Unit 5 Incumbents Guaranteed Re-election Talk Priorities | WGLT

Unit 5 Incumbents Guaranteed Re-election Talk Priorities

Mar 20, 2019

With six of seven Unit 5 school board seats up for election this year, there are four current members guaranteed to remain seated.

Despite being responsible for the majority of local property tax dollars, only two seats on the board are contested, with three women running.

The four Unit 5 board incumbents guaranteed re-election vary in experience, but hold a total of nearly 30 years of institutional knowledge on the board.

Meta Mickens-Baker is the longest standing current board member, first appointed in 2004. She said she’s running to keep that institutional knowledge within the board.

“We've also had a lot of turnover on the board as people left our community over recent years, and I don't want to leave the board with instability with just all new people,” she said. “So I try to be a mentor and help those who are newer so that everybody gets started on a good foot.”

And part of that institutional knowledge is helping the district through tough times.

Unit 5 is currently $32 million underfunded, according to the state’s evidence-based funding formula. That means the school district is likely to ask for some more local property tax dollars ahead of the 2020 election.

But that $32 million hardly matters; the state doesn’t have the funds to fill that gap.

"Every time we cut something, we're not cutting fat, we're cutting opportunities for kids."

What does matter is Unit 5’s $6 million deficit that will grow to $10 million next year, and keep snowballing if no action is taken.

Mickens-Baker said it’s not about proving to the community that enough institutional cuts have been made. They have. And she said there’s nothing left on her cut list.

“We're really making sure the community understands we're doing our best to give all the best possible education to students in this community,” Mickens-Baker said. “We have make cuts, but every time we cut something, we're not cutting fat, we're cutting opportunities for kids, we're cutting services, we're increasing class sizes. Neither of those is a success strategy.”

Mickens shares this year’s incumbency with two other elected board members: Board President Barry Hitchins and his Vice President Mike Trask. They both agree: Cuts aren’t an option.

Trask said over 80 percent of Unit 5’s education fund goes to salaries and benefits. So any worthwhile cuts would mean staff reductions.

Superintendent Mark Daniel said on GLT’s Sound Ideas that a cut large enough to help the district crawl out of its deficit would cost at least 100 teachers. Trask said that’s simply not an option he is willing to take.

“It's a holistic picture we have to look at. Not only how do we potentially bring in additional revenue, but we also do have to look at what cuts and what does that mean. I'm very cautious, though, on wanting not just to cut 100 staff members and suddenly now I've got 30 to a class-size across the district,” Trask said. “There's a lot of variables to weigh, on all the decisions, before we make any final decision going forward.”

Hitchins agrees. He said every staff cut usually also amounts to a cut in programs.

“Every program means something to a student and with the mission of our district being (to) educate each student to achieve personal excellence, it'd be hard to identify any program that doesn't contribute to some students’ educational excellence,” he said.

Hitchins said with the district’s budget of over $170 million, a referendum is the only option that would provide sufficient funds while not causing a negative impact on students.

Mickens-Baker said she hopes the state will pull through with more funding, but past years have left a bad taste in districts’ mouths. A referendum, though not easy to swallow, she says, would help fill some of the deficit left by years of reckless state funding.

“I'd be more in favor of trying to have more available to keep what we offered our students than to cut and realize that there'd be young people who would not have the experiences they need to be successful in life after school,” she said.

"People don't want to be taxed, and I understand that. I get it, I hear it. I'm a taxpayer."

Mickens-Baker said it can be hard convincing Bloomington-Normal residents without children in Unit 5 schools about the need for additional property tax revenue. She said they simply don’t see the everyday successes of the school system.

“The reason why our schools are so successful and our students are so successful is because of how the community has supported public education here,” Mickens-Baker said.

And raising taxes is never taken lightly.

Even Trask said he hates the thought of his own taxes going up.

“People don't want to be taxed, and I understand that. I get it, I hear it. I'm a taxpayer,” Trask said. “But we sit in a district that we do provide a high quality education for our students. We have wonderful facilities, tremendous staff, support personnel, everybody in this district. Unfortunately, and it is unfortunate, over the last several years we've been underfunded, we were prorated, we continue to move along. And we’re still trying to be competitive.”

Recreational Marijuana Legalization

Trask said he sees the value in providing for public education, but he draws the line somewhere between property taxes and marijuana revenue.

“If we're saying, ‘OK, let's take money for alcohol use and put it towards schools, or you put it towards marijuana.’ I struggle with that, just morally, a little bit,” Trask said. “That's what's going to fund my schools? It's a little challenging, let's just put it that way, for me.”

And he’s not the only board member who’s reluctant to say whether legalized marijuana revenue should be funneled into the public education system.

Hitchins said it’s not up for him to decide.

“Those are the types of decisions I can't make at the school level, and I'm not elected to represent those types of discussions at the state level,” he said. “I am in favor of looking at all options for increasing revenue to all schools.”

He did say, however, that public money should stay within public schools.

"I am in favor of looking at all options for increasing revenue to all schools."

Mickens-Baker had a similar response: She doesn’t want to pick sides.

“I want them to be fiscally responsible to our schools. And so I'm going to keep watching what they do, but I know that the state legislators are going to come up with some solutions. At least I'm hoping so,” she said.

But newer board member Alan Kalitzky said money is money.

“The state has really put a lot of our school districts in a very tight spot. They are totally dependent on the socioeconomic environment within their local community in order to succeed or fail,” he said.

Kalitzky was appointed to the board to fill a vacancy last July.

He said since schools have learned they can’t exactly trust state funding, maybe an additional guaranteed revenue source wouldn’t be so bad.

“I think the legalization of marijuana is important to ensuring that we have an additional term of revenue stream,” Kalitzky said. “Not that I'm saying that I agree with the position of marijuana being utilized by anyone and everyone, but I do feel that if it's going to be utilized, and we are going to legalize it, those tax dollars should go back to the education system.”

Tax Breaks

Not only does the school board fight for revenue, it also has to consider where and when to cut some corners. Those corners are in the form of property tax abatements.

Both Rivian Automotive and Brandt manufacturing companies received property tax breaks upon coming to Bloomington-Normal. Mickens-Baker and Hitchins agreed that those were not easy decisions.

Hitchins said the deal with Rivian was especially situational. Without providing tax abatements, he said the property probably would have been razed and ultimately useless to the district. So Hitchins said the board had to vote on what would likely be an improvement to the local economy down the road.

Trask said the same: It’s all about the long-term.

Kalitzky wasn’t on the board for either the Rivian or Brandt votes, but he had some different ideas as to how he would handle it. He agreed that long-term is a piece of the puzzle, but that’s not all.

“When we talk about economic development, it has to be something that we're benefiting from the short-term and the long-term. It cannot just be a long-term game.”

Short term, Kalitzky said the Rivian and Brandt deals meant increased workforce to the area. With both organizations required to meet certain hiring and production benchmarks, the short-term results meant the start to a boost in the local economy.

And he said the board will likely have more property tax break conversations in the coming years as Uptown Normal continues its renovation project.

Substitute Teachers

Another area the school board will be needing more conversations in is substitute pay.

The district managed to avoid the conversation of increased sub pay since it was last raised in 2001. Finally after various complaints, the school board agreed to a pay increase: up $5 and incentives for those who stay working in the district.

Mickens-Baker said the board would have loved to give more to subs, but that was all the district could afford at the time. And she said even that put them in a bind financially.

Her fellow incumbent board members agree.

Trask said educators, in general, are underpaid, but that the district pushed the needle as much as they could.

“(Do) I wish I could push all of them a little further with the needle with the job they do? Yes. But given where we're at right now, that's really all we could do at this time,” he said.

"The educators and staff within our schools make the difference to our students."

But Trask said the board was able to resolve other non-monetary concerns that substitutes had about feeling more welcome in district schools.

Kalitzky served on the committee last year that worked with Unit 5 subs to ease tensions.

“The educators and staff within our schools make the difference to our students,” he said. “The brick and mortar of having that building does not get the student to where they need to be. It's the people inside that building that really achieve the goal.”

And he said his work with subs isn’t finished.

“This is something we will be reviewing on a semi-annually and annual review. I will commit that I will remain on that committee because I do feel we need to make sure that all of our resources are paid fairly and be competitive with all of their peers within our local geographic area,” he said.

As one of the board’s newest members, Kalitzky is looking long term ahead of the election.

He said he’s running for his first full term because he respects the work the district has done, but he also sees room for improvement.

“The main focuses that I would really want to be emphasizing during my term is increased communication and really making sure that there's emphasis and focus on educating our students, our staff, as well as our citizens as to the goings on within Unit 5,” Kalitzky said. “I don't think there's enough of that currently going on. And a little bit more focus and emphasis on transparency, as best we can.”

The incumbents may not agree on everything, but they do agree on a lot. Perhaps it’s because they all work at State Farm. Or maybe it’s that they all felt the same “call to serve” that brought them to the school board.

Either way, these four seatholders, out of six, are all running unopposed. Their votes for the next four years decide where the majority of local property tax dollars are spent.

The three challengers running for two contested Unit 5 board seats are incumbents Amy Roser and Kelly Pyle, both appointed last summer, and challenger LaNell Greenberg, the former Unit 5 clerk.

School Board member and Secretary Taunia Leffler was elected in 2017, and her term does not end until 2021.

The election is April 2.

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