Foster Field, the anticipated site of a new 5th Ward School. (Google Maps image)

When the District 65 School Board voted this spring to build a new school in Evanston’s 5th Ward, district leaders said they planned to have the $40 million building ready to welcome students just over two years.

In a public message in May, Superintendent Devon Horton said “We anticipate the new school opening in time for the 2024-25 school year.”

But then, on Monday of this week, with no fanfare and no discussion, a single line in a multi-page budget memo from District 65 Business Manager Kathy Zalewski said, “The school is expected to be completed by the spring of 2025.”

No reasons were given in the memo for the delay, and there was no discussion of it during the school board’s Finance Committee meeting, where the budget document was presented.

So Evanston Now asked for an explanation.

And, in an emailed response, Chief Financial Officer Raphael Obafemi said “With the conversation going on with the City of Evanston about the possibility of collaborating to include the current Fleetwood-Jourdain building in the new school construction, we have modified the completion date to the spring of 2025.”

Back when the Fall 2024 timetable was announced, the Fleetwood-Jourdain option was not under consideration.

However, last week, City Council agreed to study whether to incorporate a new Fleetwood-Jourdain recreation center in the 5th Ward school.

There’s no price tag yet, and the hope is the study can be done quickly.

But the extra investigation, and potentially the extra construction time if a rec center is added, are adding time.

However, the 5th Ward school does not exist in a vaccuum. A delay might touch students and staff district-wide, by potentially impacting the District 65 student reassignment plan.

A shift in school attendance boundaries is supposed to begin when classes start in 2024-25, as part of an overall restructuring of which students go where.

But it’s hard to imagine the restructuring without a 5th Ward school ready to go as part of the new boundaries.

Another question: if the 5th Ward school is completed in, say, April 2025 (or some other spring month), would the new school open then, or would the district wait until the start of the next school year in fall, 2025?

Obafemi said “I think it might be premature to speculate about the date of the new school opening and its impact on the start of the 2024-2025 school year.”

He added that “as the development and construction of the school come into better focus, I am sure we will develop a solid plan to address all contingencies.”

There is yet another issue, however.

The new school boundaries, including a 5th Ward school, are supposed to reduce the need for buses, because most students will be able to walk to school.

Savings from the reduced busing is then supposed to help pay for the 5th Ward building. But with the opening delayed, those savings, in theory, could evaporate until the new school opens, because buses will still be needed.

In the meantime, the first $18 million to start preliminary work for the facility is included in the district’s budget for the academic year about to start.

But those who have been waiting for decades to see a new school in the 5th Ward will have to wait a little longer.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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10 Comments

  1. It’s not too late to reconsider. Do the School Board and Horton give a hoot about Evanston’s future? They gave in to the demands of very few people. They don’t have to continue down this path.

    This plan was rushed without serious planning or input. The district will use all of Foster Field for a very costly new school while enrollment is declining and current schools are falling apart due to deferred maintenance.

    Sports maybe can be moved to other fields but not summer camps and school holiday camps. The Board put the City in a tough spot so they are considering another new community center! $$$ ca-ching!

    Demographics were not considered. It’s no longer a predominantly Black neighborhood, so will this really be the Black school wanted for so long? Gentrification will intensify and ALL of our taxes will skyrocket if a new school plus a new community center are built!

    Fleetwood-Jourdain has had massive $,$$$,$$$ investments in infrastructure. Will the Feds want their CDBG money back if it is demolished? Why not buy Foster School/Family Focus and renovate/replace that historical building? It could be a more sustainable option and the field would still be there for students.

    The district needs to focus on maintenance for current buildings and new boundaries to save bussing money. They have a decades-long history of waiting to do repairs until it’s an expensive crisis and then they beg for a bond to be passed for life-safety repairs.

  2. The documents for the lease certificates are fairly specific that the structure must be used only as a school. Therefore, the city and D65 must tread carefully not to violate these requirements when planning to incorporate a community center as part of the project.

    D65 has added staff for the stated purpose of increasing school safety. I hope those involved in planning will evaluate whether having the community center in close proximity to the school adds to or detracts from school safety.

  3. I agree this was significantly rushed with a severe lack of planning. Can someone explain to me how building a new school thats only 2,000 feet away from Kingsley makes any sense? Will Kingsley be closed in the future and the Willard and Lincolnwood attendance boundaries adjusted? The funding mechanism is also highly suspect and seems to have only one goal — skirt the requirement for a referendum (seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen). Either none of this has been thought through, or there is a significant lack of transparency.

  4. The district just hired a principal for a school that may not open now for at least two years. I’d like to know what this person will be doing while being paid to principal a non-existent school? Perhaps he or she could be a reading specialist? We definitely need those!

  5. Will the principal of the 5th ward school be hired now and paid now? How many years will the principal be paid before the school opens?

  6. Returning a school to the 5th ward is financially necessary, regardless of the racial composition of the residents. The Foster School was not removed because a population analysis stated the school wasn’t needed but rather because it was easier to move black bodies to create integration. After all, Evanston, like most communities, was segregated. We have spent needless money (busing) to implement a school assignment to make false and forced integration. The return of the school allows resources to be allocated based upon analysis of population, not social engineering to create diversity on the backs of a few. The new assignment policy will return a needed school, regardless of the population who attends it, and then a permissive transfer will allow everyone to move schools. We welcome 6th and 7th ward families opting into the 5th ward school to continue attending integrated schools.

  7. Anonymous Voice raises a good point about the financial merits – which can be fairly debated. Taking that point as true, however, underlines the fundamental foolishness of what is happening. We will be bearing an extra $5 million in bussing costs and $1 million plus in finance costs plus whatever additional costs such as a principal for a school with no students over that extra year where there will be no 5th Ward school. And of course that does not take into account the extent to which the increased scope will blow up the $40 million budget and result in additional maintenance and operational costs on an ongoing basis when there are plenty of other District buildings in dire need of repair and upgrades.

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