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Unit 5 adopts annual budget; sets public information sessions about referendum

Unit 5 school board meets
Michele Steinbacher
The Unit 5 school board meets Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, at Normal Community West High School.

The Unit 5 school board adopted a $215.6 million annual budget Wednesday night, with spending staying relatively flat compared with last year.

Meanwhile, the district is in the middle of a seven-year plan of borrowing money to contain its growing multimillion-dollar deficit that now sits at nearly $12 million.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting at Normal Community West High School, the board gave Superintendent Kristen Weikle a 3% raise and extended her contract; and voted to make pavement improvements at Prairieland Elementary School.

Public invited to referendum sessions

One possible long-term way to address the district’s growing debt is through a tax rate increase to the education fund.

In less than two months, voters will get a chance to decide that issue in the Nov. 8 election.

Weikle calls the referendum “an effort to put Unit 5 on more financial footing, and to ensure our students continue to have access to that quality education that they deserve.”

Kristen Weikle
Unit 5
Kristen Weikle

District leaders have said if the referendum passes, an additional $20.5 million in property tax revenue would become available to Unit 5. However, the district wouldn’t levy more than the current rate of $2.72 per $100 equalized assessed valuation until the 2025-2026 year because working cash bonds are in place to cover the next few years' budgets.

Weikle told the board Wednesday, the district will host several informational meetings about the referendum. The meetings are intended only to provide factual information, she said.

Sessions begin at 6 p.m.:

  • Sept. 28, in the Normal West cafeteria.
  • Oct. 11, in the Normal Community High School auditorium.
  • Oct. 25, virtual livestream. A registration link is available at Unit 5's website.

In addition to the meetings, next week the district will post on its website a recorded presentation with information about the proposal.

Working cash saves budget

The 2022-2023 budget summary shows the district spending nearly $216 million, but drawing a revenue closer to $202 million. Expenses are up about 1.5% from the previous year.

This year’s operating budget reflects a more balanced figure — with about $160 million in expenses and $158 million in revenue. Considered to be a school district’s working budget, the operating budget consists of its educational, operations and maintenance, transportation and tort funds.

Despite the appearance of a fairly balanced operating budget, Unit 5 leaders say the influx of working cash bonds is what’s gluing the finances together.

“(This budget) is showing and demonstrating that we are putting our best foot forward to ensure long-term success,” said board member Alan Kalitzky, during a public hearing preceding the vote.

Kalitzky was the only board member or Unit 5 administrator who spoke about the budget prior to Wednesday's vote. He praised the district’s finance team for developing a plan that incorporated the working cash bonds. But he warned, as several board members have over the past year, the measure is only a temporary fix.

“That deficit is still present,” said Kalitzky.

Now at $11.7 million, the structural deficit has been offset, and contained for five years, with the working cash bonds, Unit 5 finance director Marty Hickman said after the meeting.

“The district has sold bonds three times now. And then each year, we use some of those bond funds that are in the bank account to cover the structural deficit,” said Hickman.

After this year’s budget, the district projects enough working cash funds will remain to keep the operating budget balanced through fiscal 2024-2025.

But after that, the district’s financial path is unclear.

“In August, the board did vote to put a referendum question on the ballot,” said Hickman. “And so, we’ll wait to see the outcome on that, and the voters’ decision.”

Budget breakdown

The largest fund in Unit 5’s operating budget is education. That comes in at $128.6 million, accounting for 65% of the district’s entire budget.

When breaking down revenue and expenditures for the operating budget, it’s clear the school district relies strongly on local property taxes: Nearly 60% of its revenue is found there.

About 30% of revenue comes from state and federal funding. Working cash transfers, and other local funds make up the rest.

On the operating budget’s spending side, the bulk — more than 75% — goes to employee salaries and benefits. The remainder is split between purchased services, and supplies.

Superintendent pay raise

Weikle’s estimated 3% raise brings her annual salary to nearly $198,000. The four-year contract is retroactive to July, running through June 2026. It allows for the possibility of future raises.

As part of her package, the district will provide retirement fund and health insurance contributions, provide group life insurance. Weikle also will receive $4,500 annually for mileage reimbursement.

In other business, the board:

  • Approved a resolution to make improvements to Prairieland Elementary School sidewalks and pavement.
  • Heard an Equity Action Plan (EAP) update. Now in its second year, the EAP continues to build infrastructure for supporting a cultural shift throughout the district, according to presenters.
  • Heard an update on the 2022 expanded summer school program supported by Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. In 2022, Unit 5 served more than 1,000 students. Usually, only grant-funded summer programs are offered to about 300 students with disabilities. The (ESSER) funds will cover one more year of expanded Pre-K to 12th grade summer programs.

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.