So far, there’s been little campaigning over the Unit 5 tax referendum
Early voting begins in two weeks. Our mailboxes and TV shows are filled with campaign ads for this or that candidate. But there's been little — if any — public campaigning on the tax referendum involving the county's largest school district.
The Unit 5 school board voted last month to place the $20.5 million referendum on the November ballot. It's a measure intended to help fill a multimillion-dollar deficit over a number of years.
Unit 5 had hired a consultant to help with community engagement over the summer, but after that vote, the consultant's work with the school district was done.
School board president Barry Hitchins said from that point on, the district has to be very careful about how to publicly discuss the referendum.
“We could say, ‘Here’s what the additional revenue would go to,’ but we can’t specifically advocate for or against people voting on the referendum,” said Hitchins, noting school staff also can't campaign on the issue on school time, or with school resources.
Typically, community groups handle tax rate campaigns. Hitchins said the district is in the process of setting up a group of advocates to make the case to voters. He said it's not clear when the group will begin its work.
“They would have to set up a legal entity to accept donations to the cause, try to follow the procedures they need to follow, things like that. I think that’s what’s going on right now,” Hitchins said.
He said the advocacy board is likely to include people who took part in the district community engagement sessions before the tax referendum went on the ballot last month.
Teachers back the referendum
Meanwhile, Unit 5 Education Association president Julie Hagler said the union's representative assembly voted unanimously to support a “yes” vote on the issue. She said they don't yet have direction on how to help campaign.
“We are waiting for a community group to organize and then we’ll work collectively with them to support the referendum in any way we can,” said Hegler, adding she believes voters will support the referendum — but she has considered the possibility voters might reject it.
“It’s not a terribly pretty picture. I hope it doesn’t come to that where we have to make those hard choices about what we value as a community," she said, noting a defeated referendum is concerning because teacher salaries make up a large portion of the district budget.
While Unit 5 officials haven't said much publicly, they are trying to control the narrative, or at least keep school district critics from doing that. Hitchins said he's concerned some voters might get their information on the tax question from non-reputable places.
“Don’t necessarily believe everything you see on social media,” Hitchins declared. “If you are not hearing the information from members of the Unit 5 board or administration, you really need to consider the source of that information.”
Unit 5 officials said even if voters approve the referendum, the tax rate will go down. The district plans to put off raising any tax rate voters approve until it pays off existing bond debt.
The Unit 5 school board has not said what would happen if voters reject the referendum.