Illinois schools rely on at least 68 percent of funding from property tax dollars, according to the state board of education. And the lion's share of property taxes feed into local schools.
Despite the school board holding so much fiscal responsibility, Unit 5 has only one contested district in the April 2 election. Three women are running for two seats—two incumbents appointed to the board last summer, and one challenger and former employee of the district.
Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel said the school board will enter into “intense discussions” this summer regarding a referendum following the election.
“That new board, their most critical job will be, is how do you become fiscally stable?” Daniel asked. “How do you go about making that happen?”
The district is underfunded by $32 million, according to the state’s evidence-based funding model. The state has historically funded public schools between 30 and 39 percent. Last year, the state funded at only 24 percent. That’s all considering the Illinois constitution holds the state accountable for the majority share of funding, followed by local taxing bodies and then the federal government.
The evidence-based funding formula suggests the state increase its public school funding input by $350 million. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said during his budget address last month that he wants to dump $375 million into the system, exceeding the state’s required mark. But the budget has a long way to go before heading to the governor’s desk at the end of session.
To guarantee an increase in revenue, Unit 5 would have to get a referendum vote on the 2020 ballot.
Meet The Candidates
Amy Roser was appointed to the school board last July. A parent of two Unit 5 students and an employee of Illinois State University, Roser is a first-generation college graduate who views education as a gift.
She said it will take a combination of factors to achieve more stable funding in the district.
“As a board member, it's my duty to ensure that taxpayer funds are appropriately and fully utilized. Certainly we do have some financial challenges,” Roser said. “The Education Fund hasn't seen a tax increase since 2008. That increase was only 10 cents and passed by a very narrow margin.”
LaNell Greenberg is the sole challenger to two incumbents in this race for two school board seats.
She said it could take a combination of a referendum, cuts, and increased grant applications to dig the district out of its growing deficit.
“I think grant money is something that we can go after,” Greenberg said. “There's money out there, but we need people who understand exactly how to write those grants and help our teachers get those dollars into their classrooms.”
Daniel said the district would have to lay off more than 120 teachers and cut programs in order to make up for its current $6 million deficit. And increased needs, such as special education and mental health services, only add to that pressure, he said.
Last year the school board approved taking out over $16 million in working cash fund bonds, essentially kicking the can down the road.
But current board member Kelly Pyle said the bond vote was the right decision because it bought the district more time to evaluate how to address the budget.
When it comes to funding, Pyle said she wants to see the state put public education first.
“I don't know if I have a specific thought about how particular for example, you know, legalizing of marijuana if there's particular initiatives that need to take place in order to increase revenue, I would like to see the state say we value education, and we're going to put funding into that,” Pyle said.
Pritzker’s 2020 budget address relied on an estimated $370 million in revenue coming from the legalization of recreational marijuana and a gambling expansion.
Greenberg agrees that additional revenue for the district is good. She said she is not against using marijuana or gambling revenue to fund schools, but would want to see the district look into how that line of funding would impact the local community.
Roser said any additional source of dependable revenue could provide the district much needed stability.
“Do I like that that source of funding is coming from marijuana or from gambling or from other sources of revenue? No, I don't. But the other advantage is that we do need those that source of revenue,” Roser said. “In the long term, I'd love to be able to tell our kids that, you know, we're funding education out of traditional places, but if using some of these other sources is going to get us where we need to be then then so be it.”
While there are areas for increased revenue, there are also times when the district takes away its own local source of funding through property tax breaks.
Greenberg was Unit 5’s clerk at the time of the Rivian tax abatement vote. As a school board candidate, she said she sees the value in offering a tax break to startups with potential to build the local economy.
“I think the place that you don't give a tax break to are companies that do have profits already that are coming in. And I think we do have to stop giving incentives like that and taking money away from children,” Greenberg said. “Every dollar that we have that comes from property taxes has to be protected.”
She said the Rivian vote was hard on the board, but that the decision was made that had a long-term benefit for not only the school system, but the greater Bloomington-Normal economy.
“The bottom line is abatements should be used strategically and only when there's a demonstrated long-term benefit,” Roser said. “We want to see that a company is interested in Bloomington-Normal and investing in our community for the long-term good of our community. So a short-term deal is not something that is worth any type of tax abatement.”
After district approval, the Town of Normal last year agreed to a five-year 100 percent property tax abatement for Rivian. But in order to get it, Rivian has to meet various benchmarks. It was those thresholds that comforted town officials when voting in favor of the break.
The same goes for the vote in 2017 to allow Brandt tax abatements. Unit 5 struggled with that vote that would allow the Canadian manufacturer 50 to 100 percent abatements until 2027. But what ultimately won the board over was the promise of economic growth.
Pyle also sees the value in property tax breaks for economic development, but her reasoning points to a more direct impact on schools.
“The situation with Rivian was there was a building that was standing empty. We weren't going to gain much value by having an empty building. And so there was an incentive there to be able to have a company come in and look at what their growth was going to be, what were the opportunities that they were going to provide to the community, but I think you have to consider each of those things on a case by case basis,” she said.
Substitute Teacher Support
Pyle works with fellow incumbent Roser at Illinois State University’s University College. She was appointed to the Unit 5 board last August. In her brief tenure, she said she is most proud of the board’s vote to increase pay for substitute teachers. And, it’s that kind of work that inspires Pyle to run for a full term.
The district raised the substitute teacher pay earlier this year, up $5 per day-worked and twice-monthly pay.
“These teachers are absolutely valuable and an asset to making our district work and run. And so being able to give them a reward and say, 'We appreciate you. We see you. We know the hard work that you're doing,'” Pyle said. “And to continue that conversation of how can we reward and retain great substitute teachers and teachers and staff as well.”
With such a tight budget, Pyle said sweeping pay raises aren’t always possible. What the district can do, she said, is address other concerns about subs wanting to feel more like part of the Unit 5 family.
“Making sure that in each building there was a process in a way that those individuals would be welcomed. How they were kind of oriented to where you find things in the building. Here's how you work the media, the whiteboards, and things like that. And so those were rectified shortly after the concerns were made,” Pyle said.
The pay increase might not sound like much, but Pyle’s fellow incumbent Roser agrees; it’s about showing Unit 5 subs that the district cares.
“I think it's symbolic of the district's feelings that our subs are vital to the education that we provide our students and are important to the work that we do,” Roser said. “Would we love to do more? Absolutely.”
But this was the first sub pay increase since 2001, and Greenberg said it’s not enough. She used to be a Unit 5 sub herself, between 2003 and 2005, when it was the same $80 per day pay rate as last year.
“Over the last six years, I talked to everyone that I can talk to at the district office level about raising that rate. I could see that our administrative assistants, who work so hard to get substitutes in the buildings every day, they were struggling,” Greenberg said. “People didn't want to substitute in Unit 5 because of pay issues and other districts were paying more and pulling those subs away from the district.”
She said up until recently, the district was “tone deaf,” not doing anything about the outcry for increased pay. And now that changes have been made, Greenberg said the district is finally getting on the right track.
But she said Unit 5 isn’t just tone deaf to substitute needs.
Greenberg is running to improve the district as a whole. She worked as clerk for four years before leaving last May and said the district isn’t the same as it was when she started her Unit 5 career.
“I don't believe that staff feel valued. I know in my last couple years I did not, and I hear that from other people quite a lot. And I feel like people need a voice, and there used to be more of a collaboration,” she said. “Education inherently is all about collaboration and bringing everybody together for the benefit of the students.”
Without that collaboration, Greenberg said Unit 5 administration isn’t as willing to listen to district needs.
Her suggestion? Greenberg said if she is elected to the board, she wants to listen, actually listen, to the stakeholders—staff, families, and students—about their concerns and feedback for the district to make real and impactful changes.
If elected, Greenberg would be the only school board member who resides within Normal Community West High School lines. All other candidates live within the territory of Normal Community.
“I would be the only person on the board who has that area of the district being represented,” she said. “Certainly board members all represent every student and every family that live in the district, but I wouldn't want it to be all board members that feed into West either.”
Greenberg said West area families and students deserve to have direct representation on the board, too.
Seven candidates, including six incumbents, are seeking six open seats on the Unit 5 school board. The election is April 2.
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