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District 87 Expects Flat Tax Rate; May Change Grad Requirements

A flag waves near the Bloomington High School sign, in this WGLT file photo. On Wednesday, Oct. 28, the District 87 school board met at BHS.

The District 87 school board Wednesday night approved plans for a nearly $45 million tax levy, and will set a public hearing before final adoption on Dec. 9. 

The levy is about 3% higher than last year’s $43.7 million extension. However, the overall tax rate should remain basically flat, at $5.14 per $100 equalized assessed valuation, according to Colin Manahan, District 87 finance chief. 

Also at the meeting, Superintendent Barry Reilly reported on the back-to-school hybrid plan that began its first phase this week; the board heard a proposal to change graduation requirements and grading calculations for Bloomington High School; and also heard the findings of the fiscal 2020 audit.

The levy collections account for more than 60% of the district’s annual revenue. Manahan told the school board the proposed tax rate assumes an estimated assessed valuation (EAV) rate of 3% growth, he said. 

“We’re trying to hold steady. We want to keep it low,” he said.

If the tax levy is adopted, the owners of a $150,000 home would see a $5 increase in their tax bill.

With the $5.14 tax rate, District 87 continues to have the lowest rate among area school districts. Last year’s numbers show that at $5.74, Lexington’s was the highest. Unit 5’s was $5.36.

Manahan said the levy incorporates a three-year cycle. In the fall, the district presents the levy to the board. In 2021, the money is collected, and in 2022 the revenue is used, he said. 

To determine the tax rate, the finance department looked at the fiscal 2020 audit, and the FY2021 budget. 

Tim Custis, of Gorenz and Associates, presented findings of that 2020 audit at Wednesday’s meeting. He praised the district, saying it received a 3.9/4.0 scale for financial recognition--the same as the previous year. 

“Your numbers are good. You’re in great financial shape,” he said. 

He said most of the district’s $175 million valuation is tied up in fixed assets, such as school buildings. But its operating budget revenue of about $26 million reflects the district being on target with its revenue projections, and slightly under its expenditures.

Challenges the district faced were real estate taxes, and other local revenue, staying mostly flat for the past several years. But in turn, the district’s spending also stayed flat. “You’ve done a really good job of holding the line on your expenses,” he noted. 

Back-to-school during COVID

Reilly told the board he was pleased with this week’s rollout of the hybrid plan, with younger grades back. “It was great to see the kids back,” he said, noting he visited several schools and was moved by the kids' excitement to return. Their eyes shared their joy, he said, even though he couldn’t see their smiles behind their masks.

Those masks are not an issue for the kids, he added. They are handling it fine. He said he’s confident from his discussions with other school districts that transmissions aren’t happening at schools. 

Acknowledging the rise in COVID cases both locally and nationally, Reilly said within a week, the district’s website will be posting a dashboard of the number of cases, and additional related quarantines--for both students and staff. The district will update the dashboard each Monday, he  said. 

Reilly said he keeps a close watch on metrics, and is in close contact with local health officials. He said he wouldn’t hesitate to close schools if a hospitalization surge meant local health officials contended only remote learning was in the community’s best interest.

However, he believes with continued vigilance about keeping masks on, washing hands, sanitizing classrooms, and maintaining social distancing, District 87 is fine for now. 

“That doesn’t mean we won’t have potential cases, or symptomatic people,” he said, just that they’ll stay focused on minimizing risks. “It doesn’t mean we won’t have setbacks, we did today,” he said, noting a Bloomington Junior High School staffer tested positive for COVID on Wednesday, requiring a handful of additional BJHS staff to quarantine, as well. 

He said the case shouldn’t affect the planned Nov. 10 return of sixth graders to the school for the hybrid format--two days in school, three remote.

Third through fifth grades also return that week, while grades 7-12 remain in remote-only learning through December. 

Reilly said in response to the BJHS case, he’s reminded teachers and staff to reduce in-person interactions by holding meetings over Zoom, by not eating lunch together, and by limiting interaction with office staff when possible. Offices have added plexiglass to offer that staff extra protection because they interact with more people throughout a day, he said. 

Changes for BHS grades, graduation proposed

Assistant Superintendent Diane Wolfe shared two pandemic-related proposals for Bloomington High School students.

The first would eliminate final exams, and instead have teachers calculate semester grades on the student’s cumulative work. Currently, 20% of a semester grade is based on a final exam score, she said. This change represents a growing trend in secondary education, but it’s the pandemic’s remote learning format that sparked the proposal coming now, she said.

“We know the best way for our students to demonstrate their learning is through projects,” she said. 

A separate proposal would create a temporary easing of BHS graduation requirements, but only for the class of 2021. The change would mean seniors  would need 16.5 credits, as required by the Illinois State Board of Higher Education. Normally, BHS requires 23.5 credits.

This would give this class some flexibility, she said. With the pandemic in place since early spring, online learning has been rough for some students, and many already are focusing on the next chapter of their lives, she added.

Wolfe said BHS enrolls about 300 seniors. She said she didn't have estimates on how many seniors would utilize such a change. But, she imagines only about one of every six seniors would be interested. If, say, 50 fewer students returned to BHS halls this spring, that would help with social distancing, she said.  Seniors who opt for the lesser requirement, still would be permitted to participate in BHS student activities. 

More specifics of the proposal call for no elective requirement, only two credits each for social science, and science, and exemption from one PE credit.  

The board is expected to vote on the proposed changes in November.

In other business, the council:

  • Recognized Brandon Thornton, for being named a Teacher of the Year, East Illinois region. Thornton, a BHS special education teacher, shared details of some of his initiatives with the board.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.