Unit 5 hears feedback on budget shortfall during the 1st of 3 listening sessions
Unit 5 administrators have started seeking public feedback about the Normal-based school district’s gloomy financial picture.
Several commenters at the district’s first community engagement meeting on Saturday said the district waited years too long to address the district’s long-term financial problems and rolled out significant budget cuts last month with little advance notice to the public.
“I will own that as the leader of the district that if we could go back and do it differently we would certainly do that,” superintendent Kristen Weikle told the gathering at Normal West high school.
Weikle noted the school board has found ways to reduce the district’s deficit by nearly $3 million. That was by eliminating its eighth-grade foreign language option, three dozen teachers and two administrators. The district still projects a $26 million deficit over the next five years.
Weikle indicated she started as district superintendent in July 2020 and much of her first year and a half on the job were consumed by COVID. She suggested the district has repeatedly tried to deliver the message about the district’s financial woes, but that the public hasn’t always been paying attention.
“Unfortunately (during) school board meetings, when (Unit 5 chief financial officer Marty Hickman) starts talking about finance, the online viewers drop tremendously … and I hate that because this is pretty important stuff,” Weikle said.
Weikle said pay freezes and minimal pay increases for staff and administrators has helped realize some savings. The board has also cut some school activities and increased classroom sizes. But even these solutions are something that Weikle acknowledged are not good, long-term solutions.
“As a district, we really have tried to do everything possible to keep these financial challenges from impacting our students and the taxpayers,” stated Weikle.
In response to a question about cutting athletics and other extracurricular programs instead of teachers, Weikle replied that alone would provide little financial relief.
“It is something we need to certainly look at and have the community help prioritize, but that by itself wouldn’t help change the trajectory of our (education) fund,” Weikle said, noting that the education fund only pays for coaching stipends.
Along with the financial challenges, Weikle also encourages the community to give solutions regarding transportation, infrastructure, and enrollment growth.
“We really are looking to our parents, our community, to help collaborate and plan for the future… We're seeking your help to help us prioritize the needs of the district, to help the school board, district administrators make difficult decisions. We're hoping to hear ideas and brainstorm maybe how we can address the current financial challenges.”
The district has two more community engagement meetings planned next week before it will come with proposals to address the budget shortfalls. That may include a tax referendum.
- Monday, April 25 - 6 to 7:30 p.m. – Kingsley Junior High School, 303 Kingsley St., Normal
- Tuesday, April 26 - 6 to 7:30 p.m. – virtual meeting, register on Unit 5’s website