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Some Unit 5 school board candidates are touting e-learning as a solution to the district's budget crisis

Unit 5 school board candidate Brad Wurth, who opposes the referendum, says the district could address some of its budget deficit by expanding the use of e-learning.
Colin Hardman
Unit 5 school board candidate Brad Wurth, who opposes the referendum, says the district could address some of its budget deficit by expanding the use of e-learning.

Several Unit 5 school board candidates opposed to the referendum say a pivot to more e-learning would save the district millions. District officials and teachers say it's not that simple.

This election cycle, candidates running for a seat on the Unit 5 school board frequently end up talking about the budget crisis facing McLean County's largest school district — and one slate says a pivot to online learning could be part of solving the crisis.

Four candidates running for school board — incumbents Amy Roser and Kelly Pyle and newcomers Alex Williams and Mark Adams — are in favor of passing a referendum question aimed at solving the district's budget deficit.

Four others — Brad Wurth, Amee Jada, Mollie Emery and Dennis Frank, all of whom are first-time candidates — do not support the referendum. Instead, that slate of candidates is touting a completely different proposal: Make up the roughly $12 million deficit in the education fund in part by pivoting to online delivery of some classes and cutting staffers accordingly.

"We call it 'modernization of learning' for these electives."
Brad Wurth, Unit 5 school board candidate

District officials say a combination of factors — among them decreased property values for some years and decreased state funding with increased requirements from districts — has led to a multi-million deficit in Unit 5's education fund. Twice, now, voters have been faced with the option to approve a referendum that would send money taxpayers have contributed to paying off into the education fund instead.

Ultimately, the referendum seeks to increase the education fund's tax rate by 88 cents — up to $3.60 per $100 equalized assessed valuation — in 2025. (District leaders also say while this proposal includes more money going to the education fund, the district's overall tax rate eventually would be lower than today's $5.51 rate per $100 EAV.)

Voters rejected the first referendum in November; the school board voted in January to put the referendum question before voters again on April 4. To address some of the growing budget crisis, the school board voted to make $2 million in cuts last year — and they say if the referendum fails to pass this time, even more cuts are forthcoming to programs like music and art classes, sports and staff.

E-learning as a cost-saver?

Wurth said he, Frank, Emery and Jada, all running as an informal slate, believe e-learning could save the district from having to make drastic cuts in the wake of a budget deficit.

"We have found an $11 million savings by just a slight twist — we call it a modernization of learning for these electives," Wurth said in an interview with WGLT. "What we're finding is, just looking at 6-12th graders ... we're finding that by trimming a small amount of classes, by changing electives or one class per semester and offering that through a true, immersive, online curriculum, we have the ability to carve out $11 million in costs from the budget."

If that message seems like it could fall flat with families and students who are burned out from COVID-era remote learning, Wurth said it often has. But, he said, this pivot to e-learning is different than what was tried in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years.

"This type of initiative definitely gets compared to the COVID world, but they're night and day different. It's apples and oranges," he said. "The COVID world was a true failure in our ability to deliver content to the students."

Wurth described the failure as largely being due to the use of Google Classroom, an online platform its creators describe as a "blended learning platform developed by Google for educational institutions that aims to simplify creating, distributing, and grading assignments."

What Wurth and the other three candidates are touting, he said, is the use of a platform or company with services that were "tested, already developed specifically for (online) delivery. Google Classroom was not."

Minnesota-based Edmentum, founded in 1960, was one company Wurth said the candidates looked at, but didn't get much information from because "they didn't want to talk to us very much." Imagine Learning, established in 2004 and headquartered in Arizona, was willing to provide more information. Both companies offer online coursework, curriculum, credit recovery classes and assessments.

"Right now, the way it would work for many of our high school and junior high students is you'd get your schedule set and there's an hour during the day — maybe third hour, fifth hour, whatever that is — and that's your spot to take your elective," said Wurth, describing a scenario in which a student wants to take an elective that's not currently offered in the district.

"That's something that is probably offered on the electronic curriculum kind of thing. It's giving them broader access to classes they might not otherwise be able to take and access to classes that are unrestricted by the ability to offer them at a particular time in the day."

District officials and teachers — the same teachers whose positions may be in jeopardy were online classwork to be adopted en masse — say it's not that simple.

Video: Wurth, Jada and Frank talk about their e-learning proposal:

Not so simple

For one thing, Unit 5 already uses Edmentum in rare, specific cases with students. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, superintendent Kristen Weikle said the district did consider a widespread adoption of Edmentum. Per Gov. JB Pritzker's executive orders at the time, districts had to offer a remote or hybrid offering so students had the option to remain at home.

"We looked at it, but we didn't go with it because it was cost-prohibitive," Weikle said in an interview. "It was very expensive to do at that large of a scale. We know best practices are having a professional educator provide direct instruction and who can get to know the students and differentiate based on their academic and social and emotional needs. Between the cost and the inability to do those things through an online program, we stuck with having our own teachers do the remote instruction."

The Illinois School Code gives districts the ability to plan for up to five "e-learning days" a year that are to be used during school closures due to weather or some other type of emergency. During those days, which have to clock five hours of instructional time per state statute, teachers design the lesson plan or course of action for the students.

"There's no authority for doing mass remote learning without that public disaster declaration for a public health emergency."
Curt Richardson, attorney for the Unit 5 school district

"That's the decision of the teacher — it's not some pre-made curriculum," Weikle said.

The Unit 5 students who do use Edmentum and its pre-made curricula for online learning are those who are using it for credit recovery, perhaps after failing the course in a previous attempt, and doing so in summer or out-of-school hours. Other students, Weikle said, are homebound or on some sort of longer-term medical leave. In any case, it's not a guarantee.

"We have to look at every student individually — it can't be a widespread decision," she said. There also are requirements in state "statues that actually call for, if you offer a program like this, you have to look at each individual student and determine if it's in the best interest of the individual student to learn in that way before you enroll them."

Even in the "rare" cases in which Unit 5 students do use Edmentum, Weikle said the district also is required to have a teacher monitoring those students "checking in to see what's going on. Are there struggles or obstacles that we can help you overcome?"

Legally, there's not a way for school districts to "unilaterally offer online learning to the masses," she added.

Unit 5 attorney Curt Richardson said such a scenario is "limited to circumstances where the governor has declared a public disaster because of a health emergency."

"The state superintendent has to then to decide whether or not school districts should go onto remote learning or remote-hybrid learning," he said. "And the state superintendent has the discretion, depending on where that public health emergency is, to decide it's the entire state or it's only 'this region' or 'those school districts.' There's no authority for doing mass remote learning without that public disaster declaration for a public health emergency."

'There's no getting around it'

Wurth said the option exists to "do these classes in the building."

"There's a bunch of different ways to do it. An administrative group of individuals would figure out the right way to do that for the students," he said.

But even offering online courses on a large scale in school buildings could be problematic as it relates to teacher pay and contract agreements, Richardson said.

"Say you had an auditorium full of students all on computers, e-learning. That certainly increases workload and affects terms and conditions of employment," he said. "That would be something that would be subject to collective bargaining."

That scenario is likely unappealing to most staff, according to 25-year veteran teacher and current Unit Five Education Association teachers union president Julie Hagler.

"I think if we surveyed staff, we would find that no teacher wants to go back to e-learning," she said. "We know for the majority of our students, for them to genuinely learn and grow and become the best version of themselves that they can be, they need those personal interactions with their teachers."

Also unappealing to the district's largest employee group is the prospect of layoffs that would be integral to the adoption of widespread online learning in the district, said Wurth.

"At the end of the day, it has to be a combination of teachers and administrative staff. There's no way around it," he said. "In our educational fund, we have 88% of that fund dedicated to payroll. ... We've hired people over the last five years that we can't afford to have. ... So, unfortunately, we have to address how we're hiring people and who we're hiring."

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
Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle explained the district’s current situation — focused on a deficit of about $12 million — to about 40 members of the public last week, part of a series of community meetings on the topic.

To reach $11 million in savings, Weikle said it's likely 200-250 staffers would have to be cut.

"Those would be teachers, counselors, psychologists, social workers, admin — any of those certified personnel," she said. "I, personally, can't imagine how that would work: Cutting 200 certified personnel and still being able to function as a district."

Richardson said requirements dictate who gets let go first, and because that process starts at the bottom of the salary schedule before rising to tenured teachers, the prospect of cutting staff may not be as cost-effective as imagined.

"It's a complicated process, but generally speaking, it's the least senior teachers who are subjected to that reduction in force. Those are the people, in general, who are lower on the salary schedule, so it's not saving you as much because the people who have been here longer are the ones who are going to remain and they're usually, in general, higher on the salary schedule."

Hagler said if massive cuts were to come to Unit 5 "we would never be able to recuperate from that kind of loss."

"We've already seen that in terms of applicants in Unit 5 teachers: New teachers are hesitant to apply to (districts that) have funding issues because they're looking for job security," she said. "They're not going to join a district where they think there's the possibility of mass layoffs, or where there have previously been mass layoffs."

Wurth said Unit 5 administrators "may love having more people" and that Unit 5's teachers union "definitely loves having more teachers — more members that can contribute to the ongoing success of of the teachers union."

"The school board doesn't have the luxury to care about either of those things," Wurth said. "The school board's sole focus has to be on being good stewards of the resources the community entrusted to them. Their focus is first and foremost on those students — it's their sole purpose. Anything else gets in the way."

Wurth, Frank, Jada and Emery declined to participate in interviews with the Unit Five Education Association; Roser, Pyle, Williams and Adams did and were subsequently endorsed by the union.

Dual credit, College NOW and Heartland Community College

On the campaign website for candidates Wurth, Frank, Jada and Emery is a section advocating for "broader access to Heartland's College NOW program," a program described as one that "should be offered to a larger group of Unit 5 high school students outside of the STEM designation."

WGLT spoke with Sarah Diel-Hunt, vice president of enrollment and student services at Heartland Community College, about the College NOW program and other ways in which the community college works with Unit 5 — and other school districts — to expand high school student options.

What HCC internally calls campus courses for dual credit, she said, allow eligible high school students to take classes through Heartland — either at its Normal, Pontiac or Lincoln classes or online — and come out with college credits or both high school and college credits. Doing that requires students to pay fees and provide their own transportation to campus, like any other HCC enrollee.

The College NOW Plus Pathway allows students to meet with an HCC advisor to discuss whether the community college has courses for the student that align with their proposed career plan, Diel-Hunt said.

"If they don't know, they could go onto a general plan, but if they they are a pre-med major or a business major, our advising staff helps advise them to be able to take the correct, partner, free courses at their high schools, alongside any courses they may take out toward us to move toward completion of an associate's degree," she said.

Asked whether the College NOW Plus Pipeline was limited to STEM-oriented students, Diel-Hunt said "it's not."

"It certainly isn't limited to STEM ... There are other opportunities for students," she said, adding some Unit 5 students who have applied for scholarships in this program intend to study communications, business and agriculture.

Unit 5 already offers free dual credit classes at both Normal Community and Normal West high schools that give students credit both at HCC and toward their high school diploma. Staffing dual credit courses isn't the same as staffing a regular high school class; the teacher must meet HCC's requirements, which include having a master's degree in the subject being taught.

Diel-Hunt said 44 credit hours are currently offered at Normal West and 51 are offered at Normal Community. Those courses are free and because they're already located on school campuses and don't require extra transportation.

Diel-Hunt said the savings for Unit 5 families last year from this partnership was around $650,000. In the entire region HCC serves, the total was $2 million.

Wurth said the candidates' website emphasizes broadening what HCC offers to Unit 5 students because, in his own family's experience, "we had to find a way to stumble into that."

"I think there's a huge opportunity for more of our high school students to do that, but we're not making it easy for them," he said.

In an interview, Amee Jada said Wurth's family experience is driving part of the candidates' discussion around broadening both in-district online learning and at Heartland.

"Those are just things that Brad is very passionate about because his children do that. A lot of other people, their kids do that. It's an option that needs to be looked into further — a discussion, a sit-down with Heartland, a discussion with the district," Jada said. "It's just an option of a path to potentially go down. There are no 'for certain,' like, how much it will be and how that looks. We're just looking into these options."

Asked whether she felt if she and the three other candidates on the slate are asking for a significant amount of trust from voters since plan details are not finalized, Jada said "it's a big trust issue either way."

"They're looking at the referendum to solve the issue. What's after the referendum? Is that going to balance the budget? Is that a band-aid? What is their solution outside of the referendum?" she said. "We're at least offering some alternative to say, 'Hey let's look at these ways. There's got to be other areas that we can look at.'"

Wurth said the candidates' proposals are a "sustainable" option that doesn't involve cutting student programs, which is set to happen if the referendum fails again.

"There's a lot of people who just don't like it. They don't like what we're trying to do. They can come up with lots of reasons why it sucks and there's not a whole lot we can do about that," he said. "But there's facts and data and lots of good reasons why it makes sense also. It's an interesting time and maybe an opportunistic time to start to understand the capabilities that exist and how we educate our young students."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.