The projected cost of building the proposed new school in Evanston’s 5th Ward has skyrocketed since the project was approved 19 months ago.
Interim District 65 Superintendent Angel Turner told a special Board of Education meeting Monday night that the K-8 school, originally promised at $40 million and with no tax increase for the voters, is now projected at $65 million, unless another cheaper option is approved.
Plus, Turner said that if the $65 million goes forward, the district would need to sell bonds to help raise the money, which would then lead to a property tax hike.
Operational budget cuts would also be required.
Turner was not superintendent when the board approved the 5th Ward School in March 2022. That was Devon Horton, who has since moved on to another superintendency in Georgia.
Without mentioning anyone by name, board member Joey Hailpern appeared to take a swipe at Horton, and at former Chief Financial Officer Raphael Obafemi, who has left for a finance job with another Illinois district.
“There is just no reason why we didn’t have this information along the way. This is not the fault of most of this administrative team now, because you weren’t in position at that time to have that information to share with us,” Hailpern said.
The current reality “was a result of poor planning, and/or holding certain information which just bult the hype,” he added.
And, there was one more blow to the credibility of the original school board plan.
The promise then was to be able to pay the entire $40 million cost for the school with savings from reduced busing.
5th Ward students have been bused other schools since the mostly Black Foster School closed decades ago.
The total bus savings bounced around somewhat, most recently described as $3.2 million annually from needing fewer bus routes.
But Turner said the actual savings would only be $750,000.
A total of 13 different possibilities are now on the table. They range from a stripped-down, two story, K-5 school at $42.4 million, up to the now $65-million, three-story, K-8 school.
The building could house as few as 600 students or as many as 1,000. (900 had been originally mentioned).
No decisions were made, although four of the seven-member board said they were leaning in favor of keeping a K-8 model, although not necessarily the most expensive option.
Next Monday, the board indicated it will vote on whether to accept a bid for site clearance work, because the site has to be cleared no matter what goes on it.
The assumption is that the bid will be approved, as the board still plans to build a 5th Ward School, whatever it may turn out to be. Determining the building option would come later.
Several board members stressed that the 5th Ward decision needs to be accompanied by a larger discussion of “right-sizing the district,” which may well lead to school closings, in a system with declining enrollment.
Board member Biz Lindsay-Ryan said it’s apparently time to “have the conversations nobody wants to have about how many buildings we need to have.”