I am writing to share my concerns about the actions that the District 65 Board seems poised to take with regard to the closing of schools and the building of a Fifth Ward school.

As a starting point: if D65 was growing and the building of a new school was necessary to alleviate overcrowding at existing schools, building a 5th Ward school would be a no-brainer.

However, that is not the picture of what this District looks like. It is a district which is losing students at a rapid clip, driven in part by the decisions that the Board and Administration have made, including the decisions for prolonged e-learning during the pandemic and decisions regarding curriculum.

The likelihood of those families which have sought options for their children elsewhere “returning to fold” is minimal.

We also have the recent report detailing some $180 million in upgrades and repairs that are needed to bring the District’s existing buildings up to par. How and why this came to be is another discussion for another day, but those needs are not going away.

The Student Assignment Committee has presented the two scenarios both of which involve closing Bessie Rhodes and building a new 5th Ward school.

In one scenario, the new school would be K-8, in the other it would be K-5. What sort of programming would be offered in the new school was left open and would be determined in part through efforts at community engagement.

Rather than issuing bonds for new construction, the District plans to pay for the new building from operating funds using savings from transportation costs from not having to bus 5th Ward children around the City.

This alternate financing mechanism is known as lease certificates. This financing mechanism has been presented as “cost neutral”, i.e., that the money that would have been spent on transportation costs would equal the cost of the lease certificates.

One of the differences between lease certificates and issuing bonds is that using lease certificates does not require a referendum or a vote. The ability to bypass a vote or referendum is no doubt one of the charms to the D65 Board and Administration.

All of the presentations given to date have emphasized the popularity of the idea of building a 5th Ward School. However – that is being measured without consideration of the costs and consequences of proceeding.

There are a number of questions that have never been addressed in any detail or substance:

  • How can the cost of a 5th Ward School truly be cost-neutral as measured against the transportation costs? No one has decided whether this will be a K-5 or K-8 school. Those are different buildings. No one has determined what kind of programming will go in there. A school emphasizing the arts will have different needs than one which is a STEM school. Calling this cost-neutral versus bussing costs is fantasy since the actual cost of the school is an unknown at this point.
  • What is the finance costs for using lease certificates versus traditional municipal bonds? Municipal bonds are generally a cheap way to finance public projects because people in finance regard them as being very safe. Lease certificates are not the same thing and it can be reasonably be expected that there will be a premium charged above and beyond the cost of municipal bonds. As far as I know that cost difference has never been discussed publicly. Any additional cost for using lease certificates versus municipal bonds is money that the Board is choosing to spend to avoid placing the issues being raised to a vote, and those are costs that will be paid year after year.
  • What additional financial risks is the District assuming by using lease certificates? I have little faith in the ability of local government officials to come out ahead in any transaction involving high finance. The Chicago parking meter deal was bad from the start but proved to be even worse over time as the City had to send money back to the banks for meters that were taken out of circulation for street fairs and so forth. How much risk is being taken on that this will be a worse deal than we expected at the outset?
  • How will cost overruns be handled? If the building of the new Crown Center taught us anything it is that this will end up being a more expensive venture than we planned on when we set off on this journey. Since there is no additional revenue coming into the District to pay for this new construction, where will the money come from to cover the additional costs?
  • Where will money come from to repair the District’s existing schools? The Thought Exchange on the condition of existing schools revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the condition and upkeep of the buildings we have. This was confirmed by the study showing that there was $180 million in repairs needed. There appears to be no plan and no resources to bring every other school up to standard.
  • Which other schools will have to be closed? As of today, Bessie Rhodes is the only school which is slated to be closed, but the presentations have shown that almost all of the schools in north Evanston will see sharp drops in enrollment. Closure of at least one is inevitable, but that discussion is not being had publicly at this point. Pretending that Bessie Rhodes is the only school which will be closed is doing the community as a whole a disservice. Closing a neighborhood school is a much larger move than simply shifting around boundaries – it changes the entire character of the neighborhood. What will become of the property? Will it be left empty and a target for squatters and vandals? Sold to a developer to do what they please?

The decisions that are being made at the March 14 board meeting are large decisions which have massive impacts on the community.

Besides setting the stage for the closure of Bessie Rhodes and the closure of one or more north Evanston schools, the choice to not risk the vote required for bonding authority has the potential to leave this District in perpetual financial distress as it takes on a massive financial obligations to build a new school.

That distress will impact the District’s ability to retain quality staff, maintain existing buildings, and most importantly, deliver quality instruction to children in the District.

What the District is proposing to do deserves additional time and actual conversation – not power points and webinars, not Thought Exchanges – to get real input from the community. And yes, it deserves a vote.

— Barry Doyle

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11 Comments

  1. This is a well thought out piece. I am most distressed at the type of decision making being engaged in currently by the District. I understand the distress that has been caused over the years to families that formerly had children attending Foster School in the 5th ward, whose kids have had to be bused for over a generation around the community in order to have an integrated school district. However, the demographics of the 5th ward have changed a great deal in recent years, and it’s not clear that through a combination of possibly closing older schools in the most disrepair and redrawing boundaries, it would not be possible to reduce the amount of busing for 5th ward residents that exists currently.
    It is also true that new development ALWAYS costs way more than originally envisioned. Building a new school at a time when the school population is shrinking doesn’t make sense to me, despite longstanding injustices with the original desegregation plans in the district.

    1. I agree. Declining enrollment makes building a new school questionable.
      I think this expensive, albeit desirable, initiative should be deferred until the district acquires an administration that is more dedicated to education improvements than managing large distributions of taxpayer money to preferred recipients.

  2. These are thoughtful, sensible questions that should be debated long before breaking ground on a new school. The math on a decision like this should be clear and take into account falling enrollment, a genuine estimate of how much could be saved by bussing (I’m not convinced it is possible for every kindergartner to walk safely to school in a city like Evanston), and a look at what else that money could be spent on, including teacher support and fixing physical issues with current schools.

  3. This is a good article. The other issue that has never been addressed is whether there are actual EDUCATIONAL reasons for a new school. The purpose of public education is to provide learning opportunities and educate students. The presentations from the administration discuss “equity” all the time, but there is never any evidence that busing degrades student performance.

    It would be very easy to conduct an analysis that looks at student performance and whether or not a student is bused impacts their performance when controlling for demographics. The fact that such an analysis has never been presented in any of the public documents is troubling.

    Mr. Doyle does a good job discussing the financial irresponsibility of the Board approach towards building a new school. Unfortunately, it is not clear if this scheme will actually help improve educational outcomes. And when it doesn’t we won’t have the resources needed to invest in instructional and human resources that can actually help student performance. We may have a nice building, but it will do nothing to help improve instruction and learning opportunities.

  4. All good questions. So how would Evanstonians go about getting answers before this is a done deal? Or, is there some way to hold board members account for a bad decision?

  5. Nailed it. Thank you for writing this and thank you Evanston Now for sharing it.

    My main concern is what you stated as “cost overrun”. What I am seeing with the group is the “spend now and let the next guy deal with it” mentality. It’s like the wild west with the spending, it seems very messy and I know this is going to come back and bite the tax payer in the rear.

  6. Today, Evanston Now reported that the SAP (Student Assignment Planning committee) has called for moving the Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies into the proposed new school in the 5th Ward. This brings up even further questions. If students currently being bussed to Bessie Rhodes move to another location, doesn’t this still require bussing from across the city? If the students at BR take seats in the 5th ward school, how does that impact the cost and size of the new school project? And lastly, why is the district so dead set against putting this behemoth project directly to all the taxpayers for a vote? The district claims there is overwhelming support from parents for this school. But not all stakeholders are parents of D65 students. The answer to the question of course is that the District knows that any referendum will fail, just as it has done before. There is too much financial duress within the District today to justify building a $42M campus. We cannot even afford to keep the existing schools in shape. We see increases down the road in healthcare costs for District employees to the tune of $500k per year. We see a potential $600k per annum liability to cover the cost of crossing guards. My mother always said we couldn’t buy a new car until we paid the old one off. Sure feels like this is a vanity project for the District Administration and School Board. To finally succeed where others have failed. But only through suspect financial vehicles and at the expense of our existing buildings, where the majority of the students attend school every day. The public deserves a vote on this. Anything less is a sham. And an expensive one at that.

  7. “The district claims there is overwhelming support from parents for this school.” – that’s just simply not true.

    I want to see a number – take it to a vote and I guarantee you the people in Evanston/Skokie would rather have the schools in place be fixed/updated instead of building an entirely new school. Thus, leaving one or more schools vacant.

    It makes no sense at all to do this. Most know it too.

    Evanston politicians & D65 are taking the Biden approach on things lately … “no questions please”

  8. I am angry. If you’re listening or reading about the antics of the District 65 Board of Education and the administration it nominally guides, you should be angry as well.

    “Every Child, Every Day, Whatever it Takes.” Someone should sue the district to make them take it off of the website.

    The current board and administration are more concerned with the appearance of their actions than actually bringing up all students to the level of their ability, as their decisions have laid bare their incompetence and inability to see reality.

    They speak of equity, and yet have weakened the district’s curricula, achieved almost negligible gains in the achievement gap, have created a mad rush to local and regional private schools, have decimated in-class and in-school staff, have demoralized and driven off quality administrators and teachers at the district and the school level. A bloated administration hires consultants with no vetting or oversight; in the outside chance that the outcome doesn’t match the desired conclusion, the outcome is swept under the rug, massaged, or discarded.

    They speak of inclusiveness, but have achieved division, strife, and conflict.
    When questioned, the buck stops literally anywhere but with the people who are making the decisions. Parents, teachers and anyone else who questions the trumpeted “successes” are blamed for not buying into the propaganda hook, line, and sinker. They’re given negative labels, called names, derided.

    Does this sound familiar?

    The previous president of the United States engaged in the same bullying and negating tactics, as did his proxies, using social and other media to decry the “fake news.”

    More about this later…

    This is just more of the same gross incompetence and small-time, ideology-driven initiative from the board and administration of District 65. Parents and teachers, apparently, have no place in making long-term decisions for their children and the school district they attend.

    Many parents of Fifth Ward students do not want to remove their children from the friends that they’ve made in their schools; indeed, the results of the recently completed “Thought Exchange,” more parents were concerned about the state of education and of our decrepit facilities than they were about building a new school.

    District 65 used to be one of the best in the state, even the United States. It goes without saying that gaps in equitable opportunity desperately needed attention but, as in so many cases, has gone terribly awry; at this point, District 65 is well down the path to becoming a turnaround district on the point of failure and takeover by a state-appointed board. MAP results have fallen. A majority of students are not meeting grade-level standards.

    Where are the demands for a recall? Can we even recall the architects of this slow-moving disaster?

    Parents are afraid to speak on social media or in public because of the totally toxic environment where the administration, board, and their proxies wage war on anyone who dissents from the sponsored narrative.

    These proxies include partners of district administrators and a member of the Washington Elementary equity committee who are consistently—in violation of the page’s stated rules—abusive and participate in ad hominem attacks; discussion is not allowed unless it’s in accordance with the district’s messaging and in total alignment and agreement with its decisions.

    There are parents who have instructed their children to bully their peers who have publicly or privately disagreed with the party line.

    Are these the behaviors we want from our “leaders”?

    Students are underserved and unprepared. Parents are exhausted and afraid. Teachers are alienated and miserable.

    The district has publicly demeaned teachers at a time when teacher morale is at an all-time low and burnout is at its peak. No one wants to work for District 65 as an aide, tutor, substitute, or full-time teacher, and building and district administrators who do not fall in line are harassed and bullied.

    It’s a demonstrated pattern of ruthlessness that has led to drastically diminished attendance while private schools are full to the brim with the children of parents who can afford to place them in places where real and equitable opportunity is available rather than the appearance of an outcome.

    It’s why the curriculum has been dumbed down to the point that elementary students are not prepared for middle school, middle school students are not prepared for high school, and high school students are not prepared for the college or vocational tracks. When District 202 administrators stated concerns, they received the typical response from our board president, attempting to shed blame and, somehow, deny the disturbing data staring her in the face.

    The district has been steadily acquiring lowest common denominator curriculum programs; teachers are removed from committees if their expert, field-based input diverges on anything from curriculum choices to COVID responses. This has caused a larger gap between socioeconomic students of all racial backgrounds, as those who can afford (or sometimes not afford) to tutor or put their children in programs to augment will do so, leaving others behind. As mentioned before, the drastic decline in D65 enrollment stands in stark contrast to the private schools that are turning away students because they are beyond capacity.

    Hiding gaping holes in funding sources and potential futures has diminished the credibility of the board and administration to almost nothing. District administrators and board members are on record attempting to skirt ISBE standards for advanced placement, actively resisting and evading efforts by families to have their children enrolled in the advanced math track toward 9th grade geometry. Anya Tanyavutti is on record attempting to circumvent ISBE requirements for advanced mathematics and other programs.

    The district administration and board have abrogated due public process over and over. There is a pattern here: from the utter opacity of process in the hiring of the current superintendent to the gross expansion of consultants and administration while removing critical staff from schools and classrooms, ineptitude and poor policy are the rule rather than the exception.

    And now here we sit…the board and administration are so desperate to avoid a referendum that they’ve decided to use dodgy financing mechanisms with suspect supporting data. We’re all so sick of the smoke and mirrors, the lies. When all signs point to the fact that public support is against their agenda, suddenly secrecy and circumvention become the order of the day.

    You should be alarmed when our superintendent calls this kind of financing scheme “miraculous”, and for more than just the fact that they see it as a way to sidestep the right thing to do, which would be to put the matter to a referendum. Without making this an ad hominem attack, it has to be stated that Superintendent Horton’s personal financial history should lead parents, voters, citizens to question the wisdom of the currently proposed fiscal machinations.

    Where is the $6.3M budgetary number coming from for transportation expenses? We would like to see proof. Something to think about: the district is federally mandated to pay for transportation for all students who might need it. This cost may diminish slightly, but will not disappear as they would like you to believe.

    Where is the data supporting the estimates of the sale price of Bessie Rhodes?

    What does the district estimate will be the time-to-sale for the school? It could be years before the school is actually sold, and the overly optimistic plans will only make the inevitably looming budget crisis that much worse.

    While we’re speaking of the tragedy of Bessie Rhodes: we can’t pin the terrible choices a prior board and administration made to change the mission of the school, but we can blame the current board and administration for perpetuating them.

    There is a massive credibility gap that can never be closed as long as Devon Horton and his abusive crony culture are running the district administration and Anya Tanyavutti and Biz Lindsay-Ryan running an otherwise cowed and silent board.

    When is the last time we heard from the other members of the board, most of whom have more experience than the current board mouthpieces?

    When is the last time we heard from Soo La Kim, Donna Su, or Joey Hailpern? They have curriculum and finance expertise that neither Tanyavutti nor Lindsay-Ryan have.

    The D65 School Board has become a cult of personality, leading Evanston’s public schools over a financial and educational cliff. If the more rational minds can’t wrest control from the current drivers of this out-of-control bus, then it’s time to wipe the slate clean.

    We need to demand accountability and opportunity for all students. We need to demand transparency and honesty and a say in hiring, curricula, and spending. We need to demand a referendum before spending millions of dollars we don’t have to build a new school when our schools are falling apart.

    It’s time to call it out: THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES. The board, the administration, and their proxies are destroying opportunities and outcomes for children in the district and have created an extraordinarily toxic environment for anyone who doesn’t agree with them. It’s time for them to go, before—we hope—it’s not too late to rescue our schools.

    We deserve a vote. First, a referendum on the proposed Fifth Ward School. Second, we need to vote with eyes wide open to the lack of performance and the toxicity of the current board and administration of District 65.

    I’ve spoken in broad terms here, but everything in this piece can be easily validated by searching our local newspapers or by watching the board meetings. If I annotated every available shred of evidence, this would be a book rather than an opinion piece.

    I am an Evanston resident, with students in the district, and so have chosen to use a pseudonym to protect them from bullying.

    1. Thank you for this relevant critique of our school district I’ll add a commentary about special education services . apparently just this week the district has apparently given notice to 3 Haven special education teachers. Perhaps the plans are to replace seasoned educators with nothing, or possibly positions paid at minimum wage. How will this help address equity? I am so perplexed x

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