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D65: School closings, staff cuts likely

But board members also want to build a new 5th Ward school.

The District 65 administration building. (Google Maps image)

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 has a financial and political dilemma, namely, how to downsize and upsize at the same time.

At a Monday afternoon school board committee meeting, district business officer Kathy Zalewski discussed the painful need to “reduce the district’s footprint.”

When Finance Committee chair Joey Hailpern asked, “That literally means less buildings?” — the quick answer was “Yes.”

The main reason for downsizing is that the district has too much space and not enough students to fill it.

Zalewski said District 65 has lost almost 1,000 students over the past several years, and unless a soon to-be-done demographic study shows otherwise, the downward trend is expected to continue.

No decisions have been made yet on what school or schools might have to close. But while District 65 will likely shrink the footprint in one way, it also seems likely to expand that footprint in another.

A long-desired school in the 5th Ward has the support of the current school board, and the district says it has a way to fund the more-than-$30 million price tag without raising taxes.

The historically Black neighborhood lost its school more than four decades ago, and students have been bused to other neighborhoods.

While all of this has been discussed before, the certainty of shutting schools, with all the obvious political conflict that brings, is becoming more obvious.

That’s because shrinking the footprint also means shrinking the number of people who fill that footprint.

Zalewski said the decrease in employees has not kept pace with the decrease in student enrollment.

She explained that 80% of the district’s budget comes from personnel costs, and with District 65 facing deficits after next year, the goal will have to be to “align staff spending with decreasing student enrollment and strategic priorities.”

In other words, fewer jobs.

Plus, on top of declining enrollment, possibly building a 5th Ward school and closing others, and laying off staff, another factor is the cost of maintaining whatever buildings remain.

Studies are underway about long-term facilities expenses, and also about redrawing student attendance boundaries.

Rumors are apparently running rampant. Board member Donna Wang Su said she has received several “frantic messages” asking about school closings.

But nothing is locked in yet, not even a school in the 5th Ward. In fact, recommendations from consultants and study panels are not even finished.

The hope is to implement whatever the school board approves between Fiscal Years 2023 and 2025, so public input and debate are not far off.

As Finance chair Hailpern noted, “Things are already very tense for our educators and our families.” The cost of living is going up, and people are feeling the pinch.

“It’s really important,” he said, “that as a district … we don’t spend money in places where people will look at it and wonder, if we can’t explain it, if it seems extra, then we really need to be pulling back on that.”

Of course, what is necessary to one person may be extravagant to another, which is where debate may become the hottest.

keywords » School District 65

Jeff Hirsh

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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