On March 20, voters defeated School District 65’s referendum. The referendum asked 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 have addressed 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 have been 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.
The referendum lost by a fairly wide margin, with 8,020 persons (54.79 percent) voting against the referendum and 6,619 (45.21 percent) in support. The turnout, 14,639 voters, was more than three times the number of voters who turned out to vote in the April 2011 school board election (which did not include a presidential primary). According to the Clerk’s records, there are 51,144 registered voters in the District, 28.6 percent of whom voted.
Focusing on the Fifth Ward west of Green Bay Road (which comprises the bulk of the central core), 424 persons voted in favor of the referendum and 131 voted no; 24.1 percent of the registered voters in that area voted.
The new school would have drawn minority students from the three schools in Northwest Evanston. There was a heavy turnout of voters in that area, with 1185 persons voting in favor of the referendum and 2,204 voting against it.
Culmination of a Process
The vote brings to culmination a two-year process that began in early 2010 when the School Board began discussing the possibility of establishing a new school in the central core. After many discussions, the School Board decided in September 2010 to form an “Ad Hoc Referendum – New School Committee” to explore the possibility of establishing a new school in the central core.
On Sept. 12, 2011, the Referendum-New School Committee presented its report to the School Board. The Committee recommended that the District establish a new K-8 school in the central core based on two reasons: 1) to provide additional classroom space in light of projected increases in student enrollment; and 2) to address the needs of students in the Fifth Ward area who have not had a neighborhood school since 1967, an issue of “social justice.”
Over the next three months, the School Board reviewed many strategies to address the District’s projected need for additional classroom space, including the costs associated with each strategy. On Dec. 19, the District 65 School Board decided, by a 5-2 vote, to place the referendum question on the March 20, 2012 ballot.
At that time, 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.”
Comments on the Result, Where to Go From Here
“I am disappointed,” Board President Katie Bailey told the RoundTable, in commenting on the results of the referendum vote. “I believe the referendum projects would be better for the children of Evanston. No matter how people voted, though, I believe people thought they were voting in the best interests of our children.”
She added, “I’d like to thank the people who came out to vote. It’s a democratic process. One reason we went to referendum was to give the community a voice on this issue.”
In deciding to put the referendum question on the ballot, the Board had a split vote, with two members in opposition. Despite the different views, Ms. Bailey said, “Board members have all been committed to do what is in the best interests of children.” She said she was confident the Board will work together.
In light of the referendum vote, Ms. Bailey said she will ask the administration to assess the District’s immediate needs for additional classroom space and capital improvements for next year and for the next two to four years.
She said she will ask the administration to lay out the priorities for capital expenditures for the next two to four years, taking into account maintenance, repairs (such as roof and masonry), safety upgrades and technology needs, and to recommend options to address the space needs at the middle schools. She said these options, as discussed last fall, could involve increased class size, program movement, limited redistricting, shared space and building classrooms as needed. She added, though, that building onto the middle schools would need to be balanced against the need to maintain and repair the District’s other buildings.
The District has the ability to borrow additional funds for capital projects, but its borrowing is limited by law to an amount less than its anticipated capital needs.
When asked if the Board would approve a referendum to seek voter approval of funding to add classrooms and make upgrades to the middle schools in a subsequent election, Ms. Bailey said she did not have an answer.
Andy Pigozzi said, “It’s disappointing.” He said the Board came to a concensus on the referendum projects in which Board members had to compromise. “I supported the Board, and I thought the Board should act collaboratively,” he said. “I thought there were a lot of good things that could have been done. I feel bad for the kids. This was about doings things for the kids.”
Mr. Pigozzi said there are space issues at Lincolnwood and the middle schools that need to be addressed. “I hope we can move forward. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of time,” he said, adding that he did not think the District should borrow the full amount available under its debt service extension base. “We have to have a war chest to meet life/safety needs” of the District’s existing buildings, he said.
“I supported sending this issue to referendum because I value the opinion of the larger Evanston community,” said Tracy Quattrocki. “Over the past several months, our community has engaged in a meaningful conversation about how best to use our resources in educating our children. I believe the vote on Tuesday, both for and against the referendum, reflected the diversity of opinions and thoughtfulness of those who wrestled with these complex issues. It is important that we had this dialogue, and equally important for us to move forward in addressing our space needs at the middle schools and the financial stability of our district, with the goal of furthering the academic achievement of all our students, including those in need of extra support.”
Board member Richard Rykhus told the RoundTable, “I feel this is the culmination of a very long process.” He said for many people the issue of a new school in the central core goes back decades. He said the current process dates back about eighteen months.
He said, “Since September 2010 the community and the School Board has engaged in a very thoughtful discussion about the new school.” He referred to forums held by the Referendum-New School Committee in July 2011, by the School Board in November 2011, and by Citizens for a Better Evanston during the last few months. “I feel it’s been a very thoughtful and meaningful process that people were able to participate in,” he said. “It may be difficult for some people to be comfortable with the result.”
He added, “I think it’s important for the School Board to look very quickly at the challenges, priorities and related solutions and to move quickly.”
“I am gratified that a majority of voters in D65 shared my point of view that the referendum was not the best way to spend taxpayer funds,” Eileen Budde told the RoundTable. “I believe the majority of voters agree that social justice means providing a high quality education for all children, no matter their race, income, or neighborhood. The District has engaged in some great initiatives in the past years – TWI, inclusion, and differentiation. These programs are the right things to do, but they can be costly. To ensure we succeed in these, we need to maintain the level of faculty and support staff we have, maybe even increase in some areas. A new building would have pulled resources from all other schools.
“I look forward to the upcoming work of addressing our space needs at the middle schools, prioritizing maintenance and improvements at all schools, and addressing the academic needs of all of our students,” she said.
Referring to the number of persons who voted for the referendum, Superintendent Hardy Murphy, said that “many in our community believe that with adequate resources and a new school we can create more optimal teaching spaces with 21st century learning experiences for the students in our District. I am encouraged by the number of voters who feel that the parents and community of the Fifth Ward deserve the opportunity for supporting and participating in the education of their children that a neighborhood school offers.
“A successful referendum would have provided resources and made the vision of 21st century learning experiences for students in our middle schools a reality,” Dr. Murphy continued. “It would have fulfilled the dream of a neighborhood school for this deserving community. However, even without these resources, we will continue providing the supports and services necessary to effectively educate our students in the current array of buildings and classroom space available.”
Citizens for a Better Evanston (C4BE), a citizens group that advocated for the referendum, provided the RoundTable with a prepared statement. C4BE said,
“Without a doubt, the idea of building a new school in the central core has given all of us the chance to share opinions and deep beliefs. C4BE has
maintained a positive presence in the local dialogue surrounding equity and
education and will continue to play a role as our community moves forward.
In the coming weeks and months, C4BE looks toward a better Evanston, one
that is committed to great education, strong schools and true diversity.”
One positive development of the referendum, Ms. Bailey said, was the grass roots effort that evolved to support the referendum. She said the supporters consisted of a diverse group of people, young and old, black and white. “I think our leaders of tomorrow are among them. I want to thank the people who worked so hard on the referendum.”
Statement of C4BE About the Referendum Provided to the RoundTable
“In 90 short days, Citizens for a Better Evanston has come together as a diverse community of dedicated residents, educators, parents, elected officials and local leaders.”We have worked to promote the District 65 referendum publicly known as theBetter Schools Initiative. Together, we have touched nearly every corner of Evanston with a message meant to strengthen and broaden our shared commitment to great schools.”To pass along our vision, C4BE successfully reached out to faith leaders, our Latino community, parents of the very young and respected elders of our town. Through phone calls, school and church meetings, community forums and neighborhood outreach, C4BE garnered the support of over 700 Evanstoniansand on May 20, 2012, over 6,500 Evanstonians voted yes for the Better Schools Initiative.“Without a doubt, the idea of building a new school in the central core has given all of us the chance to share opinions and deep beliefs. C4BE has maintained a positive presence in the local dialogue surrounding equity and education and will continue to play a role as our community moves forward. In the coming weeks and months, C4BE looks toward a better Evanston, one that is committed to great education, strong schools and true diversity.”