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Few show up for Unit 5 referendum information session; leaders hope virtual option more convenient

About a dozen members of the community listen as Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle speaks Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Normal Community West High School.
Michele Steinbacher
Only about a dozen members of the community listen as Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle speaks about the upcoming referendum on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, at Normal Community West High School.

After a paltry turnout for a Unit 5-hosted information session on the tax referendum before voters in November, district leaders are hopeful the next two meetings bring more participants.

“We’re not trying to sway anyone for or against” passing the referendum, said superintendent Kristen Weikle, adding the intention is to provide factual information.

Less than a dozen community members came to listen to details about the ballot question on Wednesday evening, making Normal Community West High School's cafeteria seem cavernous.

The financially-strapped school district — McLean County’s largest — is asking voters to approve an increase in the education fund tax rate, that if approved by voters, could bring in an additional $20.5 million in property tax revenue.

Unit 5 hosts two more informative meetings before the Nov. 8 election:

  • 6 p.m. Oct. 11, at Normal Community High School.
  • 6 p.m., Oct. 25, virtual livestream.
  • Additionally, a recorded presentation will be posted on the district websitepage dedicated to referendum information.

If the referendum passes, the district would gain $20.5 million in property tax revenue, while Unit 5's overall tax rate eventually would amount to 70 cents less than it is today, say district leaders.
As it stands now, the district's overall tax rate of $5.61 per $100 of equalized assessed valuation would decrease to a $4.03 rate in levy year 2026, once building bonds are paid off.

But the referendum passing would result in that overall rate moving to $4.91 that year. In short, if the "yes" votes prevail Nov. 8, there's a hill-and-gully effect — the overall rate goes down by $1.58, while going back up 88 cents.

If the referendum is approved, that 88-cent tax rate increase directly affects the district's education fund tax rate. But it wouldn’t take effect for a few years — until the district’s bond and interest tax rate comes down, said Unit 5 finance director Marty Hickman.

So, in essence, the message on Wednesday was the ballot question is an opportunity for voters to decide if going with the overall tax rate decrease of 70 cents — from $5.61 to $4.91 — is worthwhile. As Weikle put it, if voters choose that smaller-decrease option, for the next decade the district likely could pay for smaller class sizes, better resources for students, and safety improvements in district buildings.

The superintendent discussed Unit 5's last several decades, its current demographics, and how its current tax rates are lower than neighboring districts. She also summarized Unit 5's multi-phase community engagement process that led to the referendum question.

Kristen Weikle
Emily Bollinger
In this file photo, Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle addresses the public during a community engagement session at Normal Community West High School.

Weikle took questions written on provided paper, and then read those aloud. Some asked:

  • Would the increase really not kick in until 2025? (Weikle said the district doesn’t want the overall tax rate to increase, so it’s waiting for the building bonds to expire).
  • Why is the district not using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money to close the deficit? (It can’t, Weikle said, because the federal COVID-relief funds have strict guidelines that focus on pandemic-related issues. The deficit predates the pandemic).
  • Does the district feel entitled to the $1 tax rate increase from building bonds? (Weikle disagreed with that assessment. She said the referendum offered a chance for voters to say "yes" or "no" to keeping the same level of education in the district).

The superintendent expanded on that last answer, saying when leaders tried to cut$2 million last spring, it was difficult. Weikle asked the audience to imagine what kind of district would remain if the administration and school board are faced with cutting $11 million from the budget.

“It will really decimate the education system,” she said, adding if the quality of Unit 5 education decreases, it will have a ripple effect. Businesses might reconsider calling Bloomington-Normal home. “When schools aren’t good, property values go down,” she said.

Weikle told the audience another question she often hears is why Unit 5 can't rely on the expiring tax increment financing district. She and Unit 5 finance director Marty Hickman explained that projected revenue barely would dent the $11 million deficit in the education fund that pays for most expenses, including salaries.

The district has made cuts to tighten the budget and try to contain that deficit, she added. Besides, the board approving the $2 million in cuts last spring, the district also cut $3 million in the years just before.

Referendum focus education fund tax rate

As proposed, 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.

If the referendum passes, when the education fund's rate does increase, it will move to $3.60.

But that increase is a misconception, said Hickman. Because the bond-and-interest fund rate would drop once the working cash bonds were paid off, a homeowner actually would see their overall Unit 5 tax rate fall — from $5.61 to $4.91.

For the average owner, that overall 70-cent decrease in Unit 5's tax rate would mean the owner of a $180,000 home would see a roughly $420 annual decrease, said Hickman.

Marty Hickman speaking at Unit 5 school board
Izzy Carroll

When considering the referendum question, Weikle said people should understand Unit 5 isn’t asking taxpayers to pay more, but rather to fund the district differently. The difference is a sustained tax rate, instead of borrowing and paying interest on the working cash bonds.

The education fund’s tax rate was $2.62 in the early 1980s, said Weikle. But it hasn't pushed the gauge much since. Voters approved a 10-cent tax rate increase to that fund in 2008, and it's still there.

“The problem was, that wasn’t enough to adequately fund” the district’s needs, she said.

She blamed the education fund's current $11 million deficit on years of problems — with the low education fund tax rate being the No. 1 cause.

That low rate still living in a 1980s financial climate, combined with the state of Illinois not paying the district $19 million owed and also enacting costly mandates, also factored in, she said. Plus, district home values have struggled the past decade.

She and Hickman said the McLean County supervisor of assessments says the district's average EAV will see a 6% increase over the next two years. But they expect it to come back to 3% after that. Weikle acknowledged one audience member, who said his EAV jumped way higher than that. But she said they had to base the figure on the average increase.

Weikle optimistic virtual session will draw bigger crowd

The superintendent said after Wednesday’s meeting that she chalks up the low attendance on Wednesday to people being busy.

“I certainly hope that if they can’t attend the other in-person event, that they tune in for the virtual live one — or that they’ll make the time to go to the website and listen to the prerecorded one,” said Weikle.

The district scheduled these public information sessions, as a follow-up to the past year’s community engagement process, she said.

The process, which wrapped up in August, was the community’s chance to tell district leaders what they want for Unit 5 schools. “That helped shape us even taking to the board, the recommendation to move forward with the referendum,” she said.

These fall public sessions, on the other hand, discuss details of why the district is proposing the tax rate increase, and how that revenue would be used — if the referendum passes.

“The purpose of this is truly just to inform, to provide factual information,” said Weikle.

“It’s easy to turn on any social media site and see inaccurate information on any topic. So, our goal is just to make sure our voters, our community, they have factual information. And then they can decide for themselves, how they’d like to vote,” she said.

Asked what the district plans if the referendum fails, Weikle said the school board and administration haven't identified specific actions to follow.

It would be up to the board to decide how quickly to act. Members would have time to evaluate how to proceed, though, as the working cash bonds will carry the district through the 2025-2026 school year, she said.

Editor’s note: WGLT general manager R.C. McBride is chair of the steering committee for Yes for Unit 5, the lead pro-referendum community 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.

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