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After cuts, pro-referendum Yes For Unit 5 group says it's being bombarded with offers to help

The Unit 5 tax referendum on the ballot April 4 aims to address the school district's $12 million budget deficit.
Ralph Weisheit
WGLT file
The Unit 5 tax referendum on the ballot April 4 aims to address the school district's $12 million budget deficit.

Early voting begins Thursday in the April 4 municipal election, including a second attempt to pass Unit 5’s tax referendum. That’s aimed at closing a $12 million dollar budget deficit.

The pro-referendum group Yes For Unit 5 says this time feels different. That's mainly because Unit 5’s school board has now spelled out an extensive list of budget cuts that go into effect if the referendum fails.

In an interview with WGLT, new Yes for Unit 5 chairperson Corin Chapman and group spokesperson Patrick Mainieri explain what they think has changed. Coming Tuesday on WGLT’s Sound Ideas, you’ll hear from others who are trying to influence public opinion about the referendum, including those who are opposed.

WGLT: Why do you think the referendum failed the first time around?

Mainieri: We've been thinking a lot about that. I will say that it was confusing, just point blank. When you talk about a referendum, and you're talking about lowering taxes, that raises an eyebrow to a lot of voters and a lot of taxpayers in town, because we don't usually associate referendums with lowering taxes.

The first go round, we took an approach of really educating the community, specifically on the tax position, and kind of how the school board is using cash bonds to fund the school district right now, those are high interest-bearing loans, essentially, and getting the word out.

The second time around, we have a lot more people involved with the word-spreading. And there seems to be a lot more of a grassroots effort.

Can you dive a little deeper into that? What does that look like?

Mainieri: We've seen heavier traction in social media, most definitely. There's a lot more sharing of the graphics of the Yes for Unit Five (group).

There's been a lot more volunteers coming on board to help and serve in different roles, which has helped tremendously. I'd say the first time around, we were reaching out and asking and asking and asking for people to engage with us and to be a part of it. And now we're actually being bombarded with people coming and asking and asking if they can be involved with it, and how they would best be utilized to help spread messages. And so it feels different this time. There's more passion behind it this time. There's more intensity as we navigate.

Chapman: Back in November, I think people didn't feel it was real. But the most recent board meeting proved that it was real. The school board had to make some significant cuts over the last few months. And to me, I feel like that really just focused the community. We can't ignore this any longer. This is something that's impending.

Yes, we've already done some cuts, and the cuts are gonna get so much worse, right? When we start talking about cutting junior high funding, when you're talking about cutting high school sports – I mean, what is high school without the sports? It starts to not feel like the same experience. And that's really driving home to the community that this is something that's going to have long-lasting impact if we do not get it passed.

WGLT: Corin, you were not involved with the Yes for Unit 5 steering committee the first time around. How did you make the decision to elevate your level of involvement here?

Chapman: In November – I say the community felt like it wasn't imminent – I didn't feel like it was imminent. I really felt confident that this community would understand the situation and make the decision to pass the referendum. And I honestly didn't feel like my voice, my involvement, was necessary.

But man, when I woke up the next day after election and I found out that the referendum had not passed, I felt physically sick. And just really understanding the implications, that motivated me to step into this role.

Do you think that the cuts that the school board has set into motion is what’s driving the increased volunteer interest in Yes for Unit 5?

Chapman: It makes it feel more real. I think before, it just wasn't tangible to people. Unfortunately, if you look back over the past year or two, the school board has threatened some cuts and then not followed through, and I think that that created this kind of laissez-faire sort of attitude amongst the community.

And these cuts really did drive – no, this is serious. This is a revenue issue that that we cannot overcome. Even if we do these cuts and we do more cuts and really strip out all elements of high school and junior high and grade school, everything that's considered extracurricular, everything that's considered addition to your reading, writing arithmetic – that still isn't enough, actually.

The unfunded mandates, the rising costs, the reduced revenue from the state – it’s created a hole that that we can't get out of without this referendum in place.

Let’s talk about Carlock. In the two precincts that primarily feed into Carlock Elementary School, 67% of voters rejected the referendum in November. Now, their elementary school is slated for closure due to budget cuts. How does the Yes for Unit 5 campaign approach a situation like that?

Mainieri: I can speak adamantly about this because I live in the Carlock school (boundary), and I have a young one that is supposed to be starting kindergarten in Carlock in the next couple of years.

It's a conservative area of our community. It's more rural. They very much are mindful of their spending. And they're working very hard. But what I will say is, is that at the school board meeting in January, the number of Carlock families that came out and spoke, the number of Carlock students that stood in front of an elected board of officials as elementary students and addressed this with that board, shows that while the numbers of the election in November are that 67%, that is not what the whole community feels.

We are working with the Carlock community to find opportunities to make sure that they are informed of the facts that the district is putting out around these topics.

It was just so far away from them, like they just couldn't tangibly think about it. But then all of a sudden when you say that the local community elementary school that's been there for … a very long time … is being ripped out of the middle of their quiet and quaint community, that feeds into Unit 5’s larger schools, that is where all of a sudden it's very real to them. And this is the difference between the November vote – where it was not very real to a lot of voters – and the April 4 vote, where now it's very tangible. It's incredibly tangible.

We have to remember, the board has already voted for these cuts. If the referendum passes, they will revisit that vote and pull those cuts back. From our understanding, they're not using it as leverage. They're just making a decision that’s in the best interest of the operations of the school district, because they cannot continue to amass debt.

You said that the school board was not using the cuts as leverage to try to get this this referendum passed. I'd push back on that. Can't more than one thing be true here? Can't they be using it for leverage, and they actually have to do it? You don't think they're using it for leverage to try to get this passed?

I don't disagree with that thought. But I don't think that that is the first point of leverage.

I think that they want the community to be very aware, incredibly aware, that underfunded schools mean programs get cut. And it's their role as school board members to make sure that the books balance.

Chapman: If you're thinking that it's a threat, the threat implies that these cuts aren't necessary. If anything, these cuts aren't enough, right? You're thinking about stripping all of these pieces out of the curriculum, out of the school, raising class sizes, making the school day shorter, completely changing the school day experience for children. And it's honestly still not enough. We still need additional revenue to balance the books. So to me, it can’t feel like a threat if it's actually a very reasonable action to take.

Something else that is different this time around is going to be voter turnout. Back in November, voter turnout in McLean County was 57%. Granted, not all of McLean County is in Unit 5, but that’s the gist. Last time we had a non-mayoral municipal election like this was in 2019, and turnout was 12%. That’s a big difference. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the pro-referendum campaign?

I honestly don't know how to answer that question, because I think that voters are going to turn out who are going to want to engage in the democratic process of being a citizen. We are aware that an April vote is always less (turnout) in this community than a November vote. That's 100% understandable.

I think there's a data point, though, that has changed, and that is that we have hard evidence of what happens if we don't pass this. So my speculation is maybe there's a much higher voter turnout this time around because generally something so meaningful isn't on the April ballot when it comes to the operations of an entire school district that services 12,500 students and has 2,000 employees. That is a lot of impact in our community. I think its trajectory changed, that we might see a much higher voter turnout in April, maybe record-setting for all we know. I can't predict the future.

Chapman: It's always hard with municipal elections. You go back to the tangibility of that: Do people really feel it if a certain city council member is elected versus another? Most people in their day-to-day life, that doesn't resonate. But you start talking about their child's education, you start talking about the future of this community, and quite frankly, the underlying economy of this community … I do think there will be more turnout, because with municipal elections sometimes you feel like it won’t particularly impact me – well, this is impacting me. This is impacting everyone, and they're going to feel it.

53% of voters rejected this referendum a couple of months ago. What do you think of the criticism that the pro-referendum folks, including the school board, are just not willing to listen to voters?

The data points changed. In November, the voters did not know what the cuts were. Now they know what the cuts are. The cuts have been board-approved.

I'm glad that people are getting engaged with our education system. It's unfortunate that we're at this crossroads. I've been a part of numerous referendums, as a past educator living in multiple states. It's not until we're crossing these areas of funding where the mass public gets engaged with the operations of public schools. It's unfortunate that it always comes down to when cuts are being made.

I wish people would be engaged with how school districts are operating at all times. Because that only builds stronger communities and builds stronger operations. I feel for the school board members that only get negative feedback or get pushback or frustration when they are making tough decisions. Who is celebrating the administrators? Who is celebrating these teachers? Who is celebrating this incredibly strong school district that we have inside of our community? Why does it only come up when we're talking about cuts? I can answer that. When it's not about reductions and not about cuts, the only people that are celebrating the school district is the school district.

In November, the Yes for Unit 5 campaign made the case that, actually, people's taxes would go down if the referendum passed. That’s because of this complicated financial maneuvering that takes place as debt comes off the rolls. Are you going to be using that message again? Or with cuts now out on the table, can you just set that aside?

We are engaging in that conversation with people who asked about it. All that information is still out there. It’s on both the Unit 5 website and the Yes for Unit 5 website.

But I'll be real honest with you: The conversations that we're having right now are much more going back to the tangible topics, right? I've had so many conversations like, ‘I really want my kid to do junior high sports’ or ‘I really want my kid to be involved in music.’

At this point, what I felt in the shift from the November election to this April election, is that parents are concerned about experience – their child's experience. They want their child's experience to be better than the experience that they had in public school.

Let’s use volleyball as an example. We have a great volleyball system inside of our school system where kids can go and be a part of volleyball, they can try out for volleyball and make their volleyball teams, all the way through college scholarship offers and all that stuff. If that doesn't exist in our schools anymore, which company is going to come in and try to get that market? And then it's not a balanced equal access anymore to every kid. It's who has the funding to be able to pay for their kids to be in that activity? And that's where this pay-for-play concept happens. And this happens in communities across the United States where school districts stopped funding it, so an independent organization or a for-profit organization will come in and make that offer. But again, only the families that can afford it will get to be a part of it.

As a matter of disclosure, WGLT's general manager R.C. McBride is a member of the Yes for Unit 5 steering committee. He no longer chairs the group. He has no role in WGLT's coverage of the referendum.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.