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Unit 5 presents referendum case to local business leaders

As the second vote on Unit 5’s referendum draws closer, superintendent Kristen Weikle presented the district’s status to the local business community Thursday night at Heartland Community College.

Held in cooperation with the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, the meeting also was an opportunity to ask questions of Weikle and chief financial officer Marty Hickman.

A successful referendum on April 4 would allow the district to pull itself out of a $12 million deficit hole, reinstate many cuts plannedfor the 2023-24 school year, and maintain the offerings now in place, say Unit 5 leaders.

But if voters reject the referendum a second time — as they did in November — Unit 5 warns of major cuts, including shrinking staff by more than 200 teachers, eliminating extracurriculars at schools, and cutting back on offerings such as P.E, music, art and more, for starters.

While a few of the approximate 35 attendees at Thursday's meeting spoke explicitly for or against the referendum, far more were interested in details of the district’s financial strategy.

Also present were Unit 5 school board incumbent candidate Amy Roser and former state Rep. Dan Brady, who both stressed that better outreach could make matters like the referendum easier to decide in the future.

The idea that poor communication to the public sank the first referendum has been echoed by Unit 5 officials across multiple meetings. In this case, Weikle offered it as an explanation for why the referendum language has not changed for the second vote.

Tom Carey, formerly a school board member in Long Island, proposed an alternate reason.

“I think I would be OK with it (the second referendum) if it came with some compromise, some amendment, to it. But rather, my cynical outlook on it is that it’s taking advantage of the fact that fewer people are going to vote, and because that vote was relatively close back in November,” referring to the 53.7% of voters who rejected the referendum then.

Weikle maintained the district is asking only for what it needs to avoid an unpopular set of cuts that will take place in the next year if the referendum fails again. In response to questions of debt, Weikle confirmed that if funding is not approved, the district may be forced to borrow again to pay mandated expenses, as it did in 2018.

In contrast, with a passed referendum the district says it will soon pay off outstanding debtsand allocate more money to education, along with a decrease in overall property tax in the coming years.

Commerce Bank president J Phillips supports the referendum to avoid forcing the district back into borrowing.

“The reality of the situation is I believe the district will need to borrow (if the referendum fails), which was confirmed with my question tonight," he said. "And with that, we’re going to see more of where we’ve been versus trying to move forward. Why pay interest when we can actually pay for our kids’ future?”

Early voting is underway for the April 4 election.

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