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New school may be on the ballot in April

Evanston voters may not only have a new library tax to contend with next year. They may also be asked to pay for the construction of a new elementary school.

The Evanston/Skokie District 65 school board Monday directed Superintendent Hardy Murphy to present a plan for consideration at their next meeting on Sept. 13 that would put a referendum before the voters as early as April of 2011.

State law requires voter approval before bonds can be sold to finance a new school. If approved, the current plan is to build a 16-classroom structure west of Green Bay Road and south of the North Shore Channel.

The district’s chief information officer, Paul Brinson, painted a grim picture for the board of the district’s ability to cope with rising enrollment in a modern environment with a collection of schools that are all more than 50 years of age.

Although the district’s enrollment peaked at 6,900 students in 1999-2000, it reached a low point of 6,100 in 2007-08 and has been rising ever since, with more than 6,500 projected for the school year that begins this month.

In addition, Brinson said, the average class size in the district has decreased from 25 in 1994-95 to 22 today, and the district’s goal is to drop it still further to 20 students. And, he said, new teaching methods and technology require more space per student than ever before.

The board’s target is to hold enrollment in each school to 80 percent of capacity. With the smaller class size, all district schools except King Lab and Nichols Middle School fail to meet that guideline. In fact, Dewey, Willard, and Lincolnwood are at or above 100 percent capacity.

Those three schools need costly improvements before the 2011-12 school year, and the earliest a new school could be ready for occupancy would be 2013. While voters may be feeling the pinch in a sluggish economy, board member Jerome Summers said now would be a good time to get a good deal on building a new school.

Although the board did not take a vote on the issue, none of the members Monday spoke out against the new-school solution. Members Tracy Quattrocki and Bonnie Lockhart were absent.

Even though board members may feel that the economics may make sense for building a new school that would ease the pressure at all the schools, rather than paying for a dozen or more costly building projects to bring all the schools up to speed, the board is also aware that voters in the wealthier suburbs north of Evanston rejected a referendum in February to pay for improvements at the Winnetka campus of New Trier High School.

Update 3 p.m. 8/17/10:

For preliminary planning purposes, district officials assumed the new school could be built on the site of Foster Field, property still owned by the school board but now used as a city park. The field, at Simpson Street and Ashland Avenue, is near the former Foster School building at 2010 Dewey Ave. that is now owned by Family Focus.

The district’s communications director, Pat Markham, said today that, if voters approved financing for a new school, the board would work with the city on selecting a site.

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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