As Evanston/Skokie District 65 looks to redistrict school attendance zones, one option on the table will apparently be changing the mix of grades in buildings.

Currently, the district’s 10 elementary schools are grades K-5, and the three middle schools are grades 6-8.

During a Board of Education meeting Monday night, Board member Suni Kartha asked Superintendent Devon Horton if the idea of switching schools to perhaps grades K-2 in some buildings, 3-5 in others, and then 6-8 might be on the table.

“Absolutely,” Horton replied. “We’re open to all of it.”

Changing the grades in school buildings is just an idea, and is by no means definite. But change is definitely in the wind at the 7,300 student district.

The district is about to embark on a year-long study which could lead to fewer school buildings, and a new school in the 5th Ward. The idea is in part to save money, in part to cope with declining enrollment in the district, but also to fill a long-standing neighborhood desire for a 5th Ward building.

Students in that predominantly-minority ward have been bused to schools all over Evanston, following desegregation which closed the mostly-Black Foster School four decades ago.

The District 65 elementary school attendance map.

Board President Anya Tanyavutti said, “We are pursuing a vision and equity is the umbrella for that vision.”

Constructing a new school will potentially mean closing another, according to Board Finance Chair Joey Hailpern. But closing a school will no doubt lead to a huge controversy, not made any easier by District 65’s financial problems.

The District 65 middle school attendance map.

In addition to its neighborhood-based elementary and middle schools, the district also operates two magnet schools, King at 2424 Lake St. and Rhodes at 3701 Davis St. in Skokie, and has specialized programs at three other locations.

Board Member Kartha said some may wonder why start tackling such controversy now, when things have been so difficult. But she said, “This is the right time because there has been so much upheaval.” COVID-19, she said, has exposed long-standing inequalities.

There will be both consultants and community input to come up with the redistricting plan, which will be presented to the board in March 2022.

March this year will also be a challenge. That’s when the Board is supposed to act on nearly $2 million in budget cuts for the next school year, as part of a multi-year process of downsizing the district’s “footprint” and staff size.

Business Manager Kathy Zalewski told the Board that “last February, nobody expected a once in a lifetime pandemic.” She said between lower revenues and higher COVID-related expenses, District 65 expects an $8 million decrease in funds.

While federal assistance may pick up some of those costs, Zalewski said, it will still not cover everything.

“We have to deal with this right now,” she said. Which means next month, the budget knife comes out.

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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