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Unit 5 board OKs $102M property tax levy; keeps First Student for busing

Emma Shores

The Unit 5 school board has adopted a $102 million property tax levy, and a related $36.6 million abatement for debt service and leases; the total is about 6% higher than last year’s levy.

At a meeting Wednesday night, Unit 5 Finance Director Marty Hickman noted the district set the levy, assuming an 8% growth in equalized assessed valuation. But leaders expect an actual 6% EAV increase.

The district expects the property tax rate to go down about 10 cents, he said during a public hearing on the levy, held prior to the board vote.

Also at the meeting, the board voted to stick with First Student as its bus transportation service for the next three years; and OK’d three new attendance exception regions to account for new housing developments in the district.

District expects tax rate to drop 10 cents

Local property tax revenue accounts for more than half of Unit 5’s operating budget.

The $102 million property tax levy the board OK’d on Wednesday includes an additional $36.5 million to be abated for debt service and public building leasing.

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 Hickman.

The district expects the 2022 property tax rate to go down about a dime, to $5.48 per $100 EAV.

For the past decade, Unit 5’s EAV has seen only slight year-to-year shifts, generally hovering in the 1% range. But it expects 6% growth the next few years, said Hickman.

Two variables affect a person's property tax bills — the property's EAV and the tax rate. In Unit 5's case, most of its fund tax rates are at the legal maximum. "That's really fixed in our formula, and it has been for a long time," said Hickman.

Unit 5 Finance Director Marty Hickman says the district is expecting an increase of between 6% to 8% in equalized assessed value. That's much higher than any recent years. The district's 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% to 8% in equalized assessed value. That's much higher than any recent years. The district's proposing a $139 million property tax levy.

"What really affects whether taxes go up or down in the community is the (EAV) of your property," said Hickman.

The school district splits its local property tax revenue across two fiscal years. Board member Amy Roser said that’s because of the county’ system for collecting taxes; it’s not a school district decision.

Unit 5 gets about 52% of FY22 property tax revenue around June. But the next 48% won’t arrive until September and October. So, if the district property tax levy brings in 6% growth, that translates to about 3% more for each fiscal year, said Hickman.

Several board members said they’d encountered confusion from residents thinking this tax levy increase amounted to a tax rate increase, despite voters in November defeating a referendum that sought to raise a property tax rate on one of the district’s funds.

But Hickman noted the levy vote has nothing to do with that. The finance team had already planned these for some time, expecting 6% growth.

“This levy process is the normal process” that happens annually, he said.

“This is working within the tax rate that already is established. It is not modifying that,” added board member Alan Kalitzky.

The failed referendum means Unit 5 has to find ways to address its growing multi million-dollar deficit in a few years. For now, the district borrowed money to patch through.

“It’s great to see the EAV increase; we projected it. But we still would be faced with a structural deficit in two school years,” said board member Stan Gozur.

Illinois’ evidence-based funding model shows to adequately fund district programs, the state should be allocating about $36 million more to Unit 5 annually, said Hickman.

But even with the state falling short, that model still expects a higher local tax contribution than Unit 5 currently is getting, he said.

First Student to remain with Unit 5

In its vote Wednesday, the board OK’d an ordinance signaling Unit 5 will move forward with First Student as its student transportation service, likely spending about $11.4 million in a yet-to-be negotiated contract.

In April, the board told First Student the district would seek competitive bids beyond the June 2023 contract end.

The company has handled Unit 5 busing since 2012, when the district began outsourcing transportation personnel and management of its fleet.

Unit 5 attorney Curt Richardson told the board a November pre-bid meeting drew six interested companies. But in the end, only two submitted bids.

First Student’s bid was nearly $1.7 million less than the only other bid — which came from Illinois Central School Bus (North America Central School Bus), the company that handles Bloomington District 87 busing.

Besides the initial savings for the 2023-2024 school year, the second and third year projected increases also factored into the choice: First Student proposed 4% increases, while Illinois Central’s was 5%.

Richardson told the board although the $11.4 million expected for this contract is nearly 11% higher than last year’s, it’s still lower than some Illinois districts project. He’s heard costs are up 12% to 20% for bus contracts.

“It’s really about wages. It’s about driver wages. It’s about inflation,” said Richardson.

Despite First Student having the lower bid, Unit 5 leaders said their first priority was keeping students safe.

“As we talk about the quality of service, that is the primary factor that was considered in this discussion,” said Kalitzky; cost was secondary.

Richardson agreed, and noted both bids offered comparable services.

For more than a decade, the district has renewed contracts with First Student, despite challenges and problems, such as buses arriving late for school.

Roser said in the past year, First Student’s main problems have been hiring and retaining drivers. “It’s not a challenge that would be unique to any bus company that would take on this contract,” she said.

But she urged administrators to build in protections while negotiating the contract to address previous problems with the company. Many Unit 5 families have had negative experiences with First Student over the years, she said, noting most of those were management issues to which the company did respond.

District preps for new students as housing options grow

The board also approved three Open Attendance Areas to accommodate future growth expected as housing developments continue.

The Normal Town Council is considering a developer's plan for a nearly 25-acre site, once home to an Illinois State University complex for nontraditional students.
Town of Normal
The Normal Town Council is considering a developer's plan for a nearly 25-acre site, once home to an Illinois State University complex for nontraditional students.

A recent study showed Bloomington-Normal needs to add more than 4,000 housing units to meet demand.

While students normally attend the Unit 5 grade school nearest their home, if that school's enrollment is at capacity, the district needs to make adjustments, assistant superintendent Michelle Lamboley told the board.

Unit 5 has used two open attendance areas for decades — addressing Grove and Benjamin elementary schools reaching capacity.

Three new areas will address developments at Shelbourne Avenue, Weldon Reserve and Carden Springs, and Kruger Subdivision.

  • Area 3 — Students who live in the Shelbourne Apartments, and future homes built on that property, would attend Fairview. Unit 5 now also will send some of those students to Carlock and Sugar Creek elementary schools. 
  • Area 4 — Weldon Reserve and Carden Springs. These students would attend Prairieland Elementary School. Options now also will include Hudson and Sugar Creek elementary schools. 
  • Area 5 — Further down the road, Unit 5 is preparing for the Kruger Subdivision, expected to develop off Hovey Avenue and Parkside Road. These students would attend Parkside Elementary School. Options now also will include Carlock, Fox Creek, and Oakdale elementary schools. 

“I will always utilize that first school, as much as I can,” said Lamboley. But once the building is at capacity, she places students in a school based on their grade level, and enrollments at the other schools.

The district doesn’t offer attendance exceptions for its middle schools and high schools, she said, partly because of athlete eligibility rules of the Illinois High School Association.

Board member Hitchins clarified none of the housing developments discussed have residents now. Lamboley said the earliest impact could be seen if Shelbourne starts leasing apartments in January, but the others aren’t ready yet.

Superintendent Kristen Weikle said the district always is looking at the community’s population, and how that affects district enrollment. Unit 5 has enlisted civil engineer Matthew Crocker to help plan for that.

Board OKs new districtwide radio system

The board approved a new district-wide radio communications system to replace its nearly 10-year-old Starcom system.

The $365,000 contract with JES & Sons 2-Way, includes cost to install, and the net of trade-in credits.The district also will pay about $250 in annual fees.

The new digital system will be used in Unit 5 buildings and buses, and unlike the former system, keeps communication off of a public radio signal. The Starcom system is used throughout Illinois by many first responder agencies.

The new program improves security in the district, so specialized tort funds can be used, said finance chief Hickman.

The radios are used by administrators and other staff, such as custodians, and can cover everything from coordinating a school evacuation to keeping staff informed about a student fight, or even a spill in the hall, said Weikle.

In other business, the board

  • Amended more than two dozen district policies, mostly with minor changes to update changes in state laws.
  • Approved school improvement plans for its three junior high schools, as well as Colene Hoose Elementary School. 
  • Accepted various retirements and resignations, including news that Normal West Principal David Johnson will leave his position this summer.

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.