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Unit 5 to specify cuts if voters say 'no' to a 2nd referendum

Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle, left, and school board president Barry Hitchins listen during a special session of the Unit 5 school board Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.
Charlie Schlenker
Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle, left, and school board president Barry Hitchins listen during a special session of the Unit 5 school board Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.

The second Unit 5 tax referendum campaign in six months will be a lot more specific on what happens if it doesn't pass than the first one was.

Before the failed November referendum, school district leaders said they didn't want to get into the details of what they would do if it failed because they wanted to make a positive case for preserving the schools as they are.

That thinking has changed after 53% of voters said "no" to an education fund tax rate increase in November for the district that covers a large part of Bloomington-Normal and a corner of Woodford County.

School board members now say feedback following the balloting indicates a significant portion of voters did not understand the ballot question and that more education is needed. They said if voters reject the education fund rate increase a second time, the consequences would be dramatic.

“There comes a point in which you are no longer going to be able to be able to function as a district, if you can't supply the funds that are appropriate. And that $12 million deficit is really getting us to that edge. We are going to be sunk. We are not going to be able to operate at the level that this community is hoping for us to provide,” said board member Alan Kalitzky.

The total tax rate would drop if voters approve the referendum on April 4. Opponents of the referendum, such as school board candidate Brad Wurth, said tax relief provided by the end of building bond payments would be even larger if voters reject the ballot question.

“Once that bond expires, it's gonna be great because all of us in the community will feel some relief in 2026. But to ask for that money back into perpetuity, we've all decided, is pretty unacceptable,” Wurth told the school board at a special meeting on Wednesday when the board voted to place the tax question on the ballot a second time.

Proponents of the referendum said what's really unacceptable is the consequences to the community and the children if the referendum is not approved.

“I don't think people really understand what $12 million in cuts would look like for this or any school district,” said board member Amy Roser.

Wurth though, said Unit 5 should look for more efficient ways to educate instead of cuts.

“There's a lot of great opportunities to change the way we're doing things. They developed a little bit of an integration with Heartland Community College for some of the high school students in the STEM program. That cost to educate those young students is drastically reduced by Heartland. It's a good deal. There's all kinds of community resources and greater opportunities for integration to provide a higher quality education at a lower price point,” said Wurth.

That program with Heartland serves a very small portion of the Unit 5 student body. Unit 5 enrollment is many times the size of the Heartland student body. Externalizing Unit 5 costs to Heartland or other taxing bodies at scale would be difficult. Wurth also said the pandemic shows the benefits of lower cost electronic delivery of education.

Some experts, though, believe the level of academic achievement suffered during the earlier period of COVID when electronic classes were the norm.

School and referendum leaders during the last campaign and now said the bulk of Unit 5 costs are in people: teachers, teachers’ aides, and other support personnel that serve an educational function, and that staff is the only possible place to make meaningful inroads into the structural deficit.

Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle has said for more than a year the district cannot cut its way out of the structural deficit.

“We don't want to desecrate our educational system to a point where we can't return because it's not we as adults who are suffering, it's our kids,” said Weikle.

It's that stark scenario school board members feel needs to be explained to voters again — and better.

Low-turnout elections

Turnout in a consolidated municipal election is generally very low compared to general elections. In low-turnout elections, the people who go to the ballot box tend to be dedicated voters, who tend to be older voters. Conventional political wisdom says older voters tend to be less likely to approve tax measures. And in low-turnout elections, activist groups on one side or another of the ballot question can have an outsized impact on the result.

These scenarios present a risk for those who want passage of the referendum on April 4.

School Board president Barry Hitchins said other factors outweigh those and make it important to ask voters now rather than in the presidential primary election early in 2024.

“I feel we have a lot of momentum from the fall even though we lost the vote," he said. "There was still momentum built and people have gained an understanding of what the issues are and what we're trying to achieve. If we delayed another year, we would probably be starting from zero again versus starting a couple steps into the race.”

There also are financial reasons to ask voters sooner rather than later.

“We also have working cash bonds established already that would get us through, theoretically, the current school year plus the next one or two," said Hitchins. "If we waited till spring of next year, you're talking only at most one school year left of funding. So the board would then have to make decisions at that point.”

In fact, some board members don't want to rack up the equivalent of credit card debt anymore.

“I don't support continuing to utilize working cash bonds. We use those in an interim situation to plug the hole, but it is not a cost-effective measure. You pay interest on those working cash bonds. Part of what the public is paying in taxes is interest,” said Roser.

The interest on that short-term borrowing is mounting with each cycle of borrowing — nearly $3.6 million for the present round, according to district business manager Marty Hickman.

School board members said in addition to more voter education about the ballot issue itself, voters this time need to hear about the "or else" — what will happen if the referendum fails and the district has to cut.

Weikle doesn't think the board would want to do all the cuts at once because $11-12 million in one go would be devastating, though the outcome is still not good however quickly the cuts would roll out.

“It'd be a lot of factors that we're going to have to look at, but you would definitely see increased class size, fewer opportunities for students that might range from extracurriculars to electives, to having a shorter school day, and only teach what's required by the state. There's a lot of things that could happen,” said Weikle.

The Unit 5 board will talk about how it wants staff to structure options to cut the budget and the deficit as early as next week. Hitchins said the district already has a road map for some of those details from the public engagement phase of the last referendum.

“There were seven things listed for the priority that people didn't want to see cut the most, versus (what) they'd be most willing to accept. I would like to see any ideas for expense reduction categorized according to that list,” said Hitchins.

That list is:

  1. Increased class sizes
  2. Decreased staff
  3. Increased fees
  4. Shortened school days
  5. Reduced extracurricular offerings
  6. Closure of school buildings
  7. Reduced program offerings

There will likely be more public briefings on the referendum and potential cuts in this election cycle than there were last time, according to board members and administrators.
With nine school board candidates running for office in Unit 5, several of whom have strong opinions on the referendum. It's likely the question will dominate campaigning in the 2 1/2 months until Election Day.

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