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Unit 5 board members say cuts will get the public’s attention, and a tax referendum may be next

Amy Roser and Barry Hitchins
Staff
/
WGLT
Unit 5 school board president Amy Roser and board member Barry Hitchins.

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The Unit 5 school board is set to vote Wednesday on recently-publicized plans to cut dozens of teaching positions, a couple of 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 $14 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 March 2.

Weikle detailed the plan that includes cutting 36 full-time teaching positions, and two administrator roles, as well as ending paid administrative internships.

Board members acknowledged 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.

"People tend not to pay attention to school districts until something happens. Now, something has happened. Now, they're going to start paying more attention."
Barry Hitchins, Unit 5 school board

Ahead of a vote on the cuts on Wednesday, Unit 5 school board president Amy Roser and board member Barry Hitchins sat down with WGLT's Lyndsay Jones to discuss how the board is addressing the situation — and whether they'll put a tax referendum before the community to avoid further educational cuts.

Let's start out with why we're all here: We're here to talk about the budget situation that Unit 5 is facing. But why is the district in the situation that it is in, now?

Roser: There are a variety of factors that have led to the district being in this current position. Some of the main financial factors include a significant drop in the EAV (equalized assessed value) while our expense over the years have continued to increase. We've had years of pro-ration funds from the state that we've never received — to the tune of about $19 million. We've added programs to meet students' social, emotional and behavioral needs. (There have been) increased costs due to mandates and increases in supplies, as related to the inflation that we're all seeing with our overall costs. And the bottom line is revenue is not keeping up with our overall costs. As a result, we're seeing the biggest hit in our education fund.

That state funding, the $19 million that's not at Unit 5 — can you talk a little bit about what pro-ration funding is and why the district doesn't have it yet?

The state provides funds for certain, required expenses, or mandated expenses and supplements transportation or other expenses. Over the last decade, sometimes the state has been short on their funds and then hasn't been able to meet their financial obligations to school districts across Illinois. That's had an impact on each school district's bottom line and budget. We still have to provide transportation, we still have to provide special services to students because they're required by the state, so then we have to find alternate ways to fund those.

So that's the summary of how the district got here. In the past year and a half, what has the board and administration been looking at, as far as, 'How do we address this budget situation?'

Hitchins: Going back to 2018, which is when we started to expand our social/emotional offerings, the board has been having discussions on a regular basis about how we can either reduce expenses or increase revenue. Whenever we talk about increasing revenue, it generally centers around some type of referendum. And just through various combinations of circumstances, we just never had the right people in the right roles to go through with actually executing a referendum campaign.

So at the end of the 2017-18 school year, we had a full board that had been on the board for a year and we were getting geared up. Then we had three board members resign over the course of three months, so that really impacted our ability, as a board, to push something like that.

Then we get into 2019-20 and we start to have discussions and then we realize Dr. (Mark) Daniel is not going to be our superintendent going forward. That really did shift our ability to have a referendum at that point because you need all your resources in the district committed to that effort. We knew with him looking to the future and with us as a board needing to find his replacement, that would detract from our ability to focus on a referendum campaign. In March 2020, there was COVID. So, every election since then, it has been the board asking itself, 'Can we do this?' And the answer has been no, because we can't go for a referendum during these times because people are struggling to make ends meet. Going out for referendum at that point would not be the responsible thing for people in our community.

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

When you say 'at this point,' are you referring to the previous years, or currently?

Hitchins: Yes, (previous).

Roser: At the end of the day, there's never a good time, right? None of us want to pay more in taxes and see the size of that tax bill. But I think the other point to recognize is that Unit 5 hasn't had a substantial influx or change in its tax funding, for particularly our education fund, since the early 1980s. In the early '80s, the tax rate for our education fund was about $2.63. Since that time, there's been a 10-cent increase, but no other increases to our education fund. It's hard to operate, provide the level of offerings that our community seems to expect and desire for Unit 5, on that early '80s budget.

Hitchins: And, when you really think about that 10-cent increase that has happened since the early '80s, that coincided with the opening of three new schools and the doubling of a fourth. You also have to think about all of the schools that have been added since the early 1980s. Back then, we had one high school. We had maybe two junior highs at that point — now we've got four. So the fact that we have been able to operate, as a district, with essentially the same rate for 40 years and living off the increase in EAV in that time, I think, is a testament to the ability of this district to provide services that are desired by the community within a reasonable budget.

You mentioned COVID and it brought to mind that the district got three rounds of emergency relief funding. How much did the district get, in total, from these three rounds?

Roser: I'd first say about the different ESSER funds (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) is that they each have specific requirements that came with them — limitations on what the government would allow us to use them for. They were there to alleviate some of the impacts of the pandemic — supplying PPE to our students and to our staff, providing the supports to our students and our staff, providing the technology to do remote-learning.

....In total, we received about $20.6 million in funding from the ESSER funds.

Hitchins: The funds are really designed to function from the spring of 2020 all the way through the 2023-24 school year. So, yes, we get this $20 million, but it's got to last us for some of these services for the next two school years as well. We can't just spend all $20 million right now.

We've talked about the years-long process that's led to the budget talks you're having right now. Can you talk a little bit more about how the administration came up with these solutions — cutting this $3 million?

Roser: Early in the fall, the board did directly request that Dr. Weikle — I think that was Barry (Hitchins) through his role as the finance committee director — to look at ways to increase revenue and/or reduce expenses specifically to address the projected $14 million structural deficit in our education fund for next year. Projections indicate that could grow to over $30 million in the next five years if we don't take action now. The board recognized that we needed to really start looking at what our options are. Dr. Weikle, at that point, began to work with her staff and review and follow through on the board's request.

I'll leave the specifics of what she did and how she did that to her. But I'd say that she facilitated, from the board's perspective, a highly collaborative and thorough investigation of the district's finances and how to best move forward.

The meeting where those cuts were detailed happened almost a week ago. So, if people were paying attention, they have about seven days to process the stuff that's going to be leaving — foreign language, music changes, etc. Do you feel like that's enough time for you and the public to fully understand the impact that these proposed cuts are going to have on the community?

Roser: I think the harder message is that if we don't address the structural deficit in our education fund, the cuts that we're doing now are really quite small in comparison to the cuts that we need to do. The board has proposed $2 million in cuts and our structural deficit for next year is $14 million.

So, for those who feel they didn't have enough notice or warning, none of of us want to lose our thing — that thing that's special or close to our heart. And none of the board wants to see these programs or these staff go. We certainly see and value the educational benefit and opportunity that they provide. We also recognize that if we don't take action now, that $2 million is going to compound to $4 million next year and $6 million the following year.

If we're struggling as a district and as a community with $2 million in cuts, I'd hate to see what the impact would be of having to look at $14 million in cuts.

That's not something we want to do, nor it is it something we want to face. Cuts at that level are very drastic: it would mean significant loss of teachers in our district, it would be mean significant reductions in extracurricular and sporting programs — and that wouldn't even begin to touch that $14 million deficit.

It's a very dire situation when you put it like that. So is now the time — or in the near future — that you'll begin looking at the proposal of a referendum?

Roser: I think we need to continue to evaluate and gauge what is important to our community and to our public. This has really ripped off the Band-Aid and helped us all really see the reality of where the district's finances are. It's important for us, as a board, to continue to gauge what the public interest is, what they're willing to support, what they're not willing to support and what kind of education and what kind of opportunities they want Unit 5 to provide for our community.

So on one hand, yes, it is very appropriate to bring this question before the voters through a referendum. But at this point, we still need to just continue to evaluate our options. But certainly, this is an option that is very much on the table.

What are the other options on the table that you're looking at besides a referendum?

Roser: I think the options could be additional cuts, certainly. Other options could be the district, the board, choosing to take out additional ... working cash bonds.

There are pros and cons with all of that, right? We don't want to see additional programs go. We don't want to lose additional staff.

We recognize that working cash bonds is not a permanent solution to financing a district, because part of that fund, the taxpayer money on the working cash bond, is going to support the bond and interest payment. So the taxpayer and the school district isn't getting that full dollar back of taxes — part of that is going to pay the interest.

How do you measure the public's interest, or lack of interest, in a referendum? As a board, how are you going to measure that and decide?

Roser: It starts with utilizing many of our current and existing structures — working through our parent-teacher organizations (PTOs), working through our Citizens Advisory Council, having conversations with our local leaders and discussing what options ... they see.

So, as with any professional organization, sometimes you may look to see what peer institutions — in this case, peer districts — are doing, or have done in the past, and what worked or didn't work for them. Are there any districts you're looking to right now for lessons, or that kind of thing?

Hitchins: It's important to realize that the appetite of communities for capital project-style referendum typically differs from what we're looking to do, which could be an education fund referendum.

As an example, back in 2008, I believe, we had a building referendum that was to build two new elementary schools, a junior high and expand another elementary school. There were also a bunch of other smaller projects across the district (included in the referendum). That passed fairly overwhelmingly. I wasn't on the board at that time, so I can't give you the percentage, but it was a comfortable percentage.

That same election was when we had that 10-cent increase to education fund on the ballot. That barely passed. So when you take into consideration the fact that we were building three new schools, the community was still questionable about whether they wanted to provide the education fund support to actually staff those buildings.

The only education fund referendum I can think of within the past is Lexington — they had one a couple of years ago and they were in dire financial straits, too. So it's hard to gauge what worked for them and how it could work for us. We need to figure out how to move forward with this reality.

So there's not really any peer institutions you're looking at for cues, or anything like that?

Roser: I think certainly from my time on the board, I've taken advantage of different workshops through the professional association that all board members receive training from — the Illinois Association of School Boards. I've paid particular interest to presentations and school districts who have been successful or not at referendums.

But the history goes to show that it is exceptionally difficult to pass a referendum for something other than buildings or facilities. We've certainly seen that trend in our community.

Could you explain the district's debt situation and how that has contributed to the structural deficit, in particular?

Hitchins: The best way to talk through this is in relation to our actual tax rate.

The current tax rate for Unit 5 is about $5.69 per $100 of equalized assessed value — you take a $100,000, home, you divide by $100, you're at 1,000, you take that 1,000, multiply it by the tax rate for Unit 5 and we get $5,690 from you.

That $5.69 is split out among different funds within our district — you've got $2.72 for the education fund, you've got a certain portion that goes to our operations and maintenance.

Of that $5,690, $1,690 goes to bonds and interest, which is that debt you're referring to.

A large portion of that still ties back to that 2008 building referendum. Those bonds are scheduled to be retired within the next two to three years, if I remember correctly.

So what could be looked at is, could we time some type of education fund referendum to start to kick in, when those building bonds are paid off? That way ... it could then start going to our education fund.

But that's in a few years, hypothetically, if that were to be a thing?

Hitchins: Yes. But we could be laying the groundwork now for that. It depends on the discussion we could have with the community. Could they be convinced to approve the increase now, so that as those debts roll off, we could then automatically shift the money from bonds and interest into the education fund?

Kristen Weikle
Unit 5
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Unit 5 superintendent Kristen Weikle.

Roser: Just to elaborate a little bit on what Barry was saying, we've specifically focused on the education fund, as that is the fund in Unit 5 that has the largest and biggest deficit at this point.

We have other funds that are running very tight and are very close to needing more money. But the education fund is that the one where we do have that structural deficit right now. The problem that we're facing is that not having an additional flat tax rate to increase our education fund is going to compound the problem that we're currently facing.

So, if the voters aren't interested in passing a referendum — if it comes to that — these are the types of cuts or alternative ways that we're going to have to find to fund our education expenses.

If I understand you correctly, the reason that these cuts are being done right now, first, is because they are a quicker way to address part of this issue, versus pitching a referendum right now?

Hitchins: I wouldn't say that. I would say that we need to show that we could be responsible with the money that we've already gotten from our taxpayers. And tightening of the belt, for lack of a better description, is basically the only way we could do that.

Roser: When evaluating how much working cash to take out for the next three years, one of the factors that was very important to the board was that we keep our current tax rate — what taxpayers are currently paying to the district — the same. So, we kept our total amount that we would take out to $46 million over the next the years to keep that tax rate the same. That did require us to then tighten our belt a little bit and proceed with some cuts.

What are the challenges you face with communicating to the public a need to tighten the belt? It seems hard to make that palatable.

Hitchins: I think it's the simple fact that people over the years have gotten used to school districts just kind of moving along. I hate to put it this way, but people tend not to pay attention to school districts until something happens. Now, something has happened. Now, they're going to start paying more attention.

Community engagement, civic engagement, is a good thing. We want people to talk to us. We want people to tell us what's important.

But when they're not doing that for the past 5-10 years, it's hard for us to say, 'We heard you before,' when you weren't telling us specifically that it was important.

Roser: I also would say that school finance is incredibly complicated. These aren't topics that we talk about around the dinner table, or that are easy for folks to understand when you read a headline or see a quick post on social media.

We tend to not, as a society, care about an issue until it impacts us personally. That's really hard. It's really sad. But unfortunately, when the reality does it, that's when it becomes important.

At what point would you look to maybe a referendum consultant to guide the board through this process?

Roser: I've never done this before, so I would default to some of our experts in other areas on that.

Hitchins: We haven't done a referendum in my timeframe on the board either. So we'd be looking to more experienced community members, or maybe some former board members who were involved in some of these past referenda. We'd also be looking to our administration to help drive some of that discussion, because some of our administration may have come from other districts where they have had to deal with referendums.

Roser: I did want to go back to some of the other factors I know Dr. Weikle has facilitated with her staff in looking at the board's request of increasing revenue and decreasing expenses.

They considered opportunities Unit 5 provides that are not required by the state. They also considered if those opportunities would exist at a later time for students. They considered reductions among groups in the education funds. They looked for untapped revenue streams and opportunities to expand current revenue sources.

So what does that mean in plain language?

Roser: I think it broadly means that she was looking at a variety of factors.

Hitchins: So there are things we're required to do as a district by the State of Illinois. As an example, high school graduation requirements that the state requires are one thing. But we have a separate set for Unit 5 — it encompasses all of what the state requires, but it encompasses more, as well. That's kind of thing where, since it's not required by legislation or school code, we could look at that.

We are NOT looking at changing high school graduation requirements right now, but we are not required to do everything that we are currently doing.

She (also) talked about those things where there's a "future opportunity" — well, that gets into some of the discussions specifically around band and foreign language.

If fifth grade band is not available, you still have the opportunity for seven years of band, or orchestra or choir within Unit 5 before you graduate. For foreign language, if you don't have foreign language at eighth grade, you still have the opportunity for four years of foreign language before you graduate Unit 5.

Roser: Said differently, there are several things Unit 5 offers that are above and beyond the state minimum requirements. Those are the things that certainly became more of a focus because we're not required to provide those. Evaluating and benchmarking when other (districts) provide those and the cost-effectiveness of how many students are participating and how much could be saved are some of the factors that we certainly considered.

It was also important that all areas of Unit 5 felt these administrative cuts — that we didn't focus on one area. We didn't want all of the $2 million to come from high school, or all of the $2 million to come from junior high, but that even staff in the administrative office are impacted by some of these cuts so it touched all areas of Unit 5.

Any time that you've got a decision like this where there is going to be a reduction (of services), there is always an equity issue tied into it. What would your message be to the folks that are concerned about these issues?

Roser: I'd say that the equity concerns are always at the forefront of our minds. Working to alleviate disparities where possible, and working to minimize those inequities or reduce them or eliminate them completely is certainly a goal of ours. We do consider, when we have to make these cuts, the impact that will have on particular groups of students.

It's one of those things that makes these decisions as board members particularly difficult and particularly heavy. It causes us to lose sleep at night and causes us to really worry about the impact and power behind the decisions that we make.

Is there anything that either of you would want (to put) out there for the people to know as they process this, as they think about how the board has handled this?

Roser: These aren't things that we take lightly. These weren't things that we came up with just overnight and decided, 'Oh, well, that might be a good idea — let's fly that up the flagpole.' This has taken years of discussion, years of planning and a variety of factors to even get to this point.

You don't know everything that happens behind the curtain. You don't know everything happens beyond a headline.

Know that there have been people that have invested a substantial amount of working hours, time, effort and energy to minimize the impact of these cuts on our students and to minimize the impact of these cuts on our staff — finding alternate placements for teachers who, unfortunately, their positions are being reduced.

I've seen staff painstakingly spend a lot of hours to find options for each individual and there's been a lot of work and time and effort that's gone into this.

Hitchins: I've always gone with, 'What is the path not taken?' As painful as these choices may be, there are probably some choices, other options, that would have had greater impacts on other subsets of our community.

Yes, some of these budget decisions that we are making are having big impacts on people, but the impact from other decisions could have been far more drastic on other people.

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