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Unit 5 community meeting on financial crisis draws big virtual crowd

Unit5_publicmeeting_Bollinger12.jpg
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
People gather in Normal Community West High School's cafeteria during one of the public sessions Unit 5 leaders hosted this past week.

A virtual public information session about Unit 5’s financial crisis, and whether addressing it might include pushing for a tax hike referendum, drew about 200 attendees Tuesday night.

The meeting followed in-person versions of the same presentation held Saturday and Monday at Unit 5 schools. The district faces a projected $26 million deficit over the next five years.

Ed Sullivan, a consultant working with Unit 5, told the Zoom audience that district leaders are in the early stages of researching how the community wants to respond to the deficit.

He said his firm is charged with getting a wide range of feedback, and developing a plan, over the next few months.

Unit 5 knows its students, and district leaders know the challenges ahead, said Sullivan. But the six-month community engagement process is intended to bring more voices to the table — whether they are residents who have students enrolled in Unit 5, or other community members.

Ed Sullivan speaks
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
Unit 5's public engagement consultant, Ed Sullivan with Libertville-based EOSullivan Consulting, speaks at one of the public sessions about the school district's financial future.

The Normal-based district covers more than 200 square miles, and has taxpayers in parts of Bloomington, all of Carlock, Hudson, Normal, and Towanda, as well as several rural areas.

“It’s very important to them (Unit 5 leaders) to have the community involved and have a say in what’s going on,” said Sullivan, who spent more than a decade as a state lawmaker representing the 51st district.

In February, the school board OK’d a $70,000 contract with EO Sullivan, his Libertyville-based consulting firm, to engage the community and help determine a referendum recommendation.

School leaders have discussed the possibility, but have not made a decision on whether to pursue a referendum asking voters to approve a property tax rate increase.

Currently in the first of four phases, Sullivan said the process is in the idea stage, and seeking a “wide gathering of information,” adding he'll update the school board at its May 11 meeting.

Later phases will narrow the ideas, and include more public meetings, as well as phone surveys, he said. In August, he’ll present a final plan based on the information and data collected.

Superintendent outlines district’s challenge

During the first hour of the meeting, superintendent Kristen Weikle outlined Unit 5’s strengths, and a history of what’s caused the financial predicament.

In the remaining half hour, she answered about a dozen questions from the online chat. Topics ranged from the district's administrator-to-student ratio, to why the state isn't paying more to Unit 5, to how the district decides which teaching positions to eliminate.

With 13,000 students enrolled, Unit 5 is among the 20 largest of Illinois' more than 800 school districts.

Weikle said Unit 5 is struggling to meet the needs of that growing district, with its education fund's tax rate fairly stagnant since the early 1980s. It’s currently at $2.72 per $100 of equalized assessed valuation — only 10 cents higher than 1983. Currently, the district carries an overall tax rate of $5.65: The ed fund is part of that.

“Our limited funding is really catching up with us," said Weikle.

She told the virtual audience that Unit 5 growth led to new schools and additions about 15 years ago. But a real estate market crash a short time later resulted in decreased property tax revenue. Meanwhile, the state has been increasing required mandates while providing less funding, she said.

The district has worked to address the budget shortfalls, she said. But since March 2020, the focus has been on navigating the COVID pandemic, she added.

Over the past seven years, Unit 5 has cut $5 million in expenses, she said. But that's nowhere near enough to make ends meet. The school board has issued general obligation bonds in recent years to sustain the district, but leaders say that approach isn't viable.

If the district doesn’t come up with ways to generate more revenue, changes will come, she said — programs will be cut, class sizes will increase. Shorter school days also are a possibility, to ensure teacher planning time.

Throughout the session, Weikle reminded attendees to click the link in the chat to a feedback form. Data gathered from those surveys will help determine the final plan Sullivan presents, he said.

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