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Unit 5 proposes $131.7 million tax levy, nearly identical to last year's

Michele Steinbacher
Unit 5's Director of Secondary Education, Dan Lamboley, discusses a career planning program for teens, during the Unit 5 school board meeting Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at Normal Community West High School. Looking on, are recent Unit 5 graduates of the program, and their teachers.

The Unit 5 school board on Wednesday night discussed a tentative $131.7 million levy, similar in size to 2020’s figure, as well as how the district projects its tax rate will slightly decrease.

A public hearing and a board vote on the 2021 levy is planned for Dec. 8.

Also at the meeting in Normal Community West High School's auditorium, the board approved a four-year contract for its custodial and maintenance workers, and learned about a district program that guides teens interested in teaching careers.

Civility at school board meetings , amid the so-called culture wars, continues to be in the news across the country: In McLean County, it’s no different. Unit 5 School Board President Amy Roser abruptly sent the board into recess Wednesday due to an interruption from the audience — as she did at the board's last meeting, Oct. 27, and other times over the past year.

Incidentally, it was just minutes after Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle had announced Nov. 15 will be Illinois School Board Members Day, and had applauded the school board members for serving as unpaid volunteers in the elected positions.

Annual tax levy

The tentative 2021 levy is about 1.3% higher than last year’s $130.4 million levy, said Unit 5 finance chief Marty Hickman. He told the board the district projects its tax rate to slightly decrease.

The proposed levy assumes a 3.78% increase in Unit 5's equalized assessed valuation (EAV.) That’s higher than the actual 1.75% increase the district expects, said Hickman. But setting the figure higher allows the district to capture more revenue.

Using the higher EAV, the rate would go from last year's $5.64 per $100 of EAV to $5.58 per $100. That's a 6-cent drop. Hickman said, a likelier scenario is a decrease in the 2.5-cent to 5-cent range.

Despite that decrease, whether a homeowner will pay more or less in taxes varies, he said. It depends on the value of the property. School districts don’t set EAV, noted Hickman. That’s determined by state, county and township assessors. Because Unit 5 is situated across several townships, the numbers aren't the same for everyone.

The levy is important to Unit 5 because it represents nearly 60% of the district’s main revenue funds for 2021-2022, Hickman said during his presentation. The state only provides about 20%.

At the levy presentation's close, Hickman included a slide that read “Questions?” — intended for board members. But a woman in the audience interrupted, shouting that she had a question.

Meeting interruption, recess

Roser addressed her directly as “Dawn,” telling her she’d already explained to the woman that public comment was limited to a specified period, and that she wasn’t permitted to ask questions at that time. However, the woman continued to shout from the audience, demanding the board entertain her questions. After Roser failed to convince the woman to be quiet, the board leader called a recess, and members left the auditorium.

The woman continued, telling administrators that she would not be quiet. So, Normal police officers were called to escort her from the meeting. In the end, she agreed to adhere to decorum, and the board allowed her to stay.

After the 10-minute recess, Roser reminded the audience that while the school board meetings are held in public, they are not public dialogue events. She said attendees time to speak is during an established public comment period listed in board policy.

That requires individuals to sign up prior to a meeting’s start, and it allows three-minute comments per person during a set period. Board members listen, but do not respond to speakers at that time. A printout of those rules are available before each meeting.

On Wednesday, three people spoke during public comments — each was against the district following Gov. JB Pritzker’s pandemic-related mask mandates, and one revived a complaint from the Oct. 27 board meeting about the book "Gender Queer" being in the district's high school libraries.

As the meeting wrapped up Wednesday, several board members said that public input is important, and emphasized that they also can be reached by phone or email outside of meeting times.

Laborers union contract OK'd

Also on Wednesday, the board voted unanimously to approve the custodial and maintenance workers contract. That followed a recent ratification of the 2021-2025 collective bargaining agreement by Local 362, Laborers International Union of North America.

The four-year contract calls for about 3% annual raises in years two, three and four, said Hickman, adding that the first year’s increases vary depending on positions.

The district has been negotiating with the union since May. The most recent contract expired in June, and since then the custodial and maintenance staff have since been working on a tentative contract, said Weikle.

Also, as part of the agreement, the union members will receive two new holidays: Juneteenth (June 19), and Election Day.

Career paths program for teens 

Dan Lamboley, who heads Unit 5's secondary education area, led a presentation about the district's efforts to develop concrete pipelines for students interested in pursuing certain careers.

Wednesday’s focus was on one such program that helps Unit 5 teens interested in becoming teachers gain valuable experience and college credit even before graduating high school.

Unit 5 provides other opportunities for individuals planning to attend college, too, said Lamboley. Those include assistance with financial aid forms, college searches and more. He also said Unit 5 has programs for students looking at careers without college degrees, and for those pursuing military service after high school graduation.

In other business, the board:

  • Authorized spending about $195,000 of fire prevention and safety funds. A recent inspection determined a nearly 30-year-old chiller in Normal West High School isn’t working properly and needs to be rebuilt.
  • Approved the 114-page “High School Course to Career Guide” for the 2022-2023 school year. The document offers students and families details on planned courses.
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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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