The Evanston/Skokie School District 65 board will face a critical decision Monday night.

Should it start construction of the planned 5th Ward School, or pause the process to assess the impact of this week’s revelation of a 62% increase in the building’s projected cost?

The school board last month adopted a budget for this school year that calls for total spending of $205 million on revenues of $178 million — cutting its overall reserves from $102 million to less than $76 million.

That budget appears to include roughly half of the original projected $40 million construction cost of the planned K-8 school with the room to serve 900 students.

With the new school now projected to cost $65 million — finishing the school as planned could on its own cut the district’s total reserves to around $30 million by the time the school is scheduled to open in August 2025.

Then there’s the problem that the $3.2 million in annual savings from reductions in transportation costs — money the district had anticipated would cover — over 18 years — the cost of paying off the lease certificates — the borrowing mechanism used to fund the construction project — now is expected to amount to only $750,000 a year.

The current five year contract with the district’s teachers — which saw them accept annual wage hikes far below the current rate of inflation — runs out at the end of this school year — and the district is already running a nearly $6 million deficit this year in its educational fund that pays teacher salaries.

The district’s facilities master plan indicates it needs to spend an inflation-adjusted total of $266 million by 2040 to upgrade its existing schools — most of which, the report says, are in poor condition. But it has lacked the funds to meet those goals.

Combined with declining enrollment, that will lead to pressure on the district to close perhaps as many as three or more existing schools to avoid the expense of upgrading them.

But so far — except for the plan to shutter the Bessie Rhodes School in Skokie — the board has refused to give any indication of what schools may be closed — or how such closures would affect attendance area boundaries and transportation costs.

With the board’s ability to raise property taxes on its own limited by the statewide tax cap legislation, the board could end up seeking voter approval of a tax hike referendum down the road — telling voters, in effect — if you don’t approve the tax hike, we’ll close your school, or maybe we’ll close it anyway.

Or, the board could pause now to sort through the options — including a smaller, K-5 school in the 5th Ward — and how to realistically pay for whatever course of action it ultimately decides to adopt.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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