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With election less than a month away, Unit 5 hosts another information session on referendum

People gather in the Parkside Junior High School cafeteria to hear a Unit 5 presentation on the April 4 tax referendum.
Michele Steinbacher
The latest information session on the Unit 5 referendum was held at Parkside Junior High School in west Normal.

With the April 4 election less than a month away, Unit 5 on Wednesday hosted another information session about the upcoming referendum.

The event at Parkside Junior High School on Normal’s west side drew about a dozen community members.

District leaders are scrambling to address a growing deficit — currently at about $12 million. The series of in-person and virtual meetings on the district's financial instability is meant to provide more opportunities for the public to learn about the impact of a successful referendum.

If approved, the referendum would raise the education fund tax rate cap from $2.72 per $100 equalized assessed valuation to $3.60. The same question appeared on the November ballot, but 53% of voters rejected it.

“If the referendum is approved, the overall tax rate will still decrease,” superintendent Kristen Weikle told those in attendance on Wednesday.

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 valuation to $4.92 by 2026 under the referendum’s proposed change, according to Unit 5.

"So we're not asking for new money on top of that building bond rate," said Weikle. "Instead, we're asking for that money that we're already paying as taxpayers toward building bonds to be reallocated permanently to the education fund."

But Unit 5 officials are bracing for the possibility that voters could reject the referendum. Millions of dollars of cuts have been slated, including eliminatingfield trips, athletics, extracurriculars and music programs.

During a question-and-answer period following Wednesday's presentation, Ed Kelley of rural Normal asked if the board would reinstate the cuts if the referendum passes. “That vote was not pleasant for me,” replied school board president Barry Hitchins, noting “there’s a significant level of confidence the board would bring them back.”

Kelley said he felt like Unit 5 was kind of bullying voters by making the cuts before the election. But Unit 5 finance chief Marty Hickman said April 4 would be too late to make some changes, as required by state law.

Eventually, schools might reduce hours, ending the school day an hour earlier. Fees also will be raised, including registration fees and admission to sporting events.

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
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.

Unit 5's current deficit is a result of a variety of factors, Weikle said during her presentation. Those include proration of state funding that’s meant a loss of more than $20 million over the past decade, increased mandates calling for higher salaries, and inflation that is increasing the costs of operation.

If voters pass the referendum, the district could bring its education fund tax revenue to 21st century levels, she said. Weikle noted Unit 5's current education fund tax rate has only increased about a dime since the 1980s, and that increase came 15 years ago.

One attendee asked Weikle why the district was putting the same referendum question on the ballot again, when it just failed.

“It’s not uncommon for referendums to fail the first time around, especially education fund referendums,” said Weikle, noting the district didn't want to seek a lower tax rate increase because they need the money to finance the district.

Susan Parent of Normal asked if — instead of eliminating all activities at the junior high schools — community volunteers could step in and supervise. But Weikle said while some coaching and advisory roles are volunteer, collective bargaining language required most roles go to teachers.

“It makes me sad because we have such a huge community that would be valuable in assisting with that,” Parent said after the meeting. Because of the union rules, the students just miss out now, she said.

Kelley, who farms east of Normal, said after the meeting he was leaning toward voting “no” on the referendum. He doesn’t like how the school board made cuts for the upcoming school year, saying he thought it would have been better to wait until after the election — when a new board is seated.

Ninecandidatesare vying for several open seats. Among those asking questions Wednesday was board candidate Brad Wurth, a vocal opponent of the April referendum.

Wurth took issue with Weikle’s characterization of the proposed increase to the ed fund tax rate as a “reallotment” of what taxpayers already are paying.

“This is not a reallotment of funding,” he said, but instead two different categories.

Another virtual information session will be 5:30 p.m. March 21. On its website, Unit 5 includes a page listing information about the referendum, including the slides presented Wednesday.

Early voting has begun for April 4 election. To learn more about the election, visit WGLT’s Election 2023 page.

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