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Weikle: 'Too soon' for Unit 5 board to chart next steps after referendum rejection

Kristen Weikle
Emily Bollinger
WGLT file
Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle tells WGLT they knew it would be a close vote, but hoped for passage to allow the district to eliminate an $11 million deficit that is growing each year.

Unit 5 school district leaders are disappointed the education fund tax referendum did not pass on Tuesday. Superintendent Kristen Weikle tells WGLT they knew it would be a close vote, but hoped for passage to allow the district to eliminate an $11 million deficit that is growing each year.

In this interview Wednesday on WGLT's Sound Ideas, Weikle said it's too soon to chart a course forward. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Weikle: We need a little bit of time after the election. The board certainly needs to have some conversation as far as next steps and if and when they might consider putting something else on the ballot.

Voters have spoken. Is it incumbent on you, as the superintendent, to make a recommendation to the board to deal with the deficit in the absence of new revenue?

Certainly, that's part of the discussion the board needs to have. If they want me to come forward with some recommendations, they will certainly direct me to do so as they did last spring.

But it's also incumbent on you to make a recommendation to the board. What will that be?

"We're going to have to really look at what is it we're offering to our students in Unit 5. Are there additional places we don't have to go above and beyond like we are now?"
Unit 5 superintendent Kristen Weikle

It's too early for me to comment on that.

If you were to deal with it through cuts, what would that look like?

When 85% of your education fund is made up of people, the people who support students, there's no way just tightening your budget can occur without reducing the number of staff. Unfortunately, that means our students are going to be the ones greatest impacted.

How much staff could be cut? North of 100 teachers? Are we to 150 yet?

It really depends on what the board asks. If we are talking about the $11 million deficit in the Education Fund, you would be talking well over 100 staff, probably in the hundreds. I don't know that the board would ask to cut that full $11 million. I really need to give them some time to have conversation.

The board has carried a growing deficit for some years with working cash fund bonds. Those are only really intended as a stopgap for a year or two, and beyond that the interest cost of those continues to mount. Is that something that you feel you could recommend to the board if they wanted to continue using that tool?

Working cash is just like borrowing money for a home or car loan. You're paying back that interest. I don't think anyone thinks that’s a good idea long term. I do know more and more school districts are utilizing that because of the challenges of school budgets. If that's something the board wanted to pursue, I would certainly consider recommending that with the caution that it's not a long-term solution.

In the advent of cuts, what is generally considered to be a best practice? Do you take largely from co-curriculars, and stick with just a core academic mission, without sports or without arts and music? Or do you try and spread it around and include parts of the core academic mission that you would cut and end up with much higher class sizes, as well as some cuts to the co-curriculars?

I would say best practice is that you have the revenue coming in to support the desires of the community. As far as a best practice in regard to a cut, I'm gonna say, it probably depends on who you ask. No matter what's cut in any district it will impact one group or two groups more than others. Someone is going to be very passionate about it; whether it's having lower class sizes in core classes, looking at electives that might be offered or not offered, extra co-curricular opportunities that are offered or not offered, it's meaningful to someone or a group of people. Our job is to provide the education of students. We're going to have to really look at what is it we're offering to our students in Unit 5. Are there additional places we don't have to go above and beyond like we are now?

Is there a part of the case made by various stakeholders for the referendum that you think did not land with those who were approached for support?

I would hope that people were maybe just misinformed. I would certainly hope no one is actively campaigning against students and student opportunities in our school district.

Did you encounter organized resistance?

Not necessarily organized. I think some people try to make it a political item, when really, we're just intent on educating our students. It's not political in my mind. I think there was just some misinformation, where people presumed it was going to increase their taxes when the opposite was true. Not everyone either had a chance to, or took the time to, hear the message. It just makes me sad, because again, it's our students who are going to be most impacted.

Is this a problem of credibility, not of Unit 5 in particular, but institutions in general that audiences heard the case you made and they didn't believe taxes were going to go down?

There is certainly a level of skepticism by different members of a community in regard to any organized institution. We are public educators. We care deeply about our students.

One potential scenario is that you do a half measure — make some cuts and continue to borrow, and do not deal with the entire deficit. Does that buy you the worst of both worlds? Is that an approach that is ever likely?

That could certainly be something the board considers. Again, it's way too early for me to comment on that. I haven't even had conversations with all the board members after the election results.

You talked about public skepticism that the tax rate would, in fact, go down, even though that's what you promised. How do you overcome that if you go for a second referendum? What do you do differently?

I feel like a broken record. I'm sorry. It really is too early for me to comment. That would certainly be part of the conversation that we have to have. How do we get out the message, in what manner to really make sure people hear it, and trust what it is that we're saying?

What sort of timeline is there for the board discussions and the administration discussions with the board?

The school district has certain regulations and timelines to meet if we're going to reduce staff for the next school year. That's typically in March and April. I'm sure the board will ask me for those timelines so they can make an informed decision.

As a matter of policy, the proponents and the school district as well as the board really didn't identify potential cuts. You preferred to say, "We're asking for your support because we haven’t had tax rate changes since 2008-09." Should you now be blatant and say, "This is what will happen if you don't pass a referendum. These are the precise cuts."

That could certainly be one approach that the board decides to say, exactly, these are the cuts we're going to make. Or, they might choose to make the cuts and then say these things will come back if it's approved.

Under one scenario, you could go back for another referendum during the consolidated nonpartisan municipal elections next year. If so, you would wait another year before making any cut choices. Voters would have a second bite at the apple and you might be able to persuade them that time. How often do districts do it that way?

It really depends on the community and the outcome of the election. Our election was close. That's a factor that the board would consider. I imagine they need time as individual board members to talk to people in the community and hear why they supported it or didn't support it.

Because of the pandemic, you have now waited several years beyond the optimum time for a referendum and the deficit has grown. Perhaps that decreases the amount of financial flexibility the district has remaining. Can Unit 5 afford to wait on cuts for some period of time?

Our board did make $2 million worth of cuts last spring. I think this board has demonstrated even in the last year they are looking at the big picture. No one wants to make reductions that are going to impact students. They're trying to be fiscally responsible. It is way too early for me to comment on that. Again, I haven't talked with all the board even as individuals.

The first opportunity for the Unit 5 school board to talk about what to do next is at its regular meeting next Wednesday. Weikle said in-depth dialogue will likely come after Thanksgiving, with a decision in January to allow for planning and legal notices.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.