Between pressing issues of insufficient classroom space and fallout from a , the District 65 School Board has its eyes on both the immediate future and recent past.
In the first school board meeting since the board’s $48.2 million bond issuance referendum failed, taking down with it some residents’ hopes for , passionate and sometimes contentious conversation concerning the March 20 vote bookended Monday night's session, held at the .
Both citizens and board members took time to speak candidly about the vote, the referendum campaign and the proposed 5th Ward school. But while some were eager to turn attentions toward dealing with pressing capacity issues in district schools, others came forward to draw eyes backward, deeming it important to assess why the referendum had been voted down.
The , which asked voters to approve both a $20.6-million bond issuance to fund a new elementary school and $27.6-million bond to pay for various improvements to other Evanston school buildings, in the primary election.
Many point to socio-economic and racial disparity
Several speakers said they thought the referendum failed because of how residents chose to view issues of economic, social and racial inequalities; at least a half dozen openly accused Evanston’s more affluent population of supporting the status quo because their children already had access to a neighborhood school within the proximity of their homes.
“I’ve heard people talk about their love for diversity as long as they don’t have to sacrifice, or as long as diversity is delivered to you,” said School Board Member Jerome Summers. “The vote shows me that the people of the 5th Ward have a greater confidence in their ability to be good, responsible citizens and parents, and educate their own children, than the confidence of the people who live outside that community.”
“To put it another way,” Summers continued, “affluent neighbors … assume that they know what is better for this community than the people who actually live in the community. … It was clearly . That’s just how it is.”
Longtime Evanston resident Bennett Johnson went as far as to call the referendum vote a blatant case of race discrimination.
Other school board members viewed the vote through a milder lens.
Richard Rykhus, one of two school board members to oppose approving the bond issuance for referendum during a Dec. 19 vote, said that the board’s public outreach leading up to the referendum was a positive experience, because board members were able to learn what Evanstonians agree upon. The board can now focus on using that knowledge to make intelligent decisions when tackling issues concerning the district’s lack of classroom space, he said.
“I know we can try to focus on some of the differences by ward,” Rykhus said, “but I think at this point it’s really important to focus on some of the things we do agree on. I think there is something we need to address much more urgently, and that is the need for space. That was what was brought to the board and the administration 18 months ago. While the longer term conversation continues on some other topics, we really do need to look very quickly.”
Board president Katie Bailey, who thanked the school board members for their consolidated support behind the referendum, said she agreed that the board did not have time to feel let down about the "no" vote and that members had to focus on making tough decisions for prioritizing future spending.
Anger over board member's actions
Yet a few residents participating in citizen comment disagreed that the board had presented a united front and accused at least one board member of actively campaigning against the referendum
“I expect Richard [Rykhus] to work fiercely to increase class size … as he did to help defeat this referendum,” said Terri Shepard, a member of Citizens for a Better Evanston, the pro-referendum committee that formed in December. “I’ve never seen such despicable, disrespectful behavior from a board member in years and I think it’s unconscionable.”
Shepard was asked by Bailey to refrain from making accusations against individual board members while attending the meeting.
Rykhus later told Patch that he did not actively oppose the referendum as a school board member.
In an iterview after the meeting, Bailey said that she was unaware of Rykhus publicly acting in discordance with the board.
According to the Illinois Association of School Boards, when a board approves a measure, regardless of the how individual board members voted, the group should move forward with a unified position and each member should support the board’s will. Board members may publicly present both sides of a decision as long as they are presenting factual information or quoting from arguments that had been made during previous school board meeting debates.
Additionally, according to Bailey, in the case of a referendum, the Illinois Association of School Boards states that board members can openly oppose the issue as a citizen, so long as they do not campaign against the referendum as a board member. The line between the two, Bailey acknowledged, was a thin one.
Though it is not illegal for school board members to openly oppose the board’s will, Bailey said that such behavior was “not good board governance.”
Not all referendum supporters and Citizens for a Better Evanston members who spoke at Monday’s meeting voiced concern that the referendum vote had revealed rifts in the Evanston community. they felt from the 6,619 ‘yes’ votes it received in support.
The next District 65 School Board meeting will be held at April 9, and will focus almost entirely on the district’s need for more classroom space.