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Unit 5 shares tale of two districts, outlining impact of upcoming referendum vote

Grove Elementary School fourth-grader Lexi Kinsey addresses the Unit 5 school board during its meeting Wednesday, March 15, 2023, at Normal Community West High School.
Michele Steinbacher
Grove Elementary School fourth-grader Lexi Kinsey addresses the Unit 5 school board during its meeting Wednesday, March 15, 2023, at Normal Community West High School.

Unit 5 leaders spent much of Wednesday's school board telling a tale of two districts: The one where a referendum passes, and another where it's rejected.

On April 4, voters are being asked to OK a tax rate increase for a key district fund.

“Without a significant and sustainable increase in the education fund, many of these opportunities are at risk for Unit 5 students, ” said superintendent Kristen Weikle, noting 85% of that fund covers staff wages and school programs.

A successful referendum 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, said Weikle.

But if voters reject the referendum a second time — as they did by 53% in November — Unit 5 warns of major cuts that would change what people have come to know and expect in McLean County’s largest school district.

Weikle said a failed referendum would mean 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.

Not long after, the district might have to have shorter school days, and even close some schools, she said.

Ed fund rate would rise, but overall tax rate would drop

Voters are being asked to bump up the education fund tax rate cap from $2.72 per $100 equalized assessed value to $3.60.

“This fund has only seen a 10-cent increase in the last 40 years,” Weikle said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, the changes in revenue have not been enough to keep up with the changing cost of services and opportunities that Unit 5 has provided to students, and to our community.”

Under the proposal, the overall tax rate will still decrease — from $5.51 per $100 of EAV to $4.92 — by 2026.

That’s because the district is paying off bonds and other debt over the next two years.

If the referendum fails, by 2026 the overall tax rate would be slightly less than $4.92. But Unit 5 leaders say taxpayers would see costs go up in other places — either with more working cash bonds’ interest, or with increased registration fees for students.

Nearly 20 public commenters address board

Nearly 20 community members addressed the board Wednesday — all of them in support of the referendum. Many urged fellow residents to vote in April, and save the teachers and programs at stake.

Students, parents, teachers, and others each stepped up to the mic, urging fellow community residents to vote for the referendum.

Alex Williams, one of ninecandidates competing for several open seats on the board, was among the commenters.

He lamented what he called misinformation being spread about the referendum. In particular, he criticized views that expanding e-learning would resolve the financial crisis.

Williams is one of four candidates running for school board who supports the referendum. Others are Mark Adams and incumbents Amy Roser and Kelly Pyle.

But four others — Brad Wurth, Amee Jada, Mollie Emery and Dennis Frank — do not support it. Some have been proponents of expanding e-learning.

One more community information session regarding the referendum is planned for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. That one will be virtual. More information is available on the district website.

First Student contract finalized

In December, the board accepted First Student's $11.4 million bid for busing services, as the lowest of two submitted. Wednesday’s unanimous vote finalized that process.

First Student’s bid was nearly $1.7 million lower than the bid from Illinois Central School Bus (North America Central School Bus).

Board member Kentrica Coleman was absent Wednesday.

In other business, the board, OK'd:

  • A $530,000 contract with Johnson Controls to replace a fire alarm panel at Normal West.
  • A three-year renewal for leasing four 14-passenger vans, for high school activities. The contract with Midwest Transit is for about $140,000. 
  • A two-year lease renewal for a portable classroom trailer, used at Towanda Elementary School; the $34,000 contract with JMO Modular allows the temporary classroom to be used through June 2025.
  • Several board policy updates.
Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.