Evanston Township High School District 202 officials asked the City on Nov. 27 to consider a zoning text amendment that would allow them to lease space at 1233-35 Hartrey Ave. for a special education day school.
The property is currently zoned I2 (Industrial 2), for industrial uses, but Reed Beidler, who owns the property, said the day school would fit well in the mix of other tenants there. Among those tenants are Goldfish Swim, where young children learn to swim; Evanston KinderCare, for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years; and Have Dreams, which provdes services for adults on the autism spectrum. Sugar and Spice, a commercial bakery, has offered apprenticeships to clients of Have Dreams, he said.
The day school would educate special education students who require services that are not currently provided at ETHS. These students sometimes spend up to an hour being transported from Evanston to their current schools, and the District spends between $40,000 and $50,000 per student in tuition, said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon.
ETHS Chief Financial Officer Mary Rodino said, “This is about our students who are spending up to 60 minutes a day on buses or in taxis. We’ve found a location [for the day school] that is three blocks from the high school. We would start out with about 20 students, but the number could increase to 40.” In addition, she said, some of the students might be able to take courses at the high school or participate in extra-curricular activities there.
Dr. Witherspoon called the proposal a “win-win-win. Certainly it’s a win for our children with special needs. We can offer them education here. It’s a win for the taxpayers, because we’ll be creating between 12 and 18 jobs in Evanston, that now we’re paying for kids to be educated out of the community. It’s a win for the families to be able to have their children educated in Evanston, served by people who are invested in the children.
“This is going to save the taxpayers money – save $1 million by bringing the students back to ETHS.” The savings would be in both transportation and out-of-district tuition costs.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, did not welcome the proposal. “You’re asking us to change our zoning based on ‘special’ education?” she asked. “What is it about these students that makes them special?”
Lanee Walls, Director of Special Education at ETHS, said there are 13 eligible categories for special education. “The primiary disabilities will be emotional disabilities; some children may be on the autism spectrum,” she said. “The goal is that they can be educated at ETHS, but some require more structure.”
“What [curriculum] are you going to offer?” asked Ald. Rainey.
Ms. Walls said the school has not yet been set up.
“One of the issues,” said Ald. Rainey, “is that you chose this site in an I2 district, which should not have been chosen for an educational facility. Almost any district you could have used; instead, you chose one of the “I” districts. You must know about the lawsuit. We went to court and won. The judge said the City has the right to protect its zoning.”
Ald. Rainey was referring to a lawsuit filed by Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov Elementary School in Chicago, which wished to expand to Evanston on the property behind the Target and Jewel Food stores on Howard Street. The school sued after City Council refused to change the zoning to allow the school to locate there.
The City prevailed in the lawsuit and subsequently expanded the tax-increment financing (TIF) district there. With other City help amounting to about $8 million, Autobarn purchased the property.
Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite spoke “on behalf of the residents [across the street from the I2 zone] and the applicant” in favor of the proposal. “What is amazing is that they are all Evanston students.”
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said, “I do support this. I think it makes reasonable sense.”
In response to a question from Ald. Rainey, Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar said only a simple majority is needed to approve a zoning text amendment.
Saying timing is critical, Mr. Beidler also asked that City staff conduct parallel analyses for the zoning amendment and for a special-use permit that would be needed if the zoning is approved. Aldermen did not approve that request.
The matter was approved for introduction by a 7-1 vote, Ald. Rainey voting “No.” Council may take up the matter in January.