The arguing is over. The children –at least some of them – can come home. By a 7-1 vote on Feb. 26, City Council approved a special use for Evanston Township High School’s alternative school at 1233-35 Hartrey Ave.

Students who would attend the school are ETHS students whose developmental, emotional, or other needs cannot be met at ETHS and who now attend alternative schools in other districts.  According to ETHS, nearly 100 students are currently placed off campus: 6 Asian; 24 Black or African American; 13 Hispanic or Latino; 1 Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; 3 of two or more races; and 51 White. Initially, 20 of these students and eventually up to 40 would attend the alt school, which is about three blocks south of the main campus.

The high school will have a 10-year lease on 6,500 square feet of the large building that stretches both east and south from the intersection of Hartrey Avenue and Dempster Street.

Having the students educated in Evanston would save taxpayers the cost of out-of-district tuition – about $50,000 per student  per year – and would create 12-18 new jobs, ETHS officials said.

Neither Mary Rodino, Chief Financial Officer of ETHS, nor Laneè Walls, Director of Special Education at ETHS, could predict the races of the students who would attend the alt school. The demographics of the student population was one concern expressed by neighbors who have spoken at several City meetings in opposition to the school.

With a two-step process, ETHS was able to obtain the special use for the alt school, the site of which is in an I2 District, a district zoned for industry. First, ETHS persuaded the City Council to allow educational institutions as special uses in industrial districts. Having obtained that change – a zoning text amendment – the high school then requested and received a special use for its alt school.

Several nearby residents said they felt they had been left out of the process. Darlene Cannon said notice of the December Plan Commission meeting at which the text amendment was discussed, and was published in the Chicago Sun-Times, rather than in a local newspaper, as had been done for several previous meetings.

“I’m asking you to vote ‘No’ on the alt school,” Ms. Cannon told the Council. “The process was discriminatory. … We as taxpayers ask the Council to vote for the will of the people, not their own will.”

Residents received information about the proposal at a Second Ward meeting late last fall. Carolyn Murray, a Fifth Ward resident, said, “A ward meeting is not public notice. The problem is lack of communication on the City’s part.”

Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said her vote was not based on resdients’ concerns about lack of notice or about the race or ethnicity of the potential students but about the zoning change, which, she said, “violated” the zoning district.

“The reason I’m speaking against it is because the City of Evanston spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending the Industrial 2 District against a lawsuit when an educational use wanted to go into an I2 district. And the reason we did that is to keep that district from being violated by a not-for-profit use.  An industrial district is more or less sacred, because it provides for industrial uses – heavy-duty uses that bring more taxes, that provide more innovative uses that aren’t allowed in other districts. … When you alter a district like an I2 district, it’s not just that place in question [that is] changed by the zoning] – it’s all the districts that are I2 districts.”

Ald. Rainey said she believed that City staff and her aldermanic colleagues voted for the zoning change and the special use because of “who the applicant was [the high school] and who the owner of the property is [Reed Beidler, brother of former Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl]. … The high school knew better. … That they violated the effort made by the City of Evanston and secured some of the aldermen and the Zoning Board of Appeals to get this through is – I just think – is heart-breaking. … So now all the I2 districts are going to allow educational uses. … I think the ZBA just made a wrong-headed decision. I think the Council made a political decision. We like ETHS and we like these people, and we want to make it easy for them. … We just caved in, and now we watered down the zoning ordinance.”

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, responded to Ald. Rainey, saying he saw things differently. “I see this as a very unique opportunity and a way to take care of our kids.” He said the high school will pay property taxes and there will be a cost-saving to Evanston taxpayers, because they will not have to pay transportation costs. … I reject the notion in any statement that adding these 22 kids … that somehow by the high schools housing 22 kids who are in the process of transitioning back to the high school, who have access to sports, access to amenities – things they would not be able to [have] if they were bused outside of the community – is a bad thing.”

Ms. Rodino said, “One hundred seventeen notices were sent to neighbors who live within 500 feet of the building. These same 117 neighbors were invited to a coffee at ETHS, and six came.”

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “It’s clear this property has evolved from what it once was. There used to be a railroad there, and it used to be a heavy industrial area. … The thing that’s compelling to me is that this is about giving the kids in our community the best opportunity to succeed that they can get. …

“We don’t always like everything that happens around us, and that’s just how life is. But I would guess that, far and away, the majority of the time that it’s not as bad as we feared it would be.

“But this is about providing an education opportunity for kids in our community instead of shipping them out. These are kids who have struggles.  These are members of our community, and we should be looking out for them in our community.”

Ald. Rainey then said, “So obviously you have not heard a word I said. This [area] should have been rezoned. It shouldn’t have been amended. I think the high school’s approach to this has been brilliant. Everything has been done perfectly, except they violated the zoning district.”

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, was absent, and Ald. Ann Rainey, cast the sole “no” vote at the Feb. 26 City Council meeting.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...