Unit 5 School Board Tackles Parent Concerns, Budget Woes | WGLT

Unit 5 School Board Tackles Parent Concerns, Budget Woes

Aug 26, 2020

Wednesday's Unit 5 school board meeting got off to an emotional start when some parents expressed their frustration with remote learning. 

Kendra Long, who has two students with special needs, began her comments by holding up a picture of her two boys.

“I want to show you the faces of some of the children who are currently being let down by the Unit 5 remote learning plan,” she said.

Long has been vocal in criticizing the district for not doing enough for students with special needs. She said remote learning won’t work for her children, one of whom is autistic and non-verbal, and that Unit 5 should be doing more to offer them opportunities for in-person instruction.

The district has begun some in-person learning and therapy for special needs students, but Long said it’s not enough.

“I feel as though the school board is allowing this just to tick their boxes off for the minimal needs of these children and (not) paying attention to the full scope of the issue. The educational and developmental growth of these children will definitely be stunted.” 

Long’s concerns were echoed by Mollie Emery, the mother of a kindergartner, also with special needs. 

“I’m here to be a voice for my son and his peers,” she told the board, before describing the hour-long meltdown her son experienced on his first day of remote learning. 

“He’s incapable of attending meetings all day,” said Emery, explaining her son needs the social and emotional support and group experience that only a classroom can provide.

Emery and her husband have decided to withdraw their son from Unit 5 and register him in a private program, she said, adding they were fortunate to have the means to pay for private education--but that isn't the case for every family. Emery reminded the board of CDC guidance warning that a lack of in-person learning will disproportionately affect minorities, low-income students, and students with special needs.

“Children like my son are being failed,” she said, demanding that Unit 5 bring the entire special needs population back for in-person learning.

Superintendent Kristen Weikle said that as a former special education teacher and director, the concerns of parents like Long and Emery are “near and dear to my heart.” She said the importance of designing educational programs to the highly individualized needs of special education students is precisely the reason the plans have been slow to roll out.

“We’re having to look at the number of students in those programs because they all have individual needs,” said Weikle, noting that in some cases, a student’s needs would involve teachers and therapists being exposed to bodily fluids. She said creating in-person learning plans also means devising specialized protocols to protect students and teachers.

“It may take a little more time than parents would like, and I get that,” Weikle said.

In their closing comments, school board members addressed the difficulties students and parents were facing. In an emotional statement, Mike Trask appeared to address some of his comments directly to Long, who was seated in the front row. Through tears, Trask acknowledged that some families were being negatively affected far more than others. 

“Folks, I wish we could take off the masks and our kids could go back to class and go back to normal. We all want this, but we cannot have it just yet. It will take time.”

Trask said that after the Aug. 12 school board meeting, in which emotions also ran high, he was ready to resign from the board. But after a family member reminded him of the words he regularly posts on Facebook--“positivity, patience, and grace”--Trask had a change of heart.

“I want all parents to know that we care for each one of you, and we will get through this together,” he said.

Board member Meta Mickens-Baker wanted to assure parents the board is paying attention to their concerns about remote learning. “It’s hard for us because you can’t see our faces,” she said, from behind her mask. “It pains us, but we really don’t feel we have a better way right now.”

Budget deficit

In another matter, Unit 5 business manager Marty Hickman delivered sobering news about the 2020-2021 budget, telling board members the district begins the year with a $12.5 million structural deficit.

Hickman attributed the deficit largely to the effects of COVID-19. He said on the local level, the budget was adversely affected by a delay in property tax collection in McLean County that granted a grace period to homeowners and businesses during the shutdown.

On the state level, the district stands to lose out on reimbursement money for transportation expenses. Illinois provides funding to school districts for busing and other school transportation costs, based on a prior-year reimbursement system. Because schools were ordered to shut down in mid-March, Unit 5’s 2019-2020 transportation expenses will be far lower than normal. And therefore, so will the reimbursement from the state in 2020-2021.

Hickman said that COVID also brought about many unexpected expenses, such as enhanced sanitation procedures and physical updates to schools and facilities to allow for social distancing once students return.

“Our district is not unique,” said Hickman, referring to the budget. "We’re optimistic it’ll get sorted out, the question is when. I don’t think any of us thought it would go on this long.” 

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