On March 20, the community will be asked to vote on whether or not to approve funding for a new K-5 school, for eight new classrooms and upgrades to both Haven and Nichols Middle Schools, and for upgrades to King Lab and Rhodes Magnet Schools at a total cost of $48.2 million.

These projects would address the District’s projected need for two to four 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 the City’s historically African American district, the Fifth Ward west of Green Bay Road, which has been referred to as the “central core.” That area 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. It was closed altogether in 1979.

This article provides an overview of the referendum projects and presents the views of some of the School Board members at or before the time they voted on the referendum

I. THE PROPOSED NEW SCHOOL

A. Information About the School

The proposed K-5 school will have three classes per grade level and be able to serve 378 students, assuming an average class size of 21 students – about the District’s average. The Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program will be established at the school.

The District says it will establish an “overlay attendance-area” that will consist of a triangular area between the North Shore Channel, Green Bay Road and Church Street, plus areas just west and south of Evanston Township High School. All households living in that area will be given the choice to send their children either to the new school or to the present attendance area school for their address. More than 550 K-5 students live in this area.

In addition, the District says, students from across the District may apply to attend the new school and will be selected based on the availability of space, with preference given to students in the overlay attendance-area.

The demographics of the new school would likely be 93% minority students (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 range from a low of $684,000 to $2.4 million annually. A middle-of-the-road estimate is $1.5 million.

B. Reasons Given in Support of the School

Two reasons are given in support of the school. First, it will address the space needs at Lincolnwood School and provide breathing room at Willard and Kingsley schools. Second, it will restore a neighborhood school to the central core – an issue said to involve equity and social justice.

Historical Context: The central core was once the attendance area for Foster School, which was 99 percent African American. Under the District’s 1967 desegregation plan, Foster School was closed as a neighborhood school and converted into a magnet school with innovative programs to attract white students to the school and thereby desegregate it. In its first year, 650 students were accepted at the magnet school, 75 percent of whom were white. Many were bused at their parents’ expense.

As a second part of the desegregation plan, all of the students who had previously attended Foster School were reassigned to new schools. Only some were reassigned to schools within walking distance of their homes. A substantial portion of the area around Foster School was carved into seven districts, and children in those districts were assigned to one of the seven schools on the District’s periphery to desegregate those schools. Approximately 450 African American children were bused to schools under this plan.

In the 1970s, District 65 was faced with a declining student enrollment, and the School Board closed seven schools. As part of this process, Skiles Middle School was converted from an attendance-area school into a magnet school for grades six through eight; and in 1979 the K-5 magnet program at the old Foster School was moved to Skiles. Skiles became a K-8 magnet school, renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School.

Because the old Foster School building would no longer be used for a magnet school, many African Ameri­can leaders urged at that time that a neighborhood school be reestablished in the building. Options included closing Wil­lard or Orrington school and busing white children from those areas to a reestablished Foster School. Instead, the Board decided to permanently close Foster School. There was thus no longer a need to draw white students to the school to desegregate it. The historically African American school was closed.

Since 1979, about 450 African American students have been bused every year from the central core to the north-end schools to desegregate those schools and/or because there was no longer a school in their neighborhood.

Equity and Social Justice: Jerome Summers, a School Board member and co-chair of the District’s New School Committee, has spoken in favor of establishing a school in the central core for many years. He said the community in the Fifth Ward “sacrificed their neighborhood school for the benefit of the entire community” as part of the desegregation plan adopted in the 1960s. He described that effort as “a noble experiment” that “probably in that time was the right thing to do.” He said, though, the decision placed the burden of busing on African American children for 40 years and deprived them and their community of a neighborhood school.

Mr. Summers says that neighborhood schools are essential to build parental involvement and a school community. The lack of a school in the central core, he says, “has disintegrated that community.” 

Mr. Summers used two examples in commenting on “fairness.” He referred to the “uproar” that occurred several years ago when 15 to 20 students at Willard School were about to be transferred from their neighborhood school under the District’s “cap-and-transfer” plan. Parents lined up, saying it was wrong to deprive their children of an opportunity to go to their neighborhood school. The School Board quickly abandoned the policy. By contrast Mr. Summers said, “We bus out, walk out, permissive-transfer out 600 to 800 kids every day for decades from this neighborhood.

“Secondly,” he said, “when we talk about building everywhere else, we don’t talk about these hard economic times and these taxes.” He said the District recently approved a total of about $30 million in additions to Willard, Dewey and Lincoln schools without objection and without a referendum. He said there is “an issue of fairness.”

For decades, many African American leaders and many other leaders in the community have said that African American children have borne the burden of busing to desegregate the north-end school and have lost their neighborhood school as part of the desegregation process. At community forums held in November 2011, about 45 persons spoke in favor of establishing a new school in the central core, all on grounds of equity and social justice. In its September 2011 report to the Board, the District’s New School Committee said this was a “pivotal” factor in recommending that the District establish a new school in the central core.

Advocates of the proposed new school say it will substantially reduce involuntary busing and it will provide a foundation to increase parental involvement and student engagement.

In addition, in recognition that the new school will likely be a high-poverty school, some members of the School Board said they favor establishing an extended day and an extended year and making the school a “community school,” in which the District would partner with community organizations to provide health, social and recreational services on a daily basis, on weekends and during part of the summer. The goal would be to provide a pipeline of services to ensure that all children enter kindergarten ready to learn and enter middle school on track to college and career readiness.

The school would be a “choice school.” Thus, students would not be required to enroll their children in what will likely be a school with a high percentage of minority students from low-income households.

C. Reasons Given in Opposition to the New School/Responses

Creating a Segregated School: Some community members say the new school will be a segregated school, that it will draw many minority students from Lincolnwood, Kingsley and Willard Schools and reduce the diversity of those schools, and that it will unravel District 65’s commitment to diversity in its schools.

Creating a High Poverty School: The new school will likely be a high-poverty school. While research shows that economic status does not determine academic achievement, high-poverty schools present challenges not faced by other schools.

In explaining why he voted against the referendum, School Board member Richard Rykhus focused on an estimate that 85 percent of the students at the new school would be from low-income families.

“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.”

Allocating Limited Resources: On Feb. 13, District administrators issued revised projections that the District will operate at a surplus for the next three years and then deficits of $2.7 million and $3.9 million in the following two years. These projections assume a reduction of 16 teacher assistants or aides, 7.5 literacy coaches, 1 psychologist and 1 speech therapist; a reduction of funds for professional development and the extended day program; and savings by replacing all staff who leave the District, including teachers, with less experienced staff.

The projections do not take into account any additional teachers to staff the co-teaching model as the Inclusion Program expands to upper-grade levels or the incremental cost to staff the proposed new school.

On Feb. 21, several Board members expressed concerns about the proposed cuts, none of which has been approved.

When Board member Eileen Budde gave her reasons for opposing the referendum on Dec. 19, the deficits projected by the District did not reflect the recent budget-balancing strategies and were substantially higher. She said, though “Our role is to ensure high achievement for all children. 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.”

One option the Board has considered to address the projected deficits is to seek voter approval of an “operating referendum” that would ask voters to approve an increase in property taxes to fund operations.

II. MIDDLE-SCHOOL PROJECTS

A. The Need for Space and the Proposed Projects

District 65 administrators and Dr. John Kasarda, a consulting demographer, project that Haven’s enrollment will increase by between 161 and 187 students in the next five years. They project that Nichols’ enrollment will increase by between 184 and 190 students during the same period.  

In the referendum, the District proposes to add eight additional classrooms at both Haven and Nichols Middle Schools to handle the increased enrollment. They plan to do this by converting the existing science areas (which the District’s architect, TMP Architects, says are substandard) into general classrooms and by building new science classrooms that could also be used for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) instruction.

The District would also make upgrades to the cafeterias and other common areas to handle the increased enrollment. TMP estimates the work at Haven and Nichols will cost about $10.3 million at each school.

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

B. Possible Alternatives

In analyzing alternatives, District administrators said they could handle the increased enrollment at Haven and Nichols Middle Schools by increasing class sizes and converting other rooms into classrooms. They said this could be done with minimal capital cost.

They said if the class-size target at these schools is increased to 26 students per classroom, most classrooms would have between 24 and 26 students, and the need for additional classrooms would be cut to three at Haven and two at Nichols. Administrators say they could convert the shop, computer labs and staff lounge into classrooms at Haven, and convert the computer lab and staff lounge into classrooms at Nichols.

C. Views

Advocates for the middle-school upgrades say the classroom additions are necessary to accommodate the projected enrollment at Haven and Nichols and to maintain current class sizes. They say the upgrades will also enhance the District’s ability to provide STEM instruction, which is becoming more important in today’s world.

During the discussions on the alternatives, Mr. Rykhus and Ms. Budde said a hybrid approach might be feasible for Haven and Nichols – such as by making a limited increase in class sizes and making more limited building additions and upgrades to the schools.

III. IMPACT ON TAXPAYERS

The accompanying table shows the estimated increase in property taxes that residential property owners will face if the $48.2 million referendum is approved. 

The table shows that a taxpayer with a home valued at $400,000 will pay an estimated $127.33 a year for 20 years to fund the referendum projects if the referendum passes. About 43% of this is attributable to the new school, the rest to the middle school projects. The table provides estimates for homes at various other values.

If the March 20 referendum is approved, the increase attributable to the referendum will be part of the 2013 tax bills. The total amount of taxes levied by District 65 for capital expenses for 2013 (including for the new school), however, will be less than the amount levied for capital expenses for 2011, say District officials. That is because the bonds issued as part of the 2000 referendum were paid off in 2011, they say.

District administrators say there are some benefits to moving ahead now. They say that construction costs are low and interest rates are low, both of which will operate to reduce the cost of these projects to taxpayers.

In voting to approve putting the referendum on the ballot, Board member Andy Pigozzi said, “The basic question is very simple. 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.’”

School Board president Katie 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.”

Board member Kim Weaver said the referendum projects would help District 65 “not just educationally, but from a social justice standpoint. I believe this is going to take us well into this century.”

The RoundTable’s Site:

The RoundTable’s articles, editorials and letters to the editor that relate to District 65’s referendum are available on the RoundTable’s online site at evanstonroundtable.com:

• For 19 articles, go to the “Schools” section and scroll down to the heading “Articles Relating to District 65’s Referendum.”

• For three editorials and views supporting the referendum, supporting a “choice school” and opining on the likelihood of an “operating referendum,” go to “Opinion” section and scroll down to the heading “Editorials Relating to District 65’s Referendum.”

• For many letters to the editor, go to the “Community Forum” section.

Other Websites With Referendum Information:

• School District 65: www.district65.net.

• Citizens for a Better Evanston: www.c4be.com.

• Evanston Education Advocates: http://evanstoneducationadvocates.wordpress.com.

• Citizens Action Board of Evanston: http://cabevanston.blogspot.com/

• Evanston Taxpayer Associates: http://nod65referendum.files.wordpress.com

• Unnamed group: http://nod65referendum.com