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Proposed Unit 5 Budget Inches Toward Reducing Structural Deficit

Unit 5 finance administrators Tommy Hoerr, left, and Marty Hickman, share details about the proposed annual budget, during the Unit 5 school board meeting, Wednesday, Aug. 25, at Normal Community West High School.
Michele Steinbacher
Finance administrators Tommy Hoerr, left, and Marty Hickman share details about the proposed annual budget during the Unit 5 school board meeting, Wednesday, Aug. 25, at Normal Community West High School.

Unit 5 leaders say the district's proposed budget has a $12.5 million structural deficit, but that’s about 20%, or $3.5 million, less than projected.

District finance chief Marty Hickman told the school board during its meeting Wednesday at Normal Community West High School that the deficit in the education fund will be covered by a working cash transfer.

“The good news is that we’re on track with the plan that we put in place two years ago,” he said, reflecting on the challenges of the 2020-2021 school year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The long-term issue remains in our structural deficit. That’s what the board will be talking about over the coming months,” and what Unit 5 leaders have been focusing on for a number of years now, Hickman said after the meeting. He said in the end, the $12.5 million structural deficit likely will come in slightly higher.

On Sept. 22, the board will hold a public hearing, and then vote on the proposed $212.3 million budget that shows an overall $18.5 million deficit.

Hickman and Tommy Hoerr, financial services director, led a presentation at Wednesday’s meeting that combined a review of FY21 budget and the proposed FY22 budget.

Some areas they focused on were federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund contributions, as well as fluctuations in food service and transportation revenue due to last year’s pandemic impacts.

Among predictions for the upcoming year:

  • At the local level, Unit 5 leaders anticipate a 1% increase in the equalized assessed valuation of property within the district and a boost to food service revenue.
  • State revenue predictions include an additional $300,000 in corporate property replacement tax payments, bumping Unit 5’s share to $2.8 million. Because transportation revenue is based on ridership of the previous year, Hickman said Unit 5 likely will take a $1.7 million hit in that fund.
  • At the federal level, Unit 5 expects to see the benefits from an increase in federal ESSER grants; as well as about $3 million in USDA reimbursements for this year’s elementary and junior high school breakfast and lunch programs.

Help wanted in Unit 5

Also at the meeting, Superintendent Kristen Weikle said that like many industries not only in Bloomington-Normal but across the country, Unit 5 is facing a staffing shortage.

“A lot of business signs we see — ‘Hiring’ and ‘Apply Within’ — and unfortunately, that’s no different in the world of education,” said Weikle.

That goes for licensed positions such as teachers, social workers and school psychologists, and for classified roles like custodial, food service and others.

Substitute pay increased, in a recruiting effort. The district also is sending representatives to job fairs, and soon Unit 5 yard signs will go up around town too, she said.

Weikle urged community members to consider being a substitute teacher, or a teacher’s aide, or helping a few hours a day in food service. She said people curious about the jobs can visit the district website, or call the Unit 5 human resources department.

Bus routes need balance restored

In another matter, Unit 5 is trying to get a handle on how many of its students are riding the bus this fall. The district faces challenges bringing an estimated 10,000 students to and from schools daily, said Weikle.

“I recognize that we’ve had some late buses this school year. There have been glitches here and there,” she said, noting service provider First Student is working on it.

Weikle said last year more families than usual drove students to school, and that’s possibly happening this fall too, leading to challenges in planning with some buses fairly empty while others more crowded.

First Student has emailed Unit 5 families a survey to determine the best way to rebalance bus routes.

“Please complete the survey, and indicate if you don’t need (bus transportation),” she said. “That does not prevent you from accessing transportation down the road, if something were to change,” she said.

Next year, families will be surveyed at the time of registration.

Unit 5 COVID-tracking dashboard returns

Like last year, Unit 5 will update the community weekly on the number of students and staff who test positive for COVID during the 2021-2022 school year, and how many are quarantining, said Weikle.

That information will be available on the district’s website, under the heading Unit 5 dashboard. The district already has had positive cases, and students in quarantine after the first week.

In other business, the board:

  • Renewed its annual contract with Gaggle, spending about $48,000 on Google suite security.
  • Approved spending about $39,000 on improvements at Colene Hoose Elementary School.

Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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