Unit 5’s school board is “reassessing” its options for closing a $12 million structural deficit—including a possible referendum in 2020—in light of Superintendent Mark Daniel’s plans to leave the district, the board president told WGLT.
As recently as this summer, Unit 5 leaders were moving toward asking voters to approve a referendum to bring in more money for schools. Daniel suggested hiring a consultant and gathering names for a community task force to rally public support.
But then in September, Daniel announced he was leaving Unit 5 in summer 2020 after his current contract expires.
“A lot of stuff has happened since the middle of summer,” Unit 5 School Board President Barry Hitchins said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas.
Unit 5 students have been largely shielded from the deficit because the district has used working cash bonds—like a credit card—to temporarily stave off what officials say will be massive staff cuts, including teachers. But that’s considered a short-term solution, with rising expenses coming from the state’s minimum wage and teacher pay increases.
Meanwhile, School Board Vice President Amy Roser said students’ “social-emotional needs have a direct impact on the education fund, and a direct impact on our community.”
“The needs of our students, in terms of their emotions and the things they come to school with, are increasing. We are in need of more attention from our school staff. And so that adds to the demands, and to the resources we as a school district need to be positioned to provide, so that each of our students can be ready to learn,” Roser said.
The clock is ticking to get a ballot measure in front of voters in 2020, with only a year to make the case to voters that more tax revenue is needed.
“We don’t have really a firm plan on where we want to go. That’s still up for discussion,” Hitchins said.
Some districts have successfully won a referendum vote in a short amount of lead time, while others have started a year out and still failed, Hitchins said.
“It all depends on, if we need to do a referendum, what is the message we need to deliver? And can we reach enough voters in this community in the timeframe we need?” Hitchins said. “That would drive success of the referendum.”
Hitchins said it’s too early to begin forming a community group to support referendum efforts, because the board hasn’t yet decided if that’s the plan—or if it would be a “big” or “small” referendum, to change to how much Unit 5 can levy.
“It’s possible that the community may be more agreeable to a smaller amount or a larger amount,” Hitchins said.
A key part of the decision-making process, Hitchins said, will require the school board to “understand what level of programs (the public) expects from their school district.” Should fifth-graders have their own band? Should elementary students have daily physical education class?
“We as a board have gone to great lengths to insulate our staff and our students—more the students than the staff, because they did not receive pay raises for several years,” Hitchins said. “We’ve done an incredible job of insulating our students and our families from the impacts of our budget shortfalls.”
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