On April 23, the District 65 School Board focused on options to address the projected increase in student enrollment at Haven Middle School and Nichols Middle School in light of the community’s rejection of the referendum on the March 20 ballot. If approved, the referendum would have provided $20.6 million to add classrooms, expand common areas and upgrade those schools.
Last November, Dr. John Kasarda, a consulting demographer, projected that Haven’s enrollment will grow by 187 students by 2016-17. He projected that Nichols’ enrollment will grow by 184 students in the same period.
While the Board has been presented with many options to address the projected increase in enrollment at these schools, there is general consensus that none of the options is ideal.
The Board’s hands are tied, and its options limited, by three things: 1) Haven and Nichols have no empty classrooms and their common areas are not adequate to accommodate the influx of students at the schools; 2) the District has limited funds to add classrooms or to expand the common areas at these schools; and 3) the only other middle school in the District, lacks space to handle the influx of students.
At the April 23 meeting, Board members focused on the amount of money that might be available under the District’s debt extension base to potentially build at Haven and Nichols. They also considered the implications of addressing enrollment at Haven and Nichols by managing schedules and putting teachers “on a cart.”
Capital Funds are Limited
Absent a referendum, the District’s ability to take on additional debt for capital projects is limited by State law to its “debt service extension base.” Mary Brown, the District’s chief financial officer, said the District could currently access $24.6 million through its debt service extension base.
About $20 million of that $24.6 million, however, is tentatively earmarked for building repairs and technology. Dr. Brown said the District has scheduled a total of $20 million in capital projects in the next three years: $11.4 in roof and masonry work; $6.1 million for technology; $2.1 million for locker replacements, asbestos abatement, and other projects; and $400,000 for bond issuance fees.
Assuming the $20 million is spent as planned, that would leave $4.5 million available under the debt service extension base for other uses, and an additional $2.5 million would become available each year, said Dr. Brown.
Dr. Brown also provided a summary of roof replacements planned for 2015-21 at a total estimated cost of $14.7 million. Some of the amounts becoming available under the debt service extension base in the future may be needed for these roof replacements or for future life/safety projects and technology.
At the April 23 meeting, Board members asked the District’s roofing architect, Tom Hutchinson, if some of the roof and masonry work could be deferred. He said the roof and masonry work in what he called the “first wave” was “critical” and “urgent.” He said the next wave of work was not as critical, but that if the District put off that work, the cost could go up because of the rising cost of roofing materials – which are oil-based – and due to deterioration of the buildings.
When asked about cutting back on technology expenses, Superintendent Hardy Murphy said he would not recommend it. To do so, he said, would at some point degrade the quality of instruction.
At the last Board meeting, several Board members said the District should not spend down the entire amount available under the debt service extension base, but keep a substantial amount in reserve to address any needs that might emerge.
On April 23, Dr. Brown outlined three ways to estimate the amount of a reserve that should be kept in reserve for potential contingencies. The estimates ranged from $6.7 million to $8.3 million.
Managing Enrollment at Haven and Nichols
Haven’s enrollment is projected to increase from 700 students to 745 for the 2012-13 school year, and to grow to 887 by 2016-17.
Haven Principal Kathleen Roberson said she was concerned about how to handle the influx of students in the cafeteria and for physical education classes. She said Haven will have 275 sixth-graders next year, and “We can’t put 275 kids in [the cafeteria].”
Ms. Roberson said she thought they would have to split the lunch period for sixth graders so that half the kids would be outside for the first 20 minutes of the lunch period while the other half ate, and then they would rotate. She said she was also concerned about gym space and the number of lockers. “Sixth-graders may need to share lockers,” she said.
Ms. Roberson said two, and maybe three, full-time teachers will be added at Haven next year to accommodate the increased enrollment. Since there are no empty classrooms, the new teachers will displace part-time staff who will then share space – or be teachers-on-a-cart.
In response to a question from Richard Rykhus about the school’s growing to over 860 students, Ms. Roberson said the Principal’s Advisory Team and the PTA have had discussions on how to maintain the feel of a small school, or a school-within-a-school.
“By having teams and doing some of these things, you’re able to create that same feeling and much of the same programming if you have enough space,” she said. “I think the biggest issue is when teachers have to share a space it really changes the dynamic of that classroom. When a French teacher has to go into a math classroom, it’s going to impact how the teacher is going to be able to teach French. That’s going to be the biggest impact.”
Nichols currently has 546 students and enrollment is projected to be pretty steady next year, but it is projected to grow to 594 by 2013-14, and then to 730 students by 2016-17. Sarah Mendez, principal of Nichols, said “next year shouldn’t be a problem. … For the following years our concern is we can’t fit that many students in.”
She said currently Nichols is also considering splitting lunch periods. When asked if Nichols could add a fourth lunch period, she said it would require creative scheduling, and would result in students starting lunch at 10 a.m.
Board president Katie Bailey said, “The class sizes will be probably be larger at Haven and Nichols than at Chute.”
Andy Pigozzi said, “I think what’s pointed out to me tonight is we can’t redistrict our middle schools and get out of this. We only have so much space in those three buildings [Haven, Nichols and Chute]. There’s no way to redistribute the populations to make the space issue go away.”
Kim Weaver said, “For next year, we’re not going to have money to do anything. Nichols will be okay next year. Haven will not be.
“My feeling is to let class sizes creep up,” she said. With respect to core spaces, “You’ve got to work on scheduling options. You’re going to get complaints from parents that their kids are eating at 10 in the morning or at 2 in the afternoon, but that’s the reality of what we’ve got right now.”
Ms. Bailey said the District currently had $24.6 million available under its debt service extension base and would have an additional $5 million in the next two years, for a total of $29.6 million. Assuming the District reserved $7 million for contingencies, she asked if the District could address the space needs at the middle schools with a portion of the remaining $22.6 million – after setting aside an amount for necessary roof and masonry repairs and technology.
Ms. Bailey said she would like the administration to make a recommendation on what to do next year, and the year after and the year after.
Dr. Murphy said, “We can just let class sizes go up and manage the student populations in those buildings through a number of different solutions. None of them are ideal. I’m not sure we should take that off the table.
“Because what is left with us is to make decisions about more or less technology, do we do the roofs at one building or another building, do we build another cafeteria here, do we move mobiles over there, and I’m not sure any of those choices are choices we want to make as administrators.”
Letting class sizes go up and managing common space through scheduling may be the recommendation, Dr. Murphy said.
Jerome Summers said the referendum vote showed that , “People don’t want a new school in the central core. Also people said they don’t want to build onto the middle schools. Maybe people need to feel that for a year. That’s what they voted for.”
Mr. Summers suggested that the Board take next year to develop a comprehensive vision for the District rather than taking a “band-aid” approach. He said the vision should be equitable for students in the central core and eliminate the “Willard Island,” a section of the Fifth Ward that is part of Willard School’s attendance-area.
Mr. Pigozzi responded, “I think we need to be a little more focused and rise to the occasion here and think about those kids going to Haven and Nichols. They had nothing to do with the referendum. They didn’t vote. … We have to rise above this and think about what’s best for these kids and what’s best for District 65.
“There may be a way where we can develop and improve the core space within the range of $10 million, maybe less, and still preserve some of the debt service and still do some of the things we need to do with technology and life safety issues.”
Mr. Pigozzi said if the Board does not have the appetite to do that, “let’s be upfront and say, ‘No, we don’t want to.’ If we want to take it a step further and talk about going back out for a repackaged referendum, maybe we can get behind this 7-0.”
Mr. Rykhus asked that the administration present the Board with two or three options that did not involve adding space at the schools and two or three that involved adding space or perhaps adding a mobile unit. He asked that one of the building options assume that the cost to add space would be paid for with non-referendum funds, and one with referendum funds.
Ms. Bailey asked the administration to present options and recommendations, with an analysis of the impact, at the Board’s May 21 meeting. The Board is scheduled to consider options for Lincolnwood Elementary School at the same meeting.
Options to Address Space Needs at Haven and Nichols
Lora Taira, chief information officer, and Mike Robey, assistant superintendent, presented a number of options to address the space needs at Haven and Nichols.
Some of the options include:
• Increase class sizes,
• Assign multiple teachers to a single classroom or put teachers on a car,
• Limit the number of permissive transfers to the elementary schools that feed into those schools,
• Use “”cap and transfer,”” under which class sizes would be capped and students transferred to another school once the cap was reached,
• Move programs at Haven or Nichols to another school,
• Redistrict at the elementary-school level in a way that would reduce the number of students who feed into Haven or Nichols,
• Change the mix of elementary schools that feed into the middle schools,
• Add classrooms by converting rooms into classrooms, building new classrooms, or renting mobile classroom units.
Many of these options depend on either there being available space at Chute Middle School or one of the magnet schools to absorb an influx of students, or having funds available to add new classrooms, or rent mobile classrooms.
Jim McHolland, principal of Chute said, “”Every room in the school is used. … If we’re talking about an influx of kids in the redesign, that might be problematic.””