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On Sept. 13, District 65 School Board members held a wide-ranging discussion on the capacity of the District’s schools and on ways to address increasing student enrollment. While no vote was taken, it appears that a majority of the Board favors adding classroom space to Willard and Dewey schools. The Board will be asked to vote on this at its next meeting.

In addition, Board president Keith Terry asked the administration to present two referendum questions, one of which would ask voters to approve funding for additions and improvements to the District’s schools, and the second of which would ask voters to approve a new school in the Fifth Ward. Mr. Terry said the Board would have time to react to these potential referendum questions at its next meeting. The Board must approve the referendum questions by Dec. 13 to get them on the April 5, 2011 ballot.

It appears that a majority of the Board has settled on adding classroom space as the way to address increasing student enrollment. Tracy Quattrocki continued to explore whether redistricting and whether the transfer of two strands of TWI to King Lab Magnet School would be viable options. She said combining two strands of TWI at one school would not only help address space concerns, but make TWI a stronger program. Administrators said neither approach was viable. Neither gained support from other Board members.

The Need for Additional Classrooms

Determining the capacity of the District’s schools on a global basis is a more difficult task than one would think. This year the District is using 317.5 rooms as core instructional classrooms, 19 more than last year. According to a facilities study preformed last year by ARCON, the District’s architect, the District has a total of 315 core instructional classrooms that are larger than 600 square feet, and an additional 44 such classrooms that are less than 600 square feet.

The schools have an additional 80 rooms that are used for special education, art, music or computer labs, according to the ARCON study. The size of some of these rooms is too small to be used as a core instructional classroom.

On Sept. 13, Paul Brinson, chief information officer for the District, presented charts analyzing the capacity of each school to accommodate students under a new approach that takes into account the size of each classroom and assumes that 37 square feet should be allotted for each student.

Mr. Brinson calculated the total capacity of each school by assuming that each classroom at the school (regardless of its current use) would be filled with the maximum number of students permitted under the District’s class size guidelines. In smaller classrooms the capacity was reduced to ensure that each student had 37 square feet of space.

He then computed the “total capacity” of a school by adding the capacity determined for each classroom in the school (including those currently used for special education, art, music, childcare, and computer labs). The percent of capacity currently being used at the schools ranged from a low of 55% to a high of 98% under this scenario.

Mr. Brinson also computed the capacity of each school by assuming that current uses of all rooms would remain the same, except that each school would have an art and music room. The percent of capacity currently being used at the schools ranged for a low of 78% to a high of 108% under this scenario.

Mr. Brinson computed capacity using other scenarios. The computations of capacity and percent of capacity being used vary depending on which rooms are included in the computations. Mr. Brinson and Dr. Murphy both said, however, that Willard and Dewey schools kept coming up as schools that need additional space.

Ms. Quattrocki asked how the Board could use the charts to determine what schools would need space in subsequent years, and when they would need space.

Mr. Brinson said a school will become stressed when it reaches 80% capacity. He added that the analysis he performed was a modeling exercise and the Board could decide to use different assumptions concerning the square footage to be allotted for each student, and the average class size to use in computing capacity.

Costs of Adding Space

Mary Brown, chief financial officer of the District, said the District is projecting it will need three additional classrooms at Dewey and five at Willard over the next three years. She said other schools may need additional classrooms in the upcoming years, including Lincolnwood, Orrington and Washington. She added that Mr. Brinson’s analysis showed that Oakton and Kingsley had many small classrooms, compared to other schools.

Dr. Brown outlined the costs of three alternative ways to address increased enrollment at these schools: building new classrooms or converting existing space, such as an auditorium, into classrooms; building a new “central core” school in the Fifth Ward; and buying and installing mobile classrooms.

The total estimated cost to add new classrooms or to convert space into classrooms at five schools, Dewey, Willard, Lincolnwood, Orrington and Washington would be $16.8 million, she said. This would provide three classrooms at Dewey, and four classrooms each at Willard, Lincolnwood, Orrington and Washington.

The estimated cost of building a new school, with 18 clasrooms, in the Fifth Ward is $14 million, Dr. Brown said. In an Aug. 9 memo to the Board, she said, “This school would provide space relief for all District 65 schools and will eliminate the need for additions/renovations at other schools.”

The site of the new school under discussion would be Foster Field, which is adjacent to the Family Focus building, the old Foster School building.

Funding for a new school would need to be approved in a referendum, which could not be scheduled until the April 2011 election, said Dr. Brown. The District’s architect said it would take until January 2013 to construct a new school if the process began in 2011.

Because Dewey and Willard schools are expected to need additional classroom space for the 2011-12 school year, the Board considered whether to buy and install mobile classrooms instead of building additional classrooms at those schools. Dr. Brown said it would cost $450,000 to buy and install a two-classroom mobile unit. She said the administration was not recommending this option.

She said the administration was recommending that the Board approve adding classrooms to Willard and Dewey and that it do so at its next meeting so the classrooms would be ready at the start of the 2011-12 school year. She laid a schedule under which additions could be made to other schools in subsequent years.

The Possible Need for a Referendum
To Add Space

In addition to needing a referendum to build a new school, Dr. Brown said the Board could consider seeking approval in a referendum to fund other capital expenditures. She said the District has other capital projects planned for the next five years totaling $39.2 million, including recommended life safety work/building projects ($10 million), roofs and masonry work ($4 million), facility projects, including site improvements ($14 million), securing entrances to the buildings ($3.5 million), capital technology expenses ($7.7 million).

The combined total of the work to add classroom space ($16.8 million) and the other capital projects ($39.2 million) total $56 million, “which exceeds the District’s current DSEB capacity of $25 million,” said Dr. Brown. “Completing all of these projects at this time will require a successful referendum. Without a referendum, proposed schedules for capital projects will need to be postponed to fit available DSEB limits, especially if classroom additions are needed.”

Dr. Brown said the District’s annual bond payments have averaged about $10 million in recent years. The District’s current referendum bonds will be paid off with the 2010 tax levy, and if no additional referendum bonds are issued, annual bond payments will decrease to about $4.8 million. The average taxpayer’s property taxes would decrease about $150 per year if the District’s debt payment decreased to that level.

If new referendum bonds are issued, the District’s annual bond payment would remain in the range of about $10 million, Dr. Brown said, and taxpayers would not see a drop in property taxes.

Board Reactions

After a lengthy discussion, Mr. Terry asked the administration to bring proposals to add space to Willard and Dewey schools for the Board to vote on at its next meeting. He also asked the administration to bring back two proposed referendum questions that would seek authorization of funding for building additions and improvements, and authorization to issue bonds to finance a new school.

Bonnie Lockhart said, “I have heard in my community that a new school would be excellent, that it would be welcome, for some. I have heard from others it wouldn’t. That’s why I think it’s important we put it out for referendum.”

She added that the Board should obtain community input before approving a referendum, “so we can get an idea whether it’s going to make sense to put it on the ballot.” Dr. Murphy said the Board had until Dec. 13 to decide to put the referendum questions on the ballot.

Katie Bailey asked if there would be a need for a new 18-classroom school if the Board approved the addition of eight classrooms at Willard and Dewey schools. “We don’t have a need for 26 classrooms,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt the chances of what could be a viable solution.”

Dr. Murphy said a few schools were at 90% capacity and the bulk of the schools were in the 80 to 85% range. “What the building of a school in the central core could do is bring all of the schools down to the 70% range, and maybe a little lower,” he said.

Tracy Quattrocki questioned whether the District could afford to have that much space in reserve at each school. She added, “I think we need to really examine whether we need 26 classrooms over the next five years and whether we can support them and staff them.”

She also said, “politically, if you’re really serious about wanting to push for a central core school – which I think there is … it’s more than just classrooms, it might be a very good answer to a historical need following the closing of Foster School – but I think it’s a very hard thing to do once you’ve spent $5 to $8 million, it undermines a lot of the validity of the school because I’m not convinced we need 26 classrooms.”

Andy Pigozzi argued for going ahead with the additions to Willard and Dewey saying, “We have an opportunity to improve our schools, to make what we have better, and we’re going to find a way to not celebrate it.”

Jerome Summers, a long time advocate of establishing a school in the Fifth Ward, argued in favor of doing so.