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Analysis: What now after referendum defeat?

Now that the voters have rejected a $48 million construction bond issue, the Evanston/Skokie District 65 school board faces more constrained choices about how to handle anticipated enrollment growth over the next several years.

The professional demographer hired by the board projects as many as 7,944 students by 2019 — a number not seen since the late 1970s. Ten years ago, there were 7,005 students in District 65, compared to 7,267 students today.

Board members aren’t saying what their second choice is, but solutions they considered, but rejected, are now presumably back on the table.

They could muddle along without doing anything, and just cram more students into each classroom as enrollments rise, hoping that the natural rise and fall of enrollments in a landlocked district will somehow bail them out, as many observers skeptical of the enrollment projections have suggested.

Or they could build more classrooms, as needed, to meet growing demand. This approach was rejected as a piecemeal effort that would ultimately cost the taxpayers nearly as much as a new state-of-the-art school, but it could likely be done without a referendum.

An alternative to permanent classrooms, suggested by the district’s chief financial officer Mary Brown, would be the use of mobile classroom units.

“A two-classroom mobile unit with washrooms,” Brown wrote in a memo in the fall of 2010, “is estimated to cost $450,000 to purchase, which includes delivery, installation, and utility hookups.” She said these units could be purchased through the operating budget, thereby freeing up bonds for other capital projects. This compares to upwards of $1 million each for permanent classroom additions.

They could put a cap on classroom size and bus the excess students to classrooms elsewhere in the district where a vacancy might exist. Alternatively, they could adjust the school attendance boundaries each year to match space availability to changing demographics.

The administration and board members cringed when this was suggested, as changing attendance boundaries inevitably leads to grumbling by parents, whose children have to cross unfamiliar streets in order to find their way to school.

Or, if they really wanted to mix things up, they could restrict each school to two grades and shuffle students around every couple of years. For example, Willard and Oakton could be K-1 schools, Kinsgley and Walker could house grades 2 and 3, Orrington and Dewey could hosue grades 4 and 5 …you get the idea.

That way, practically all students would be bused and each school would be a microcosm of the entire district.

Or as one wag put it: “All students, regardless of race or income level, would be equally inconvenienced.”

The New School/Referendum Committee and the Board considered each of these remedies and dismissed them all in favor of building a new school in the 5th Ward.

Much of the leadership now is expected to shift to the newly elected board members—Richard Rykhus and Eileen Budde–along with veteran Tracy Quattrocki. Waning in influence would be Jerome Summers, Kim Weaver, and Board President Katie Bailey, who were members of the New School/Referendum Committee that recommended the new school to the full board.

The swing vote is expected to remain with Andrew Pigozzi, who stands out for his professional expertise as a school architect.

Whatever solution is proposed, it is likely to be structured in such a way as to ease the 40-year burden of busing that has been pretty much restricted to minority students in the city’s 5th Ward.

The full board holds its first meeting since the referendum vote tonight at 7 p.m. at the district's administration building at 1500 McDaniel Ave.

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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