School in 5th Ward doubtful

Evanston’s Fifth Ward community has gone 30 years without a neighborhood school — and now it may have to wait even longer.

Financial constraints prompted the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 board to ask the administration to halt negotiations with Evanston Family Focus about housing a school. In November, the board had authorized the administration to examine proposals for a school.

The board members agreed Tuesday night to give up the idea of opening or constructing a school in the Fifth Ward, although they did not officially vote on the issue, board member Bob Eder said. Board member Greg Klaiber said he plans to draft a formal motion to abandon the plan for the next meeting in March.

The board reviewed a preliminary proposal from Family Focus, a service organization based in the Fifth Ward, focusing on the facilities at the Weissbourd-Holmes Community Center, 2010 Dewey Ave., to house the school. According to the proposal, the district initially would have to invest $1.3 million to renovate the building and fund 50 percent of its maintenance.

But board members agreed the district could not financially support a primarily district-funded school, no matter what the proposal. According to Klaiber, the district is facing a projected $38 million deficit by the 2008-09 academic year.

“We have to be honest with the community,” Klaiber said. “We’re facing a multimillion-dollar deficit over the next six years. We have to be really tough in light of those circumstances. I don’t think we should raise the hopes of a segment of the community when it’s not going to happen.”

But Fifth Ward resident Gabrielle Logan said the district is avoiding the issue by “pushing it under the rug.”

“I feel that it is just a cop-out blaming it on funding,” she said. “They fooled people into thinking that it’s going to happen by saying it’s something that will look better in the future when we can scrape the money together. The fact that the board put it off indefinitely is just another way to say no.”

Board member Mary Erickson said she originally had voted in favor of the idea when she saw the passion of the plan’s proponents.

“We saw that there was an equity issue with this group of children, and we didn’t want to reject this out of hand,” she said. “But we got more information, and we had to be forthright in the way we dealt with people’s expectations.”

The Fifth Ward has another option: a charter school, which would be eligible for state and federal funding not available to district schools.

“If they’re willing to pursue the route of a charter school, it’s certainly possible to have a Fifth Ward school,” Eder said. “The district’s finances aren’t going to change anytime soon — there’s just no new money on the horizon.”

Despite the board’s decision, supporters of a Fifth Ward school will continue their efforts.

“This decision means that the residents of the Fifth Ward need to continue pushing for an alternative,” Ald. Joe Kent (5th) said.