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Unit 5 board OKs E-Learning Day plan; announces tax referendum info sessions

Unit 5 employees, who have earned 2023 Illinois State Board of Education awards, stand for recognition, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, during the district school board meeting at Normal Community West High School.
Michele Steinbacher
Unit 5 employees, who have earned 2023 Illinois State Board of Education awards, stand for recognition on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, during the school board meeting at Normal Community West High School.

The Unit 5 school board on Wednesday renewed its formal E-Learning Day program, a state-approved plan for how the district approaches remote learning on days when schools can’t meet in person.

Following a public hearing, the board adopted the plan on a 6-1 vote. Board member Kelly Pyle voted “no.”

The district first adopted the plan in March 2020, when the COVID pandemic closed schools. But, in its renewed form, the program only is valid for up to five days per school year.

Several board members said the district prefers in-person learning, but adopting the program allows a back-up for emergencies.

“It is about having an effective plan in place, if we need it,” said board member Alan Kalitzky.

Also at the meeting at Normal Community West High School, the board heard about upcoming informational meetings on the April tax referendum, and learned federal COVID-relief funds mean the district gets a third year of expanded summer school.

E-learning plan focus on accessibility

The E-Learning Day plan is a research-based program that outlines how the district will deliver online learning in the event schools are closed for a short period. It can be used in lieu of a snow day, said Richardson.

"Again, it's only for up to five days each school year," he said.

It's an ISBE requirement that a district's e-learning days can't exceed the number of emergency days already approved on that school year’s calendar.

Richardson said districts don't have to adopt an E-Learning Day program. But for districts that do, the state has several requirements.

Primarily the plan needs to provide at least five hours of daily teaching instruction or assigned school work to students, and it needs to ensure all district students and teachers have access, he said. That includes special education students, as well as those not yet proficient in English.

All Unit 5 students have electronic devices, which can be taken home. Unit 5 has partnered with local internet providers to provide free access to income-eligible families.

Unit 5 leaders say the E-Learning Day program still is evolving, and they are fine-tuning it. They encouraged parents to continue offering feedback.

Finance reports share history of Unit 5 budget woes

At its Jan. 31 special meeting, the board OK’d significant cuts for the upcoming school year.

Marty Hickman speaking at Unit 5 school board
Izzy Carroll

The district's financial history, and outlook, continued to be part of the conversation Wednesday, with two reports. Those came from Unit 5 finance director Marty Hickman and public finance professional Jennifer Currier of PMA Securities. Unit 5 has worked with PMA since the early 2000s.

Hickman addressed some of Unit 5's current financial statements, while Currier's report revisited what's happened over the past two decades.

The district is asking voters on April 4, to approve a tax rate increase for its education fund. But, Unit 5 leaders say the overall tax rate still would go down from today's current rate. It’s the second time in several months the referendum question will appear on the ballot.

Currier said in the decades leading up to this point, financial projections called for steady growth to estimated assessed values (EAV) — only to be met with the great recession of 2008. They also projected steady state aid to local school districts — rather than prorations that have resulted in a loss of aid surpassing $20 million, she said.

Meanwhile, for much of the past 12 years, inflation outpaced property value growth in the district, said Currier.

The PMA report demonstrated the financial issues Unit 5 is facing today are not a surprise, said board member Jeremy DeHaai. It's been a known issue dating back to 2006, he added.

Having that historical context is good, said board member Kentrica Coleman. But, she also says district leaders should tell the community how those lessons have been learned, and won't be repeated.

Unit 5 is hosting two upcoming community information sessions, on the topic, and possibly more:

  • Feb. 22: 5:30 p.m., a virtual program
  • March 8: 5 p.m. at Parkside Junior High School.

COVID-relief funds allow one more expanded summer school

For the third summer, with the help of federal COVID-relief funding, Unit 5 will have expanded summer school offerings.

Historically, Unit 5 only has offered summer classes to about 250-300 students with disabilities. That Extended School Year program is funded by a state disability education grant.

But with federal dollars via the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSR), and two other grants, Unit 5 expects between 1,200 and 1,500 students to have summer school opportunities, this year, said Lamboley.

Last summer, more than 1,000 Unit 5 students received extra help from the ESSR-funded programs addressing pandemic exacerbated gaps in math, literacy and social-emotional learning.

Teachers recommend the students who have the greatest need for the Pre-K through eighth-grade program.The district will tell families next month if their student is recommended.

At the high school level, Unit 5 uses ESSR dollars to offer students who have failed one or more classes a second chance at passing the course, with online courses.

Lamboley said two additional summer school programs begin this year at Chiddix Junior High School — thanks to separate grants. One from the Phillip Jackson Freedom School expands on its current after-school program, which focuses on civic engagement and African-American history. Another program is an English as a Second Language offering for junior high and high school students. That's funded by the Immigrant Student Education Program.

In other business, the board:

  • OK’d about $660,000 in building safety updates, including about $595,000 to replace the Normal West fire alarm system.
  • Recognized Normal Community High School’s Ricky King, whom the state has named Illinois bilingual teacher of the year. 
  • Highlighted other Unit 5 employees who earned “Those Who Excel” awards from the state. That included nearly a dozen individuals, as well as the Normal Marching Band, and the Normal West Family and Consumer Sciences Department. 
  • Approved the calendar for the 2023-2024 school year, running from Aug. 16 to May 22.
  • Learned Kindergarten registration is underway. Kindergarten previews will be March 1 at each grade school.

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