New District 214 superintendent calls for 'fair deal' in Bears tax talks

They may be on opposite ends of the playing field, but like Bears President and CEO Kevin Warren, new Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Superintendent Scott Rowe called for fairness in reaching a tax deal with the team in Arlington Heights.

"Please remember: The Bears are a private company that wants the best deal for themselves. And that's good," Rowe said at his first school board meeting Thursday night. "But we are a public school system, and we want a fair deal for our students, schools and taxpayers."

It marked Rowe's first public comments about stalled negotiations with the NFL franchise over property tax and assessment issues since he took the helm of the state's second-largest high school district July 1. Just days before that, Warren was in downtown Arlington Heights for a community meeting during which he called on representatives of District 214 and two other local school districts to return to the bargaining table to hash out an agreement.

The two sides remain far apart on how much property tax the Bears should pay at their 326-acre Arlington Park property over the next two years. The Bears' last offer was $4.3 million, while the school districts suggested $7.9 million. Though it's being challenged, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi's reassessment of the property would increase the annual bill from $2.8 million to $16.2 million.

"Like Mr. Warren, I believe we need to act with a sense of urgency to craft our path forward," Rowe said. "That being said, we cannot do so in haste, and we, the school districts, will insist that any outcome is made with the best interest of our students and the communities we serve at the forefront of any agreement made."

Rowe acknowledged there is precedent for developers and school districts to recommend tax settlements to the assessor and Board of Review for major developments. But, he said, those county officials "ultimately set the property's value based on the market, not the school districts."

Short-term tax issues aside, the schools also fear a long-term loss to their revenue streams under legislation being crafted in Springfield that would allow the Bears to get a lower assessment for up to 40 years.

Under tax increment financing - in which money otherwise going to schools and other taxing bodies is diverted to economic development projects - the revenue freeze can last as much as 35 years.

There are 19 TIF districts within District 214's boundaries that divert $11 million annually, Rowe said.

"Our duty as a school district is to represent the interests of our students and their families, as well as our taxpayers, which includes stepping in when developments could significantly affect these interests," he said.

Rowe added that the school districts' lobbyist is working on potential modifications to the legislation "that we believe is a fair compromise."

The superintendent's comments came after Ernie Rose, a member of the pro-Bears Arlington Heights business group Touchdown Arlington, urged the board to return to the negotiating table. Others from Rose's group, which hosted the June 26 forum with Warren, showed up to the school board meeting wearing orange.

"The Cook County assessor has put us all in a difficult position having dramatically over-assessed the Arlington Park property, resulting in a tax bill about five times what was paid by Churchill Downs," said Rose, an Arlington Heights attorney. "No rational business owner will develop this land with that valuation."

Martin Bauer, an early critic of potential Bears subsidies who was tossed from the Arlington Heights trustee ballot before the April election, said it's too early to give any commitments, short of the Bears' providing more detail about their plans and associated traffic and economic impact studies.

"If I pay $200 million, I think my valuation on my property should start with $200 million," Bauer said. "That, at least, is how I am treated when I purchase a property in the community. I can't go to you and negotiate. ... I think the same rules should apply."

Less than two weeks into the job, Rowe said he's had meetings with his counterparts in Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 and Palatine Township Elementary District 15, as well as with Arlington Heights village officials. He said he hasn't yet met Warren or Bears Chairman George McCaskey, but he looks forward it.

Rowe said the schools' lobbyist reached out to the Bears organization to schedule a meeting, and the districts are waiting to hear back.

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  Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Superintendent Scott Rowe addressed the potential Chicago Bears move to Arlington Heights during his first school board meeting Thursday night. Christopher Placek/
  Members of Touchdown Arlington, a pro-Bears business group in Arlington Heights, sat front row at the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 board meeting Thursday night. They encouraged the board to come to terms with the Bears over property tax payments. Christopher Placek/
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