Repairs to District 65 school facilities will be more expensive than originally planned because inflation is increasing the cost of materials and construction, district officials said at a board committee meeting Monday, Feb. 13.

Last year, architecture and engineering firm Cordogan Clark conducted a full assessment of all 18 district buildings, ultimately concluding that most were in poor condition and necessary upgrades would cost $189 million over a proposed 20-year period.

Since the rate of inflation far exceeded 5% in 2022, that figure is now “north of $200 million,” District 65 Chief Financial Officer Raphael Obafemi said Monday night.

“We’re looking at health, life and safety [improvements] first. Those are our priorities as we put dollars together,” District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton said. “And, as we get those in order, then we can move into the envelope of roofing and windows and electrical and plumbing.”

Both Horton and Obafemi added that, with the cost of upgrades so high, the administration has to spend what it can afford each year on a case-by-case basis.

For example, the board committee also heard Monday about proposed expenditures on asbestos abatement projects this summer at Dawes Elementary School, Chute Middle School and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School. Those specific plans, which the full school board still has to approve later this month, involve:

  • Second floor of Chute: $78,470
  • First floor of Dawes: $193,095
  • Administration office floor at Dawes: $16,500
  • Sections of the first and second floor at King Arts: $120,000

Combined, those summer asbestos abatements will cost the district $408,065, Obafemi and Director of Buildings and Grounds Joseph Sierra said.

Cordogan Clark’s assessment of required upgrades at each school building. Credit: District 65

The average age of the district’s school buildings is 77 years, far past the typical 50-year lifespan of a school, Cordogan Clark Executive Vice President Brian Kronewitter told the board last year. On average, the last major renovation at each building occurred 61 years ago, according to Kronewitter.

Long-term financial projections

For several years, the district’s business and finance team has projected a budget deficit in the future due to needed building work, higher costs for transportation and maintenance/construction supplies as well as declining enrollment numbers.

So far, the district has successfully delayed the onset of that deficit by tying staffing levels to enrollment, among other things.

And beginning in 2024, the district will have to start paying about $3.2 million per year in lease certificate obligations as part of its funding plan to build a new Fifth Ward K-8 neighborhood school. Most of that annual payment will be subsidized by savings from eliminating the cost of busing kids out of the Fifth Ward to other schools around Evanston, according to Obafemi.

“The cost of transportation is actually projected this year to be closer to $7 million, instead of the $5 million we used in [original] projections,” Obafemi said. “So at the end of the day, what it looks like now is that it’s actually a better deal for the district to build its own school and reduce reliance on transportation. The amount of savings, long term, is going to be bigger. We were projecting $3.2 million in savings, and it’s actually going to be bigger than that.”

As shown in the graphics below, though, the district is still facing a potential $8 million budget deficit in the 2027-2028 academic year if it cannot realize any further savings.

The district is now projecting a balanced budget through Fiscal Year 2025 before a deficit could hit without any preventative action.

But Obafemi and District 65 Business Manager Kathy Zalewski promised on Monday that they will always bring a balanced budget to the board, no matter what it takes. Zalewski said the current long-term financial outlook for the district looks “much, much better” than it did a few years ago.

She also added that she’s very confident in the projected budget surpluses through the summer of 2025, noting that after that point, the projections offer her and Obafemi’s best estimate for what could happen.

“We are very conservative when we do our projections, but what we can promise you here is that we will always deliver a balanced budget. We would not present a budget that shows this kind of deficit,” Obafemi said. “So what this shows is if we did nothing, and we just kept going on, it would result in this deficit. But I can guarantee that we would not do that.”

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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