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Unit 5 board OKs list of cuts, reversal hinges on April 4 tax referendum

The Unit 5 school board meets Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 at Normal Community West High School auditorium.
Michele Steinbacher
The Unit 5 school board meets Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 at Normal Community West High School auditorium.

Starting next fall, there’ll be no more sports or clubs for Unit 5 junior high students, no sports teams for freshmen, and no band/orchestra for fifth-graders.

And that’s just for starters.

The Unit 5 school board voted unanimously Tuesday night to make about $2 million in cuts for the 2023-2024 school year.

If voters approve a tax increase referendum on April 4, it would mean the board might reverse the cuts, taking effect in the 2023-2024 school year. But if voters reject the referendum — as they did in November —the cuts are here to stay.

“We’re offering transparency before the impact hits,” said board member Alan Kalitzky, of the board’s decision to make the cuts now, rather than after the April election. “We can’t operate with hope at this point. We’re operating with good, sound, fiscal ideas given our current resources.”

The cuts impact almost every student group in Unit 5, noted Kalitzky, adding, “That’s disheartening, but it’s where we’re at.”

Though not voted on Tuesday night, an additional $3 million in cuts are proposed for 2024-2025.

That year could see increased class-size ranges, a shortened school day, and the possible closing of the 114-student Carlock Elementary School. Other proposed cuts for that year include offering fewer electives and having specials such as music and art meet less frequently.

The 2024-25 cuts also call for reducing junior varsity teams.

Superintendent Kristen Weikle said beyond '24-25, with no change to the district’s projected revenue, more drastic cuts loom, starting with ending all sports — at all levels.

She said $3 million in cost savings approved last spring took effect this school year, including more than two dozen unfilled teaching positions, the end of an 8th grade foreign-language option, some administrative cuts, and reductions to elementary-level extracurriculars.

Weikle: Cuts aren’t going to solve problem

Even with that combined $8 million-plus in savings, the district still faces a multimillion-dollar gap that’s expected to grow. Costs continue to rise, and state aid isn’t keeping up, said Weikle.

Meanwhile, more state mandates keep piling onto district costs. “We cannot cut our way out of this deficit,” she said.

Most of a school district’s revenue comes from local property taxes. Not everyone agrees with that concept, she said. But for now, it’s what Unit 5 has to use. “Whether that’s right or not, that is the structure” in Illinois education funding, she said.

The superintendent said the district’s projections already have factored in the Rivian tax abatement, the Uptown Tax-Increment Financing District expiring, and projected value of local property.

Referendum gets second chance

In November, about 54% of voters rejected the referendum that could have provided more than $20 million in additional revenue. But Unit 5 quickly put it back on the ballot for the April 4 election.

The district says its total tax rate will be less than it is today, even if voters approve the referendum. That’s because, as proposed, the district only would increase the education fund tax rate after building bonds expire in 2026.

Referendum opponents counter that tax relief provided by the end of building bond payments would be even larger if voters reject the ballot question.

The referendum question specifically asks voters to increase the cap for Unit 5’s education fund tax rate by 88 cents per $100 equalized assessed value. That would bring that fund’s rate to $3.60.

One of eight Unit 5 funds, the education fund covers most of the district’s salaries and program costs.

Kalitzky and several other board members, including Jeremy DeHaai and Kentrica Coleman, invited community members to contact them about school finance, and share opinions.

“Don’t hesitate to reach out to us,” said DeHaai.

Nearly all public commenters support referendum

More than 40 public commenters addressed the board Tuesday, with the majority urging Unit 5 voters to approve the referendum.

The League of Women Voters, the McLean County Museum of History, Illinois Arts Station and other organizations sent representatives in support of the referendum.

But many speakers were Unit 5 parents, graduates and students. Most opposed Tuesday’s cuts — especially to activities and sports.

“This creates inequity,” said Pauline Williams.

“Some families can afford for their children to participate in these types of activities outside of school. But children from low-income homes will be effectively foreclosed from these learning experiences,” she said.

Williams, an educator for nearly 40 years and retired ISU faculty member, decried the board’s decision to vote for cuts Tuesday, saying the district has money budgeted to cover the programs at least a few more years.

About 20 commenters specifically focused on keeping Carlock school open — from young students reaching the microphone with the help of stools, to parents, residents and village mayor Rhonda Baer.

The mayor, who said four generations of her family have attended the local school, said she and fellow civic leaders are working to keep the community — and school — viable.

“We are asking, and I’m inviting you to meet us and work with us to do that,” she told the board.

2023-2024 budget cuts

Besides cutting all clubs and sports at the district’s four junior high schools, and freshman sports teams at the two high schools, the board also OK’d the following 2023-2024 cost-cutting measures:

  • Eliminate two administrator positions
  • Reduce budgets by 10%, including the administration office; the building, technology, and curriculum budgets; extracurriculars and co-curriculars (mostly supplies, materials, and travel)
  • Reduce field trip funding 
  • Push band/orchestra to 6th grade (ending the 5th grade program)
  • Stop funding trainer stipends for staff who coach peers on a software program for student intervention monitoring.
  • Limit out-of-town travel for student competitions
  • Reduce vocational program job sites for students with disabilities.

The board also approved the administration’s plan to increase 2023-24 revenue by $600,000 or more by:

  • Increasing registration, activity, and gate fees (charge for all sporting events). Families with students receiving reduced lunch fees also would see an increase.
  • Raising facility rental fees for community and parent groups
  • Switching to the National School Breakfast and Lunch programs at the high schools that also limits food fundraising opportunities at school.

As for the effect increased fees will have: “That adds up really quickly for any family,” said Weikle, especially for families with multiple children.
“You’re probably going to pay more for increased fees than you would in taxes if a referendum were to pass,” she added, encouraging Unit 5 residents to attend one of the upcoming community engagement sessions.

Dates haven’t been announced.

Board: Unit 5 not administrator-heavy

Board president Barry Hitchins said Tuesday he wanted to dispel a myth that Unit 5 could simply make cuts to its administration to balance the budget.

“The numbers say otherwise,” he said, urging voters to visit the Illinois School Report Card.

The state average is a 147-1 student-to-administrator ratio, but Unit 5 has a 207-1 ratio, he said.

He also said while the state average pay for an administrator is $116,000; Unit 5’s is $93,000. As for Unit 5 Superintendent Weikle’s $197,691 salary — that comes in under Peoria, Champaign, Springfield, Decatur and Bloomington superintendent salaries, he said.

“We are getting a bargain,” he said, noting Weikle’s 24/7 work ethic.

Board member Stan Gozur added even if the district cut administrative positions, the work would remain. It still needs to get done, he said.

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