Tough question for schools: build, remodel, or both?

For nearly five hours Monday night, the Evanston/Skokie District 65 Board of Education wrestled with the politically sensitive question: Should we build a new elementary school, expand the ones we have, or do both?

For nearly five hours Monday night, the Evanston/Skokie District 65 Board of Education wrestled with the politically sensitive question: Should we build a new elementary school, expand the ones we have, or do both?

As the clock ticked towards midnight, the board directed Superintendent Hardy Murphy to come up with detailed plans for all options before its next meeting while board members spend time listening to the opinions of parents, teachers, students, and taxpayers.

In the meantime, five schools are facing capacity limits, while two of them–Willard and Dewey–can’t wait for a new school to be built.

The board was told it is unlikely that a new school could be ready for occupancy before the fall of 2013, assuming that voters approve a bond referendum this coming April, which they acknowledged would require a titantic effort on their part. The other three schools requiring capacity attention are Lincolnwood, Orrington, and Washington.

In a joint presentation that took up most of the evening, the problem was spelled out by Murphy and two top assistants: Paul Brinson, chief information officer, and Mary Brown, chief financial officer.

Brinson presented a booklet of spreadsheets giving the square footage of each instructional room in each of the 10 elementary schools and the King Lab Magnet School. Omitted were the three middle schools, which are not perceived to be in any immediate capacity straits, although Chute is in worse shape than Haven or Nichols, according to Brinson’s charts.

"An alternative to building additions and/or space conversions to gain classroom space is the use of mobile classroom units," Brown wrote in a memo to the board. "A two-classroom mobile unit with washrooms is estimated to cost $450,000 to purchase, which includes delivery, installation, and utility hookups." She said these units could be purchased through the operating budget, which would free up more bond money for other capital projects.

Potential building additions and space conversions at Dewey would require an estimated $3.7 million and at Willard, $4.5 million. An additional $8.6 million would be needed for Lincolnwood, Orrington, and Washington, although the latter three could wait until after a bond referendum is passed.

These projects could be funded without a referendum through the district’s $25 million current bonding capacity, Brown said, but that would leave the district with only $8.2 million with which to fund other projects. A public hearing is scheduled for September 27 on the board’s intent to issue $25 million of General Obligation Limited Tax School Bonds, Brown noted.

State law requires a referendum to sell bonds for a new school, Brown said, that would cost an estimated $14 million to build on land adjacent to the old Foster School in the Fifth Ward.

While the new school would provide immediate relief for all existing schools, district officials said, additional capital improvements would still be necessary at most or all of the schools "to bring them into the 21st century," according to Board President Keith Terry. In order to schedule a bond referendum for the April 5, 2011 election, the board would need to authorize that at their Dec. 13, 2010 meeting.

Board members Tracy Quattrocki and Bonnie Lockhart, who were absent from the August meeting when this issue was last discussed by the board, expressed concern over the political likelihood of a successful bond referendum and the effect on taxpayers at a time when unemployment and home foreclosures are at historically high levels.

Annual payments on $10 million of referendum bonds cost the owner of a median valued home in District 65 about $300 a year in property taxes, CFO Brown said. If new referendum bonds are authorized, the annual bond payments would remain in the range of about $10 million, she added.

At the next regular board meeting, scheduled for Monday, Sept. 27, the administration is expected to tell the board how much it would cost to expand the existing schools as opposed to building a new school.

In the meantime, board members said they planned to talk with their constituents to see what they think…whether they should upgrade and expand existing schools or build a new school.

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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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