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In editorial, NCHS students endorse the Unit 5 referendum — and worry about their younger peers if it fails

Normal Community High School 6.JPG
Ralph Weisheit
/
WGLT file
The Normal Community High School student media outlet, the Inkspot, published an editorial over the weekend endorsing the referendum.

The Unit 5 referendum on the ballot Tuesday will impact one group of people more than anyone else: the school district’s 12,300+ students. Almost none of them are old enough to vote on it.

That doesn’t mean some of them haven’t formed opinions about it. The Normal Community High School student media outlet, the Inkspot, published an editorial over the weekend endorsing the referendum. The journalism students said they reached consensus after doing the research – a press conference-style interview of Unit 5’s superintendent and speaking to the teachers’ union president.

“Everyone wants to cast blame on how we got here,” the editorial reads. “What is more important is how we get out.”

NCHS students and Inkspot staffers Avani Rai, Abby Ruebush, and Tyler Chapman wrote the editorial. None of them are old enough to vote.

“It feels frustrating because not only can you not do anything about yourself, but you can’t do anything for the people who you know are going to be affected even more by this than you,” said Ruebush, a junior.

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

Ruebush said she worried most about the district’s youngest students and their teachers if the referendum fails, particularly after the learning loss of COVID-19.

“Those experiences made me who I am today. Having great teachers in elementary school made me love math, and writing. To think that some of those teachers are going away … we clearly need that extra support staff now more than ever, and to think that now is when that’s being cut, that’s really frustrating,” Ruebush said.

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. The pro-referendum group Yes For Unit 5 says that would allow the district to stop using high-interest borrowing (working cash bonds) and let other construction debt expire. After that financial maneuvering, Yes For Unit 5 says taxpayers would see an overall tax rate decrease of 70 cents starting in 2026, meaning an average of $420 in annual savings.

The McLean County Republican Party, which has been most vocal among opponents, says Unit 5 should cut “administrative spending and unnecessary programs and improve the quality of its educational results before the public is asked to approve such a tax increase.”

“We, as students, view this as more of a student issue or a school issue than a tax issue,” said another editorial co-author, Tyler Chapman, a senior at NCHS. He’s the grandson of former Unit 5 superintendent Alan Chapman.

If the referendum fails, Tyler said he worries that deep budget cuts will be required that would impact things like the journalism program, student clubs, music and athletics. “If the referendum were to not pass, that would have a profound negative effect on students,” he said.

Avani Rai, another NCHS senior and co-author, said it doesn’t appear the student perspective has been considered in the debate over the referendum. That’s one reason they wrote the editorial.

“We’re really placing our trust in your hands,” Rai said. “Because whoever votes, however they vote, is going to leave a drastic impact on the people that can’t vote and can’t share their vote and can’t make a decision about their own education and the outcome of their lives, ultimately.”

Also endorsing the Unit 5 referendum: former “American Idol” finalist Leah Marlene, who attended Unit 5 schools.

“I was so lucky to grow up through the Unit 5 school system and benefit from all the amazing resources and extracurriculars and programs that Unit 5 has to offer. It deeply saddens me that those things that were so instrumental to my growth might be threatened for future students,” Marlene said in a video shared on social media. “But the good news is that we can all do something about it simply by showing up on November 8th and voting ‘yes’ for Unit 5.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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