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Bloomington mayor: Unit 5 should go back to voters with another referendum

Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe.

The mayor of Bloomington doesn't think recent voter rejection of the Unit 5 education fund tax referendum will necessarily cause potential businesses to believe the community does not support education.

On Nov. 8, voters denied a request to raise the education fund tax rate. The total tax rate would still have declined from present levels because the district planned to pay off school construction bonds over the next few years.

In a WGLT interview, mayor Mboka Mwilambwe responded to the question of how he would explain the vote to prospective businesses interested in coming to the Twin Cities.

"Yes, this definitely is a setback. But I would ask them to be patient and not to say this community doesn't value education," said Mwilambwe.

Mwilambwe said the presence of two universities and a community college in Bloomington-Normal offer a counter to the potential impression given to businesses by the referendum result, and he hopes that result will not hurt the business climate.

"I firmly believe you really have to invest in young people in order to ensure the perpetuity of your community," said Mwilambwe, adding a better explanation for the result is an unsettled moment in the nation.

"I think this is also happening in the backdrop of inflation and the pandemic and supply chain issues. Maybe in a couple years people might feel differently about it," he said.

Mwilambwe urged Unit 5 to try another referendum to avoid deep permanent budget cuts. Superintendent Kristen Weikle said if the school board chooses to deal with a mounting deficit solely through cuts, hundreds of teachers could lose their jobs.

Mwilambwe is optimistic about the prospects for success if the district approaches Unit 5 voters again, though he acknowledged it's difficult to convey that overall school district tax rates would go down if the education fund rate increases — just not as much of a drop in the rate as there would be without the referendum.

"This is just an opportunity to continue to educate the public about what the district does and what those cuts might mean. Let's not give up and let's continue to educate folks about that and maybe try again some other time," he said.

Mwilambwe said the referendum's rejection was a missed opportunity to solidify the good things Unit 5 is trying to do.

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