Blame East Aurora board decades ago for loss of casino cash

There’s a lot to unpack with the news that Hollywood Casino Aurora and city officials are looking to relocate the 30-year-old gambling venue from its downtown spot on the Fox River to Farnsworth Avenue, with plans to build a state-of-the-art gaming and entertainment resort off Interstate 88.

This $350 million project is huge news for the community. So it’s no wonder there have already been plenty of questions from residents, with concerns about everything from traffic to parking to whether taxpayers would be on the hook for the $58 million bond issue the city is proposing to throw in to help finance this venture.

One of the questions I got hit with after writing a recent column about the relocation – and one city leaders are also hearing – is what this means to East Aurora School District, with tax money from the new casino destined for the coffers of Batavia School District 101, which covers the children on Aurora’s far northeast side.

That question has been a bit of a sore spot for a while now, ever since Chicago Premium Outlets was built within the Batavia School District boundaries in Aurora.

Unfortunately, there is nothing the city can do about the fact kids in this pocket of Aurora feed into the neighboring community’s classrooms. But if you are looking for someone or something to blame, I suggest pointing the finger at East Aurora School District 131 – not the current board of education but at the leaders who controlled the district decades ago.

In fact, perhaps blame racism itself because that old and ugly issue seems to be one major reason East officials back then fought an Illinois desegregation order that would have mandated busing as a way of achieving a desired racial mix in the schools.

The district’s battle to prevent busing, in fact, went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which, in an unprecedented 1982 ruling, decided in favor of East by declaring the state board of education did not have the authority to enforce desegregation quotas.

Why? Because as a charter district – the oldest in the state – East Aurora School District 131 was allowed certain autonomy from state laws as long as it kept its original boundaries. And that included transportation.

That meant East Aurora did not have to bus kids, which in turn landlocked the district and prevented it from expanding to keep up with swelling city boundaries. At the time East Aurora’s overall population was 37% minority – with Oak Park Elementary at 67% and Beaupre Elementary at 75.6%, while O’Donnell only had 10% minority and Dieterich 12%.

While cost was cited as the main reason the board balked at busing, there was a general agreement, according to a 2004 Beacon-News story that “back then busing had a race component.”

Current East Aurora District 131 School Board President Annette Johnson quickly agreed.

“It absolutely had to do with racism,” she insisted, describing that decision as “short-sighted” because “Aurora was not going to be a farm town forever” and creating such small borders would mean “losing out on a lot of tax base.”

That’s exactly what happened.

A landlocked District 131 is why Indian Prairie School District 204 came into existence, as city limits swelled to take in the area west of Route 59 once populated mostly with “those kids out in the country,” Johnson said.

It’s how East lost out when Fox Valley Mall was developed, added Beacon-News colleague Steve Lord, who has covered Aurora for 45 years.

“They knew if they changed the boundaries they would have to comply with other laws, including busing,” he said.

It’s also how Batavia District 101 picked up that area on the city’s northeast corner, currently reaping property tax dollars from Chicago Premium Outlets after a tax increment financing agreement expired. And yes, it would do the same with the relocated casino tax dollars once the proposed TIF there would run out.

East Aurora District 131, in the meantime, had just started this year to receive tax benefits from Hollywood Casino’s downtown location with the expiration of the overall downtown Aurora TIF agreement.

“Which is unfortunate,” said Johnson, who estimates East schools will miss out on about $200,000 annually with the casino move, but expressed relief the district has worked aggressively to maintain fiscal responsibility over the past decade.

City officials are well aware of these concerns. Indeed, East Aurora School District 131 Superintendent Jennifer Norrell was not surprised by the city’s plans to relocate the casino as she and other Aurora school leaders have been part of the mayor’s Economic Development Committee for the past three years.

Nor is she overly worried about lost revenue, as the city plans to replace the casino with “a bigger and better” development that will benefit the school district.

Mayor Richard Irvin has also reaffirmed his promise that when the city begins to reap the tax benefits from the casino, portions of that revenue would go toward all areas of Aurora, including the East Side, Norrell said.

“And I’m feeling OK about it all,” she said.

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