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5th Ward school opening delayed a year

When the District 65 School Board voted this spring to build a new school in Evanston’s 5th Ward, district leaders said they planned to have the $40 million building ready to welcome students just over two years.

In a public message in May, Superintendent Devon Horton said “We anticipate the new school opening in time for the 2024-25 school year.”

But then, on Monday of this week, with no fanfare and no discussion, a single line in a multi-page budget memo from District 65 Business Manager Kathy Zalewski said, “The school is expected to be completed by the spring of 2025.”

No reasons were given in the memo for the delay, and there was no discussion of it during the school board’s Finance Committee meeting, where the budget document was presented.

So Evanston Now asked for an explanation.

And, in an emailed response, Chief Financial Officer Raphael Obafemi said “With the conversation going on with the City of Evanston about the possibility of collaborating to include the current Fleetwood-Jourdain building in the new school construction, we have modified the completion date to the spring of 2025.”

Back when the Fall 2024 timetable was announced, the Fleetwood-Jourdain option was not under consideration.

However, last week, City Council agreed to study whether to incorporate a new Fleetwood-Jourdain recreation center in the 5th Ward school.

There’s no price tag yet, and the hope is the study can be done quickly.

But the extra investigation, and potentially the extra construction time if a rec center is added, are adding time.

However, the 5th Ward school does not exist in a vacuum. A delay might touch students and staff district-wide, by potentially impacting the District 65 student reassignment plan.

A shift in school attendance boundaries is supposed to begin when classes start in 2024-25, as part of an overall restructuring of which students go where.

But it’s hard to imagine the restructuring without a 5th Ward school ready to go as part of the new boundaries.

Another question: if the 5th Ward school is completed in, say, April 2025 (or some other spring month), would the new school open then, or would the district wait until the start of the next school year in fall, 2025?

Obafemi said “I think it might be premature to speculate about the date of the new school opening and its impact on the start of the 2024-2025 school year.”

He added that “as the development and construction of the school come into better focus, I am sure we will develop a solid plan to address all contingencies.”

There is yet another issue, however.

The new school boundaries, including a 5th Ward school, are supposed to reduce the need for buses, because most students will be able to walk to school.

Savings from the reduced busing is then supposed to help pay for the 5th Ward building. But with the opening delayed, those savings, in theory, could evaporate until the new school opens, because buses will still be needed.

In the meantime, the first $18 million to start preliminary work for the facility is included in the district’s budget for the academic year about to start.

But those who have been waiting for decades to see a new school in the 5th Ward will have to wait a little longer.

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