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On Dec. 5, the District 65 School Board considered putting a referendum question on the March 20, 2012, ballot that would ask voters to approve funding for a new K-5 school in the central core, classroom additions and upgrades to Haven and Nichols Middle Schools, upgrades to Chute Middle School, as well as upgrades to other schools at a combined price tag of $48.2 million.

These projects would address the District’s projected space needs over the next five years. In addition, a new K-5 school would be established in the central core, an area that has lacked a neighborhood school since Foster School was converted into a magnet school in 1967 as part of the District’s school desegregation plan and closed altogether in 1979.

Board members also discussed whether to ask voters in a separate referendum question whether to approve an $8 million increase in property taxes allocated to operations. If approved, it would increase the property tax base by $8 million for the 2011 tax levy and then the tax base would grow as permitted by tax caps in subsequent years.

Mary Brown, chief financial officer, said the operating referendum would enable the District to address the deficits projected over the next four years, which are projected to grow from $3.3 million in the 2012-13 school year to $8.7 million by 2015-16.

Board members had a lengthy discussion about the operating costs for the new school and attempted to pin down what they viewed to be a reasonable range of the ongoing costs. Several Board members expressed concern about the $48.2 million amount of the capital projects referendum, and suggested that capital improvements to the middle and magnet schools be pulled out. Many Board members expressed concerns about the timing and the amount of a proposed $8 million operating referendum, but some interest was expressed for an operating referendum, perhaps at a lower amount.

The Board is scheduled to discuss these issues, with the benefit of additional information, at a Finance Committee meeting next week. The deadline to approve a referendum question for the March 2012 ballot is Dec. 19.

Characteristics of the New K-5 School

The proposed K-5 school will have three classes per grade level, and be able to serve 415 students, assuming an average class size of 23 students – which is about 3 students higher than the District average. It is anticipated that the new school will be located on Foster Field, just north of Weissbourd-Holmes Family Focus Center, the building that once housed Foster School.

The District will establish an “overlay district” which will comprise a triangular area bounded by the North Shore channel, Green Bay Road and Church Street plus certain areas west and south of Evanston Township High School (the “central core”). All students in the overlay district will be given the option to enroll in the new school or their attendance-area school, said Lora Taira, chief information officer of the District.

Board president Katie Bailey said, “This is a choice school.”

According to figures provided by the District, there are 556 K-5 students residing in the central core, 350 of whom currently attend Kingsley, Lincolnwood or Willard (their attendance area schools), 97 of whom attend a magnet school, and 104 of whom attend another school in the District on a permissive transfer basis or for special education services.

If the new school is established, District administrators project it will draw approximately 350 students from Kingsley, of the new school would likely be 93% minority (63% African American and 30% Hispanic) and 88% low-income.

The estimated cost to construct the new school is $20.2 million and the cost to equip the school is $503,449.

Housing TWI at the New School

Ninety-one Spanish-speaking students reside in the central core, which represents 92% of the total number of Spanish-speaking students who reside in the Haven Middle School feeder area. The administration proposes to place all Spanish-speaking students who reside in the Haven feeder area into a TWI program to be established at the new school.

This will require relocating the TWI program at Willard to the new school, said Ms. Taira.

She added there were two ways to implement the TWI program at the new school: 1) move the entire program from Willard to the new school, and 2) establish TWI at the kindergarten level at the new school in the first year and expand it one grade level each year, while phasing it out at Willard.

The Educational Model and Costs

Superintendent Hardy Murphy proposed a “base” educational model for the new school, which would be staffed and operated similarly to the District’s other schools. Under the optimal implementation of the base model, the District would not incur any additional cost for teachers, because as students shift from their current schools to the new school, the District will be able to transfer teachers from existing schools to the new school, he said.

On the optimal basis, the District will incur approximately $470,000 in net additional operating costs per year for the new school, which “are primarily administrative and support services,” said Dr. Murphy.

Board member Tracy Quattrocki challenged the assumption that the District would be able to reduce the number of teachers at existing schools by the number of teachers needed at the new school because it assumes that about 20 to 23 students would be pulled out of each grade level at Kingsley, Lincolnwood and Willard.

She said she thought the estimated incremental cost of $470,000 to operate the new school was “very unrealistic,” and added, “I think it’s critical to know how much it will cost to run the new school.”

Other Board members supported analyzing the costs. Eileen Budde said, “I think the responsible thing to do is to come up with the ‘most likely’ scenario.”

Richard Rykhus added, “We want to make sure we’re providing the right resources so we can make sure students succeed. … I think we should estimate on the high end. I want to make sure we plan properly.”

Kim Weaver said, “We also want to be sure there’s money for the resources needed.”

Ms. Quattrocki suggested that additional amounts be built in for additional teachers that might be needed at the new school and also to implement educational programs proposed by the District’s Ad Hoc Academic Committee. She said many members of that Committee recommended that the school have an extended day and additional days in the school year, and that the school be operated as a “community school,” providing health, social and recreational services in partnership with community organizations on a daily basis, on weekends and during part of the summer.

Dr. Murphy said if the District was able to transfer only nine teachers from existing schools to the new school, it would add $450,000 to the incremental cost. He said extending the school day by one hour for all students would cost about $260,000 and that extending the school year by 10 days would cost about $100,000. The estimated cost of a community school would be an additional $200,000 per year, which might be offset with help from community partners.

“We all want to make sure we plan properly,” said Ms. Bailey. She suggested that the Board develop a range of potential costs. Assuming that the District would have to add nine general education teachers, two special education teachers and two aides to the payroll to staff the new school, and assuming the new school provided extended day, additional days and a community school, the net incremental operating cost would be about $1.6 million per year.

Ms. Quattrocki said, “As a bare minimum, we have to figure $1 million.” She added the District is facing a deficit of $3.2 million. “My biggest concern now is where the money is coming from to run the school.”

Dr. Murphy said he thought his estimate of $470,000 was realistic and he could absorb it into the budget. He said if he had to cut $1.5 million from the budget, he would have to cut counselors and social workers and increase class sizes.

“That’s exactly what we need to confront,” said Ms. Quattrocki.

Mr. Rykhus asked that the administration present the Finance Committee next week with an estimate of the incremental cost to operate the new school using various assumptions.

Proposal for the Middle Schools: Creating STEM Classrooms

The District is projecting it will need eight additional classrooms at Haven and Nichols Middle Schools to accommodate increased enrollment within the next few years.

John Castellan, of TMP Architecture, said the District could address the space needs at those schools while simultaneously enhancing their instructional spaces for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum. He said that the science instructional spaces currently at both Nichols and Haven were substandard, and proposed that the District convert them to general classrooms and that the District build new science studios that could also be used for STEM instruction. Additional upgrades to the common areas, such as the cafeterias, would also be made to accommodate increased student enrollment.

TMP estimates the work at Haven and Nichols will cost about $10.3 million at each school. TMP also estimated the cost to upgrade the science instructional areas and to provide other upgrades at Chute and King Lab at $3.1 million and $2.6 million respectively.

Referendum for Capital Projects: What to Ask For

A majority of the Board favored approving a referendum question for the March 2012 election that would ask voters to approve a total of $48.2 million in funding for the new K-5 school, and additions and upgrades to the middle and magnet schools. See table below. 

Mr. Rykhus, however, said he felt asking voters to approve $48.2 million for capital funds was a stretch and it could impair the District’s ability to obtain voters’ approval of an operating referendum. He said he was inclined to pull out the middle and magnet schools from the capital projects referendum and to address the space needs at those schools by changing assumptions.

Ms. Budde said she thought they should ask for funds to construct the new school on grounds of social justice, which she thought they could sell to the voters. She thought asking for $48 million was too much in this economy.

According to Speer Rinancial, the District’s bond representative, if a $48.2 million capital projects referendum were approved, the estimated cost to a taxpayer whose home is valued at $285,000 (a median priced home) would range from a low of $67 per year to a high of $96 per year over a 20-year period.

A Referendum for Operations

The Board also considered placing a second referendum question on the ballot that would increase property taxes by $8 million over and above the tax cap amount for the 2011 tax levy year. This would increase the base amount of property taxes in the year approved, and the base amount would then increase as permitted by tax caps.

Dr. Brown said she discussed the amount with PMA Financial, financial advisers of the District, and they suggested $8 million as a number that would enable the District to balance its budgets for the next five years without making major cuts in programs or staff.

According to Speer Financial, if an $8 million operating referendum were approved, the estimated cost to a taxpayer whose home is valued at $285,000 would be $212 per year.

Kim Weaver said she was not comfortable with the $8 million operating referendum. She said she would like to explore some of the Ad Hoc Budget Committee’s proposals and get the administration’s input on those proposals before approving a referendum on the operating budget.

Mr. Rykhus said, “It seems out of sequence.” He said the Board should follow through on the Ad Hoc Budget Committee’s proposals and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with the employee unions before approving a budget dealing with the operating budget.

Ms. Budde said she thought the $8 million figure was too high, and she was inclined to only support a referendum to cover the operating costs for the new school at this time.

Mr. Piggozi suggested that the Board try it. He said, “I don’t think we’re going to like the decisions we’re going to have to make” to address the projected deficit of $3.2 million for the 2012-13 school year. He suggested that PMA Financial be asked to attend the Finance Committee’s meeting next week to explain the $8 million number.

Dr. Murphy said he believed the District could operate the new school without a referendum assuming the new incremental cost is $470,000, but added, “What I’m hearing is the Board wants to put more into the school. It may require a referendum.”

Ms. Bailey summed up that a majority of the Board was uncomfortable with the sequence and that the amount is a concern. She said the TMA Financial would be asked to attend the Finance Committee meeting next week to explain the $8 million figure, and Speers Financial would also be asked to attend to provide estimates of the cost to the taxpayer if a referendum increasing property taxes by $2.5 million and other amounts were approved.