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'Yes For Unit 5' group forms to push for passage of tax referendum

Exterior of NCHS signage
WGLT file
The pro-referendum community group calling itself Yes For Unit 5 stepped into public view Monday. It aims to sell the community on a referendum that would finally address Unit 5’s multimillion-dollar budget deficit, which has already led to tip-of-the-iceberg cuts.

With just a few days until the start of early voting, the public campaign for the Unit 5 referendum is about to begin.

The pro-referendum community group calling itself Yes For Unit 5 stepped into public view Monday, launching a website and Facebook page. It aims to sell the community on a referendum that would finally address Unit 5’s multimillion-dollar budget deficit, which has already led to tip-of-the-iceberg cuts. Organized opposition has not yet emerged, though tax-rate referenda like this one typically are difficult to pass. Over the past 15 years, around 38% of these types of referenda have been approved statewide.

The group’s steering committee was announced Monday. It includes:

  • R.C. McBride, the group's chair. He is a Unit 5 parent and former Normal Town Council member. He is also WGLT's general manager.
  • Patrick Mainieri, the group’s treasurer and spokesperson. He’s a former assistant school principal and is now COO of the Bloomington-Normal YMCA.
  • Neil Finlen, a principal at Farnsworth Group who is on the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council board and has served on the Unit 5 Foundation board.
  • Ben Matthews, who works with Unit 5’s teachers union, which has endorsed the referendum.
  • Meta Mickens-Baker, a former Unit 5 school board member.
  • Tony Penn, a well-known Bloomington-Normal union leader.
  • Janessa Williams, chair of the Town of Normal’s Human Relations Commission.

"Strong public schools are an integral part of strong communities, and I’m honored other members of the committee asked me to chair," McBride said when asked why he's chairing the group.

McBride is not involved in WGLT’s reporting on Unit 5 or the referendum and does not review WGLT’s stories before they are broadcast or published online.

"The management or the business side of a journalistic entity should never interfere with its editorial decisions. I don’t and won’t do that. In a relatively small community like ours, if everyone stopped volunteering for worthy causes in their free time because of their jobs, we wouldn’t get much accomplished," McBride said.

Patrick Mainieri, the pro-referendum group’s spokesperson, spoke with WGLT’s Ryan Denham on Monday about the start of the public phase of the referendum campaign.

WGLT: What is your plan to get this thing passed?

Mainieri: We're working with a great strategic group of people here in town, lots of key community stakeholders. We're meeting regularly as a (steering) committee just to kind of get all the ideas laid out. We have a pretty extensive timeline over the next couple of weeks to be able to help educate and inform the voters of McLean County -- specifically inside of the Unit 5 area -- why voting yes for this referendum would be so much more beneficial for, first of all, the school district but us as taxpayers as well.

So we are getting our teams together to hit the streets and show up at different meetings with parents and different entities within the district’s reach as well, to get the word out about how great this will be when we pass it for our taxpayers here in the area.

Can you drill down one layer deeper on what “educating and informing the voters” is going to look like?

Absolutely. So I had a great meeting earlier last week with a group of parents. Lots of great questions are coming out of that.

What we’ve learned very quickly is that, when most of us think of the word “referendum,” we think tax increase. This is actually a referendum that over time decreases our taxes. So that's the big educational piece of this, is understanding that a “yes” vote for this actually decreases our taxes in the long term.

But even more so than the money, we're focusing on ensuring that class sizes stay appropriate for the teachers educating the youth, that we continue to have improvements in the schools. These are 21st century learners. You and I grew up a little bit different in our education process. To meet the needs of what our youth need now and moving forward, and just how industry has changed and different companies and what they need for their youth. So we're trying to make sure that school improvement is part of this as well.

And we're also we're also very, very focused on ensuring programs aren't being cut. A lot of our people in town understand that Unit 5 went through some cuts back in the spring of last year. Many teaching positions were reduced. Some program eliminations happened as well. And just looking forward, we're trying to stop that from happening.

But the biggest and probably highest understanding that we need to get out there is that our taxes go down if we pass a “yes” vote on this referendum.

How do you do that? Because that is a little confusing – the notion of approving a tax rate increase that will lower your taxes over time.

We have a website up and running that has visual aids and a lot of information on it. And that’s YesForUnit5.org. And so we do encourage anybody to visit that for more information. Specifically, on that website, there is a graph that will help understand a little bit more about why the numbers would come down in our assessed tax values for the district.

Part of that being that we are voting to increase (the Education Fund tax rate) to $3.60 from that $2.72 (per $100 assessed value). But what a lot of voters don't understand right now, or maybe don't understand because they're not as in tune with the operations of the school district, is that the school district is currently operating on working cash bonds. And so these are high-interest yield loans that the district can take out through a board vote. And that puts the amount we're paying as taxpayers over the $5 mark, because the amount of interest that we're paying back and the amount of money that are tied up in those cash bonds.

So that's where getting a “yes” vote on this allows the district to receive the whole dollar as opposed to a portion of the dollar. And over time, it creates sustainable income based on the tax base here and the EAV in the area, so that we can bring our total taxes down. The taxes that we pay as homeowners will come down significantly over the next couple of years if we can pass this and we can pay off those cash bonds that the district has. And then we can go to a regular operation where the district receives the whole dollar as opposed to a portion of the dollar that we're paying in our taxes.

Are you anticipating any skepticism about that concept? Because on the surface, it sounds a little too good to be true – that this is a problem that can be solved by lowering taxes.

I do expect it. I had it too. So I was fortunate enough to sit on the community meetings that happened throughout the summer. And we talked a lot. And this was a very diverse group of community members from very, very different walks of life. Some with students in the district, some without. I do not yet have a child in the district; I have a 3-year-old that'll be entering the district in a couple of years. And so that's why I'm interested in this and supporting this effort. Because I want her class sizes to be appropriate and for her to have the same programs available to her as she grows.

As a regular taxpayer, and I've worked in a couple of different states, and there's been referendum votes on ballots in my past, and I think it's just a lot of research and understanding.

But this is the first time in – this is probably the fifth or sixth referendum vote that I've had in my adult career – where I've kind of raised an eyebrow and said, Well, that's very out of the normal, very atypical for a referendum vote for school districts.

I know it’s not lost in our community that there has been the attempt of referendum votes in the past here. And since those haven't gone through, the district has resorted to those cash bonds, and that's how they're funding the district right now is utilizing those cash bonds. And so we on the (steering) committee and those of us that are informed with the numbers and how these are working out through the school district – where we are seeing the numbers that they're crunching, and they've got a plan. And the plan is, is that taxes come down if we get this passed.

So we just got to continue to educate the community and figure out how we can best inform people to help everybody bring their taxes down, if we can get a “yes” vote passed on this referendum.

WGLT has been doing some interviews with different voters and parents in the district about the referendum, just how they're feeling about it. And something I heard from people was that they feel that the school board has a bad track record on budget management, that this is the same board that got us into the pickle we're in now. So why would this be a group of people I should trust to potentially give more money to at some point down the road? What would be your response to that?

Well, first and foremost, my response would be that it can't be the same school board that got us into this space, because members of school boards change over regularly. And so if you reach out to the district leadership, you will learn that this this problem started over a decade ago. And I can guarantee you that the school board that is currently working through and approving the current status of cash bonds to operate the district, was not the school board that was dealing with this over a decade ago coming out of the housing crisis.

So another thing that I think that taxpayers need to understand is, and this is a word that gets thrown around a lot in education, is on “unfunded mandates.” … The biggest thing is the district is in a deficit of multimillions of dollars. And if we don't pass this referendum, that deficit is only going to continue to grow even more, because in order to continue funding the district, they're going to have to continue to approve those working cash bonds in order to meet the expectations.

And so there's a couple of layers to this. But we as local taxpayers, we can help the district by pushing this referendum through, increasing how much we're paying, while decreasing the need for those working cash bonds, which is saving us money in the long run.

I also think our taxpayers specifically in Unit 5 need to understand that we have actually one of the lowest tax rates compared to comparable school districts in central Illinois, that have the size and volume that Unit 5 has. And I think we all are very aware of the current state of inflation that we're all living in, and that the school district, their primary source of funding is from taxes. And so it becomes our responsibility as citizens in the community to support great schools, so that we educate our youth and with the hope that these youth come back and provide services in our community. And that as we age, as the adults in the area age, that we have competent contractors to help build things around for us, and architects, and we have competent medical field providers. And I would love it if those came out of the Unit 5 school district and they came back to serve in the community they grew up in, because they want to raise their kids here because of a great school district.

Early voting for the Nov. 8 election starts on Thursday. Why did it take so long for a pro-referendum group to go public like it did today?

That’s a great question. And we've kind of been fielding that question from a couple of people. And so I will say that there's some intentionality of going live with the press release that came out today.

This was coming out of the summer learning process that the district had with the consultant company that they were using. We feel like we're moving at an appropriate speed. We feel like we have a great opportunity now to harness the knowledge and get information out. With early voting starting in just a couple of days, we hope that people that see the question on the ballot stop for a second and try to go learn before they just choose that yes or no box on their early voting form.

And we're willing to have those discussions with anybody who's in the early voting space so that they can learn as well. And of course, they can always reach out to the school district as well if they have any questions that they need guidance on, as far as the financial piece goes.

When you say there was an ‘intentionality’ behind that, can you expand on that? In what way was it intentional?

Yeah, it was intentional first and foremost that we could hit the ground organized. We didn't want to start out and seem disheveled in our approach. And so behind the scenes, the committee has just been trying to make sure that we've got everything up and running. That includes our website that's up and available and operating. But we also have our Facebook page up and operational.

And we feel like at this point, everything is buttoned up really well, so that the information that taxpayers might be looking for is very accessible to them now.

Specifically on that website, there's a wealth of knowledge at YesForUnit5.org, that they can access now to learn. But also, as we built out our steering committee, points of contact, it's trying to get everybody on the same page. And it's taken us about three or four weeks to just build that process out so that we come out of the gate with a lot of knowledge that can be learned and given to our community.

The Yes On Unit 5 group that’s formed … is that a group that's going to need to raise money to help win this fight? Buy yard signs and social media ads and that kind of stuff?

We are very adamant that this is not a partisan topic. This is a community topic. But yes, we are seeking donations. And people can make donations on our website, we do have a portal there as well. We also can accept mail-in. There's a form on the website if someone would prefer to print off and mail in a donation for support.

But yes, there are marketing materials that we're in production on right now, as far as yard signs. If someone would like a yard sign to add to their yard or their neighborhood, they can also request that on our website as well. We have a page there specifically to garner names and people want to go walk, walking, knock and talk to their neighbors and help inform. We were seeking volunteers for that as well.

We've got a good base to start, some good leadership there. And we would just love to add more and more community members that are willing to give up their time, which is obviously just as valuable as their financial contributions.

Now that the Yes For Unit 5 group has stepped forward here, what sort of opposition are you expecting to coalesce in the community?

At this point, to be real honest with you, I'm hoping that there's no opposition around this, as people understand the finances and how this is a positive step for our bottom dollar as taxpayers.

But of course, there's going to be people that raise a question … going back to the idea of a referendum means that taxes are going up. I have had numerous conversations with people that I consider extremely close friends and extremely knowledgeable of what's going on inside of Unit 5 with their finances. And they have had some questions, and the more they learn, and the more that they educate themselves, and as they have conversations, and they're just, you know, in a learning mindset, a lot of them have said, well, this makes perfect sense. I can get behind this as well.

So that's our goal – that people just understand. And they ask questions. Obviously, inside of any campaign, you don't really want a stringent opposition. So I'm hoping that doesn't happen. But if that does, I hope that anybody that comes out as opposition to this is willing to have those conversations with us as part of the committee and learn and we can hear them out and they can hear us out, and we can make a decision that we feel is in the best interest of our of our youth in the community.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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