At its July 14 meeting, District 65’s New School-Referendum Committee firmed up some details on its recommendation to establish a new school. The Committee voted 8-1 on June 16 to “support opening a new school,” but the motion was deliberately open-ended with the idea that the particulars would be filled in later.
In its last two meetings the Committee worked through some of the details and reached decisions on the general location of the school, the student enrollment, the need for redistricting, and gave hints on the attendance area it would recommend. The Committee also decided the nature and scope of a telephone survey.
Tonight, the Committee is scheduled to review a first draft of its report and recommendation to the School Board. The Committee will likely present its report and recommendation to the Board in September.
The Committee decided that the “ideal location” for the new school would be within the attendance area of the old Foster School that was converted into a magnet school in 1967 as part of the District’s desegregation plan. Foster School was later closed altogether in 1979 as part of a series of school closings. Since 1967, about 400 African American children have been bused from the Fifth Ward to other schools in the District, originally for the purpose of desegregating those schools, and later for that purpose and because there was no longer a neighborhood school in that part of town.
The proposed area is essentially the area south and east of the North Shore Channel, west of Green Bay Road and north of Church Street. See accompanying map.
The Committee did not decide on a specific site, but will leave that determination to the School Board. Five potential sites that were mentioned during the Committee’s meetings are:
• Foster Field, an area just north of the old Foster School building (now the Weisbourd Holmes Family Focus Building) at Foster Street and Dewey Avenue. District 65 owns Foster Field and leases it to the City. Several residents of the Fifth Ward have expressed concern about the loss of the field as green space.
• An area just south of the old Foster School. The City has been seeking grants to develop this area with 98 mixed-income housing units.
• Three areas along the channel in Twiggs Park, Butler Park, and Perry Park, all of which are owned by the Metropolitan Water and Reclamation District. Several persons have floated the idea that the District could propose swapping land it owns just north of the administration building for land in one of these parks.
The Committee did not discuss the pros or cons of any of these sites.
Enrollment, Attendance Area and Redistricting
The Committee decided it will recommend that the new school be an attendance-area school which will require redistricting to set up the attendance area. The Committee will recommend that students in the attendance area be required to attend the new school, but students in the new attendance area who are currently attending a District 65 school (and their siblings) would be given the option to continue attending their current school or to attend the new school.
The Committee did not vote on the geographic attendance area of the new school, but the areas under consideration are the areas south and east of the sanitary channel that are currently in the attendance areas of Kingsley, Lincolnwood and Willard schools. (The area is shown in the accompanying map.) Last year, 882 students residing in these areas attended the District’s schools.
The Committee had been focusing on the area north of Church Street, but Committee member Katy Hart noted that a portion of the Lincolnwood attendance area extended south of Church to Dempster. She said the Committee should be cautious to avoid creating an “island” or a non-contiguous area from which students would need to be bused to a distant school.
It is anticipated that the Committee will vote on the attendance area of the new school tonight. In addition, the Committee decided to include a statement in its report that “the School Board will need to determine if further redistricting is necessary as a result of the establishment of a new school.”
Committee member Drew Stover said he hoped the School Board would address the projected overcrowding at Nichols Middle School as part of the analysis.
Superintendent Hardy Murphy noted that there may be a “critical mass” of students enrolled in the Two Way Immersion (TWI) program who reside in the attendance area of the new school, and that was an issue that would need to be looked at. The Committee said, “There may be a ripple effect on TWI that may require consideration.”
The Committee will likely recommend that the new school be a K-8 school, but it has not yet discussed the number of classrooms per grade level or the total number of classrooms.
No decision was made about the curriculum or programs for the new school. The Committee plans to recommend that the School Board conduct a “visioning process” with the community (similar to the one conducted with the Lincoln School community in planning for the expansion and modernization of that school), and that the Board decide on the curriculum and program offerings in that visioning process.
The Committee also plans to recommend that the School Board be open to charter school proposals. The Committee noted, however, that enrollment in a charter school must be open to all students in the District, and that if that option is selected, the enrollment plan proposed by the Committee would not be a viable option.
Financing and Costs
At the Committee’s May 12 meeting, Richard R. Murray made a presentation summarizing how he had helped organizations to establish schools without taxpayer revenues. He told the Committee, “I’m very confident that I could come up with probably two and maybe three ways that you could get the school built without any tax revenues.”
On July 14, Dr. Murphy told members of the Committee he would recommend engaging Mr. Murray if an arrangement could be structured so that the District reimbursed him for out of pocket expenses and paid him the lion’s share of his fee only if he presented a solution to pay for the new school without taxpayer money.
The Committee asked Dr. Murphy to explore an arrangement with Mr. Murray, and may decide tonight whether or not to approve an arrangement.
The Committee decided it will recommend that the District pursue a financial solution that does not require tapping into tax revenues. If a solution is not presented by December or January, the Committee recommends asking voters in a March 2012 referendum to approve funding for the new school.
Dr. Murphy said it would cost about $2 million annually to operate the new school assuming a principal, a librarian, a social worker and 27-30 teachers. He said this may not be a net additional cost because the District may be able to reduce the number of teachers at other schools whose students are shifted to the new school; but he said it would not be a reduction of teachers on a one-for-one basis. Dr. Murphy is scheduled to present a model tonight that estimates the net additional operating cost of the new school.
He added that he could not say that the District could absorb the net additional operating cost in its operating budget in light of the projected deficits. He said the referendum might include a request to cover these costs.
The Committee is proceeding with a telephone survey of all households who reside in the potential attendance area of the new school, and who currently have children in District 65. The survey is being conducted by ECRA, which conducted surveys on behalf of the District last year. The open-ended survey asks parents if they are happy with the school their children attend, for their thoughts about District 65 building a new school in their neighborhood, and if the school is built what characteristics the school should have.
Community members who attended the meeting expressed concern that parents may feel inhibited in answering the questions, and felt that some additional questions should be included in the survey.
After tonight’s meeting, the Committee is scheduled to gather input from the community on July 21 at the regular Fifth Ward meeting at Fleetwood Jourdain.