District 65 board members Monday talked about extra room in Evanston schools, but ended up focusing on ways to upgrade the buildings for the 21st Century.

Elementary school space

In a revised school capacity report, Chief Financial Officer Mary Brown said District 65 elementary schools have 59 percent more space per student than the national average and its middle schools have 31 percent more space than the national average.

The report did not indicate a source for the national figures it cited.

Board member Andrew Pigozzi, a school architect, said school plans “are basically very similar” across the nation, typically with 20 by 30 foot classrooms and an 8 foot wide corridor. The biggest variations, he suggested, are between multi-story buildings that need room for stairways and elevators, and single-story buildings that don’t.

Middle schools

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said the new report is “much more accurate” than a preliminary version provided at a Finance Committee meeting last month.

Although the district’s enrollment has declined 11 percent in the past decade with a loss of nearly 700 students, board members showed no appetite for considering closing schools and suggested they viewed even redrawing attendance boundaries to equalize enrollments as a last resort.

The board also received a report from district administrators forecasting an increase in enrollment of 195 students over the next five years, based on births in the city over the past five years.

“If you look at capacity as defined by classrooms, not people, some schools are at 67 percent capacity, others at are 100 percent,” board member Katie Bailey said.

Board President Mary Erickson said not all schools have special purpose rooms for art and music, and member Mary Rita Luecke said that in some of the elementary schools the cafeteria and gym share space, so the gym can’t be used a couple periods a day.

Pigozzi said he was ready to consider a program that would equalize building features across the district.

Member Keith Terry asked, “Are we prepared as a body to have a visionary building discussion?”

Erickson said, “I’m not quite as ambitious as some other people. I think we have to be careful not to over-promise or go into looking at things we couldn’t afford.”

She added, “I want to know what we can do to make buildings more conducive to teaching and learning.”

In response to a question from Terry, the finance director said the district has “excellent bonding capacity” and could borrow up to $132 million for capital projects.

Member Bonnie Lockhart — who, like Bailey, Terry and Pigozzi, is new to the board this year — said, “I want a plan to accomplish some things while we’re here.”

Board members asked Murphy to gather more information about the improvements that may be needed at various buildings in time for a follow-up discussion at the board’s Jan. 26 meeting.

Bailey said, “I think we have to accept that some buildings will be fuller. Not all can be exactly the same, but we want some fundamental things to be the same.”

Murphy suggested that the district gains substantial flexibility in handling building capacity issues with its two magnet schools. He said that when local attendance area schools become crowded, the administration steps up efforts to persuade parents at those schools to sign their kids up for one of the magnet programs.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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