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With Growing Education Fund Deficit, Unit 5 Strategy Session Focuses On Pitch To Voters

Barry Hitchins
Carleigh Gray
Unit 5 school board president Barry Hitchins at a previous meeting.

The sales pitch that Unit 5 leaders hope to make to taxpayers later this year began to take shape Monday, as district officials sketched out the need for a community task force—and possibly a consultant—that could lobby the public for passage of a revenue-raising referendum.

Unit 5 is trying to fix a structural deficit in its key education fund—now at $6 million and projected to grow to nearly $20 million in the next five years. Unit 5 has used working cash bonds—like a credit card—to temporarily stave off what officials say will be massive staff cuts, including teachers.

Unit 5 officials discussed the need for additional revenue—or, alternatively, the reality of what would be cut—during Monday’s school board finance committee meeting. School board members acknowledged it won’t be easy to build communitywide support for additional revenue.

“It’s gonna be a hard sell,” said Unit 5 School Board President Barry Hitchins. “We will have some people who will be, ‘Yes, we’re funding schools.’ But you’re also going to have that other end of spectrum who says, ‘Absolutely not. I’m already paying too much to Unit 5.’”

“It’s a matter of figuring out what kind of school district our community wants to have and figuring out how we’re going to fund that model,” Hitchins said.

Unit 5 has a few options, and it’s not necessarily either-or. The district could use a referendum to ask voters to raise property taxes, or to approve a 1% sales tax. (A sales tax referendum to fund McLean County school facilities was rejected by voters in 2014.) The district could also lay off teachers and cut programs, though that would enlarge class sizes.

Superintendent Mark Daniel suggested Monday that Unit 5 begin collecting names for a task force that will guide community outreach about these options. Unit 5 needs to zero in on a “core message” to sell to voters, Daniel said, suggesting the district’s growing social-emotional learning needs and professional staff are where to start.

“We need to continue to work on the ‘why.’ What’s the why?” Daniel said.

Daniel also floated the possibility of hiring a consultant to help oversee the effort. Hitchins, the school board president, countered that outside “experts don’t understand our community.”

“Personally, I think if we leverage the resources we have in our community, a consultant may not be needed,” Hitchins said. “I’m sure we could find project managers, finance people, communications specialists—all who would be willing to chip in and help guide and execute whatever it is we need to undertake.”

The finance committee on Monday discussed hosting community input sessions at schools around Unit 5 and developing a list of frequently asked questions (and their answers), in part to stop “misinformation” from taking root. They also discussed the challenges of communicating the nuance of school tax revenue sources; for example Daniel has said if even voters approve an increase in property tax, tax rates can remain stable as old bond payments expire.

“That’s a hard one to communicate,” said Unit 5 Business Manager Marty Hickman.

School board member Taunia Leffler said Unit 5 needs to show clearly the scope of the cuts that would be required without additional revenue, as well as the tax impact on an average homeowner if a referendum were to be approved. Holding expenses flat is simply not an option, with the state’s minimum wage rising and a new $40,000 minimum teacher salary being phased in, added Unit 5 Director of Operations Joe Adelman.

“If you want the public to be motivated to pay more in property or sales taxes, they have to know what the cuts will look like,” Leffler said. “We gotta have some dollar figures tied to it.”

Unit 5 officials say they face a Dec. 29 deadline to get something on the March 2020 ballot.

“None of this is gonna be easy,” said school board member Mike Trask.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.