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As Unit 5 lays out cuts, school board candidates weigh in on referendum

Colin Hardman
/
WGLT
About 40 members of the public attended Thursday night's information meeting on the Unit 5 referendum at First United Methodist Church in Normal.

The Unit 5 school district laid out information about the upcoming education referendum vote during a public meeting Thursday night at Normal’s First United Methodist Church.

The referendum on the April 4 ballot is the second attempt to raise more property tax revenue for Unit 5, following a rejection by voters in November. Superintendent Kristen Weikle explained the district’s current situation — focused on a deficit of about $12 million — to about 40 members of the public, part of a series of community meetings on the topic.

District leaders say Unit 5's current deficit is a result of a variety of factors, including proration of state funding, increased mandated salaries for staff, and inflation raising the costs of operation.

If the referendum fails again, the district plans to cut field trips, athletics, extracurriculars and music programs for junior high school, and freshman sports teams. Schools may eventually reduce hours, ending the school day an hour earlier than before. Fees also will be raised, including registration fees and entry for sporting events, even for those, such as baseball, that have not charged for entry in the past.

Superintendent Kristen Weikle explained the district’s current situation — focused on a deficit of about $12 million — to about 40 members of the public, part of a series of community meetings on the topic.
Colin Hardman
/
WGLT
Superintendent Kristen Weikle explained the district’s current situation — focused on a deficit of about $12 million — to about 40 members of the public, part of a series of community meetings on the topic.

By making another attempt to pass the referendum, the board hopes to avoid these cuts.

Because the district is paying off bonds and other debt over the next two years, the overall property tax would actually decrease from $5.51 per $100 of assessed value to $4.92 by 2026 under the referendum’s proposed change, as the district allocates more funding away from debt payments and toward education, according to Unit 5.

“What the district is asking is not for what we’re currently paying plus additional dollars,” said Weikle. “We’re asking for additional dollars in the education fund, but only once the building bonds are paid off, which will happen later this year.”

While several members of the public spoke in support of the referendum, more asked clarification questions about the potential cuts and problems associated with the lack of funding, such as difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers.

Four candidates for the school board were also present — Mark Adams, Dennis Frank, Alex Williams, and Brad Wurth.

Wurth and Frank oppose the referendum. Wurth said the referendum represents a trend of being “taxed into perpetuity.” After the meeting, he argued there was another way to balance the budget.

“We know that we can do a better job educating those students of Unit 5 through a broader utilization of some of the e-curriculum stuff that’s available today,” he said.

Williams and Adams support the referendum. Williams, whose three children have been educated in Unit 5, said the referendum would bring necessary funding to pay for high quality education, and identified a lack of clear information as a problem with the referendum effort.

“Another priority I have is to bring transparency to the community. It would make conversations like the referendum easier if along the way we educated the community,” he said.

In November, the referendum was rejected by 53.7% of those voting. Early voting has begun for April 4 election.

Colin Hardman is a correspondent at WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.
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