On March 20, voters defeated School District 65’s referendum, culminating a process that began 18 months ago. 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 the Fifth Ward west of Green Bay Road (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. 

For more than 30 years, about 400 K-5 students have been bused from the central core to Kingsley, Lincolnwood and Willard schools in northwest Evanston to desegregate those schools. The new school would have provided students in the central core a choice to attend the new school or one of the north end schools.

A side-effect of the new school is that it would have drawn many minority students away from Kingsley, Lincolnwood and Willard schools, and those schools would have been much less diverse.

During the process, many complex issues were raised in support of and in opposition to the referendum, including how to address the need for additional classrooms in the District; the need for a neighborhood school in the central core; the benefit of upgrading the middle schools’ science labs; the educational model of the new school; the challenges faced by what would likely be a high poverty, highly segregated school; the impact of the new school on desegregation; the capital costs; the incremental operating cost of the new school; the projected operating deficits and how to allocate limited resources.

“I think our community has been through a very heart-rending, soul-searching discussion,” said Superintendent Hardy Murphy at the Board’s March 26 meeting. “There are many legitimate issues amongst the array of questions that we grappled with.”

The referendum lost by 1,401 votes, 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, unlike this one). According to the County Clerk’s records, there are 51,144 registered voters in the District, 28.6 percent of whom voted. 

The voting statistics differ dramatically for the two areas that would have been most directly affected by the proposed new school:

  • In the Fifth Ward west of Green Bay Road, 424 persons (76%) voted in favor of the referendum and 131 (24%) voted no. Twenty-four percent of the registered voters in that area voted. 
  • By contrast, 41 percent of the registered voters in Northwest Evanston (which contains the Sixth and part of the Seventh wards) turned out to vote, with 1,185 persons (35%) voting in favor of the referendum and 2,204 (65%) voting against it.

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. 

Ms. Bailey said she will also 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. 

Board member Andy Pigozzi told the RoundTable, “It’s disappointing.” He said the Board came to a consensus 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,” 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.

At the Board’s March 26 meeting, Jerome Summers said, “The reason this [a school in the Fifth Ward] keeps coming up – it came up in 1979, 1992, 2002 and again in 2012 – is because it is a wound that has not yet been healed. This community [the Fifth Ward] is basically an education desert. And that doesn’t happen anywhere else in our City. … We have ten percent of the children of the District that are not being served as well as other children.

“The vote shows me that the people in the Fifth Ward have greater confidence in their ability to be good responsible citizens and parents to educate their own children than the confidence of people outside that community. … It seems to me that they [people outside the Fifth Ward] assume that they know what is better for these children than people who actually live in the community that would naturally support them.” He added, “I’ve heard people talk about their love of diversity – but as long as they don’t have to sacrifice, or as long as diversity gets delivered to them.”

Mr. Summers said he would continue to “work for 100 percent of the children in the District.”

“I supported sending this issue to referendum because I value the opinion of the larger Evanston community,” Tracy Quattrocki told the RoundTable. “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. 

Mr. Rykhus 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 District 65 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. 

 “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 said. “It would have fulfilled the dream of a neighborhood school for this deserving community.”

Dr. Murphy added that when a school board places a referendum on the ballot it intends for it to pass. “That did not happen, so I think that is disappointing. As we move forward, I can tell you that everyone in my administration is going to continue working from sun up to sun down to make sure we do our dead level best for all of the children in our community.”

Citizens for a Better Evanston (C4BE), a citizens group that advocated for the referendum, said in a statement provided to the RoundTable, “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.” 

The Board is planning to discuss how to address the space needs of the District at its next two meetings.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...