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Unit 5 sets more public sessions to get pulse on how community wants to deal with finances

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

Three additional public information meetings are planned for May, to address Unit 5’s multimillion-dollar deficit.

On Wednesday, the district’s school board heard an update from Ed Sullivan, the consultant whose team is gathering community feedback. He described Phase 1 as getting a pulse on the community. Now, in Phase 2 the topics get more focused, and the data sample broadens, he said.

“Think of it as a funnel, really wide — and narrowing it down in scope as we go along,” said Sullivan. Phase 1 offered open-ended questions about views on the district's strengths and its challenges. But in later phases, the conversation moves to possible funding levels and tax impacts, he said.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, the board voted to buy nearly a dozen used school buses, and discussed joining a combined effort to create a standardized incentives process for local enterprise zones.

Unit 5 continues effort to engage public on district finance

This spring, Unit 5 hired Libertyville-based EOSullivan Consulting to manage a six-month public engagement process, and to help determine whether the board should pursue a ballot referendum on possibly increasing property taxes.

EOSullivan has led more than a dozen Illinois school districts through the public engagement process, said Sullivan. Most, but not all, have resulted in a referendum going on the ballot.

Board member Alan Kalitzky said proposing a referendum for a property tax increase is just one option on the table. Nothing’s been decided.

“It’s part of the process to help the administration move forward, based on what the community’s thinking,” Sullivan said.

"The community is going to give their advice, their thoughts, their suggestions," said Sullivan. What the district administrators and board decide to do with that data is up to them, he noted.

Other revenue ideas need to be explored, along with the possibility of a referendum. "One option is to do nothing," he said. But that also will have an impact.

Superintendent Kristen Weikle said district leaders are seeking community guidance on how best “to put our district on more stable financial footing, and to ensure our students continue to have access to the quality education they deserve.”

The core issue is a ballooning deficit, and limited revenue hit by downward trends in state funding and local estimated home valuations (EAV). She said during last month’s Phase 1 public sessions — that with no changes to its current model — Unit 5 is on track to have a $26 million deficit within 5 years.

Phase 2 public information sessions meet from 6 to 7:30 p.m.:

Sullivan told the board Wednesday that more than 250 people participated in the Phase 1 process, and more than 150 people completed the feedback form about district strengths and challenges.
Phase 1 results show key concerns are class sizes, rising costs, and students’ social-emotional needs. The majority of respondents said they were open to discussing the possibility of providing more local funding. But about 15% of respondents strongly opposed that.

Given the district’s large size — about 13,000 students and covering 200-plus square miles — board member Kelly Pyle asked Sullivan about a sample size of a few hundred people. Members Kentrica Coleman, Stan Gozur and Amy Roser asked how the firm will ensure different demographic groups are represented.

Sullivan said the first phase includes a smaller sample – of more passionate, involved community members. That size reflects similar first phases he’s worked on, he said. As the process moves forward, the data collection will broaden, and at the same time be more targeted to accurately reflect the district’s demographics.

Phase 1 data also shows Unit 5 stakeholders believe the district has a communication problem, he said. Participants repeatedly said Unit 5 didn’t provide enough information prior to cutting jobs and programs this spring. But, he said, this public engagement process in some ways can be seen as a corrective response to such past moments.

Sullivan said some participants have misperceptions about what kind of revenue the district would see related to electric automaker Rivian’s tax abatement, a tax-increment financing (TIF) district expires, as well as the potential for home values, and related property taxes to generate more revenue in the near future.

“These (misperceptions) need to be addressed,” he said. The former state legislator from northern Illinois told the board his background is in finance and taxation, and his group is starting to dive into those questions.

In Phase 3, EO Sullivan will provide the board with three proposals for moving Unit 5 forward. By August, the consultant recommends a single proposal.

Standardized incentives for Enterprise Zone proposed

The school board discussed the possibility of joining other area taxing bodies in the creation of a standardized incentive process. But that only would apply to an enterprise zone.

Patrick Hoban, who leads the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, told the board creating such a standard would help attract businesses to the community, as it would streamline and speed up the approval process, making the Twin Cities more competitive with other U.S. communities.

Under the proposal, “all businesses coming in know exactly what the playing field is,” he said.

Hoban led a brief overview of the proposal, took questions from the board, and will return to the board’s May 25 meeting with a more thorough presentation.

The proposed standardized incentive packages would only be available to companies willing to locate within the enterprise zone, and which are able to create at least 250 jobs, and invest at least $250,000.

The Bloomington-Normal-McLean County Enterprise Zone covers parts of McLean and Ford counties.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity oversees the state’s enterprise zone. But the local EDC handles the nearly 15 square miles in this region.

School bus replacements

On Wednesday, the board voted to buy 10 used school buses, as part of an effort to replace its aging fleet of vehicles.

The $800,000 contract with Kankakee-based Midwest Equipment Transit provides 10 model year 2018 buses. Each seats 77 passengers.

The district’s current fleet of 152 buses range in model years 2007 to 2019. A quarter of those were made in 2013 or earlier. As part of a bid for new buses going out this summer, the remaining older buses should be replaced, according to board materials.

Administrators said ideally, to maintain a 10-year replacement cycle, the district should buy 15 buses annually. But the transportation’s fund hasn’t had the money to do so in recent years.

Leah Marlene watch party

Weikle said she plans to attend a block partyat 5 p.m. Sunday and an “American Idol” watch party immediately following, both at Normal West Community High School.

Leah MarleneGrehan, a 2019 Normal West grad, has advanced to the competition’s Top 5. On Wednesday, during public comments, current West student Hanna Gaff invited the board to attend Sunday festivities.

In other business, the board:

  • Renewed its trash and recycling collection contract with Phoenix, Ariz.-based Republic Services. The five-year agreement totals $450,000.
  • Increased school meal prices for the upcoming school year, by 10 cents per lunch and 5 cents per breakfast. Kindergarten through fifth-grade students will pay $2.35 per lunch. Sixth- through 12th-graders will pay $2.40 per lunch. Breakfasts districtwide go to $1.50. Reduced fares remain at 40 cents per lunch, and 30 cents per breakfast.
  • Approved a 5-year agreement with Heartland Payment Systems, for online payment software. The contract amount was not listed.
  • Heard from three public commenters opposed to state-required amendments to the sex education program. Weikle said families could opt-out of the lesson plan, taught to eighth and ninth graders during health classes.

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