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Schools set up showdown with voters

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 officials spent most of this year focused on teeing up a question about school spending to be decided by voters next March.

An April election brought two new faces to the seven-member board, but a New School/Referendum Committee appointed by the old board had already started work in January.

By summer, the committee, with a big contingent of new-school backers, produced a report recommending construction of a new school in the 5th Ward on Evanston's west side, after advocates called the city's once-innovative busing for integration program an experiment that failed.

In the fall, as officials started putting together budget forecasts for the next few years, it became evident that the district, as a result of expected continuing increases in payroll and benefit costs, would slip deep into deficit territory if it doesn't either cut spending or ask voters for more money to fund operations.

Meanwhile, a citizen's budget committee suggested 30 ways the district could reduce spending, including considering consolidation with the city's other school board, which runs Evanston Township High School.

With new census data showing rising poverty levels and dropping incomes in the city, the board in December voted to delay a decision about asking voters to approve more operating funds for at least six months.

But, with the two new board members casting the only negative votes, the board voted to ask voters on March 20 to approve spending $48.2 million to build a new 5th Ward school and fund expansion projects, mainly at the city's middle schools, to respond to projected enrollment increases.

This year voters elected two new members to the ETHS board as well, and it spent much of its time this fall debating whether the detracking program for freshman English and humanities classes adopted last year should be expanded to freshman biology as well.

Advocates argued that tracking in freshman year denies lower-performing students a chance to excel, while opponents voiced feared it would dumb-down classes for students who were already doing well.

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