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posted: 6/29/2010 12:01 AM

Warren High land-buy plan causes debate

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Warren Township High School plans to borrow $8 million to buy 100 acres in a purchase supporters described as farsighted, but one that opponents contend is a financial risk to taxpayers.

Gurnee-based Warren District 121 would purchase the vacant land near Stearns School Road and Mill Creek Drive, an unincorporated area northwest of Gurnee Mills. Inland Real Estate Group of Companies Inc. would sell the property to District 121.

At a recent meeting, District 121 board President John Anderson said the 100 acres would be valuable if a third campus becomes necessary. Officials have noted there are about 6,000 undeveloped acres within Warren's boundaries.

"I'm in favor of purchasing this property," Anderson said. "I think it's a great opportunity for the district. I think this is an opportunity that comes along once every hundred years for a school district that is in a position to buy something like this."

But Warren board members Jeanette Thommes and Richard Conley said they were against the land buy, citing financial risks because of an expected reduction in state funding and the possibility of declining real-estate tax revenue.

Thommes and Conley dissented in 5-2 votes authorizing the purchase and its financing mechanism. They reiterated their concerns about the deal Monday.

Conley said the 100 acres likely will cost Warren taxpayers about $12 million after interest is factored in. He said he doubts there will be enough residential development to warrant a third school for at least 15 years.

"I hope, for the taxpayers, I was wrong and it was the right deal, but I just don't see it right now," Conley said.

Thommes said projections indicating declining enrollment were another reason she did not support the land purchase.

In November, District 121 agreed to borrow a maximum of $4.4 million to buy 50 acres at Stearns School and Mill Creek. Board members this month agreed to borrow another $4 million for an adjacent 50 acres that originally were not available.

Warren Township government, a separate taxing agency, had planned to buy the 50 acres in question for athletic fields and other uses. That's the 50 acres now targeted by the high school.

District 121 board member Charles Crowley Jr. disputed Conley's contention that the 100-acre purchase could lead to education cuts for students if revenue sags during repayment of a roughly $8 million loan with interest.

"We'll always be able to sell land instead of having to make those cuts, because we're purchasing more than we need," Crowley said. "I think this is one of the most farsighted moves that a Warren Township High School board will ever have the chance to make."