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Unit 5 school board approves $2.2 million in cuts, but opts against music changes

Grove Elementary School second-grader Elijah Bland, who wants to be in 5th grade band, speaks to the Unit 5 school board on Wednesday, March 9, 2022, at Normal West.
Michele Steinbacher
Grove Elementary School second-grader Elijah Bland, who wants to be in 5th grade band, speaks to the Unit 5 school board on Wednesday, March 9, 2022, at Normal West.

Unit 5 is charging ahead with a plan to cut $2.1 million in teaching jobs and educational programs next year – but the show will go on for the district’s fifth-grade band and orchestra program.

After a four-hour marathon of public comments against the cuts Wednesday night, it was well after midnight before the school board approved the plan.

The high-stakes vote brought a full house to the 400-plus seat auditorium in Normal Community West High School. Many public comments decried the district’s transparency and communication about the proposed cuts. The plan only was made public last week.

Although the music program escaped unscathed, other decisions will affect Unit 5 programming: Three dozen teaching positions will disappear, as will two administrator roles and a paid administrator-training program. Plus, the district is ending its eighth-grade foreign language option.

Superintendent Kristen Weikle said most positions will be eliminated through retirements or reassignments. She said projected enrollments for next year will keep the classroom sizes manageable.

But some public commenters lamented how the changes will reduce the size of teaching teams at junior high schools, and shrink teacher-to-student ratios in high schools.

District leaders say this first phase of deficit reduction also captures $1 million in additional revenue. Even with the approved changes, the district’s fiscal 2023 budget still is saddled with an $11 million deficit. It’s on a five-year trajectory to be more than $30 million, Weikle told the audience Wednesday.

“If we do nothing, the future doesn’t look great,” she said. Weikle and other Unit 5 leaders said Unit 5 voters need to pass a tax referendum, to increase the education fund’s tax rate.

The administration’s proposal, first made public last week, called for eliminating the music program’s two teaching positions – and therefore killing it. But the school board only approved the cuts with the caveat the music program remains. So the original $2.2 million in reductions to the district’s education fund now is $108,000 smaller, to cover the two salaries.

Public comments

About 75 people signed up for comment by the meeting’s 6:30 p.m. start. But with the meeting stretching close to 1:45 a.m. – including an hourlong post-midnight closed session – not everyone stayed until the end.

At one point, Amy Roser, school board president, even started re-organizing the order of speakers so student speakers could head home before midnight.

More than 60 people did address the board, including students, parents, and teachers. Representatives from Unit 5’s music departments spoke, as did members of the district’s music parents’ group, and the union representing teachers (Unit Five Education Association).

Nearly everyone who addressed the board rejected the administration’s recommendations for teaching and program cuts. Particularly vocal were those who objected to the idea of eliminating the fifth-grade band/orchestra program and the eighth-grade foreign language option.

Lucas Easter, a Kingsley Junior High School student, who plays the saxophone, but who also wants to learn bassoon, said he was among the class of fifth-graders who didn’t get the chance to take part in the program. It means, now in sixth grade, he and his classmates are already behind, he said.

“Don’t set back other kids like me,” said Lucas.

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 district’s two high schools.

Several public commenters pointed out this year’s 425 count is low, reflecting last year’s lockdown preventing then-fourth graders from experiencing in-person instrument exploration nights.

Public commenter Travis Thacker, who owns the Carl's Pro Band music shop in Bloomington, said pre-pandemic there were between 600-800 fifth-graders enrolled on average.

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

That budget’s not expected to formally be adopted until September. But the board had asked the administration to make recommendations for how to increase revenue and decrease debt.

Earlier this week, board members said tackling that growing structural deficit is the major challenge now before the community.

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