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For Unit 5 parents, opinions on the referendum are shaped by deeply personal experiences

Unit5_publicmeeting_Bollinger17.jpg
Emily Bollinger
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WGLT file
Unit 5 hosted several public information sessions earlier this year focused on the district's financial future, including this one in April at Normal West. A referendum is on the ballot Nov. 8.

Coming Wednesday: From Bloomington-Normal’s mayors to political parties and local unions, those with the power to influence votes on the Unit 5 referendum are starting to form their own opinions about it. You’ll hear from those influencers.

Unit 5 parent Cecily Davis of Bloomington cares deeply about public education. She has two kids at Normal West. She served on Unit 5’s Citizens Advisory Council. When Unit 5’s school board considered foreign language and music program cuts earlier this year, she wrote a solutions-driven, 900-word letter of objection to board members and the superintendent.

“In the United States, we notoriously underfund education,” Davis told WGLT.

When asked about the upcoming Unit 5 referendum, Davis had some questions. The foreign-language cuts last spring unsettled her and her husband, who teaches languages at Illinois State University. She also bristled at a survey during this year’s public-engagement campaign that asked whether she wanted to see turf installed at high school athletic fields, perceiving that as a lack of focus on education.

“Where are we going? What are our plans for the future? What do we anticipate? What are we trying to prepare these kids for?” Davis said. “I will be voting for it (the referendum), as of right now. I will continue looking for answers to these questions. These are questions that need to get answered.”

Davis is one of thousands of Unit 5 parents and other voters who will be weighing their vote on the referendum in the coming weeks. It’s aimed at addressing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit that already led to those painful cuts last spring in McLean County’s largest school district — cuts that administrators warn are just the tip of the iceberg if voters reject the referendum.

For Unit 5 parents like Davis, their own experiences with the district shape how they will vote on or before Nov. 8. WGLT interviewed more than a dozen parents, voters, former students, and other stakeholders for a temperature-check on the referendum now that public campaigning is underway.

Unit 5 school board meeting
Michele Steinbacher
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WGLT file
The Normal West auditorium was packed for a Unit 5 school board meeting March 9 in which budget cuts were being considered.

One of them is Jade Hursey, whose daughter is a high school senior in Unit 5. Hursey has been involved in the district’s recent efforts on improving equity. She’s addressed the school board and serves in a parents’ group.

There’s some momentum. Last year, Unit 5 hired its first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s now in its second year of an Equity Action Plan, with goals such as decreasing racial disparities in student discipline and trying to launch diversity clubs at elementary schools.

“We had to really push to help them understand that, hey, this is a problem that needs to be resolved,” Hursey said.

If the referendum fails, Unit 5 warns it will force significantly bigger class sizes, reduced course offerings, limited extracurriculars, shorter school days, and possible school closures. 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.

Hursey said she educated herself on the referendum. She supports it.

“When we think about equity, if those basic services are going to be cut, equity could be on the table as well,” she said. “We don’t want that to be at risk, among other things. That’s top of mind. Unit 5 hasn’t stated that it would be. I don’t want to assume that, because regardless we’re going to continue to push. But it doesn’t help the case if there’s no funding to go along with that.”

Others don’t see that direct connection to equity.

Justin and Jasmyn
Ryan Denham
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WGLT file
Jasmyn Jordan was a Normal West student in 2020 when she became a leading youth voice during Black Livers Matters demonstrations after George Floyd's killing. She's now in college.

Jasmyn Jordan graduated from Normal West in 2021. There, she was an influential student leader, helping to create the school’s Black Student Union chapter and becoming a public voice during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder.

Jordan is now a sophomore at the University of Iowa. She’s now voting in Iowa so won’t be able to cast a ballot in Illinois. But if she did, she’d vote against the Unit 5 referendum.

“Unit 5 could — and they should be able to — accomplish various equitable goals without having to spend any money,” Jordan said. “It’s free to be kind to someone. Therefore, you shouldn’t have to require extra money to be fair, to be just, to be equal, to be equitable.”

Jordan thinks Unit 5 can more responsibly manage the money it already gets from taxpayers.

“I know there may need to be necessary cuts. Those could be temporary,” Jordan said. “My Mom has said as residents, we need to manage our money properly or face the consequences. And we both think the school district needs to do the same.”

Doing your homework

Jordan said her family back in Bloomington-Normal cannot afford a tax increase right now, though referendum supporters stress that taxes would ultimately go down if the referendum is approved.

If voters approve, Unit 5’s Education Fund property-tax rate would rise from $2.72 to $3.60 per $100 of assessed value. The pro-referendum group Yes For Unit 5 says that would allow the district to stop using high-interest borrowing (called working cash bonds) and let other construction debt expire. After that financial maneuvering, Yes For Unit 5 says taxpayers would actually see an overall tax rate decrease of 70 cents starting in 2026. This averages out to $420 in annual savings.

(Editor’s note: WGLT general manager R.C. McBride, a Unit 5 parent, chairs the Yes For Unit 5 steering committee. He 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.)

Jade Hursey said those advocating for the referendum need a solid strategy to communicate this and other information with voters, who all consume information in different ways.

“I’m not saying that people can’t comprehend this. But are people going to really take the time to truly understand what this is, and what they’re asking for, and how it will work?” Hursey said.

"We want to make sure we sticking to the facts of it. That we’re not getting too emotional."
Josh Jensen, Unit 5 parent and referendum supporter

Kyle Renchen and his wife have two kids — one attending elementary school in Unit 5 and another who will start next fall. Renchen said they’ve made a real effort to get educated about the referendum, including attending the district’s public informational meetings.

“So far, we’re in support of it,” he said.

Renchen said he buys Unit 5’s argument that its Education Fund tax rate has only increased by about 10 cents since the 1980s. Unit 5 says that fact, combined with a significant decrease in state funding and increased state mandates, has made its budget untenable.

“I don’t think anybody enjoys paying more taxes, but it’s also not realistic to not change anything in 40 years. It would be akin to having the same salary for the last 40 years.”

But even Renchen has been critical of the district at times. He was watching last spring when Unit 5’s school board considered budget cuts to music programs. Just before the vote, the school board president told WGLT “people tend not to pay attention to school districts until something happens. Now, something has happened. Now, they're going to start paying more attention.”

Renchen said music education is crucial, just like math and science.

“I don’t think threatening to cut the fifth-grade band and orchestra program was the right approach. If they were using that as a bargaining tool, I wish they would have gone about it in a different way,” he said.

Losing faith in the district

Marcia Hemenway of Normal also cares deeply about Unit 5’s music programs. Her two kids, ages 14 and 11, attend Unit 5 schools. The whole family is musical. Her husband is a musician.

Hemenway said music is even more important now because it can be therapeutic for those who’ve suffered complex trauma, such as what kids experienced during two years of the pandemic and start-and-stop online learning.

She’s currently opposed to the referendum, questioning why it’s necessary.

“Where is the money? My taxes have increased a lot living in Normal. Quite a bit. So, please walk me through how there isn’t enough money to include programs that have already been included in your curriculum,” Hemenway said. “They have the money. Spend it correctly and keep the programs you already have. Why do all of a sudden we need more money for those programs?”

Mandy Nicolaides of Normal is carrying a lot of history with Unit 5 as she considers how to vote this fall.

Nicolaides’ two older kids, now 19 and 18, attended Unit 5 schools. Her 6-year-old son should be, too. But instead he’s traveling several hours every day to a school in Jacksonville, Ill., for those who are deaf or hard of hearing where Unit 5 placed him, Nicolaides said. He’s deaf in his right ear and has a rare genetic condition called TUBB3. She suspects he’s on the autism spectrum though he doesn’t have that formal diagnosis.

Nicolaides said her son briefly attended a behavioral program at Colene Hoose Elementary in Normal that serves as a special education hub for Unit 5. She called that experience a “nightmare” for her family and that she felt the district’s staff lacked sufficient expertise in neurodiversity, her son’s hearing disability, and trauma’s impact on child behavior.

“We need to stop putting kids in this box, where all these kids are the same,” Nicolaides said.

Nicolaides is listening to the discourse around the referendum. She’s hoping to hear about more money being allocated to special education, so Unit 5 can “become better and treat our children better.”

For now, she’s probably a “no” vote. She said she doesn’t have faith in the district.

“Are you raising taxes and then using that money to then turn around and fight parents for services that their children need? Because I feel like they do that a lot,” Nicolaides said.

Josh Jensen has some experience fighting for what he wants, too.

Jensen has four kids in Unit 5 right now — two at Normal Community and two in elementary school. They’re a very musical family. His oldest plays violin in the NCHS orchestra. The other kids are in choir. His wife was in the marching band. He’s the president of the Unit 5 Music Parents group, a nonprofit that supports all music throughout the district.

Jensen was front and center — and very much opposed — last spring when the Unit 5 school board considered music program cuts. And it worked. Those proposed cuts to fifth-grade band and orchestra program were averted.

“We knew then that the fight wasn’t over,” Jensen said.

He’s now worried about what happens if the referendum fails. Like many Unit 5 families, music is not the only thing they care about. Class sizes are a real concern, he said.

“I have a daughter on the swim team at Normal Community. I’ve got a son and daughter who love baseball and softball. So they’ve already talked about playing in junior high, and they might not get that chance if this doesn’t happen,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the general public does not yet understand the facts of the referendum. He said he was happy to see the Yes For Unit 5 community group go public last week.

“We want to make sure we sticking to the facts of it. That we’re not getting too emotional. There’s always a lot of emotions that goes into this kind of stuff. We want to make sure we’re explaining the value of what it will mean for our children,” Jensen said.

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.
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