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I am writing to share my concerns about the actions that the District 65 school board seems poised to take with regard to the closing of schools and the building of a Fifth Ward school.
As a starting point: if D65 was growing and the building of a new school was necessary to alleviate overcrowding at existing schools, building a Fifth Ward school would be a no-brainer. However, that is not what the picture of what this district looks like. It is a district which is losing students at a rapid clip, driven in part by the decisions that the board and administration have made, including the decisions for prolonged e-learning during the pandemic and decisions regarding curriculum. The likelihood of those families which have sought options for their children elsewhere “returning to the fold” is minimal.
We also have the recent report detailing some $180 million in upgrades and repairs that are needed to bring the district’s existing buildings up to par. How and why this came to be is another discussion for another day, but those needs are not going away.
The Student Assignment Committee has presented two scenarios, both of which involve closing Bessie Rhodes and building a new Fifth Ward school. In one scenario, the new school would be K-8, in the other it would be K-5. What sort of programming would be offered in the new school was left open and would be determined in part through efforts at community engagement.
Rather than issuing bonds for new construction the district plans to pay for the new building from operating funds using savings from transportation costs from not having to bus Fifth Ward children around the city. This alternate financing mechanism is known as lease certificates. This financing mechanism has been presented as “cost neutral”, i.e., that the money that would have been spent on transportation costs would equal the cost of the lease certificates.
One of the differences between lease certificates and issuing bonds is that using lease certificates does not require a referendum or a vote. The ability to bypass a vote or referendum is no doubt one of the charms to the D65 board and administration. All of the presentations given to date have emphasized the popularity of the idea of building a Fifth Ward school. However – that is being measured without consideration of the costs and consequences of proceeding.
There are a number of questions that have never been addressed in any detail or substance:
- How can the cost of a Fifth Ward school truly be cost-neutral as measured against the transportation costs? No one has decided whether this will be a K-5 or K-8 school. Those are different buildings. No one has determined what kind of programming will go in there. A school emphasizing the arts will have different needs than one which is a STEM school. Calling this cost-neutral versus busing costs is fantasy since the actual cost of the school is an unknown at this point.
- What are the finance costs for using lease certificates versus traditional municipal bonds? Municipal bonds are generally a cheap way to finance public projects because people in finance regard them as being very safe. Lease certificates are not the same thing and it can be reasonably be expected that there will be a premium charged above and beyond the cost of municipal bonds. As far as I know that cost difference has never been discussed publicly. Any additional cost for using lease certificates versus municipal bonds is money that the board is choosing to spend to avoid placing the issues being raised to a vote, and those are costs that will be paid year after year.
- What additional financial risks is the district assuming by using lease certificates? I have little faith in the ability of local government officials to come out ahead in any transaction involving high finance. The Chicago parking meter deal was bad from the start but proved to be even worse over time as the city had to send money back to the banks for meters that were taken out of circulation for street fairs and so forth. How much risk is being taken on that this will be a worse deal than we expected at the outset?
- How will cost overruns be handled? If the building of the new Crown Center taught us anything it is that this will end up being a more expensive venture than we planned on when we set off on this journey. Since there is no additional revenue coming into the district to pay for this new construction, where will the money come from to cover the additional costs?
- Where will money come from to repair the district’s existing schools? The Thought Exchange on the condition of existing schools revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the condition and upkeep of the buildings we have. This was confirmed by the study showing that there was $180 million in repairs needed. There appears to be no plan and no resources to bring every other school up to standard.
- Which other schools will have to be closed? As of today, Bessie Rhodes is the only school which is slated to be closed, but the presentations have shown that almost all of the schools in north Evanston will see sharp drops in enrollment. Closure of at least one is inevitable, but that discussion is not being had publicly at this point. Pretending that Bessie Rhodes is the only school which will be closed is doing the community as a whole a disservice. Closing a neighborhood school is a much larger move than simply shifting around boundaries – it changes the entire character of the neighborhood. What will become of the property? Will it be left empty and a target for squatters and vandals? Sold to a developer to do what they please?
The decisions that are being made at the March 14 meeting are large decisions which have massive impacts on the community. Besides setting the stage for the closure of Bessie Rhodes and the closure of one or more north Evanston schools, the choice to not risk the vote required for bonding authority has the potential to leave this district in perpetual financial distress as it takes on a massive financial obligation to build a new school. That distress will impact the district’s ability to retain quality staff, maintain existing buildings, and most importantly, deliver quality instruction to children in the district.
What the district is proposing to do deserves additional time and actual conversation – not power points and webinars, not Thought Exchanges – to get real input from the community. And yes, it deserves a vote.