The Chicago Bears want to pay less money to public schools


Bears owner Virginia McCaskey

Bears owner Virginia McCaskey
Photo: Getty Images

The Chicago Bears are arguing with three public school districts in the northwest suburbs about property taxes for the site of their proposed $5 billion entertainment and housing complex. The details are even less savory than they sound.

Illinois, like many other states, funds its public schools largely via property taxes. For schools located in low-income or blighted neighborhoods, this is an appalling deal. It’s hard to rake in the dough via property taxes when the local property isn’t worth much. But if you’re lucky enough to live in a school district that encompasses big businesses and million-dollar homes, like some districts in the Chicago suburbs, property taxes are a huge source of revenue. That said, there are few school districts anywhere that are rolling in cash, and most schools need every penny they can get their hands on. The lower the property valuation, the less funding for public schools. On average, Illinois schools count on local property taxes for 63 percentof their funding.

This brings us to the Chicago Bears and the Village of Arlington Heights (the Village), home of the former Arlington International Racecourse, which has since been sold to the team and demolished the hopes of luring the Bears away from the Chicago lakefront and out to the northwest suburbs. The Bears have been playing Chicago and the Village against each other, paying $197 million for the 326-acre former Racecourse property a year ago.

Meanwhile, the team continues to flirt with both the city and the Village, trying to leverage each side’s interest, while the team wavers on staying in the city or moving out to the ‘burbs. This decision, in the end, will come down to who gives the Bears the best deal on what they really want — a new stadium complex, complete with restaurants, bars, housing, retail space, and whatever else teams are demanding the public subsidize these days. It’s also worth noting that Illinois taxpayers still owe $640 million on the 2002 renovations to Soldier Field, despite having made payments for more than 20 years. It’s a good thing Illinois doesn’t have more important things to pay for!

Now, the mayor of Arlington Heights, Tom Hayes has been forced to deny that the Village is pressuring school districts to agree to a lower property tax valuation for the Racecourse property — the Bears knocked down all the buildings on the site for the purpose of lowering the property value, thus paying fewer taxes — than the school districts’ original estimate, which means less money for schools than the districts say they need.

A bit of history: As previously mentioned, the Bears purchased the Racecourse property in 2023 for $197 million. They then proceeded to demolish all the buildings on the property, in hopes of lowering the site’s property value. The Cook County Assessor’s Office, which is responsible for assessing the property for tax purposes, valued the property at $192 million, which would have stuck the Bears with a property tax bill of $15 million, slightly more than what the Bears freed up cap space per year by cutting safety Eddie Jackson. The team submitted their own property appraisals in an attempt to negotiate a deal with the three school districts that draw tax revenue from the Racecourse property. The Bears two appraisals valued the property at far less than they paid for it — claiming the site was worth around $60 million, which would have meant the team paid $5 million in taxes. The school districts, on the other hand, wanted the property valued at around $160 million, which is still $37 million less than the team paid for it in 2023.

If trying to get out of paying property taxes that largely go to funding public schools seems like a really shady thing for a pro sports franchise to do, especially when the team’s matriarch, Virginia McCaskey, is worth around $2 billion, welcome to the seedy underbelly of financing stadiums in 2024. Team owners are dyed-in-the-wool capitalists, until it comes time to ask for something they want, then everyone is more than happy to slide into the socialism of a public handout. You can’t take it with you, Virginia.

So the Bears, lacking any shame whatsoever, appealed the Assessor’s appraisal, and last week a Board of Review set the value of the property at $125 million, more than double the valuation the Bears had been asking for, but around $60 million less what they paid for it. Seems like a fair compromise, no? But the matter is far from settled, and the Bears could still appeal the assessment. In May, Bears’ CEO Kevin Warren said in a letter to school superintendents that the school districts’ valuation of the property was a “non-starter,” which is definitely a great look for a team that has an entire section on their website touting their dedication to education.

Because of the looming possibility that the Bears will continue to fight the valuation, Hayes has been “encouraging” both sides to continue to talk, hoping that the school district and the team can agree upon a property valuation that will keep the Bears interested in building a stadium in the Village. Continuing to ask the school districts to negotiate a lower property value than two government assessments have already landed at, one far less than what the team paid for the property, seems detached from reality at best, and like pressuring public schools to take less tax dollars to lure a pro sports complex to the area at worst.

The idea of a negotiated “memorandum of understanding” between the parties led community activist and Village resident Keith Moens to claim to the Village Board on February 20, “Village staff and board members are actively involved in pressuring the school districts to bend toward the Bears’ lowball property estimate through a memo of understanding.” Meanwhile, as the Racecourse property battle raged in early February, the Bears coincidentally turned their attention back to a new lakefront stadium in Chicago. Funny how that works.

Mayor Hayes has denied that anyone is putting pressure on the public school districts involved, saying “There is no pressure being exerted by me or this board on the school districts to come to an agreement with the Bears. We’re doing all we can to encourage both sides to continue to talk and come to a reasonable solution that’s amenable to both sides.” But why a mayor would encourage a school district to enter into negotiations that would only end in them agreeing to take less revenue than they would otherwise get seems tone-deaf. It’s as if everyone has forgotten which party is worth billions and which party is a perennially cash-strapped governmental body tasked with educating our children. Of course, part of a mayor’s job is to attract business to the area, but doing it at the expense of public school children is deplorable and derelict.

All of this becomes harder to reconcile knowing that the theory that new stadiums “bring in business and revenue to surrounding communities” has been repeatedly debunked by economists. Yet communities are still falling for it. Michael Leeds, a professor of economics at Temple University, wrote in his book The Economics of Sports, “Economists have consistently found little or no evidence that facilities and teams affect the level of employment, tax receipts, incomes, or wages in a city.” That’s a pretty damning sentiment for politicians to continue to ignore, particularly when it means throwing public schools under the bus in order to give a team worth billions a new stadium.

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