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Unit 5 referendum by the numbers

Exterior of NCHS signage

The central argument for a Unit 5 education fund referendum is that district revenue has not kept pace with costs since the last referendum in 2008, that the district has, in effect, squeezed all the blood it can out of the existing budget turnip by tightening its belt and using resources efficiently and that the district needs taxpayer help. The numbers support the case.

Unit 5 attributes its sizeable deficit to several factors: slack growth in state funding over the last decade, increased state mandates, growing behavioral and social-emotional needs of students, and faulty growth projections used to decide the amount of the last referendum. Those growth estimates were supposed to mean the tax increase then would be enough to staff the schools the district needed to build. Those projections didn't turn out to be accurate.

Education fund revenues by source. Note: the spike in federal funding in 2022 is pandemic related money that will end.
Unit 5
Unit 5
Education fund revenues by source. Note: The spike in federal funding in 2022 is pandemic related money that will end.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Kristen Weikle said the number of students has grown substantially. Let's take a benchmark year of 1983 for student population.

"We've almost doubled in size," said Weikle.

Growth slowed in more recent years. Between the last referendum in 2008 and 2019 the total number of students grew by about 5.5% according to state school report card data. In that same period the number of teachers grew less than that, about 5%. WGLT chose 2019 as a cutoff point for the then and now comparison because pandemic related student attrition and federally funded hiring related to the pandemic and to increased student needs obscures a meaningful comparison from 2008 and 2020-2022.

Those numbers lend support to other data that class sizes have increased and to the idea Unit 5 has not significantly changed how it staffs classrooms in the years since voters last approved an increase in the education fund rate.

Unit 5 said its administrator-to-student ratio is very low compared to other districts its size.

Unit 5 education fund revenue growth has significantly lagged inflation since 2008.
Unit 5
Unit 5
Unit 5 education fund revenue growth has significantly lagged inflation since 2008. There is a pandemic-related spike in federal aid that will subside.

Unit 5 asserts that unfunded mandates amplify the problem. It's hard to put a cost number on those though. Weikle said no one has kept a running list of mandates because there are so many. The cost impact from many of the mandates is fuzzy because they don't require more staff in and of themselves, but they do take time away in the school day by requiring certain things, and the district ends up having to add staff at the margins to recapture some of that time.

Weikle said other mandates do have a direct dollar effect — the increase in the minimum wage, for example, and a mandatory minimum starting salary for teachers of $40,000 that's going into effect. Even there it's hard to generate a dollar amount because as teachers retire, they are replaced, and the replacements have varying levels of experience.

The bump up at the bottom of the pay scale also affects the entire salary schedule. Unit 5 Business Manager Marty Hickman said the mandate affected recent contract talks.

"Those negotiations potentially could have gone differently if this mandate had not have been put in place. It just changed everything in the negotiation piece. That's not to say our teachers don't deserve $40,000 to start. They absolutely do. It just took away our ability to try to manage that deficit," said Hickman.

Unit 5 shows only mild growth in its education fund revenue since 2008 compared to other societal factors.
Unit 5
Unit 5
Unit 5 shows only mild growth in its education fund revenue since 2008 compared to other societal factors.

Another unfunded mandate extends the length of time special education students can stay in school past their 22nd birthday. That adds not only teaching staff but assistants in the classroom. Weikle said another forced staff addition comes from requirements to perform and document various learning interventions in standard classrooms before the district can formally designate a student for special ed. And since the last referendum, the field of education in general, not just Unit 5, has changed to emphasize career and college readiness in student guidance.

“So, at the high schools we have college and career readiness counselors in addition to the normal guidance counselors," said Weikle.

The district said rising social-emotional needs of students have also led to some additional interventionist positions to try to prevent students from moving to a more intensive special education status.

Education fund revenue growth

Now let's look at education fund revenue growth. The education fund is used to pay the bulk of teacher salaries and direct education expenses for the district. Unpacking that education fund requires a look at growth in property taxes and at the change in state support for Unit 5.

In 2008 McLean County clerk's office records show the education fund tax levy request from Unit 5 was about $51.2 million. In 2020 the request was nearly $63.4 million. That's a 23% increase, significantly less than the 38% inflation rate for the period.

Let's consider the numbers in a slightly different way. McLean County assessor records show the Equalized Assessed Valuation for Unit 5 has grown by 28% since 2008. That's also well under the inflation rate for the period, illustrating the squeeze on the district.

  • 2008 EAV - $1,942,040,111
  • 2022 EAV - $2,489,044,760

The Great Recession and its aftermath not only resulted in an actual decline in total property values in 2012, but minimal growth in several other years that does not match projections used to plan the 2008 referendum. So not only did growth fall short in those specific years, but Unit 5 said it threw off the total dollars raised in each year since, which has helped build the deficit the district seeks to address in this year’s request to taxpayers.

From the year 2012, when property values actually went negative, to today, Weikle said the average annual increase in EAV for the district was between 1.5% and 1.7%.

"So, when you think about salaries, benefits, the cost of insurance by itself, as well as the change in the cost of supplies and materials; that has often been greater than 1.7%," said Weikle.

In fact, average annual cost of living increases since 2012 are about 2.6%, which further bolsters the claim Unit 5 has steadily lost ground for the last decade.

Weikle and Hickman said state support has not kept pace either.

"During that same time period where EAV growth was low, we're getting the state prorations, late payments, and pro rating (partial payments)," said Hickman. "That equates to about $19 million over the last 10 years of revenue lost from the state," said Weikle.

That refers to money promised to Unit 5 by the legislature that the state said, sorry you can't have it.

Data show state support for Unit 5 that actually came through has risen 14.7% from 2008 to 2022. Inflation has risen more than twice that much, effectively a reduction in state support.

All these things matter. And Hickman said Unit 5 has put off asking voters for help as long as possible.

"I don't like pointing out other districts because you really need to know their individual situation as well. But if you look at our ed fund compared to our neighboring districts, other districts had to raise their rate prior to us. They had the same need. They had it earlier," said Hickman.

And Unit 5 has the lowest ed fund rate and the lowest operating fund rate compared to neighboring districts.

Actually, Hickman's point — that other districts had the same need but had it earlier — is debatable. Unit 5 knew deficits would mount some years ago. Previous WGLT reporting noted then-Superintendent Mark Daniel was talking about the need for more community support back in 2018. At the time Daniel voiced the scenario the district would make do with short-term borrowing until school construction bonds started to roll off the district tax rate and the school board could go to voters and say the effect on taxpayers would be minimal.

That is exactly what has happened. In fact, the school board proposal on the ballot would lower taxes. Weikle said as old bonds are paid off, taxes would go down even after an education fund rate increase.

"In levy year '24 the overall tax rate would decrease by 12 cents even if this is approved. Then the following year levy year ‘25 it would decrease again by 33 cents and in levy year ‘26 by another 25 cents," said Weikle.

This schedule of declining tax rates, Weikle said, happens because if voters pass the referendum all of the increase in the education fund rate would happen at once.

"The bonds in that first year, levy year '24, we are paying off a dollar in bonds, but I'm applying those 88 cents to the education fund, if this is approved," said Weikle.

If the referendum is approved, the district expects to add more than $20 million in local revenue. That is just slightly more than the ground lost from state support over the last decade. Such an increase, Unit 5 points out, would leverage additional state support under the school funding formula.

So, in most ways you slice the data, whether it's the education fund levy request, the rise in property values, or state support Unit 5 has, in fact, lost ground to rising expenses and inflation. Yet by waiting and incurring interest costs from that short-term borrowing, the district says the proposal before voters Tuesday would not hurt the average homeowner at all.

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.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to add data to compare student teacher ratios between 2008 and 2019.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.