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How Unit 5 school board candidates are approaching the race's biggest question

Alex Williams huddles
Emily Bollinger
Unit 5 school board candidate Alex Williams, right, canvasses with the Yes for Unit 5 pro-referendum community group last month.

Arguably the biggest question facing Unit 5 voters and school board candidates this election is how to approach a growing, multimillion-dollar financial deficit within McLean County’s largest school district.

For the second time in less than six months, voters must decide whether to cast their ballots for or against a referendum question proposed by Unit 5 that would purportedly avoid catastrophic program cuts in the coming school year by giving the district more taxing authority for its education fund.

As written, the referendum question asks voters to give Unit 5 the authority to raise the education fund’s property tax rate by 88 cents, meaning that specific fund would receive $3.60 per $100 of equalized assessed value (EAV). In supplementary information, district officials have explained that as previous building bonds are paid off, taxpayers would see the overall tax rate remain level for the next two years, then drop significantly — down nearly 11% by 2026, or roughly $355 for the average homeowner.

Unit 5 school board candidates can be divided neatly between stances on the referendum question: Four candidates, including incumbents Amy Roser and Kelly Pyle and first-timers Alex Williams and Mark Adams, say they support passing the referendum and see it as the only tangible, sustainable solution to a problem years in the making. Four others, Brad Wurth, Dennis Frank, Amee Jada and Mollie Emery, say they do not believe Unit 5 deserves more taxing authority and have suggested alternative solutions to passing the referendum exist, although detailed plans of what those alternatives would look like have yet to be provided to voters.

Unit 5 school board candidate Mark Adams, center, canvasses with the Yes for Unit 5 pro-referendum group last month.
Emily Bollinger
Unit 5 school board candidate Mark Adams, center, canvasses with the Yes for Unit 5 pro-referendum group last month.

Ostensibly, those elected to the school board serve the district in a nonpartisan capacity, meaning they do not publicly declare themselves to be a Republican, Democrat or third-party candidate while running. But that has not stopped this election cycle from seeing funding and endorsements awarded to candidates based largely on their support — or lack thereof — of Unit 5’s second try for the referendum.

The (kinda) slates

Despite running together and sharing similar opinions on key issues, Roser, Pyle, Williams and Adams are not formally a slate of candidates. They also have not received the endorsement of local political groups like the McLean County Democrats — although the party has encouraged voters to “listen to our educators”and shared on social media the Unit Five Education Association (UFEA) teachers union’s endorsement of the four.

Notably, the county Democrats and UFEA have both endorsed the Unit 5 tax referendum; UFEA has donated at least $10,000 to the pro-referendum advocacy group Yes for Unit 5. Union president Julie Hagler said the referendum is “probably our most important issue” in this election cycle.

“Obviously we never had the chance to understand the stance of the candidates who chose not to participate,” she said. “If they don’t participate, they cannot receive our endorsement regardless of their stance.”

The McLean County GOP, which is opposed to the referendum, has endorsed the other four candidates in the race — Wurth, Jada, Emery and Frank — since they “hold values consistent with our own” and their platforms include “addressing fiscal challenges,” according to the party’s website. Wurth, Jada, and Frank said they all met while taking part in local GOP school board recruitment efforts. The party has given the Students First slate of candidates around $1,500, according to state election documents.

District messaging about the consequences of not passing the referendum has included references to what will be lost next school year — losses that range from an entire elementary school in Carlock to freshman sports and band and music programs for 5th graders. Via their website, Wurth, Jada, Emery and Frank have described themselves simultaneously as not in favor of passing the referendum while being “the only candidates that promise not to cut student sports and programs.”

Here’s how each candidate said they will vote — and what led them to that decision — regarding the referendum by April 4.

Amy Roser — Yes

Roser, a mom of two Unit 5 students, said her experience with the district has given her a front seat to school finances — something that “is not an easy topic to understand or talk about.” Roser has sat on the school board since 2018; prior to that, she was a member of the district’s Citizens Advisory Council for three years.

“Certainly Dr. (Kristen) Weikle and our CFO Marty Hickman have presented lots of information and the board has a responsibility to digest that, to… ask more questions, to dig into that deeper,” she said. “Certainly over the last five years, we’ve done quite a bit of that and we’ve been talking about our options for some time. So, I feel like we have done our homework and are moving forward with what we feel is the best option at this point in time.”

Roser said if she were re-elected to the board and the referendum had not passed, she would be one of seven board members collectively tasked with “decid(ing) that path forward.” Aside from the referendum, Roser said she doesn’t believe there is a viable alternative to solving the district’s financial crunch in the long-term.

“The board could continue to take out working cash bonds to cover some of its deficit, but that is, again, a short-term solution, and in this bond market, it’s not a cost-effective solution,” she said. “I’m not a huge fan of continuing to use working cash funds … It’s increased taxes to our taxpayers that they don’t get to approve and they pay a lot of interest … that way. I think if there was an alternative (to the referendum), we certainly would be taking it.”

Brad Wurth — No

Wurth is the figurative head of the Students First slate, at least according to state election documents that show him as both treasurer and chair of the Republican-affiliated committee. The Country Financial agent is the father of a Unit 5 junior high student and recent graduate; his two other children are homeschooled.

Wurth said he voted against the referendum in November and plans to do so again this time. In addition to opposing the idea of a tax increase, he said he feels the district’s messaging about the referendum has been “100% misleading.”

“This idea of reallocation — I don’t know where that came from, but we heard multiple people start to talk about that and it really isn’t reallocation,” Wurth said. “The building bonds are maturing no matter what. We’ve satisfied our obligation. It’s not a reallocation by any means … Now does that hurt as bad with the (bonds) falling off and the timing of it? Maybe not. But some of us understood years ago when this building bond was created, we’d get tax relief on the backend — it was the promise and why we voted for it. Now that promise has been stripped away with a sleight of hand by saying, ‘Oh we’ll just pay the same amount.’”

Wurth and the candidates he is running with have touted e-learning as a potential cost-cutting measure for the district’s education fund. District officials have said it would require cutting hundreds of staff members to broach the $12 million deficit.

Alex Williams — Yes

Williams said he and his wife have called the Bloomington-Normal area home since 1996. Three of their children have gone through Unit 5; their youngest is a student at Normal West high school. He said he and his wife chose to live in the school district’s boundaries 20 years ago because “we saw what Unit 5 had to offer.”

Throughout the campaign, Williams has referenced his own K-12 experience frequently, calling it “very different” from what his children have experienced. Williams said the schools he attended were underfunded, “it was really a struggle,” and he ended up “blessed and fortunate to have made it to ISU and then become the first college graduate in my family.”

“I really don’t believe that this community wants to see an experience in Unit 5 that’s closer to mine,” he said. “I believe they want to see an experience closer to (that of) my three kids. At the end of the day, I want those opportunities for the kids, like my kids had, and it is going to take funds to do such a thing.”

Williams said his experience listening to community feedback as a member of the Parent Teacher Advisory Council and 10 years of experience in banking have led him to believe the referendum is the best solution. He also said that his current job in internal communications has informed his opinion that the failure of the referendum in November was due partly to a “lack of information.”

“I believe we still see it today with misunderstandings about how the district has gotten into this financial crunch,” Williams said. “If I were to boil it down, I can say with 100% confidence that it is not an issue of mismanagement of money. It is an issue of not having adequate resources to continue to offer the offerings that my three kids had in this great district.”

Amee Jada — No

Jada is opposed to the referendum on multiple counts. On the one hand, the mom of two Unit 5 students said she doesn’t support the district asking for any more taxing authority. On another hand, she likened messaging around the referendum to that of “an abusive relationship.”

“They came after us in November for $20 million and guess what we said? No. Now they’re saying, ‘If you don’t give us the $20 million, we’re going to cut your kids’ programs,’” she said.

Jada, aligned with Wurth and the other candidates, often emphasizes that “there’s got to be other … areas we can look at” instead of the referendum. None of that slate’s alternative proposals (like e-learning) are “set in stone,” but she said the plan is to “look at the budget, look at all of these things before we can say, ‘Yes, this is what we would do.’”

Asked whether she felt that was a big ask for voter trust, Jada said she believes it’s a trust issue both ways, and that a yes vote for the referendum doesn’t necessarily stop there.

“What’s after the referendum? Are we going to have another referendum come up in the next however many years?” she said. “When you look at people who have been overspending, mismanaging things — I don’t want to give them $20 million more dollars. We’re at least offering some alternative.”

That said, Jada added that it’s possible if she or the three other candidates were elected to the board, they could be part of an additional referendum effort in the future.

“That’s a big hypothetical — like, we don’t know, ‘Is there going to be a need for a smaller referendum down the road?’ We don’t know until we get in there and start looking at things and discussing those things,” she said.

Kelly Pyle — Yes

Pyle is a mom of two children in Unit 5, and as they’ve moved through the district, she has, too. Like Roser, Pyle started serving in a non-elected capacity (Citizens Advisory Council) before rising to the school board in 2018 and getting re-elected in 2019.

Pyle said she supports the referendum because she, like other board members, has been evaluating the district’s financial situation for some time.

“I feel like we’ve considered lots of different options. Even in the last 6-8 years, there’s been incremental reductions that have been made, whether that’s been pay freezes for administration, reduction in our force several years ago; last year, also, we didn’t fill about 28 positions through attrition and retirements and things like that,” she said. “We have put efforts into making reductions, but it’s hard to get to $12 million without substantially altering the way that our district looks and the number of things that it can offer.”

Of all the reasons a person may choose to vote against the referendum, Pyle said a prevailing narrative that the district has somehow mismanaged money is one that “I’m always disappointed to see.”

Dennis Frank — No

A project manager with Country Financial and grandfather to a Unit 5 student, Frank said he sees the referendum question as a sort of cash-grab and plans to vote against its passage.

“Throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer,” he said, adding he believes the district could fully fund itself for a few more years. “Requiring a tax hike isn’t the answer. That will actually hurt the schools because people, they’re going to want to move out.”

As part of the slate that touts e-learning as a means of saving money, Frank also believes there exist alternative sources of funding that the district didn’t consider before posing the referendum question again. He said he expects money from Rivian to fill a financial gap, a gap he said that may narrow as enrollment within the district has declined.

“The parents are having less kids, I think that's part of the reason. People are leaving Illinois, but parents are just having less kids, so I think that's part of the decline,” he said. “Plus parents have left over the past few years to do private schools, home schools. Those are both growing.”

Mark Adams — Yes

Adams, the husband of a Unit 5 teacher and a planner with the McLean County Regional Planning Commission, said the referendum is, in large part, what motivated him to run in the first place. When it initially failed in November, he “didn’t have sleepless nights, but I was very, very worried.”

“As a community planner, I know what happens when you disinvest, when you don’t invest in key social institutions like schools,” he said. “It’s really affected my mental health and it really upset me when it didn’t pass.”

Like the other three candidates he’s campaigned with (Roser, Pyle, Williams), Adams said he sees the referendum as “not saying it's the one and only answer, but it's the only answer that's financially sustainable that the school district and the community has brought forth.”

That it didn’t pass the first time, he said, isn’t a justification to not bring it back again.

“A lot of the voters that I spoke with who voted no … they quite honestly didn't understand the question. And it's very clear due to Illinois state law (about) the way the referendum has to be worded, there's already a lot of problems with this,” he said. “So the referendum itself on the ballot was not really set up for success. The only underlying sense that I get there is that they're afraid that it would pass, and that when the bonds fall off in a couple years, they won't get every penny back that they want.”

Mollie Emery — Declined to answer

Publicly, Emery, a part-time nurse within Unit 5 and mom of three, has not supported the referendum as a solution to the district’s crisis. Like others on her slate, she emphasizes there must be alternatives, but what they are is not clear.

Emery said the biggest issue surrounding the referendum, for her, is the tone that discourse has taken.

“That's kind of my biggest, like, pickle with all of this: The messaging has kind of been like, to me, it's felt a little bit like a bully mentality. Like, if you don't vote this way, you must be blank. And, you know, I'm not here to tell you how to vote,” she said. “For the most part, people want a ‘Yes, this solves everything,’ (answer) or ‘This magic thing fixes it.’ Unfortunately, I don't have that for you. The other side's plan at this point is hoping it passes, so there's no, there's no profound plan coming from that side, either. That's not a dig, that just means that this isn't… like click a button and something fixes it.”

In an interview, Emery said she voted against the referendum in November, but didn’t specify how she voted in this election cycle. An email requesting clarification has not yet been acknowledged.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.