Editor’s note: The RoundTable has more Evanston City Council Jan. 9 coverage on the city seeking to slow down District 65 campus decisions, Fifth Ward school survey results, the Artists Book Home agreement and the withdrawal of the bag tax.

More than a month after a tense community meeting about development plans for a new Fifth Ward school and a renovated or relocated Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center, many of the public’s key questions about the project remain unanswered.

In the latest sign of confusion over the path forward, particularly for the potential remodeling of Fleetwood-Jourdain, Evanston’s Capital Planning and Engineering Bureau Chief Lara Biggs told city council on Monday, Jan. 9, that the city needs to renegotiate with District 65 the memorandum of understanding (MOU) – a planning document for a project involving two or more groups.

The view of Foster Field from the corner of Simpson and Dewey, where District 65 plans to build a $40 million school. Credit: Duncan Agnew

That step is necessary because the existing MOU required the city to make a decision about the future of Fleetwood-Jourdain by Jan. 1, 2023. With that deadline having come and gone, the city has to extend its own deadline for the community center project in a new agreement with the school district, Biggs said.

“One reason that we had very limited public engagement, and we’re racing through this at a breakneck speed, is because District 65’s schedule is a little bit more fixed, and it’s very fast,” she told the council. “It does not allot a lot of time for us to have discussions about joint uses. It doesn’t allow a lot of time for us to be able to do the public engagement we need.”

But, according to Biggs, as long as District 65 does not plan to build any part of its new school where Fleetwood-Jourdain currently stands, then the district can move forward while giving the city some extra time to figure out a plan for the community center.

Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, vehemently urged the city to speed up its decision about Fleetwood-Jourdain.

“This was presented much rosier than what I think is the reality,” Burns said. “They [District 65] are going to need to know what direction we’re taking, what parking is available and isn’t available, in the next few weeks in order for them to make long-term decisions about where they put things on this site.”

Other elected officials, including Fourth Ward Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma and Mayor Daniel Biss, said they were concerned about rushing through a community engagement process to get feedback from Fifth Ward residents on what they want to see out of a refurbished or rebuilt community center.

Nieuwsma described District 65 as “on their own quick, probably too quick in my opinion, timeline,” for construction. But the district has already financially committed to the process through a lease certificates funding structure, with debt payments due starting in 2024.

“What was on the slide [of Biggs’ presentation to Council] basically says staff is seeking direction to go back to District 65, renegotiate the MOU and then, essentially, figure out a new timeline on which we can make these decisions, perhaps by narrowing down the universe of options so that they’re all similar enough so they [District 65] can kind of halfway move forward,” Biss said.

At this point, the city manager’s office, the parks and recreation department and the capital planning team will all meet with District 65 to revise for a decision on what to do with Fleetwood-Jourdain, according to Biggs. Those negotiations will take place quickly, with Biggs returning to Council with an update in February, she said.

Still, even with a somewhat formulated idea of next steps in this long process, the eventual actions that the city decides to take remain uncertain.

“This has been on an extremely brief schedule, and we’re just not really entirely certain what it is that we are doing yet,” Biggs said.

Duncan Agnew

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...

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  1. I would point out that the ‘deal’ between the city and the district is an agreement with no legal enforcement.

    There is no reason the city needs to follow the District’s accelerated timeline (which itself is a product of their choice to bypass the traditional bonding mechanism used to raise funds for new schools). Especially when most of the population doesn’t think we need a new school while the others are in a state of disrepair and the district is losing students.

    We shouldn’t be held hostage to District 65s timeline.

  2. Thanks for highlighting this. One thing that is clear is more discussion is needed to address transition periods with real impact on residents/students! How can we make the right long term choices while not harming families and disrupting students enrolled during the transition years? Community response highlighted that closing F-J for the construction period would take away needed services. Likewise 5th ward fams have been told they would have the option to finish at their existing elementary or switch to the 5th ward schools, but with no bussing—so not a true choice for many fams. Can the city/D65 find money to continue busing for a few years if families want to stay at existing elementary?
    Similarly, D65 SAP discussions are now kicking around whether TWI (Spanish immersion) will be moved from certain schools which could mean some TWI students would effectively lose their neighborhood school or face losing TWI programming (again—is bussing available to bilingual students? Kids who have done 3 years of TWI?). Can the dist think now about how to increase resources for TWI?

    A lot of stress/uncertainty for existing families who now worry about whether their students will have to change elementary schools midstream (and kids don’t need this on top of Covid disruption to their educations)! It is important that the city/district find the right path forward for the long term while also ensuring a smooth and fair transition for existing students and families.