The Unit 5 school board that will be elected this spring will face some unpleasant policy choices.
The district can lay off more than 120 teachers and cut programs. Or it can go for a property tax referendum in 2020. Or it can continue borrowing money for five to six more years until the district pays off bond debt and can raise new operations money without increasing the tax rate. Waiting means its deficit rises from $6 million this year to $10 million next year and so on and so on.
The $16.5 million in working cash bonds approved last year are a temporary fix for a more serious funding problem. Speaking on GLT’s Sound Ideas, Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel said the working cash bonds are “not best practice.”
“A referendum is definitely the best practice,” Daniel said. “My question is, we cannot continue to go to property tax owners and ask them to bear the majority of this cost, which is the model that’s currently being implemented from a state perspective. I think there needs to be additional funding flowing to public education if we’re going to meet the needs of our students, and our families, and our communities. We have to figure out a different funding system.”
Unit 5 officials say the district is significantly underfunded by over $32 million, according to calculations from the state's new evidence-based funding model. And the need for special education and mental health services are only growing, Daniel said.
“Eventually the public will have to address that," Daniel said. "If I were to reduce the amount of money to balance a budget without the working cash bonds, I’d be reducing over 120 teachers. That would be catastrophic.”
Daniel said “intense discussions” on the district’s financial future are expected to begin in summer 2019, once the new school board is in place following the April 2 election.
“That new board, their most critical job will be, is how do you become fiscally stable? How do you go about making that happen?” Daniel said.
Part of the job is educating the public about what’s at stake, he said. A significant reduction in funds means a significant reduction in staff, Daniel said. “We’re a people business,” he said.
“We certainly can’t have something rolling out (a referendum) in November 2020 if we haven’t had a full year of presenting and clearly communicating to the public,” Daniel said. “That’s one of the most difficult things to do—to educate people on why this is what you need to do, especially when it comes to dollars.”
Listen to Daniel’s full interview below:
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.