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Budget cuts and school board races animate new players in Unit 5 referendum debate

The Unit 5 school board meets Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 at Normal Community West High School auditorium.
Michele Steinbacher
WGLT file
The Unit 5 school board voted to set budget cuts in motion at its Jan. 31 meeting at Normal West high school.

Early voting begins Thursday, with Unit 5 voters being asked for the second time in less than six months to approve a tax referendum to address the school district’s $12 million budget deficit.

While the question is the same, the stakes feel different.

Unlike November’s vote, the school board has now laid out what exactly will be cut first if the referendum fails – including sports and clubs for junior high students, sports teams for freshmen, and band/orchestra for fifth-graders. The 2024-25 school year would see increased class sizes, a shortened school day, and the possible closing of the 114-student Carlock Elementary School.

Those cuts are partly responsible for animating many new influencers looking to shape public opinion on the referendum, expanding the political playing field to include school board candidate slates, student-led organizing, and parent-teacher organizations (PTOs).

“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,” said Patrick Mainieri, a spokesperson for Yes for Unit 5, the leading pro-referendum group. “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.”

That means more groups are getting involved ahead of the April 4 election.

One of them is Unit 5 Students for the Referendum, a new group led by Normal Community High School seniors Avani Rai and Lilly McClelland. They feel that students’ voices need to be better represented in the debate.

They said the budget cuts are frightening. McClelland said being able to do orchestra and sports since middle school is part of what’s made her a well-rounded student today.

“Because I’ve realized how privileged I am, it would be selfish of us not to want future students to have these same privileges as well,” McClelland said.

The group is looking at activating students through voter drives for those over 18, attending school board meetings, and wearing orange and black on Tuesdays, said Rai.

“We have to trust the community,” Rai said. “And we’re really entrusting them not only with our futures, but the future of Bloomington-Normal and McLean County as a whole.”

The cuts have gotten the attention of many junior high parents. Those three years are critical for personal development, said Nikki Maurer, president of the Kingsley Junior High Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) and a former high school educator herself.

“It’s all the ways they learn how to appropriately interact with others. Sportsmanship, teamwork, collaboration – all of those life skills. Yes, our kids do get some of that during their academic time in school, but more of it comes from the things they’re involved in outside of school like extracurriculars,” she said.

Maurer’s PTO was asked if it would get involved in the referendum. So they surveyed members using an anonymous online poll. 20 of 21 respondents supported the referendum, so the PTO endorsed it, Maurer said. As Kingsley parents in other groups campaign for the referendum, the PTO will share that information through its Facebook page, email list, and other means.

Maurer wants this time to be different in two ways. First, pro-referendum people need to engage and try to sway those who voted “no” in November, she said. Second, referendum supporters must share factual yet easy-to-digest information that’s not coming directly from Unit 5 itself – a tall task given the complicated nature of public-school finance.

“There’s a huge distrust of the district and district leadership in our community, which is why it failed in the fall,” said Maurer. “So just continuing to share the information that the district is providing doesn’t combat that issue.”

That distrust has bled into politics. The McLean County Republican Party, which has opposed both ballot questions, says Unit 5’s claims about taxes ultimately going down if the referendum passes – due to financial maneuvering tied to expiring debt – are “misleading at best.” The county GOP says the problem is spending – not funding – and that a hiring freeze and other cost-cutting is needed.

The county GOP has endorsed what it calls the four “conservative candidates” in the Students First slate: Mollie Emery, Dennis Frank, Amee Jada, and Brad Wurth. They have opposed the referendum and promise not to cut extracurricular activities.

“We will find other ways, other systemic ways, to pull additional costs out of this educational experience the students have in Unit 5,” Wurth said recently on conservative talk radio station Cities 92.9. Their slate says more use of e-learning could help lower costs.

Frank said property taxes are too high and that the referendum is poorly timed, given high inflation.

“Throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer,” Frank said.

The other grouping of four school board candidates – incumbents Amy Roser and Kelly Pyle, plus Mark Adams and Alex Williams – supports the referendum. That informal slate been endorsed by the Unit 5 teachers union (Unit Five Education Association), which backs the referendum.

UFEA President Julie Hagler said there are union members in every school who will be canvassing the nearby neighborhood and talking to voters about what’s at stake.

“The educators this time are definitely more engaged. They’re active. They’re getting out there. They’re talking in their community. They’re talking to their family members and neighbors. We’re seeing a much more grassroots effort,” Hagler said.

The Yes for Unit 5 steering committee says it has reorganized with a “bigger and broader group” for the second vote. That includes a new chair, Corin Chapman, who previously helped lead the public-private partnership that became Harmony Park, the community’s first all-inclusive playground.

Chapman wasn’t on the steering committee for November’s vote.

“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,” Chapman said. “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.”

The $12 million budget deficit is a revenue issue, she said.

“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,” Chapman said.

There are several public events focused on the referendum in the coming weeks. Unit 5 will host a public information session virtually at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday and in-person at 5 p.m. March 8 at Parkside Junior High School. The League of Women Voters of McLean County, which has endorsed the referendum, will host a panel discussion at 5:30 p.m. March 1 at Normal Public Library.

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.