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'Very difficult decisions' loom after voters reject Unit 5 tax referendum

Unit5Sign.jpg
Ryan Denham
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WGLT file
Public campaigning for this referendum didn’t begin until late September, just days before early voting began. Full-throated opposition never materialized, though the McLean County Republicans formally opposed the ballot question.

Unit 5 leaders say tough days are ahead, after voters rejected a referendum that could have tackled the district’s nearly $12 million budget deficit.

Of nearly 36,000 ballots, the “nays” led with 53.7% of the vote.

“We are going to have to take some time to evaluate the outcome and see what this may mean in the future for Unit 5. There are very difficult decisions that will have to be made in the next several months,” Superintendent Kristen Weikle said in a statement late Tuesday.

This fall, during informational sessions about the referendum, Weikle said if it didn’t pass, the district likely will face larger class sizes, fewer teachers, and cuts to course offerings and extracurricular activities.

The referendum question asked voters to approve a tax rate increase in one fund, while still bringing the district’s overall tax rate down in a few years.

The pro-referendum community group Yes for Unit 5 also released a statement sharing disappointment.

“We knew countering skepticism – about both the dire nature of Unit 5’s financial situation and that property taxes would go down if the referendum passed – would be an uphill battle. Still, this is a missed opportunity for our community, and it hurts,” said Patrick Mainieri, the group’s spokesperson.

“Many who voted ‘no’ will no doubt come to regret it in the months and years ahead. With time, we hope the Unit 5 school board tries again, and that enough voters will realize the seriousness of the situation to make that effort successful. Sadly, the kids impacted in the meantime won’t get that time back,” he added.

Added School Board President Barry Hitchins: "Obviously the Board is disappointed with the outcome of this vote. While we didn’t get the result we would have liked, we would still like to thank members of the Illinois Education Association, local trades and labor unions, the Yes for Unit 5 committee, and especially Dr. Weikle and her administrative team for their effort in telling Unit 5’s story and getting our message out. The Board will take some time to digest these results, have conversations with some key stakeholders and those involved in the referendum effort; and work to determine our path forward.”

‘Surprising and disappointing’

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.

jill corey.jpg
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
Democratic McLean County Board candidate Corey Beirne, right, who was elected Tuesday, is also a Unit 5 elementary school music teacher. Above, he's with former Democratic candidate Jill Blair.

Public campaigning for this referendum didn’t begin until late September, just days before early voting began. Full-throated opposition never materialized, though the McLean County Republicans formally opposed the ballot question. The GOP 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.”

The McLean County Democrats formally endorsed the referendum. Democratic McLean County Board candidate Corey Beirne, who was elected Tuesday, is also a Unit 5 elementary school music teacher.

“It's surprising and disappointing. The message that we attempted to put out there – that this is going to lower taxes, that it’s going to give the school district a firm financial footing for the next 10 years or more – we just didn't do what we needed to do to get that message out. I'm not sure what the future will hold. But we'll see. We're not done fighting yet,” Beirne said.

“I'm not sure what the consequences of this are going to be,” he added. “At this point, we need to start preparing to make cuts and address some bad news. Our school year could look very, very different next year.”

Specifically, if it had passed, Unit 5’s education fund property-tax rate would have risen from $2.72 to $3.60 per $100 of assessed value. That could have added $20.5 million in property tax revenue.

But while that fund’s rate would go up, the overall tax rate still would have come down in 2026 – when building bonds were paid off. So, voters were deciding if the overall tax rate would go down $1.58 per $100 of equalized assessed value (EAV), or by a smaller decrease of 70 cents.

Instead, with the referendum failing, that overall tax rate of $5.61 decreases until 2026 when the building bonds are paid off. If nothing changes before then, the district’s rate drops to $4.03.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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