Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel said the district has about a year and a half until a referendum becomes necessary to maintain the current quality of education.
"We know we have a structural deficit. We're dealing with that. But we really do want to support our local community and have local community support and spread that through the process of a referendum," Daniel said.
Last year word about a Unit 5 referendum circulated, but it never took off. Now it appears 2020 might be the year.
Daniel said the district will be ramping up for a referendum, with hope to start the process in November or December. Until then, Unit 5 is searching for a community member to lead the effort.
"The quality of education in Bloomington-Normal is, I would say, exceptional,” Daniel said. “We want to maintain that quality which means, from an education fund standpoint, we need that funding."
Unit 5 recently increased teacher salaries to make up for lost wages, but with dwindling reserves the district struggles to keep up pay and fund programs like special needs education. Daniel said this makes even more of a case for the referendum.
"What public schools do for students is far beyond, I think, what the actual public understands. With that, there's a price tag,” Daniel said. “And either we continue to support those programs, or we have to eliminate programs. It's that simple."
The district has about a year and a half before the referendum is absolutely necessary, he said.
"I will tell you that if we don't support, then it's not a good case scenario. You can look at co-curriculars, you can look at programs within the regular school day, all those will be impacted. And that's not beneficial for a community, especially if you want a quality educational program," he said.
Program and budget cuts would likely have to come after the referendum, Daniel explained.
Unit 5 is also in the process of issuing $16.5 million in working cash fund bonds. Daniel said that will cover the district's education fund for two years, including reserves.
Normal Community High School currently has around 700 more students than Normal West does, but Daniel said redistricting won’t even out the numbers. Both high schools already have class sizes over 30.
"Enrollments are lower at Normal Community than they were last year, so that tells us that with what's been happening in our local economy and local community that we'll not need to look at redistricting," Daniel said.
Despite enrollment being down, NCHS students were asked to give up their lockers to those who might get better use out of them. Additionally, teachers expressed concerns about overcrowding in the case of emergencies where safety areas might not be large enough to accommodate all students in the class.
"Not the best case scenario for us, so be it at West or at Normal Community,” Daniel said. “However, we do look at lockers, we do look at what's the use of lockers. In reality, students use those less and less. They carry things in their bookbags, very infrequently some, they'll never use a locker.”
Daniel said with so many classes over 30 students, "blended" courses are being used to soften the load on teachers.
“We do see a trend in more blended learning, which is a new course instructional process. And that means that there might be only three days a student is in a physical classroom, the other two days they'll go to more of a commons area. Therefore more of a college structure,” he said. “Nice to transition our juniors and seniors to that type of format so they become more accustomed to (it).”
He said blended learning allows students to become more responsible in holding themselves accountable when taking classes at the high school level.
Students who struggle to pass what Daniel calls "core classes" may have access to a Career Development Center with additional certified teachers in the future, he said.
"If you're strictly using online courses with no assistance or mentoring, the success rate of those students is very low, even to the low of 15 to 20 percent. So therefore we've discovered you don't do that,” Daniel said. “In other words, you allow students to have some assistance with certified teachers and also, hopefully, if they have other questions they can go back to their core teacher."
In regards to enrollment being down an estimated 200 students, Daniel said Unit 5 is unsure of the exact reason, but that the effects of changes with major Bloomington-Normal employers may have an effect.
"I think there probably is a State Farm effect. And we're not really feeling it just yet because, well, we're feeling it somewhat in regards, perhaps, to these numbers,” he said. “It's one of those effects where we may see it slowly.”
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