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Unit 5 proposes cutting staff and programs to chip away at growing multimillion-dollar deficit

school board members
Michele Steinbacher
/
WGLT
The Unit 5 school board met Wednesday, March 2, 2022, at Normal Community West High School. Though open to the public, very few people attended.

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The Unit 5 school board plans a vote next week on whether to cut dozens of teaching positions, some administrator roles, and programs such as fifth-grade band/orchestra and eighth-grade foreign language.

As proposed, the changes for next year would shave $3 million from the district's nearly $13 million deficit.

"I know some of these recommendations aren't easy to hear, and they're certainly not easy to recommend," Superintendent Kristen Weikle said Wednesday night during the board's special meeting at Normal Community West High School.

In September, the board tasked her administration with finding ways to cut expenses and increase revenue. On Wednesday, Weikle detailed the plan that includes cutting 36 full-time teaching positions, and two administrator roles, as well as ending paid administrative internships.

About 425 fifth graders take part in the band/orchestra program; and about 260 eighth graders currently are enrolled in a foreign language class at the high schools.

Other changes include no more staffing grade school “Schedule B” activities such as student council, and music concerts, and consolidating a Unit 5 college-level computer sciences program at Normal Community West High School.

Exploration of referendum floated

As difficult as it is to make these cuts, equally concerning is the district's rising debt, said Weikle. If the district remains on the current course, it would carry a deficit of more than a $30 million in five years, she said.

It's that looming figure that has Weikle, and school board members, saying this spring is the time to explore whether the community would support a tax increase, through a referendum.

Board members acknowledged Wednesday the $3 million in proposed changes — about $2 million in cuts, and $1 million in new revenue — is barely a dent in the giant, growing debt.

But they said it's impossible to cut $14 million from the budget without devastating the education system Unit 5 residents and students expect. This proposal is just Phase One, said board president Amy Roser.

Leaders blame the debacle on a decade of dismal property tax revenue trends and slashed state funding. That, combined with growing enrollment and increased staffing needs, and state salary mandates, has created the situation, they said.

Nearly 60% of Unit 5’s budget revenue comes from local property taxes, and another 20% from the state. Both of those categories have taken significant hits over the past decade.

“The situation that we’re in — it is by no means due to mismanagement of funds. It’s a variety of factors that has gotten us here, to where we are today,” said Weikle.

Those included severe dips in property tax revenue over the past decade, as well as Illinois' pro-ration policy that left Unit 5 with a $19 million shortfall. That's money it will never get back, said Weikle, including about $8 million for the education fund.

The current education fund tax rate of $2.72 per $100 assessed valuation has barely moved in four decades, Weikle lamented. In 1983, it was $2.62, she said.

The education fund is the district's largest fund, providing staff salaries, as well as the materials and contracts needed to educate students. Unit 5 residents have come to expect the opportunities the district affords its students and qualified staff to implement the programs, Weikle said.

“But that comes at a price. We can’t keep doing it on a 1983 budget,” she said.

In recent years, the district has turned to working cash bonds to patch the budget. Last month, the board approved issuing up to $46 million in bonds to address the next few years. But Weikle described the bond only covers a brief period.

Asking Unit 5 taxpayers, through a referendum, to increase the tax rate for the education fund seems necessary, she said.

“That would be something that would be more of a long-term solution,” said Weikle. “We can’t nickel and dime our way out of our budget deficit. So, we’re really looking for financial stability.”

The district simply cannot keep the property tax rate at $2.72 for the education fund and be viable long term, agreed board member Barry Hitchins.

"We will need a referendum at some point," he said.

Roser said the board takes its role to be financially responsible seriously. Members have worked with the administration, and spent time looking at where it can make cuts, and where it can increase revenue.

But for long-term financial health, Unit 5 taxpayers are going to need to look within, she said.

"What kind of education do you want? What kind of opportunities to you want for your students, and what value does that have to you as a community member?" she said.

Big numbers discussed in empty auditorium

Despite many of this year’s school board meetings drawing crowds of public commenters — passionate about mask-wearing policies, and culture war topics such as gender issues and lessons on race — almost no one attended Wednesday’s two-hour meeting in the Normal West auditorium.

The stakes are high. Enrolling more than 12,000 students, Unit 5 is one of Illinois’ larger districts, with a more than $200 million budget.

Roser noted that while headlines about other topics might have pulled Unit 5 residents' attention away from the deficit, she hopes this spring the community will come together and focus on the district's fiscal crisis.

Weikle said besides the upcoming board vote on the proposed changes, other next steps include administrators meeting with union leadership and focusing on strategic planning with the community.

Following Wednesday’s meeting, the Unit Five Education Association posted a statement on its Facebook page in which the union echoed the administration's assessment of the root causes of the deficit — state funding issues and a need for more local revenue.

“We’ve explicitly expressed our willingness to support the district in any efforts to increase revenue — including lobbying state leaders for adequate funding and seeking community support,” the post read.

But the union post made clear that UFEA members don't think eliminating teaching positions is a good option.

UFEA said students in Unit 5 need more staff support, not less. The union said it had bargained contracts with minimal increases in pay and benefits — in an effort to preserve jobs and programs.

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