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Unit 5 poised to ask voters for tax rate hike in November

Collin Corbett, of EO Sullivan education consultants, speaks during the Unit 5 school board meeting on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, at Normal Community West High School.
Michele Steinbacher
Collin Corbett, of EO Sullivan education consultants, speaks during the Unit 5 school board meeting on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, at Normal Community West High School.

Unit 5 appears ready to put a referendum question on the November ballot, seeking an annual tax revenue increase of roughly $14.5 million.

At issue is a growing multimillion-dollar deficit that shows no signs of slowing — and the possibility of a tax rate increase to offset that.

“No official action was taken tonight,” Unit 5 board president Barry Hitchins told WGLT after Wednesday's meeting. But he did say the general consensus was the board wants the administration to present a proposal at the Aug. 17 meeting, to ensure election filing deadlines are met.

“This would just be putting the question on the ballot so that the voters of Unit 5 could then vote on that increase,” said Hitchins.

The board asked superintendent Kristen Weikle and her staff to prepare materials for getting a referendum question on the ballot in November, after they heard about findings of a six-month community engagement process focusing on the district's financial challenges.

Details remain to be determined, such as “how much of an increase to our education fund rate do we as a district want specifically,” said Hitchins. That fund’s tax rate currently is $2.72 per $100 equalized assessed valuation.

Community engagement process findings

Collin Corbett, of EO Sullivan education consultants, shared details Wednesday of the community feedback garnered in Phase 3 of the process.

After analyzing data collected from surveys, and in-person meetings, EO Sullivan compiled three possible funding structures to address Unit 5's financial future. The firm then shared those with participants.

  • Option 1 would increase district funding by about $12 million per year, to reach a base level to eliminate negative effects of the deficit. 
  • Option 2, at $14.5 million, would reach base level, plus allow funding for key district priorities such as smaller class sizes, student resources and improved safety. 
  • Option 3, at $17 million would go even further, adding expanded programs, an accelerated placement program, and technology improvements.

If approved, those changes would translate to the owner of a $180,000 home seeing their taxes increase annually by about $305; $375, or $440 per year, respectively.

Corbett said Unit 5’s engagement process drew about 2,500 responses, a number he called impressive. He noted that while 35% of respondents opposed any additional taxpayer funding, more than 55% were OK with one of the three funding models presented.

“That shows the community is willing to support something,” said Corbett.

EO Sullivan recommends that if the school board decides to pursue the referendum question, the second option was the strongest — because it allowed for more than the bare minimum, but didn’t ask for too much at once.

“At the end of the day it's about finding consensus,” said Corbett.

The firm also recommended that of the next three upcoming elections, the Nov. 8 general election likely would have the highest voter turnout. That means more Unit 5 taxpayers would have a voice in the decision.

“Continuing on this trend of engaging the community at a high level, we would recommend looking strongly at November, and going in that election,” Corbett told the board.

After the EO Sullivan presentation, the board held a lengthy conversation about the possibilities. The group agreed Option 2 seemed to be the best for the district to pursue.

Board member Kelly Pyle was absent Wednesday.

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