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School District 65’s “New School-Referendum Committee” held its initial planning meeting on Jan. 28. The Committee’s charge is to “determine the feasibility for building a new school based on space needs and community interest and support.” School Board members Jerome Summers and Katie Bailey are co-chairs of the 13-member committee.

The proposal considered by the School Board last fall was to establish a new school in the Fifth Ward at a site adjacent to the old Foster School building, which is now the Weisbourd-Homes Family Focus building.

Mr. Summers, a long-time advocate for establishing a school in the Fifth Ward, said students in the ward have not had a neighborhood school since Foster School was converted into a magnet school as part of a desegregation plan in the mid-1960s. The school was closed altogether in the mid-1970s.

Mr. Summers said hundreds of African American students have been bused out of the Fifth Ward to many other schools in the District for 40 years. He said the lack of a neighborhood school and sending students to as many as eight different schools splinters the neighborhood and deprives residents in the Fifth Ward of the opportunity to build a community around a school.

Ms. Bailey outlined the issues that the Committee was asked to address, which include the space needs of the District – now and five years out – based on projections prepared last year by Dr. Kasarda; the history of the closing of Foster School; the level of interest of families residing in the potential attendance area of a new school and the level of community-wide interest and support to be gathered through a survey and at least one community forum; and financing options.

She also said the Committee would consider a curriculum and program options for the new school, attendance options for the new school, location options (including building a new school, leasing space or developing shared options), funding and governing options (including implications of a charter school), and other issues.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy, a member of the committee, said the Committee was being asked to perform what he described as “probably the most important task” facing the District. “We’re tasked with going through this process to see if there’s a way of crafting a set of recommendations that would address the space needs we have and to address also the historical concerns about whether or not our school district does in fact represent and offer the opportunity to students to have an education in their neighborhoods.”

He said the District needs a good assessment of its space needs, and parsed in with that is the historical context. He said several persons would be available to consult on topics including developing funding strategies through outside sources and magnet school options. He said if outside financing is not an option and a referendum becomes necessary, an issue the Committee would need to address is whether the District should move forward with a referendum in a stressed economy.

The Committee is expected to begin its work at its next meeting by considering the District’s space needs now and in the next three to five years. “We’re going to start there,” said Ms. Bailey.

The Committee has nine meetings scheduled between now and June 30, which will be held at various schools throughout the District and at Fleetwood Jordain. The plan is that the Committee will present its recommendations to the School Board early next fall.

The other members of the 13-member committee are Board member Kim Weaver, Superintendent Hardy Murphy, District Educator Council President Jean Luft, Bernie Bates, Kirby Callam, Pat Gregory, Katy Hart, Susan Hope-Engel, Betsy Jenkins, Lloyd Shepard and Drew Stover.