By Ben Joravsky

For as long as nearly anyone can remember, there’s been a grassy field on the bank of the North Channel in west Evanston just south of Church Street, a slice of land where the local kids could play. Now the local school district has plans to put a building there, and the residents are up in arms. They say it will cause pollution, make traffic more congested, upset race relations, and waste taxpayers’ money. “If they wanted to come up with a worse idea, I don’t think they could,” says Michael Green, who lives across the street from the proposed building. “It’s crazy.”

But school officials think they’re being prudent. The district has needed a new administrative building for years, because the one it now usesa converted mansion on Ridge at Dempsteris falling apart. They also point out that many of Evanston’s early-childhood education programs are scattered around in various elementary or junior high schools, which need the space for their own students. School officials thought they could take care of both problems by constructing a building large enough to house administrators and preschoolers. “The driving force was early childhood, but we also need a new administration building,” says Mary Erickson, a member of the District 65 school board. “We have deferred maintenance on the Ridge building for years. It’s ready to fall apart. The fire department’s not happy about it.”

Erickson says the board decided to build on the grassy field, which is behind the Martin Luther King Lab School on McDaniel Street, for three very good reasons: The district already owns the land, the building would fit there, and many of the children who would use the preschool live nearby. “We wanted to be centrally located with the school, or closer to the students who will use it,” says Erickson, who chairs the board’s building committee. “We don’t want to take land off the tax rolls. In fact, we’re going to sell the old building on Ridge and put the land back on the rolls.”

In December 1999 school officials decided to put the matter before the voters, asking them to approve a bond issue to raise about $14.5 million for the project. They also decided to ask for another $13 million or so to buy computers for classrooms and make repairs at schools around town.

In the days before the March 2000 referendum, officials sent voters a glossy flyer showing four cute, earnest little kids. “A yes vote will fund a new early childhood center which is planned to be built on existing District 65 property adjacent to King Lab School,” the flyer read. “The new center, designed specifically for early childhood education, will provide a more appropriate setting with a modern playground and meeting rooms for parent conferences and workshops. This new facility will also return much-needed classroom space to Haven, Oakton and Dawes schools.”

The flyer also said that the bond issue would raise money to buy computers”bringing 21st Century technology to every Evanston/Skokie school”and to finance other much-needed projects, “such as playground improvements, bathroom and plumbing upgrades and locker and furniture replacement.”

The flyer didn’t say officials planned to build a new administration building, though it did note that the district needed to provide “adequate facilities for our teachers and administrators.”

The ballot referendum didn’t mention a specific site, but only asked residents to vote on whether the district should “build and equip an early childhood center and office facility, and alter, repair, improve and equip its existing school buildings, technology and communications and issue bonds of said School District to the amount of $27.5 million for said purposes.”

Voters approved the referendum by a three-to-one margin, and over the spring and summer of 2000 district officials moved ahead with their building plans. Local residents soon began to protest. As they saw it, the district’s campaign had been sneaky. “They tried to pretend as though they were looking at sites all over town, yet they didn’t make the referendum site specific,” says Green. “They wanted to have it both ways. They wanted to assure people in other parts of town that they weren’t going to build there, and they wanted people over here to think that they were open-minded about where the building was going to go. They hid behind the kidsthey used the kids to get voters to vote for something they might not otherwise have voted for.”He adds, “If they want to upgrade computers, they should upgrade computers. If they want to build an early-childhood center, they should do that. But I suspect this is mostly about building an administration building. You wouldn’t know that by looking at their flyer.”

As the residents near the proposed site considered the ramifications of the district’s plans, they became more upset. For one thing, they stood to lose valuable open land. “Kids have been playing football and softball here for years,” says Green. “There are soccer leagues playing here most weekends. We don’t have enough open space in Evanston that we can afford to pave this over.”

Moreover, the new building would add to traffic congestion, since it would bring in more buses and employees’ cars. “There’s already too many buses here for the King school, and now they want to add about 30 more a day,” says Lionel Pitts, who lives nearby. “Think of all the noise and air pollution. I moved here because I liked the tranquillity. They’re taking that away.”

Residents also complain that the streets are too narrow to handle more traffic. “We don’t even have sidewalkshow can they bring all these buses into an area without sidewalks?” says Ben Jackson, member of a local group called the Martin Luther King Lab School Neighbors Association. “I worry that a bus will hit a little kid.”

Over last summer and into the fall, Jackson collected hundreds of signatures on petitions opposing the project. “They didn’t think they’d get much opposition out here, ’cause most of the residents are African-American senior citizens,” he says. “They figured they could march right in and build.”

By March, Jackson had rounded up allies across Evanston. The proposal was opposed by Tana McDonald and Rose Cannon, board members of the local NAACP chapter; by Peggy Tarr, an aldermanic candidate from a ward in south Evanston; and by Sidney Zwick, who publishes the local Beacon.

In March the city council held a meeting on the matter because the district needed a zoning change to move ahead. More than 100 residents showed up, and none of them spoke in favor of the project. The alderman, Dennis Drummer, pleaded with his fellow council members to vote against the zoning change. “I told them we’re making a huge mistake to build on what little open space we have,” he says. “I also told them that they were giving the district far too much power.”

As Drummer points out, the district was seeking “a text rather than a map zoning change.” In other words, the district was asking the council to give it approval to build an administrative building on any school property in Evanston. “This is way too much authority to give the school district,” he says. “I don’t think people realize the magnitude of the zoning change. People tend not to pay attention to projects that are not in their backyards, yet this zoning change affects everyone’s backyardat least every school.”

Drummer saw other problems too. “I didn’t play the race card, but we have to realize what’s going on,” he says. “There’s a perception in the community that they wouldn’t be putting this in a white neighborhood. People look at how the council adopted legislation to protect people in white north Evanston against development by Northwestern University. Now the same council’s allowing District 65 to build over here. Well, if it’s good for one community, why isn’t it good for another? There’s a double standard.”

Despite Drummer’s pleas, the council passed the zoning change. School officials say they hope to start construction sometime in the summer.

“Could we build the administration building on any school grounds, as Dennis suggests?” says Erickson. “Well, technically, we could. Would we ever do that? No. We’re only going to build one administrative building in this lifetime.”

Then why seek a text amendment and not a map amendment?

“I don’t think that’s a major issue,” she responds. “Listen, we have been very open-minded about this. We looked at other sites. They didn’t work. The building would not fit there, or it would cost too much to buy the land. We held community meetings. We sent out notices. We kept the community aware. There was nothing secret about this. There certainly was no racial dimension. I’m disappointed that this is being made into a racial issue, because it’s not.”

Indeed, many of the suburb’s most prominent black leaders favor the plan, including District 65 superintendent Hardy Murphy and newly elected board member Hecky Powell. “I wasn’t on the board when the decision was made to build, but at this present time I do support it,” says Powell. “I think this is something the residents should have come out against a long time ago, not in the last ninth hour. I know some people are against it, but I don’t think it’s that big an issue. Listen, my mother lives on that side of town, and I haven’t heard anything from her about this.”

Yet Powell does concede that the money used for the administration building might be put to better use directly in the classroom. “Could the district do without a central office? Yes sir,” he says. “Most of those administrators need their butts out of the building and in the schools. The problem with bureaucracies is they expand to fill the space you give them. I have to agree with the opponents on that one. They probably won’t even have the early-childhood students in that building in another ten years. Probably have nothing but administrators.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jon Randolph.