Stacking the deck of the DuPage County Regional Board of Trustees: The DuPage Brief

In the movie The Pelican Brief, an oil tycoon has two Supreme Court Justices murdered in the hope that new justices will be appointed who are more friendly to his court case, which is currently winding its way through the appellate courts. While no one is getting bumped off here in DuPage County, the DuPage Regional Board of School Trustees race has plenty of intrigue and all the appearances of interested parties trying to stack the judicial deck.

The story begins, as they often do, with money. Oak Brook is a small bedroom community in eastern DuPage County filled with gated subdivisions and a median home value of $635,000. Many- but not all- elementary and junior high school students in Oak Brook belong to Butler School District 53.

Butler School District 53 has referenda on the April ballot, asking taxpayers to support the purchase of property and issue bonds to build a new K-8 school. A group calling itself “A Better Oak Brook” has sprung up to support the referenda. On their website, they offer this:

RUMOR: This new school initiative only benefits District 53 families. What about the rest of the residents of Oak Brook?
FACT: ….There is….the potential for all Oak Brook students to be educated on one campus as annexations into District 53 are pursued and successful. Communities in District 53 would then benefit from lower taxes and higher property values.

Oak Brook is currently divided into several different school districts, and it’s clear that the building of a new school in Oak Brook is linked to the deannexation of Oak Brook properties. From the Hinsdale Doings,

Saddlebrook resident Anthony Calandriello, a subdivision seeking annexation into the district, supports both a referendum for Oak Brook to sell part of the Sports Core to the district as well as a District 53 bond referenda to build a kindergarten through eighth-grade school.

“Having a brand new state-of-the-art school at the Sports Core will enhance the annexation possibility for those not in District 53,” he said.

That’s where the Regional Board of School Trustees race enters the picture. The elected Board hears petitions for deannexations and changes in school boundaries in DuPage County. Their responsibilities also include “The appointment of appraisers and approval of final settlements in the division of assets when new districts are formed,” according to their website.

Quasi judicial in nature, these hearings are legally binding unless overturned on appeal through the courts. There is a statutory process that petitioners for deannexation must follow, and residents often join together to hire an attorney to represent their petition in front of the Board. It’s a specialized area of law, and there are few experienced practitioners. Because of this, the same attorneys appear over and over in front of the board.

One of them, attorney Christopher Stull of West Chicago, has taken a proactive hand in this year’s election. He circulated and signed petitions for Christopher Jacks and Danielle Dittus, two of the three candidates who have positioned themselves on a slate of pro-deannexation. The slate of candidates, which also includes Paula Bowling of Oak Brook, has spoken in favor of deannexing properties in Oak Brook that belong to neighboring school districts and annexing them to Oak Brook and Hinsdale schools.

Christopher Stull is representing a group of homeowners (“Midwest Chase”) in Oak Brook who want to detach from Downers Grove District 58 and Community High School District 99 and attend Butler School District 53 and Hinsdale Central high school- a petition that is scheduled to be heard by the Board next month.

According to sources, approximately 40 homeowners participating in the Midwest Chase petition have each contributed $2500 to pay for the legal fees of the case.

Christopher Stull spoke last night at a presentation given by A Better Oak Brook about the deannexation of Oak Brook properties, as did the three pro-annexation candidates. According to the head of the organization, Jim Pehta, the reason for the meeting was to help other Oak Brook residents who are looking to deannex from their current school districts. Before the meeting he told the Hinsdale Doings:

“The overwhelming question we’ve had in our other sessions from non-53 people is how do they get into District 53…It is an involved process, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there, so we decided to have this program for those who want to learn more about it.”

If you know that you will have cases coming before a Board, supporting and promoting candidates for Trustee who have already stated their preference for deannexation of Oak Brook properties before even hearing the cases seems like a way to ensure a win.

This is a concern to incumbent Mary Ellen Young, who considers it inappropriate for candidates to say how they’ll vote before even hearing a case. “This is not about our personal opinion. We must abide by the Illinois School Code along with guidance from court decisions of previously appealed cases. Each petition is different so we have to be willing to listen to the facts, evidence and sworn testimony before making a decision.”

In addition, petitions for detachment often have significant tax implications for the school districts that have the properties deannexed. In the case of the Oak Brook properties- with their high assessed value- the school districts on the losing side will take a financial hit. Other taxpayers in those districts will see their taxes rise to make up for the lost revenue.

And if this race wasn’t intriguing enough, there’s a potential complication that no one- even the DuPage Election Commission- has the solution for.

According to state law, the Regional Board of School Trustees can only have one trustee from each township. Incumbent Mary Ellen Young lives in Downers Grove Township, as does challenger (and member of the pro-deannexation slate) Danielle Dittus. However, they’re not running against each other, so they could both win.

But they can’t both serve.

How would the winner be determined? According to a spokesman for the DuPage Election Commission, they’re still trying to figure that out.

The Trustees race is one that no one ever really pays much attention to. There are never any candidate forums, no fancy websites, no big fundraisers. Generally, it’s a race that voters learn about when they’re standing in the voting booth and see it on the ballot. This year, this race is different.

While it will immediately affect taxpayers in school districts that lose taxpaying homeowners, such as District 58 and 99, 30 or 40 years from now it won’t matter if all Oak Brook students attend one school.

What will matter, if the slate of pro-annexation candidates wins, is the precedent set in running candidates to affect cases that are pending before a board.

That’s the game changer here; that’s The DuPage Brief.

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