Interim Superintendent Angel Turner and board members Joey Hailpern and Mya Wilkins.

For the first time since the Great Recession in 2009, Evanston-Skokie School District 65 has spent more money than it took in during a fiscal year.

For FY 2023, which ended June 30, the district saw a $7.5 million deficit, with higher-than-anticipated transportation costs making up about half of the red ink.

Budget Manager Kathy Zalewski told the school board finance committee on Wednesday that “we are really sorry to bring you some worse news than projected.”

Despite educating fewer children, District 65’s $166.1 million in expenditures were 106% of what was expected.

“We absolutely should not have 106% of our budget spent,” said committee Chair Joey Hailpern.

“It doesn’t compute,” he told Zalewski, and soon-to-be-leaving Chief Financial Officer Raphael Obafemi. “Somebody needed to be watching that.”

Raphael Obafemi and Kathy Zalewski at D65 committee meeting.

Part of the deficit was beyond the district’s control. A computer and staffing snafu in Cook County delayed $1.5 million in property tax payments to the school system.

And $1 million in anticipated federal COVID relief aid also is coming in late.

By law, that combined $2.5 million will have to be included in the 2023-24 budget, even though the district had to spend the cash in the year just ended.

But even if all of that $2.5 million came in on time, District 65 would have still completed FY 23 with a bucket full of red ink, which led board member Mya Wilkins to say “these numbers are definitely a wakeup call for all of us.”

The biggest problem was the ever-increasing cost of getting kids to school, $3.7 million more than planned.

“And,” Zalewski noted, “these [bus cost increases] will not go away soon.”

The national bus driver shortage has meant paying higher wages to attract staff.

(Michael O’Keene/

Plus, Obafemi said, “not as many people want to drive buses like they used to.”

Several years ago, he noted, the transportation budget was $5 million. Now, he said, it’s closer to $11 million, which, he added, “is not sustainable.”

Transportation costs are not just for the familiar yellow buses.

Some kids are taken to school in a taxi, as Zalewski’s written report explained, “due to disciplinary issues and safety.”

District 65 expects to significantly reduce the need for buses when the new 5th Ward School opens, which also includes a system-wide redrawing of attendance boundaries so most kids will be able to walk to school.

Obafemi said opening the 5th Ward School will be “timely” in cutting transportation costs.

However, the one-year-delay in opening the new $40 million building, to the fall of 2025, means another year of bus expenses.

Other components of the red ink, Zalewski said, included extra maintenance costs, textbooks for a new curriculum adopted after the budget was passed, and the shortage in special education teachers which led to costlier use of staffing agencies.

Plus, “consulting services exceeded the budget by $0.3 million,” her report added.

“Maybe we need to say goodby to X, Y, Z consultants,” Hailpern said, noting that the board sometimes finds out about consulting contracts from the administration after the work is already under way, something he said needs to change.

“I want to consistently protect children,” Hailpern said, “and everything else to me is negotiable. We need to rein in” things like consultant costs.

Enrollment is also a critical issue. District 65 has lost almost 19% of its student total since 2018, “with the pandemic accelerating the process,” Zalewski’s report indicated.

And that trend is not expected to stop, with K-8 for 2023-24 projected at 6,019, a decrease of another 97 children.

Despite the enrollment decline since 2018, Zalewski’s report said D65 did not reduce the size of the educational work force until 2022.

Next year, 15.5 full time equivalent positions will be eliminated through attrition, not layoffs.

But District 65 will actually bring more staff on board in 2023-24 (28.4) than positions being cut (15.5).

More than half of the new positions are in special education or English as a Second Language, to fit increasing needs in those areas, even as the overall district population decreases.

Savings from the eliminated positions will help pay for the new hires.

Other attempts to save money will come through trying to reduce taxi transportation, fewer consultants, and, in order to avoid surprises, setting aside more maintenance money before emergency repairs are needed in the middle of the budget year.

The final 2023-24 budget has to be passed by the school board by Sept. 30.

Right now, the tentative budget for the upcoming school year is $170.7 million, with a year-end surplus projected at $800,000.

But, between now and the 2023-24 budget approval next month, the present tentative numbers might turn into something different.

Everything, Zalewski said, “is subject to change.”

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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  1. Funny how District 65 transportation costs were rising exponentially early in calendar year 2023 but no one was informed of them until after 1) the school board elections on April 4, 2023, and 2) Dr. Horton’s consideration for the superintendent position at the DeKalb County School District was well underway. Did the finance staff at D65 hold back on releasing this information to ensure that incumbents were re-elected and to help Dr. Horton get a new position? Or maybe they were simply afraid for their own jobs? They needn’t have worried – this school board hasn’t asked anyone in administration to resign in years, despite many awful (and costly) curriculum choices, fleeing teachers, expenses that have been hidden from the board, falling test scores, and an achievement gap that’s barely changed in a decade.

  2. “Somebody needed to be watching that.”

    I thought that was part of a CFO’s job. Well since the District will have to hire a new CFO, they should ask candidates if they would report actual vs. planned expenditures for the Board.

  3. Of course we find that now after those responsible for overspending have left for greener pastures, leaving us to pay the bill and suffer the consequences. It was going to be a problem for future us, and now we are future us.

  4. Got to say, being consistently surprised at the cost of things might be a bad quality for a body that spends public money. If the equity trough ever starts running low, people might wake up to the degraded state of institutions and services these people are leaving behind for children and families to deal with.

  5. Favorite quote from person whose only job it is to proactively manage millions of dollars affecting our children, while consistently awake:

    “these numbers are definitely a wakeup call for all of us.”

  6. What will it take to wake up the Evanston community and take action against what a train wreck this district has become. Falling enrollments, falling student performance, lowered student expectations, grossly mismanaged finances, veteran teachers leaving in droves, and decorating facilities. Yet this community still keeps on electing school board members who are clueless and supporting this administration. Unreal. Get your heads out of the ground Evanston and demand better.

    1. That’s the outcomes that you get with a populace infected with the woke mind-virus. Same thing will happen at the city level with the growing homeless population. It will just get worse and worse.

  7. Oh, it’s just delightful how Angel Turner & District 65 administration has found the perfect hideaway in their gilded, secured office. Because, you know, why bother with the pesky task of interacting with the common folk and their trivial concerns? It’s a true art, the way they gracefully sidestep any need to address discipline issues or those charmingly substandard teachers. Who needs progress and accountability anyway? Kudos to them for turning obliviousness into an art form! 🎨🏛️
    I’m pretty certain there is some Bernie Madoff accounting going on here fat salaries and no work perfect place to come retire

  8. Every year more and more money is spent and district outcomes worsen. Perhaps we need to start defunding this district and give parents vouchers for private schools.

  9. Don’t worry, everyone, I’m sure Biz has plans to lead a DEI session that will get us out of this mess!

  10. Why is this news to the Board? Doesn’t the Board get (and pay attention to) financial updates every month?
    And I suspect that the administrative staffing could be run to be lean, and I hope that throughout the district, performance expectations on all employees are rigorous, as would be in the private sector.
    What does the balance look like? Reserves?
    Accountability with taxpayer money is a good thing.

  11. Didn’t D65 win an award for financial mgt recently?

    What a joke this entire district and the whole self congratulating and semi openly self dealing industry our public education systems have become! I know it shouldn’t laugh about it, but if I don’t laugh I’ll cry.

    Wake up Evanston! It’s time we hire real educators and not all these incestuous consultants who care more about making money on side hustles under the guise of progressive causes while caring nothing about actual students.

  12. While there is more money spent than is coming in, that is likely a function of a diminishing enrollment. We have to be willing to acknowledge the change in demand across the board as enrollment falls. If you continue spending while the state money is contingent on enrollment, this problem will persist until we start seriously looking at overhead in the operating budget and start making tough choices.

    1. State funding is not the issue. Over 90% of the revenue for the District cones from property taxes. The slice of state funding is small ant not materially affected by enrollment.

  13. Do the Board members really need a wake up call? Are they napping? And really how many children need to come to school in a cab? As a school social worker I am aware of incidents in which children need to be transported this way. Usually one or two might but never for the entire school year as the IEP would set a goal of ending this accommodation. How many people are napping anyway? Also all the other school districts in Illinois faced the same problem as reduced sources of income

  14. This is the team that is to lead the construction of the new school. If they cannot keep track in variances of the transportation budget, I see little reason to be optimistic about the new school coming in at 40 million.

  15. I don’t know it’s a good thing to build a new school (for $40 million) the 5th Ward when there are 20% fewer kids in the District.

    1. Interestingly the guy the Board hired to sort all this out, Devon Horton, is now shutting down the construction of a new school in his new Georgia district saying “We are fully aware of our responsibility to use our resources wisely and ensure that any school construction projects can be adjusted to align with current and projected enrollment needs.”

      In Evanston, the Board of Education clearly didn’t make the superintendent aware of this responsibility.

  16. I’m old enough to to remember when the Puritans of Evanstonia declared a financial expert running for school board lacked the purity they demand. That it was irrelevant to being on a school board, unlike being a DEI consultant or a Horton sycophant.

    Mr. Miracle himself is leaving Evanston with the results of his astonishing feat. They are still clinging to this idea that spending all this money on a new school via miraculous funding will stop this problem. Hey they were only off on transportation spending by eight measly million dollars, I’m sure they’ll be right about the next time.

    While it’s lovely that the board has declared this a possible wake up moment (not the last time they announced they were $3.5 mil in the hole, or students and staff leaving in droves.) Also Joey is going to ask that they pretty please with sugar on top don’t spend money on consultants unless they approve it before hand (aka follow the law), so this should all be fine. Evanston fear not, they are now awake. Wondering when the Evanston voter can wake up to show up at the polls.

    Poor broke D65 as the monorail salesman has departed. Leaving the district to cry poor during teacher negotiations. Great job school board, you got Horton and his pals shiny new jobs at the expense of everyone else. Slow clap.

  17. Tax Payers need to file a lawsuit for mismanagement of funds…is that a thing? Can we do that? This is OUTRAGEOUS and directly affects every single resident!!! This board should immediately step down. The admin should step down. And the irony here is that the board ignoring the budget and being only singularly focused on equity has now created a district that cannot afford to serve the very children they say they are focused on. They have never cared about the kids…only how they are perceived. And it’s a disgrace.

    1. Thanks for this Nicole,

      Not only should the community file a lawsuit, the residents and taxpayers should demand hiring a community-wide independent Inspector General and/or a Taxpayer advocate. Just wait until we get the real bill for the 5th Ward school! Methinks underestimated by >100%

      Respectfully, Brian G. Becharas

  18. Every time a D65 school board candidate even mentions “financial responsibility” the woke mob automatically calls them racist, and they lose the election. The majority of voters continue to elect DEI consultants who don’t know basic finance and who refuse to hold the administration accountable. And the achievement gap is getting worse instead of getting better. Here’s hoping that the folks who continue to skip school board elections are tired of this – and show up to vote in 2025.

  19. Who is the lucky owner of that TAXI company with a lucrative D65 contract? On a side note, how many school council members read these comments? I say….ZERO.

  20. The only thing this board & admin respect less than teachers is fiscal responsibility. However, I will not be surprised to hear how fiscally responsible they are when contract negotiations begin. Money spent on consultants, bloated administration, Grecian Kitchen, new office furniture at JEH, and new drill & kill literacy curriculum is all good. Veteran teachers will continue the exodus, to the detriment of our schools. This is what happens when 19% of the electorate vote. To paraphrase: if you haven’t been outraged by what’s happening in d65, you haven’t been paying attention. What a disservice to the education of our children.

  21. Thank you “Recently Former D65 Teacher” for stating the obvious: all this clear malfeasance impacts all Evanston kids for the worse — especially our Black & Brown students — the very same kids, we all claim to want to “raise up.” Evanston groups like “CREW65” claim that pain & chaos are necessary for progress. They actually say — in their latest newsletter (found on their FB page) — that they’re “hopeful.” Ha! Talk about gaslighting! Evanston needs to take a close look in the mirror and see itself clearly. Maybe that’s the problem….we can’t face what we’d see reflecting back at us: apathy, fear, laziness, hypocrisy. What’s it going to take, Evanston, to get you to engage; to say “enough is enough”? Is that even possible here? I’m not certain.

    1. So there are two vocal groups, those supporting equity for all at any cost, and those who are calling out irresponsible financial decisions by those who profess to support equity. And in the margins are liars and grifters. Am I missing anything?

  22. A declining elementary population, a failing inept school board, finances in the deep red and spending at an all time high–mainly for district administration positions not in the classroom–students entering ETHS not even close to college readiness standards much less being able to read or do math at grade level, dropping joint literacy goals, school safety on the decline all combined with an apathetic voting community screams for consolidating school districts. It won’t be long before ETHS is incapable of supporting students who are so far behind academically, mentally and socially coming from D65. It’s hard to justify all of this in the name of equity, it’s quite the opposite. It’s time for a change where one school board has one set of shared goals and is accountable to those goals. A town like Evanston does not need two school districts, two school boards and two sets of administrators when one is clearly failing Evanston kids and not preparing them for the other.

    1. I while heartedly agree. This arrangement is absolutely bizarre and almost non-existent in any other part of the country. Just maybe some good could come from this crisis if they finally do the common sense move and consolidate to save money and have clear accountability!

  23. If the numbers quoted are correct, a $171M budget for 6,019 students, then we are spending over $28,000 per student per year, which is double the national average for public grade schools. Why?

  24. I have witnessed this first hand in my career and it seems to have not diminished here: Elementary and high schools operate under the “captive audience” concept that
    often leads to underhanded tactics of ‘good old boy’ hiring practices by/of administration who report to the ‘elected’ Board of Trustees- so let’s take a moment to look in the mirror. Then we must ask: Do Dists 65 and 202 get audited annually? or Semi-annually? by what agency?

  25. If you want this little tiny financial problem to go away just name call. It shuts everyone up and does the job. Nobody wants to be called a name. Keep at it, Board. You are to be applauded. Never has a group of board members been able to keep parents so stifled and quiet by mere name calling. You are true geniuses!

  26. I hereby propose in lieu of a Land Acknowledgment resuscitation, each member of the board reads a consultant contract aloud.

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