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Unit 5 proposes $139M tax levy with a lower property tax rate

Unit 5 Finance Director Marty Hickman says the district is expecting an increase of between 6% and 8% in equalized assessed value (EAV) -- much higher than any recent years. The district is proposing a $139 million property tax levy.
Steinbacher, Michele
Unit 5
Unit 5 Finance Director Marty Hickman says the district is expecting an increase of between 6% and 8% in equalized assessed value (EAV) — much higher than any recent years. The district is proposing a $139 million property tax levy.

Unit 5 is proposing a nearly $139 million-dollar property tax levy — about 5% more than last year’s proposal, while the tax rate is projected to drop more than 10 cents.

During its meeting Wednesday at Normal Community West High School, the board discussed the proposed levy with district finance staff. A public hearing and a board vote is set for Dec. 4.

Also at the meeting, the board discussed the district’s plans for reassessing its financial future, and heard two reports — one on enrollment growth and achievement, and another about the district’s annual financial audit.

In addition, the board voted to spend nearly $2.7 million on replacing about 20 vehicles in its bus fleet. Midwest Transit Equipment, the lowest bidder, will replace nearly a dozen 77-passenger buses, seven 35-seat buses, and three smaller buses for special needs passengers.

Rising property values figure into levy proposal

Despite some people viewing this year’s revenue-generating growth as Unit 5 coming into a windfall, that’s not the case, said board member Alan Kalitzky.

“That’s tax revenue we were expecting to receive,” he said, adding it was projected as part of the budget planning process over the summer.

“That increase does not alleviate the deficit concerns that we are still forecasting,” said Kalitzky referring to the district’s nearly $12 million structural deficit and growing needs.

He and other Unit 5 leaders shared weariness Wednesday, about what lies ahead for the district’s budget woes — after voters rejected a referendum Nov. 8 that would have injected $20.5 million into the education fund.

Construction worker at a home project
Charles Krupa

Local property tax revenue accounts for more than half the district’s operating budget.

The tentative levy assumes an 8% increase to the district’s EAV of existing property, with $21.5 million in new construction for FY22.

The district actually expects EAV growth closer to 6%, with a levy closer to $137 million. But basing the levy off the higher growth assumption allows the district to capture more revenue, said Unit 5 Finance Director Marty Hickman.

The district projects a 10- to 13-cent decrease in its overall FY22 tax rate, bringing it to $5.51 per $100 EAV. Despite the rate decrease, some taxpayers could see a higher tax bill over last year’s, depending on how their own property’s EAV increases, said Hickman.

For the past decade, Unit 5’s EAV has seen only slight year-to-year shifts, generally hovering in the 1% range, said Hickman. So, even if only 6% growth is realized, it’s good news for the district.

Whatever the local property tax revenue turns out to be, the money collected is split across two fiscal years. Board president Barry Hitchins said he can’t think of any other industry that sees its revenue arrive like that.

Unit 5 gets about 52% of FY22 property tax revenue around June. But the next 48% won’t arrive until September and October.

Impact of failed referendum to take shape this spring

How the board plans to address Unit 5’s financial problems — in light of the failed referendum — likely won’t take shape until January, said 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle.

“No decisions have been made. I know that can be unsettling for some people. It’s a little unsettling for me, too,” she said.

Results show 54% of an estimated 36,000 voters opposed the referendum that asked voters to raise the cap on the education fund tax rate, with the promise district leaders wouldn’t do so until 2026. If it hadn’t failed, Unit 5 potentially could have added $20 million to its education fund.

Echoing her post-election comments to WGLT, Weikle said Wednesday, leaders will spend upcoming weeks digging deeper into the “why” of the referendum failure. The next step would be addressing the “what” or “how” to get the district’s finances on track.

So far, to cover Unit 5’s multimillion-dollar deficit, the school board has repeatedly taken out high-interest loans, and made millions of dollars in program and staffing cuts. The narrow referendum defeat means more cuts are likely.

“It’s extremely difficult to continue to offer the many wonderful opportunities we provide students in Unit 5 on an education fund rate that’s only increased by 10 cents in 40 years,” said Weikle.

During his tax levy presentation, Hickman noted the district's current $2.72 education fund tax rate is the lowest among 10 area school districts.

Members of The Normal Marching Band -- which represents both Unit 5 high schools, are recognized during the school board meeting Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. 221116_u5_band.jpg
Michele Steinbacher
Members of The Normal Marching Band are recognized during the school board meeting Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.

Enrollment, student testing data shared

About 12,260 students are enrolled in Unit 5 schools this year. Enrollment has been slowly declining over the past four years, but administrators are watching new housing developments in the area to plan for possible enrollment growth.

On Wednesday, Assistant Superintendent Michelle Lamboley and her colleagues shared a data-heavy presentation filled with colorful bar charts about student achievement, and standardized testing.

The report shared data from test scores from pre-K, elementary, and high school, students, as well as student groups across those categories.

Key to the report was how the district tracked students' achievement and gaps after they returned last fall, for the 2021-2022 year; and how the district is applying the district’s Equity Action Plan.

Board member Kelly Pyle said the Equity Action Plan-driven approach is helping the district see where it has work to do.

Board member Amy Roser called the report the best she’d seen on student learning and growth, adding the data demonstrates clearly the work that’s going on to improve student achievements.

Kristal Shelvin, in the middle of her second year as Unit 5’s equity, diversity and inclusion director, garnered praise for leading the district in its efforts to use data to show inequity, and then track improvements.

"We want to be transparent with the board and with the community about what these data look like, so when we start to see gains in these data that we will really notice them," said Shelvin, adding that needs to be followed with targeted, intentional equitable practices.

“I’m really curious to see how this builds,” said board member Stan Gozur, praising Unit 5 staff's plan to track the support efforts.

Audit results show no problems

Clean audits, like the one Unit 5 saw for fiscal year 2022, and previous years, should give the public reassurance the district is fiscally responsible, said Roser.

This shows Unit 5 takes seriously the job of being fiscally responsible with taxpayers’ money — spending appropriately, and documenting it, she said.

“It’s a very good report, a clean report,” with no findings, said Hope Wheeler, of auditing firm Clifton Larson Allen. The board approved the FY22 audit Wednesday, after Wheeler shared results about the six-month audit process.

In other business, the board:

  • Adopted the latest version of a county-wide disaster preparedness plan.   
  • Recognized the Normal Marching Band for taking top honors in the 6A division, and second place overall at the October state contest. The band combines musicians from Normal West and Normal Community high schools.
  • Heard details on how the district decides whether to call a snow day, or remote learning. Only five days are built into the calendar for snow or other emergencies. 
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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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