Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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‘Sick to my stomach’: 5th Ward school is $25 million over budget, board to consider alternate plans

Illustration by Emily Lichty
The ballooning costs of the 5th Ward school forced the District 65 Board of Education to consider alternate plans during a special board meeting Monday.

The much-anticipated plans to build a new school in the 5th Ward are projected to cost more than $25 million more than the allocated $40 million budget, according to a recent financial assessment commissioned by Evanston/Skokie School District 65. 

Ballooning costs forced District 65 Board of Education members to consider alternate plans during a special board meeting Monday, including considering delaying the school’s opening, originally scheduled for fall 2025.

As the board’s Oct. 23 deadline to commit to initial construction bids for the project fast approaches, some members seemed caught off guard by the estimates. 

“I just feel sick to my stomach just looking at these numbers,” board member Donna Wang Su said. 

The board didn’t even know about the underestimate until just recently, board member Joseph Hailpern added.

“I am shocked that this is the first time we’re having this conversation around the money in public,” he said.

Finances were not the only factors up for consideration. During more than three hours of discussion, board members juggled four main priorities for balancing the budget: timelines for construction, environmental improvements, the ability to serve 5th Ward families and the inclusion of a Two Way Immersion (TWI) program. 

The initial plan for the 5th Ward school included a provision to house students from the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies, which is set to close in the near future, in the new building. But cheaper alternatives for the 5th Ward, which were floated to parents at a community meeting last month, cast doubt on whether Bessie Rhodes could continue its signature TWI program, which prioritizes bilingual education for students in grades K-8.

The cheapest option was to scale down the 5th Ward school to a K-5 school, instead of the originally proposed K-8 option. With a 600-student capacity, the proposal could have accommodated both K-5 Bessie Rhodes students and all elementary schoolers from the 5th Ward — a historically-marginalized neighborhood which has been without a neighborhood school since 1967.

But in an open letter to the school board, Bessie Rhodes parents complained that limiting the new school would diminish the effectiveness of TWI, designed to be a K-8 program.

“All we want is K-8 TWI,” said Brandon Utter, one of the co-authors of the letter. “We’re not asking for any more than the board originally gave us.”

Another proposal that would shave close to $10 million off of the initial plan would create a smaller K-8 school with capacity for 760 students –– instead of the proposed 1,000. The school could accommodate the Bessie Rhodes TWI program in full but would be unable to serve all 5th Ward students, according to Sarita Smith, District 65’s Director of Student Assignments.

Many board members balked at this idea, since providing resources for 5th Ward students is a driving force behind the push to build the school.

“The challenge with some of these plans, for me, (is that) not accommodating 5th Ward students is unacceptable,” board member Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan said. “That is why we are building the school.”

Significantly deviating from the original design in any way will force delays, according to Brian Kronewitter, the Executive Vice President of the architecture firm heading the project.

In the end, the board seemed poised to sacrifice the budget in its construction calculus, with many members hoping to prioritize the promises they made to 5th Ward and Bessie Rhodes families.

Eventually, most board members came to an informal consensus, focusing on four alternate plans — all of which proposed a K-8 school accommodating both Bessie Rhodes and Fifth Ward students.

Some small differences exist between the four, which range from approximately $60 to $65 million, according to Su. Whether to build in pursuit of a LEED certification — a third-party assessment of environmental sustainability — or setting the capacity of the school at either 1,000 or 900 students.

A mix of factors led to the $25 million underestimate. Recent inflation caused the price of construction to surge, according to Kronewitter. A memo read aloud by Interim Superintendent Angel Turner also blamed incorrect initial estimates made by District 65. 

Board members repeatedly emphasized the need for more information during this round of approvals and wariness about repeating budget underestimates. Hailpern said he is worried that there were still “assumptions” peppered throughout the night’s proposals.

“What I don’t want to do is budget reductions year after year after year because we got the first one wrong,” he said.

The board will continue discussion during its Oct. 23 meeting. After those discussions, it will either commit to the initial phase of construction — keeping the school on track for opening in fall 2025 at a final budget likely upwards of $60 million — or redraft plans in search of a cheaper but delayed option.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charcole27

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