A passionate discussion that arose at the Feb. 8 District 65 Finance Committee meeting resurfaced at the Feb. 22 full Board meeting. The topic was whether the District would include locker rooms at Bessie Rhodes School in its capital fund package.
Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies, 3701 Davis St. in Skokie, was built as an elementary school but has been a K-8 magnet school for nearly two decades. Middle-school students change for gym in a classroom. Although the windows are covered, students and teachers have said that at times someone will walk in on the students as they are changing.
At the Feb. 5 Finance Committee meeting, several Board members debated whether to add locker rooms to the already-pared-down list of capital projects but ultimately decided that, although the matter is important, it would have to take a back seat to safety issues.
At the Feb. 22 meeting, the Board approved a bond sale of $3.6 million for capital projects, but the Rhodes locker room project was not included. Instead, Board members voted to include the item in its five-year capital plan. The Board also recommended that the administration look into cheaper options for locker rooms and find space that would not disrupt the teachers’ work space.
Superintendent Paul Goren said further that if additional money should become available in the operating account, it might be possible to direct those funds toward addressing the lack of changing space at Bessie Rhodes.
Dr. Mary Brown, the District’s business manager, said she had toured the building and found some potential areas that could be used as a changing area. No space identified so far is wholly satisfactory, because each of those would encroach on space already allotted to teachers, administrators or social workers.
Several people from the Bessie Rhodes community spoke during the public comment period.
“Safety concerns are of paramount importance,” Bessie Rhodes parent Amina Di Marco said, but added, “Children are changing in the classrooms. Keep this a high priority when you are deciding on the capital plan.”
Evanston Township High School student Mollie Hartenstein, a Bessie Rhodes alumna, said she had texted several of her friends about the issue and that she, as well as others, remember “being walked-in on” when they were changing for or from gym.
Her brother Van, a student at Bessie Rhodes, said he had gathered 139 signatures on a petition for locker rooms at the school. Keith Volante, a physical education teacher at Bessie Rhodes, said, “I ask that a changing room be kept on the table – one that will not displace teachers and be safe for middle-school students.”
Parent Laura Matthews said, “Our students’ privacy, safety and security must be worth a second look.”
Board members acknowledged that the lack of a private, dedicated changing area for middle-school students at Bessie Rhodes is an important matter but disagreed about where it would fit in the hierarchy of capital projects.
“I feel pretty strongly that the Rhodes locker room situation is an issue of safety and privacy and needs to be addressed, but I’m not sure how to move forward from here,” said Board member Suni Kartha.
“I feel the question is, ‘If not now, when?’” said Board member Jennifer Phillips. She said she had understood from the Feb. 8 Finance Committee meeting that the Board would approve a bond sale and that the projects to be included could be specified at a later date.
“We’re having capital problems District-wide,” said Board member Richard Rykhus. “The reality is that many buildings are not equitable. … We have really methodically over this last year looked at the money and had to make some very difficult decisions.” He also said that the Board already has estimates for projects that would be specified in the capital improvement package.
Board member Candance Chow said, “The Rhodes lockers should be in the five-year plan.”
Board member Claudia Garrison said she thinks the issue “should be kept alive.”
“We’re probably spending $3.6 million on capital projects – $1.9 million on technology,” said Ms. Phillips, adding that the pieces of furniture in the Board room have longer useful lives than do computers. “We’re spending 52% of this money on technology.” She said computers and technology costs should be covered in the operating budget, but when they are considered capital expenses, “they rob funds for capital projects each year.” She advocated putting more money into capital projects.
Mr. Rykhus said putting more money into capital projects would diminish funds available for teacher aides and other supports.
“We’ve put the Rhodes locker issue into the [five-year] proposal so it would be an alive issue,” said Dr. Goren. He said paying for technology from capital funds “really is a trade-off, and as we pivot from that we will have to make more trade-offs.”
“We ended the Feb. 8 Finance Committee meeting saying we wanted the administration to look into the spaces at Rhodes and come back,” said Board President Tracy Quattrocki. Lower-cost options for the Rhodes locker rooms may be presented at an upcoming Finance Committee meeting