior High graduates have attended Lincoln-Way East, which has more students, a total of 2,916, compared to 2,157 at Central and 1,898 at West, according to Cook`s numbers, which he said he obtained from the ISBE.

This results in “decreased opportunities” and “oversized classrooms” at East, he said in his presentation.

Since Cook announced this plan, Marron said he has received a lot of feedback, and “everyone said we should find out more information.”

“Some people said it may not work, but we should check it out,” Marron said. “This is something we have to respond to.”

At the board`s June 13 meeting, he plans to appoint a committee of three to five board members, so it would be subject to the Open Meetings Act, and information presented could be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

He would also have District 161 staff and residents serve as non-voting advisory members. Residents who want to be considered for committee membership should visit: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/XFSNGHQ to complete a brief survey of interest.

The committee would have to get board approval for any expenses and would make a presentation to the full board upon its conclusion.

Marron said he wants to separate the work of the committee from the board`s regular business of educating students.

Board member George Leonard cast the only vote opposing the creation of the committee, saying he was concerned that this effort would pull staff away from their jobs.

“I want to make sure that their job with the district comes first. This is on the back burner. This is not part of our employees` jobs,” he said.

Marron agreed, saying that staff would be used only to provide available information, and would not have to attend every meeting.

They have to be “cautious” about the use of District 161`s resources, he said.

The feasibility study is the first step.

According to the ISBE, the consolidation and formation of a unit school district involves several steps:
  • A petition would have to be filed by at least 50 residents or the respective school boards with the Regional Office of Education. The petition also would set the maximum tax rate of the proposed district.

  • A public hearing is held by ROE.

  • The regional superintendent would approve or deny the request within 14 days of the hearing

  • The state superintendent would review information from the hearing and approve or deny the request within 21 days.

  • If approved, the regional superintendent would certify the question to be placed on the ballot.

  • Voters in both school districts would have to approve it in order to pass.

  • If a new unit district were established, it would elect a new board.
Cook told Summit Hill officials if the referendum were on the spring 2019 ballot and passed, North could be reopened in the fall of 2021, according to the audio of the May 9 meeting.

According to Cook`s presentation, the formation of a new unit district - District 161U - would not cost additional tax dollars, but would combine the taxes of both districts, and maintain home values.

According to his numbers, District 161 would be responsible for 23 percent of Lincoln-Way`s $246.7 million debt, or $56.7 million, which it could afford, if it consolidates.

While the “$100 million” school sits closed in their neighborhood, Lincoln-Way`s taxes are “guaranteed to rise” as it debt payments for the construction of North and West continue to increase from $17 million to $41 million over the next 15 years, and consolidation could prevent that “tax spike,” according to his presentation.

Cook could not be reached for comment.

After the meeting, Marron said this idea “has been out there for awhile, informally,” and now that it has been formally presented, he wants to gather more information on it.

“There are so many variables,” he said, citing the outstanding bonds, union contracts and curriculum.

Lincoln-Way`s Board President Joe Kirkeeng called it an “interesting concept,” but said his board will not seriously discuss it until District 161 officials determine it is feasible for them.

“The ball is in 161`s court. They have to reach consensus first. If they think they can make it work, we will have something to consider,” he said.

“North needs to be utilized,” he said, adding that the building has been appraised, and they are now working with a firm to determine what they can and cannot do regarding its sale.

Options are limited because the district still has outstanding bonds for the construction of both North and West High Schools, he said.

Kirkeeng said if this proposal becomes a “real opportunity,” they will have to “put the numbers to it” to see if it makes sense for students, employees, taxpayers and bond holders.

“I applaud the effort. They have done their homework,” he said.

Lincoln-Way Superintendent Scott Tingley said he expected District 161 to form a committee to study the issue.

“I know there is still a lot of frustration and we have to work it out,” he said, adding that there are many “intricacies” involved in this consolidation process.

ROE Superintendent Shawn Walsh said he has never dealt with this issue in his 10 years in office, and would have to consult with legal counsel.

He declined further comment on it until he sees the actual proposal.

slafferty@tribpub.com
Twitter @SusanLaff


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