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And we're off: Meet the influencers shaping public opinion on the Unit 5 referendum

Yard signs have begun to pop up in Bloomington-Normal, as public campaigning for and against the Unit 5 referendum begins.
Ryan Denham
Yard signs have begun to pop up in Bloomington-Normal, as public campaigning for and against the Unit 5 referendum begins.

It’s not easy to convince voters to approve a school funding referendum like the Unit 5 question on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Only 38% of similar attempts to raise education fund tax rates have been successful statewide over the last 16 years, according to Illinois Association of School Boards data. Supporters of the Unit 5 referendum also have to contend with an inflationary economy while making a counterintuitive sales pitch that voting yes would ultimately lower taxes.

Supporters will need all the help they can get. That support is just now starting to materialize, a week after the pro-referendum Yes For Unit 5 group went public. Yard signs started popping up this week.

“A community that does not invest in young people, to me, is a community that is bound for its extinction eventually,” said Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe, who supports the Unit 5 referendum.

Mwilambwe’s children attended Unit 5 schools. His father was deputy secretary of education in the Congo, where Mwilambwe was born.

“I’m someone who strongly believes in education. The Bloomington-Normal area has always been about that,” he said. “It is really our bread and butter in this area, I believe.”

The Unit 5 referendum aims to address a multimillion-dollar budget deficit that already led to 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. 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.

Today, public schools are a selling point for the City of Bloomington, Mwilambwe said.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos, who also supports the referendum, agrees.

“I’ve always said that if we lose our school system, or it degrades to a low point, then the whole community will suffer,” he said. “People will not move here. They’ll move out of here. They will not bring their businesses to the community. So, it’s crucial we have a strong school system.”

Balancing taxes and good schools

That connection between economic development and the quality of local schools is evident when Unit 5’s superintendent is included in conversations with businesses being recruited to move into or expand in the community, said Neil Finlen, a principal at Farnsworth Group and a board member with the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council.

“It’s a nice partnership between the school district, the city, the town, and EDC efforts. And it has been for quite some time,” said Finlen, who also serves on the Yes For Unit 5 steering committee.

Bloomington-Normal is routinely competing with other communities as it tries to land new or expanding businesses. Finlen said it’s a “really delicate balance between tax levels and still having great schools,” and that he’s sensitive to that balance because of his role with the EDC.

“Public education is alive and well in Bloomington and Normal. What we’re trying to do is keep it that way,” Finlen said. “You just can’t make a mistake here.”

Patrick Hoban, the CEO of the EDC, declined an interview on the referendum. The McLean County Chamber of Commerce did not respond to a request for an interview. [UPDATE: The Chamber has since declined to take a position on the referendum.] One of the leaders of the chamber’s political action committee said he hadn’t heard about the referendum.

“Education is very important to our quality of life, but because our board represents the public sector and private business, it is difficult to comment on improving schools while increasing taxes,” said Hoban.

But those who support the referendum dispute that it’s “increasing taxes,” as he said.

The Yes For Unit 5 group says taxes would ultimately go down if the referendum is approved. Unit 5’s Education Fund property-tax rate would rise from $2.72 to $3.60 per $100 of assessed value. 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, meaning an average of $420 in annual savings.

“The most important thing is to understand the full context of it, instead of just associating ‘referendum’ with higher taxes,” said Patrick Mainieri, the treasurer and spokesperson for Yes For Unit 5 who also is COO at the Bloomington-Normal YMCA. “Because in this case, a referendum passing would actually decrease our taxes, which I think is important for all of us here in the community.”

Opponents of the referendum are skeptical of the claim of lower taxes.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow, because so far the track record has not been one that’s given me much confidence,” said Connie Beard, chair of the McLean County Republican Party. “While they say they’re able to retire bond debt by this increase, there’s nothing to be said that they can’t just keep incurring more bond debt when they decide to add more programs. Then they come back and it’s a vicious circle.”

The county GOP’s leadership announced Wednesday it’s formally opposed to the referendum. The inflationary economy makes this a bad time for a referendum, Beard said. And the current Unit 5 school board does not have a good track record on financial management, she said. (The McLean County GOP is actively recruiting school board candidates for the nonpartisan April 2023 election.)

“To many people, it’s indicative of there’s an issue going on of not being able to manage a budget when you continually keep borrowing money. That calls into question how well additional money is going to be managed,” Beard said.

Indeed, Unit 5 has relied on working cash bonds (borrowing) since 2018-19. But the district points to external culprits that have made its budget untenable, including a significant decrease in state funding, increased state mandates, and the growing behavioral and social-emotional needs of its students.

Union endorsements

Those on the front lines of those growing social-emotional needs are Unit 5’s teachers. Their union (the Unit Five Education Association, or UFEA) has endorsed the referendum.

UFEA president Julie Hagler thinks 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.

The Bloomington-Normal Trades and Labor Assembly also has endorsed the referendum. Tony Penn, business manager of the LIUNA (Laborers) Local 362 in Bloomington, also is on the Yes For Unit 5 steering committee.

“This is an effort to support educators and school personnel who teach, transport, and keep safe our Unit 5 children every day,” said Trades and Labor President Adam Heenan. “We recognize that our students deserve the best that we can provide. We urge a 'yes' vote on this important referendum question that impacts our working families.”

The McLean County Democrats are likely to endorse the referendum, too, at a meeting next week. It’s already won unanimous support from the Democrats’ executive board.

“I really believe in our teachers and our educators. We need to do whatever it takes to make sure they have the resources and the tools they need to be successful,” said Patrick Cortesi, chair of the McLean County Democrats. “The cost to the average taxpayer will go down. As a taxpayer who pays Unit 5 taxes, I’m pleased to see that.”

Cortesi said messaging — and the timing of that messaging — will be key to winning passage. He said one of the reasons the Illinois graduated income tax failed to pass in 2020 was because people had formed an opinion about it before supporters fully unleashed social media, signs, and spokespeople.

The Yes For Unit 5 group began public campaigning on Sept. 26, just four days before the start of early voting. Patrick Mainieri, the group’s spokesperson, said that was intentional — that they wanted to “hit the ground organized” with tools like a full website and Facebook Page.

Cortesi said Unit 5 is off to a late start, too.

“To be quite honest, they’ve been a little fortunate that they haven’t seen an organized opposition yet,” he said.

The Unit 5 Music Parents nonprofit group also endorses the referendum after it successfully fought earlier this year to avert cuts to Unit 5’s fifth-grade band and orchestra program.

Group president Josh Jensen, who has four kids in Unit 5, said they knew the fight wasn’t over, adding music parents like him care about other things, too, like class sizes and athletics.

Public education began last week, when Music Parents set up a table and talked to parents at a choir concert at Normal Community High School. They got some questions about how taxes could go down if it’s approved.

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

Other community groups are only now starting to weigh in.

The Yes group had a table staffed at Tuesday night’s Bloomington-Normal NAACP candidates’ forum in west Bloomington. The NAACP is yet to fully dive into the issue, but the need for additional funding for schools is a no-brainer, said branch president Linda Foster.

“We certainly support any type of effort that is intended to fortify our students’ knowledge and skillset, and to make sure they can be their best and most authentic selves,” added NAACP first vice president Dr. Carla Campbell-Jackson.

The League of Women Voters of McLean County is studying the issue and expects to announce its formal position Oct. 12. [UPDATE: The League has since endorsed the referendum.]

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.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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