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Parents, students and coaches in Unit 5 sports explain what's at stake in referendum vote

Evans junior high volleyball players
Eric Stock
Volleyball players from Evans Junior High in Bloomington stand for the national anthem before their match at Kingsley Junior High on March 7, 2023.

It was regional volleyball night at Kingsley Junior High School in Normal. Four teams were competing on a Tuesday night in early March. Three of them were Unit 5 schools.

Students from Kingsley, Parkside and Evans junior high schools took the floor knowing their next match could be their last.

The Unit 5 school district has eliminated junior high and freshman sports starting next fall, but said those cuts could be reversed if voters support an April 4 tax referendum that has already failed once.

Students, parents and coaches say if voters reject it again next month, they will have tough decisions to make. Athletics are just one of many programs under Unit 5's budget axe.

For students, including Laine Thompson of Parkside, they cut deep.

“It’s like we get a chunk of our time and our social life taken away,” Thompson said. “All my best friends are friends I made through sports.” Thompson said she wants to play volleyball in college.

Recruiters already are taking notice. Thompson said if she has to give up volleyball for a few years, it will hurt her college prospects.

“College recruiters go through your high school season and your growth from freshman year to senior year, so if I can’t play sports freshman year then it’s kind of tricky to get that growth for recruiters,” she said.

Laine Thompson's mother, Hilary Thompson, is concerned too — and not just about volleyball. She said extracurricular activities are crucial for her daughter's and son's growth. She said her son Hunter "found his people" when he ran cross country in the sixth grade.

“The best students are those who are involved in things and if that’s stripped away, how does that make her competitive for college? How does that make her competitive for anything?” Hilary Thompson asked. “She feels a little like if we take this away, it’s setting them up at a disadvantage — and a little bit for failure.”

Hilary Thompson said she doesn't want the tax referendum to fail again. She understands why so many voted against it the first time last November, but added the district did not adequately explain the consequences of what a failed referendum would mean last fall.

“I don’t think it was until after we voted ‘no’ that the truth really came out, which is classic Unit 5,” Thompson said. “They hold on to their information until they really want to give it, but they haven’t really played this right. There’s been a lot of blaming the community instead of looking inward.”

Thompson said the district also waited too long for the situation to become dire. She said the district should have sought a referendum a few years ago.

Her daughter also plays on the Illini Elite volleyball club in Bloomington. Club program athletes compete in regional and national tournaments.

That's not an option for many families.

Nicole Henson has an eighth-grade volleyball and basketball player, Caliana, at Evans Junior High, and a fourth grader, Janecia, who wants to cheer lead and play in the band when she gets to Evans.

“I’m a single parent, I can’t afford to do all club sports for my kids and private lessons for music,” Henson said. “We don’t have any options if it doesn’t pass.”

Henson said volleyball helps keep her oldest daughter engaged in school — and keeps her grades up. Students have to keep good grades if they want to play sports.

“Junior high and high school are hard, so if you have sports, it helps your friendships, it gets you a team, otherwise you wouldn’t have these,” said Henson, who worries her daughter will be lost in high school next year without sports to help her keep a focus.

“Sports and music and arts are part of school life, and if you take away these things and then next year if you take away PE and everything like that, basically we might as well be homeschooling them,” Henson said.

Henson also said moving is not an option for her family.

'I could have been one of those people'

Darrelyn Dunn moved a lot from school to school when he was a student. Dunn coaches the girls’ basketball team at Normal West high school.

He was a student at Kingsley Junior High about two decades ago and got kicked out for fighting. He spent two years at the Regional Alternative School in Bloomington. Dunn said he was part of the wrong crowd and sports saved his life.

“I have friends that have either passed away or are incarcerated, so speaking from my experience, without athletics and afterschool clubs to keep me busy, just get me with the right crowd and keep me on track, I could have been one of those people,” Dunn said.

Dunn found football at Bloomington High School. He got a scholarship to play at Illinois State University.

If sports are cut in Unit 5, Dunn said half the student-athletes will leave, because they might never get a chance to play varsity sports. Dunn worries about children who have to stay.

“They don’t know how much of an impact this is going to have on our kids that do compete or do have afterschool programs that are literally relying on those same things every single day so that they can stay on course,” Dunn said.

Other options

Michele Pate said her daughter won't leave the district. She's an eighth-grader at Parkside Junior High and she wants to go to Normal West next year. An older son already graduated.

Pate said she knows some parents are considering moving to another school district, or sending their kids to University High in Normal or to a private school.

Pate said she already was disappointed when Unit 5 cut eighth-grade Spanish last year. She said the cuts the district outlined for next year seem severe and doesn't want to see that for her daughter as she enters high school.

“I’m just trusting that taxes aren’t going to go up that much, and I don’t care. I probably would pay extra taxes anyway for the kids to be able to have the programs they have because we are supposed to have a great school system,” Pate said.

Michele's husband Matt Pate said the district budget-cutting plan for next year seemed to get people's attention.

“I think in the fall they took (it) for granted in my opinion,” he said. “They didn’t put a lot out there. (It) didn’t seem like they did a lot of talking about it, and they sure brought it to life and to the forefront this time here in the spring. It seems like it’s getting a lot more traction.

“I guess we will find out in April.”

Sports for mentoring, leadership

Dave Witzig said Unit 5 has a great school system and it's a selling point for the community. Witzig has been a teacher in Unit 5 for 30 years 24 of them as the boys' basketball coach at Normal Community.

Witzig lives not far from the school in the Eagle's Landing subdivision where builders are rushing to get new homes up to meet demand. Witzig said he wonders what his neighborhood could look like if the referendum fails.

Trophies and other memorabilia are displayed in a trophy case at Kingsley Junior High School in Normal.
Eric Stock
Trophies and other memorabilia are displayed in a trophy case at Kingsley Junior High School in Normal.

“People, when they move here, want to be in Unit 5, so I just wonder what the long-term impact if it doesn’t pass, are those homes going to sell,” he said.

Witzig has had a lot of success as boys basketball coach at NCHS. He's won nearly 500 games and taken two teams to the state Final Four.

If the district eliminates all of its feeder programs, he said the basketball program would suffer long-term harm, but it's the students who would suffer most.

“A lot will be lost by cutting these activities more than just the freshman team is gone. It’s more than that,” Witzig said. “It’s a great mentor program. We are teaching leadership skills. It’s not just about basketball, or softball or the choir or the band. There are many things that go into that.”

Witzig teaches advanced placement government, U.S. history, and freshman world history. His wife teaches art at Normal Community.

He said the referendum issue also has caused him to think about his own future at Normal Community. He's not far from retirement, but said he's not ready to give up teaching and coaching just yet.

“My wife and I planted our flag in this community. This is where we go to church and this is where we have raised our kids and we love Bloomington-Normal,” Witzig said. “We have a lot of orange and black T-shirts and sweatshirts. This is our home, so I hate to even have to think about that.”

Unit 5 administrators say district finances leave them no choice unless the referendum passes.

Several candidates for Unit 5 school board argue the district could spare all these programs by expanding e-learning.

Those opposed to the referendum say the district can't be trusted, that it has borrowed too much money and might do it again to add more programs in the future. They see rejecting the referendum as the only way to prevent that.

For now, Unit 5 isn't adding programs, it's subtracting them. The district says cuts will run deeper in future years without the additional money.

Eighth-grader Laine Thompson at Parkside Junior High said these cuts are about more than sports for her. She's disappointed to see fewer AP and dual credit options as she gets ready for high school.

“I feel like I have less of a chance of succeeding (compared to) other students in other districts who aren’t getting these certain classes cut,” she said.

Thompson said her likelihood of success is directly tied to the success of the referendum.

Early voting is underway. The referendum will be decided April 4.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.