Restoring a Long Lost Neighborhood School

Evanston is a diverse city bordering Chicago, but its neighborhood patterns still show the effects of housing discrimination. During the 1970s, to counter these patterns in its schools, the local public school district began busing students from the city’s predominantly Black central core neighborhood away to outlying schools.

This increased diversity in those schools, but it also caused other problems. It deprived the central core families of the many social and cultural benefits of having their own neighborhood school, and it placed an inordinate daily burden of travel and lost time on the bused Black students. Kids in this neighborhood can grow up as next-door neighbors, but are still bused to different schools miles apart from each other.

Over the decades, central core families increasingly called for development of their own neighborhood school. But because the school district had permanently closed and sold off the old school, the cost for developing a completely new school was substantial.

A Simple Challenge

By 2012, after a major political effort, a tax referendum for a new school failed. By late 2020 when we started working on it, with costs even higher and local politics little changed, the prospects for a new referendum remained dim.

So the goal was simple: The central core families sought a new, high-quality, public neighborhood school.

But the equally simple challenge was unprecedented: Finance the new school

  • without using a tax referendum
  • without raising taxes
  • without relying on fund raising
  • without causing the school district to close any of its other existing schools, and
  • without burdening the district’s finances

There was no roadmap. This had never been done before.

We solved it, but how?

Our (Fairly Simple) Solution

We used a combination of three strategies:

  1. Expand the new school into a campus. Making it bigger is a counter-intuitive move, but we were able to restore many of the social and cultural amenities that had been lost, while adding some new ones (eg, a neighborhood branch library, indoor recreational facilities, digital full dome, and other cool things). We did this by finding a site adjacent to some existing community uses, so we get some amenities without adding expense to the new project.
  2. Create a new revenue stream. This is unconventional for a school, but we added a field house connecting the new school to an existing community center. This not only gives the students an indoor field (how many schools have one of those?), it also adds a community amenity that will generate new revenues during non-school hours and on weekends.
  3. Bend an existing revenue stream. This was the tricky, yet deceptively simple strategy. Since the whole point was to create a neighborhood school in walking distance for the families, thereby getting the kids off buses, the school’s very existence meant the school district would be saving significant transportation costs, freeing up funds that already flow from existing tax revenues. We (and many others) were surprised by exactly how much the district was spending on busing these students all over town every year (literally millions).

Winner by Unanimous Decision

Voila! We make the school into a campus to restore and enhance social and cultural amenities for the entire community. Then create a new revenue stream (field house), bend an existing one (the existing tax revenues from the transportation savings), and then capitalize those revenue streams to pay for the new construction.

There were a few other tricks to address legal requirements that otherwise would require a tax referendum, but legal stuff is never a fun story; let’s skip that part.

We researched, planned and modeled the real estate, financial, legal, and all sorts of other boring details to turn our solution into a legitimate feasibility analysis.

In early 2022, the school district unanimously approved developing the new neighborhood school for the central core community. No tax referendum or increased taxes or new financial burdens for the district.

Our solution for financing a new public school this way seems almost obvious after the fact, but it certainly felt impossible when we were getting started. Funny how that works.

1 reply
  1. Nick
    Nick says:

    So glad to see this moving forward. My cousin Kate was on the school board for many years, and I have been to Evanston a dozen times over the years. Let me know how I can help the team thrive along the way.


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