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Timetable not set to deal with rest of Unit 5's budget deficit

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Emily Bollinger
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WGLT

Unit 5 leaders have talked about a tax referendum for at least a couple of months. That's according to minutes from a Jan. 21 meeting of the school board's finance committee.

"Dr. Weikle mentioned that she met with EOSullivan Consulting which is a consulting firm for districts wanting to engage their community in preparation for a referendum and/or strategic planning. She was impressed with the firm and saw a lot of value in the Board hiring the firm. Board members asked how much EOSullivan's services cost, and if the District engaged them now, would that allow enough time before the November election. EOSullivan's services would cost approximately $60-70K and there would be plenty of time to prepare for the November election," said the minutes.

But Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle told WGLT that conversation does not mean the board has decided to pursue a referendum.

"They have an expertise in community engagement, is what I would say, finding out from the community what is most important to you. What do you value most? What do you want to see that currently isn't in place? And certainly, they may have questions like, what would you be willing to support?" said Weikle.

Kristen Weikle
Unit 5
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Unit 5 superintendent Kristen Weikle.

She said the talks were about a public engagement element of long-delayed strategic planning. She had hoped to go through that exercise last year when she took the job , but COVID lingered and took up staff and board attention.

"Even this year, I had a tentative time frame I shared with my immediate cabinet. And they all kindly smiled and laughed at me and said, we think that's probably overly ambitious. So, we're having to delay the start of that till later this spring. But we need to do this, this is important for the board, the administration," said Weikle. "So we can make the appropriate choices moving forward, and make sure that we're focusing our time, energy and resources in the right places."

At its March 9 meeting, the school board voted to cut just over $2 million in teaching jobs and educational programs next year. Three dozen teaching positions will disappear; as will two administrator roles and a paid administrator-training program. The district also will end its 8th-grade foreign language option.

That still leaves an additional $11 million structural deficit to address. District staff are looking for new revenue sources as well as potential additional cuts. Weikle said there is nothing firmly identified yet. She said any community engagement portion of strategic planning could include whether new tax revenue should be sought.

"If the district has to make tough choices, what would you be willing to support to keep in the schools? And sometimes that means choosing one thing over another. And sometimes that might mean being willing to pay additional funds to support the things that are valued," said Weikle.

She said it's premature to say whether there will be a tax referendum and the board has not reached a decision.

A referendum campaign would have to be funded by an outside body such as a citizens committee and not the district.

Weikle said she was in another district as director of special education when that district asked taxpayers for a rate increase.

"I was a part of the conversations before the board decided to proceed with a referendum. And afterwards, I was part of community conversations where I was just able to provide factual information when asked," said Weikle.

She said that referendum did not pass at first, but did later. Sometimes, districts have to make the case to voters multiple times before gaining acceptance.

"It would be really preliminary for me to speculate if the board is going to proceed this year or next year. I honestly can't say for sure what the board's going to do or not do. Do I think at some point, if the board moves forward, is that something reasonable to think if we are unsuccessful the first time that we have to reevaluate and determine if we should go again? I think that's fair. And I would anticipate any board who's facing financial challenges would have that conversation," said Weikle.

Referendum history

Weikle said Unit 5’s financial challenges date back to around 2007, when EAV (equalized assessed valuation of property values) began to drop. That was three superintendents ago.

In 2008, the board went to the community for a referendum to build three new schools and put up an addition to another elementary school. At the same time, the board asked for a 10-cent increase in the education fund.

“Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to staff three buildings and continue to offer all the supports programs (and) services that we offer. Around 2014 or so, the district did make $3 million worth of cuts,” said Weikle.

Most school districts, including Unit 5, began to see increased demand for social-emotional and behavioral support of students. She said additional support services were put in place between 2008 and 2014, noting the public should be aware of state actions that drove up the cost of doing business.

“Even until now, we continue to be flooded with unfunded mandates. Those range from needing to provide certain services programs, to the minimum new teacher salary we have to meet in a couple of years of a $40,000 base, and an increase in the minimum wage for other employees. So, we kind of have like this mixture of all these things,” said Weikle.

Weikle said she knew the education fund and the budget had serious challenges when she was hired, but pandemic had not yet appeared. It has consumed much of the district’s attention since.

“A lot of the decisions that maybe the board would have made, were put on pause to focus on the immediate need of COVID," she said.

Weikle said it’s not possible to gauge how different the picture would be if the board and district had acted earlier to address the structural deficit remarked on by her immediate predecessor, Mark Daniel.

“I don't think the board would have said at the time, whatever the dollar amount was,' Oh, that's reasonable to remedy in one year,' because obviously those sorts of changes to the budget would have a significant impact across the board. We would still be facing a deficit. Would it be as large? Probably not, no,” said Weikle.

Weikle said the district finance director makes annual budget presentations and a midyear review. She said last September there was a lengthy presentation about the financial condition of the district. And the board asked staff to recommend cost reductions and new revenue possibilities. Recommendations went out to staff and the board in February and the board acted during a special meeting early this month.

All that is part of the regular order of business, but until recently the board has not gone to the public and asked for community support because the potential cuts are unpalatable.

“The board has made no decisions about possible future actions that they might take. Really, it was too soon to say something, you know, to be able to go out to the public and say, 'Hey, we're going to need your support, we need to make some reductions.' You know, I worry that would have caused a lot of maybe in some cases, unnecessary worry and anxiety about what would be happening by our community and staff,” said Weikle.

There will not be quick action to address the rest of the deficit. Weikle said the district is working through staffing changes and transfers.

“That's where my focus needs to be right now. I don't expect the board to take any action in the immediate future, about decisions moving forward. I wouldn't think until maybe late summer, would the board have made any final decisions about next steps,” said Weikle.

That leaves unclear whether the timing precludes a November referendum, or whether a citizens group would have enough time to organize, raise funds, or campaign for a rate increase.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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