A bleak outlook for middle schools

Students at middle schools in Evanston/Skokie District 65 are in for a period of austerity, for the next couple of years at least, as the district copes with the impact of rising enrollments and the failure of voters to approve a referendum last month that would have given the district the authority to borrow some $28 million for construction work at its middle and magnet schools.

Some of the changes under consideration will involve lunch hours that begin as early as 10 a.m., two or more students sharing a single locker, some classrooms reduced to rolling carts that move from space to space, and mobile classrooms detached from the main building.

Although the district has limited borrowing authority for capital projects within its debt service extension base, these funds are allocated for dealing with a crumbling infrastructure, such as leaky roofs, disintegrating masonry, and aging boilers that demand immediate attention as a life and safety issue.

At the board’s regular monthly meeting Monday night, member Andrew Pigozzi, a school architect with expertise on such matters, continued to advocate a referendum to seek additional funds for middle school additions and renovations.

Member Kim Weaver inquired as to whether the district could dip into its estimated $10 million in reserves for some emergency maintenance, but was told by the district's chief financial officer Mary Brown that the reserves were necessary to manage the operating budget, where timing issues between expenditures and income require reserves just to keep the district operating on a day-to-day basis.

Member Jerome Summers doubted that another referendum would do any good as “the voters told us they did not want to pay to build a new school or to fix the middle schools” by the defeat of the March referendum.  He advocated a significant visioning exercise to put the district on the path to excellence.

Board President Katie Bailey supported that notion for the long term, but said the short-term focus on the board needs to be “to deal with our housing problem.”

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said that the immediate strategy is to let classroom sizes rise and to manage the increase as it occurs. In the short term, for example, space is especially critical at Lincolnwood, in Northwest Evanston, while some space is currently available at Walker School in Skokie. Some Lincolnwood students could, he said, be redistricted to Walker.

Complicating matters is the fact that Walker and Lincolnwood are feeder schools to different middle schools, as Lincolnwood feeds into Haven and Walker into Chute. All three middle school principals addressed the board Monday night to outline the difficulties facing them as they anticipate enrollment increases.

As a weary board adjourned around 11:30 p.m., it directed Superintendent Murphy to develop new scenarios for them to consider at future meetings.

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio stations and business-oriented magazines.

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