As the Village of Forest Park updates its comprehensive plan, the curious relationship between the village and Proviso Township High School District 209 is once again being examined. Mayor Anthony Calderone described the district as “ridiculously underperforming” at an October comprehensive plan workshop.
“Despite the fact that we had a ridiculously underperforming high school, until the crash, our real estate kept pace with our neighbors in Oak Park and River Forest,” Calderone said.
“Quality education is a priority for every Forest Parker,” added Calderone, who attended Proviso East High School. At the same workshop, Commissioner Mark Hosty said a goal of the plan should be to “find a way out of Proviso.” Hosty, a Realtor, said perceptions of the high school were making it harder to sell housing in Forest Park, keeping the housing values low in the village.
The issue of changing high school district boundaries was researched in 2001, Calderone said, with the village paying a consultant $70,000 to look into whether it was feasible or even possible. Since then, the Illinois State Board of Education has changed the rules on modifying a school district boundary.
Last week, attorneys for Forest Park Elementary School District 91 presented two reports outlining the legal and procedural steps a municipality must take to alter a school district’s boundaries.
D91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo requested the reports, saying they were for informational purposes only. He said the information would not be presented to the D91 school board but was of interest to the community.
“No recommendation is being made by me or by District 91 regarding these options,” Cavallo said in a memo.
D91 lawyers from Scariano, Himes and Petrarca in Chicago investigated two options. The first was how a district can withdraw from another district and develop its own K-12 or “unit”district. In this hypothetical instance, a Forest Park-only high school would be created as part of D91.
The second report explains the procedure for a municipality detaching from one school district and annexing with a neighboring (contiguous) district. The report said possible annexing districts for Forest Park would include Oak Park and River Forest High School (District 200), Morton High School (District 201) or Riverside-Brookfield High School (District 208).
“Either option, if successful, would compel a higher tax rate for the citizens of Forest Park,” Cavallo cautioned.
Creating a ‘unit district’
What are the steps involved with creating a K-12 Forest Park school district (called a “unit district”)?
Step 1: Petition for referendum. According to Illinois school code, a petition to put the issue of detaching from a larger school district to a voter referendum must be filed with the local regional office of education. Since the Cook County regional office was closed in November 2009, the petition would have to be filed with the West Suburban Cook Intermediate Service Center. At least 50 voters from west suburban Cook County would be required to sign the petition. The petition could also be brought by the school boards of D91 and Proviso Township D209. The petition can also — but does not have to — include candidates for school board of the new district and bond issuance for the new district.
The petition must state the maximum tax rates for the new district and how assets and liabilities from D209 would be allocated. Ten petitioners must be named who would serve as representatives of the petitioners.
Step 2: Notice published. If the petition is correctly submitted, the West Suburban Service Center must publish a notice in a newspaper for three consecutive weeks that the petition has been filed and note the date of a hearing.
Step 3: Hearing. The West Suburban Service Center would conduct a hearing within 15 days of when the last newspaper notice was published. The petition representatives would present the following information at the hearing: Maps of proposed new district boundaries, evidence of school needs and conditions and the ability of the proposed unit district to meet state certification standards.
The group must also present a proposal to divvy up funds and assets of the detached district (D209) and the maximum tax rates the proposed district would be authorized to levy.
Any resident can testify at the hearing.
The West Suburban Service Center would consider the following in making a ruling to create a unit district: The best interests of the schools of the area, school needs, conditions of affected schools, division of funds and assets and how that will affect the education welfare of pupils of both districts. A decision would be made within 14 days of the hearing.
Step 4: State superintendent approval. The state superintendent must either approve or deny the petition within 21 days. He/she must state the basis for a denial in writing.
Step 5: Appeal process. The school boards of D209, D91 or any petitioner or any resident who appeared at the hearing may appeal the state superintendent’s decision within 35 calendar days to the Circuit Court of Cook County. The filing of a complaint will halt the proceedings to form a unit district until the appeal is resolved.
Step 6: Referendum. If the petition is granted, a referendum may be held. A referendum may be approved if the majority of the registered voters from Forest Park approve it. However, three factors would extend the referendum to a majority of registered voters for all of D209:
1) If Forest Park (2.4 square miles) is at least 25 percent of the total land area of D209,
2) If more than 8 percent of D209’s enrollment comes from Forest Park, (212 students, or 4 percent according to November 2012 district numbers).
3) If more than 8 percent of D 209’s equalized assessed valuation (EAV) comes from Forest Park. Forest Park contributes 15 percent of the total EAV to D209, Cavallo said.
Joining another district
What is the process by which Forest Park could detach from D209 and become annexed by another contiguous district?
D91’s lawyers said the entire detachment process from gathering petitions to getting a decision to a possible appeal with the Cook County Circuit Court takes approximately two years.
Step 1: Petition for detachment/annextion. The petition would have to be signed by
a) a majority of voters in D200 and D209 – which is unlikely, or
b) a petition could be signed by two-thirds of the registered voters of Forest Park. The petition would have to be filed with the Proviso Board of Trustees and the annexing high school district — for example the Oak Park and River Forest High School D200 school board. Again, 10 petitioners would represent the class of petitioners.
Step 2: Grounds for granting petition. The standard for granting a petition is whether the overall benefit to the annexing district and the territory will outweigh the detriment to the existing district (in this case, D209). According to the school lawyers, typically the detaching district argues it will be harmed by loss of revenue from the detaching territory. This argument carries weight, the lawyers said, if the loss of Forest Park revenue was significant in the total D209 tax levy. Also, the withdrawn-from district (209) must be levying at its maximum rate.
According to the report, the biggest argument for detachment hearings is that the students will receive educational benefits from attending the annexing school district currently unavailable to them. Traditionally, petitioning territories often compare state test scores as evidence. The D91 lawyers warned that unless the detaching and annexing school populations are demographically similar, it is hard to make that argument.
The third argument presented by lawyers is that detaching students have a “community of interest” in common with the potential annexing school. Petitioners must show that “non-school activities” such as Girl/Boy Scouts, sports teams, music lessons, church services, etc., put students from Forest Park in social settings with students at the potential annexing school. Petitioners must show that activities or interests of Forest Park students are not available locally because of the school Forest Park students must attend (i.e. D209). Petitioners need to show that Forest Park students would participate in those activities with the annexing-school students if they attend the annexing district.
Step 3: Appeal of decision. If either the Proviso School Trustees or the annexing school board denies the decision, it can be appealed by any resident of Forest Park who appears at the hearing, any petitioner, or the boards of education of D209 or the potential annexing district.
Appeals can be filed with the Cook County Circuit Court. If that appeal is denied, an appeal can be made to the appellate court, which might add a year and a half to the timeline, D91’s lawyers said.
This article has been updated to include the percentage of EAV the 209 distrcit receive from Forest Park taxpayers.