District 65 Chief Financial Officer Raphael Obafemi (left) and Business Manager Kathy Zalewski present budget updates at Monday’s committee meeting. Credit: District 65 YouTube

Thanks to expenditure cuts and more-than-expected revenue from property taxes, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 ended the latest fiscal year with a budget surplus of nearly $6 million, Business Manager Kathy Zalewski told school board members at Monday’s Personnel, Building and Grounds and Finance Committee meeting.

During the year, the district got almost $2 million more in property taxes than it had budgeted, which Zalewski said was “unusual.” Plus, corporate property taxes from the year added up to over $1 million more than District 65 typically collects annually, according to Zalewski.

Superintendent Devon Horton and Chief Financial Officer Raphael Obafemi said the surplus was the result of the district being conservative with its money during the pandemic, but Zalewski is still projecting a budget deficit starting in the 2024-25 year if the district does not make any cuts or expense changes.

Back in 2017, Obafemi and Zalewski started sounding alarm bells about a coming deficit, but the district has delayed the onset of a potential deficit by starting to make cuts and applying for more grant money as an alternative. This year, the surplus is particularly helpful for building up reserve funds because the latest property tax levy from the Cook County assessor is currently delayed, according to Obafemi.

“We’ve been really aggressive. We know that there are major needs, and, contrary to what you may hear, we are extremely fiscally responsible,” Horton said. “And so, we find other ways to pay for really valuable programs for our students and for our staff. We’ve been fortunate – our grant writer, Joseph [Spilberg], has done a phenomenal job finding these dollars.”

The budget for the 2022-23 school year includes a record amount of money from grants awarded to the district, according to Horton and Zalewski. Some of those grants include funds for the CREATE 65 Teacher Residency Program, which is designed to recruit and train educators in partnership with Chicago State University, and for expanded mental health services at district schools, among other things.

For the upcoming school year, the district has also saved money by eliminating 25 positions, which is what caused the involuntary teacher transfers that were announced back in April.

“This is the great resignation, and we’ve been losing candidates and staff, but we’ve been replacing them with really high-end candidates,” Horton said. “And we want to be sure that we have a pipeline for internal improvements.”

Firm selected to build Fifth Ward school

Also at Monday’s meeting, the committee formally endorsed Cordogan Clark and Associates, an Aurora-based architecture and construction firm, to provide the construction services for the building of the new Fifth Ward kindergarten through eighth-grade school, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2025.

Cordogan Clark is already under contract with the district to design the school, but Obafemi and the rest of the business team conducted interviews with other construction companies before recommending it as the preferred constructor. One of the key questions for the district was how the chosen company would involve local, minority-owned contractors in the building process, Obafemi told the committee on Monday.

“We whittled it down to six finalists based on how good of a fit they would be, based on their submission, their level of experience, their references and the type of work they’ve done in a similar school setting,” Obafemi said. “I would say that [Cordogan Clark’s] submission was by far the best. Their plan of construction management was head and shoulders above all the others, even though we had some great submissions.”

In the upcoming year’s budget, the district is devoting $18 million toward design and construction costs on the new school, according to Zalewski. Last week, the Evanston City Council also approved a plan for Cordogan Clark to conduct a public engagement process for redesigning the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center in partnership with the new school. The chance to rebuild the community center will provide the company, the city and the district with more flexibility in its design plans, said Cordogan Clark Executive Vice President Brian Kronewitter.

“We have about 10 community engagement meetings that are scheduled to take place really to take the temperature of the community to ensure that this concept has validity at a cost number that makes sense,” Kronewitter said at Monday’s committee meeting. “We’re excited, because it really will make this building a better building, to be able to have a little more freedom on the site. To be able to combine the two properties together gives us more potential for design solutions that can be a strong benefit to leave you some green space in that tight restricted block.”

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...