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On Dec. 19, the District 65 School Board decided, by a 5-2 vote, to place a referendum question on the March 20, 2012 ballot, asking voters to approve funding for a new K-5 school, additional classrooms and upgrades to Haven and Nichols Middle Schools, and upgrades to King Lab and Rhodes Magnet Schools, in the total amount of $48.2 million.

These projects would address the District’s projected need for two additional classrooms at Lincolnwood School, and eight additional classrooms at both Haven and Nichols Middle Schools.

In addition, the new K-5 school would be established in a triangular area bounded by the North Shore Channel, Green Bay Road and Church Street (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.

In the last three months, the Board reviewed many strategies to address the District’s need for additional classroom space, including the costs associated with each strategy. The Board also considered enrollment and educational models for the proposed new school.

In casting their votes on Dec. 19, many Board members said it was a difficult and complex decision. Board president Katie Bailey and Board members Andy Pigozzi, Tracy Quattrocki, Jerome Summers and Kim Weaver voted to place the referendum question on the ballot. Eileen Budde and Richard Rykhus voted no.

Characteristics of the 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 more than the District average. The Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program will be established at the school. 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” area which will comprise the central core plus certain areas west and south of Evanston Township High School. All families living in the overlay area will be given the choice to attend the new school or attend the present attendance-area school.

As proposed, the demographics of the new school would likely be 93% minority (63% African American and 30% Hispanic) and 88% low-income.

The estimated cost to construct and equip the new school is $20.6 million. Estimates to operate the new school on an annual basis range from a low of $684,000 to $2.4 million. See sidebar on page 20.

Proposal for the Middle Schools

In the referendum, the District seeks funds to add eight additional classrooms at Haven and Nichols Middle Schools to accommodate the increased enrollment projected at those schools.

The District plans to convert the science instructional spaces currently at those schools (which the District’s architect, TMP Architects, says are substandard) into general classrooms and to build new science classrooms at those schools that could also be used for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) 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.

As part of the referendum projects, the District also plans to upgrade the science instructional areas and to provide safe entrances at Chute and King Lab at estimated costs $3.1 million and $2.6 million, respectively. The cost to provide locker rooms at Rhodes is estimated at $1.3 million.

The Board’s Vote

Board members gave a wide variety of reasons in explaining their votes, many saying that one out of many factors was determinative for them.

Mr. Summers, who has advocated for a school in the central core for many years, voted yes. “I think about every neighborhood having their own school,” he said, “except for this neighborhood. …We need to be stewards of all children.

“Evanston has always been a leader in education and fighting for equal rights all the way back to abolitionists and pre-emancipation days,” he added. “And we continue to be – throughout America – moral and ethical leaders in education and equal rights. We have a strong opportunity to continue to do that and maintain that 150 year-old legacy that has already been well established. We need to walk our talk.”

Ms. Weaver, who served on the New School Committee that recommended establishing a new school in the central core, said she concluded that a new school is needed to address the District’s need for additional space and that there was a lot of community interest in establishing a school in the central core.

“It’s really a chance now for our whole community to get behind this and show what a great District Evanston is and will continue to be,” she said, “not just educationally, but from a justice standpoint. I believe this is going to take us well into this century.”

Ms. Budde gave a lengthy explanation for her no vote that touched on capacity, social justice and academic achievement. She said she made up her mind based on academic achievement, which she said depends on high quality teachers, high levels of staffing and small class sizes.

“Our role is to ensure high achievement for all children,” she said. “Maintaining small class sizes, adequate special education staffing, and time and money for teachers’ collaboration and training – all this supports achievement. It also supports social justice. Ensuring we have adequate resources for all of our students at whatever school they choose is social justice.

“The Board’s role is to ensure fiscal responsibility,” Ms. Budde continued. “When we are facing deficits our job is to fix that problem first. We must realign expenses and revenues. We must focus on necessities, and there is no greater necessity than to have enough teachers to meet the needs of all students. At this point in time we don’t know how we will pay our operating expenses for the buildings and staff that we currently have. Building a new school will increase our operating costs and may result in our having to cut staff district-wide. Building excess capacity and adding to our operating expenses is at this time irresponsible.”

Mr. Pigozzi said, “I am very enthusiastic about this.” He said the District will always have issues with its budget because the process in Illinois is always fluid and added that if voters approved the referendum it would provide the needed funding. “The basic question is very simple,” he said. “Will we be a better District if we’re able to make these improvements to our schools – which go beyond just space – it’s a matter of modernization; it’s about life safety; it’s about making our schools capable of 21st-century learning. To me, as a Board member and as an advocate for public education, the answer is ‘yes’.”

Ms. Quattrocki voted yes, saying that in spite of concerns about the cost and the academic challenges posed by the new school, “I have ultimately concluded that our community should have the opportunity to weigh in on this important issue, one that will affect children in Evanston for years to come.”

She said after one of the community forums she read newspaper accounts dating back 45 years which “spoke to the fact that the loss of Foster school and the subsequent busing of hundreds of children out of their neighborhoods has remained a source of tension in our community, particularly when new additions are built, the importance of neighborhood schools is discussed or parental involvement is encouraged. …. What I took away from reading these historical narratives is that the issue of building a neighborhood school in the Fifth Ward deserves consideration from an audience wider than the seven board members who sit here today. A decision this weighty is ultimately not one that will be made by pouring over enrollment charts and budget projections. It is a value judgment and as such one that should be made by our entire community.

“In sending this question to referendum,” Ms. Quattrocki continued, “our citizens will have an opportunity to determine how we prioritize our resources when it comes to educate our children, particularly the most vulnerable among us.”

Mr. Rykhus listed the elements that he regarded as less favorable and those he regarded as more favorable in terms of weighing the merits of a referendum. In explaining why he came down on the side of voting no, he said, “As I look at the issues identified, what really resonates most for me is the concentration of low-income families in the new school. We’ve estimated that the concentration would be around 85 percent.

“Even though it’s not impossible,” he said, “experience across the country does show that it’s going to be a difficult task to ensure success for all of these kids. Our administration shows annually that we have made good progress on academic achievement both improving performance of kids and narrowing the achievement gap between white children and our Latino and African American children.

“Could Evanston rise to the challenge to ensure success at the new school? It is certainly possible. For me, given the improvements we have seen in academic performance and the factors that I have described, it’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”

Ms. Bailey said, “The proposal in front of us is a comprehensive plan that simultaneously addresses issues of capacity, education and justice.”

“I believe this is the right thing to do because it supports our current educational model. It’s a model that believes in neighborhood schools, manageable class sizes and limited program placement, all things that I believe impact achievement. It also proactively plans for the influx of children into our middle schools that we know is coming.”

“It puts the trust in the community ultimately to assess whether this is the right thing for our City. Asking for direct input is appropriate because this proposal will have a profound impact on the future of our City, and I believe a good one.”

Ms. Bailey closed her comments quoting from Daniel Burnham, which she said was very applicable: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans. Aim high and hope and work.”

The issue will now rest in the hands of the members of this community, who will have the opportunity to vote on March 20.

School District 65 administrators presented three models that estimate the incremental cost to operate the proposed new school using different assumptions about the net number of additional teachers and support staff needed to staff the District’s classrooms on a District-wide basis if the new school were established. A key issue is how many classes will be eliminated at existing schools if the new school is established. Reducing the number of classrooms at existing schools would enable the District to shift teachers and staff from an existing school to the new school with no incremental cost to the District.  

Model “A” is a “fail safe” model, said Superintendent Hardy Murphy at a Dec. 13 Finance Committee meeting, and includes all operating costs for the new school without any offset for potential teacher or staff reductions at the existing schools. He estimated the operating cost would be $1,978,093 per year, assuming that the new school would need an additional 18 general education teachers, 2 special education teachers, 2 teacher assistants, plus administrative and support staff, plus utilities.

Model “B” assumes that the District will need, on a net basis, nine additional teachers to staff the new school and that it will be able to achieve other staffing efficiencies as well. Under this model, the net incremental cost to operate the new school is $1,060,093 per year.

Model “C” assumes the District will achieve the “optimal” efficiencies and that, on a net basis, it will not need any additional new teachers to staff the new school. Under this model, the net additional operating cost of the new school is $684,000 per year. Several Board members said at the Dec. 5 Board meeting that they thought this model was based on an unrealistic assumption.

While administrators anticipate that the District will be able to shift teachers and staff to the new school (as assumed in Models B and C), Dr. Murphy said there can be no assurance that the enrollment patterns in the new school needed to achieve these savings will materialize.

Dr. Murphy also presented cost information on certain program enhancements to address concerns that the District’s standard instructional model might not address the needs of students who would be attending what will likely be a high poverty school – with almost 90 percent of the students coming from low-income households. These program enhancements, which were discussed by the District’s New School Academic Committee in October, include an extended day, an extended year, and a “community school model” that would provide health, social and recreational services in partnership with community organizations on a daily basis, on weekends and during the summer months.

Dr. Murphy estimated that the cost to extend the school day by one hour would be about $160,000 per year, that extending the school year by 10 days would cost about $100,000 per year and that implementing a community school model would cost about $200,000 a year, a total of $460,000. He added that the cost of these programmatic enhancements might be reduced by partnering with community organizations.

The table below summarizes the incremental costs under Models A, B and C, with and without the proposed programatic enhancements ($ in 000’s):