Unit 5 Referendum: Myth vs. Fact
MYTH: “Unit 5 has plenty of money.”
With an increase in unfunded state mandates, a decrease in state funding, and only one 10-cent increase in the education fund rate in 40 years, it is no wonder costs have dramatically outpaced available funds and debt has accumulated. The education fund pays salaries and benefits for teachers, school psychologists, social workers & counselors, speech/language therapists, teaching assistants, administrators, administrative assistants, and technology specialists, as well as for technology, books, online resources and more. As you can see, a lot has changed over 40 years, and one 10-cent increase is not nearly enough to keep up.
MYTH: “Unit 5 has bloated administrative costs.“
With a 207:1 student to administrator ratio (vs. the state’s average 147:1 student to administrator ratio), Unit 5 has a lean administrative staff. Unit 5 averages fewer administrators per student than any of our neighboring districts. Unit 5 has cut administrative positions and instituted pay freezes and has the lowest education fund tax rate and combined operating tax rate of all neighboring districts. The facts simply don’t support the myth that administrative costs are “bloated.”
Myth: “Unit 5 just needs to tighten its belt.”
As costs have increased dramatically through student population growth, inflation and unfunded state mandates, and as revenue held steady, the district has “tightened its belt” through various cuts. In the last seven years, Unit 5 has cut $5 million in expenses in the education fund. Administrator & teaching positions have been cut and class and extra- curricular offerings limited.
Facing a more than $11 million annual education fund deficit, the Unit 5 Board of Education voted recently for significant cuts to sports, clubs, music, and other school programs for the 2023-24 school year. These reductions of approximately $2 million are in addition to the $2 million in reductions the board made last spring. Already, Unit 5 has larger class sizes, has 28 unfilled teaching positions, and no longer offers foreign language in eighth grade. More cuts will be necessary in coming years without additional revenue. While “belt tightening” has and will continue to occur, it alone cannot put the district on more stable financial footing and ensure our students have access to the quality education they deserve.
MYTH: “Unit 5’s own audit says it has tens of millions of dollars on hand; the district does not need more money.”
An audit represents a snapshot in time, not unlike your checking account at the end of any given day. The figure cited is not a surplus/excess fund, but rather, part of the district’s operating revenue. These are dollars that will be spent down as part of ongoing budgeted operations.
MYTH: “Unit 5 needs to run like a business.”
Unit 5 is scrutinized much more closely than many private businesses through copious oversight and annual financial audits. And unlike private businesses, Unit 5 has to cover the costs of state mandates, many of which do not come with additional state funding. Most importantly, a school district is distinct from private business in that failure is NOT an option — legally or morally.
MYTH: “The expiring Rivian tax breaks and Uptown TIF districts will take care of the deficit.”
Not even close. The expiration of the Rivian tax breaks is expected to generate about $750,000 this year, only about half of which will go to the education fund. Similarly, the district will get about $1.5 million a year following the Uptown TIF expiration beginning in 2028, with again only half going to the education fund. These increases are helpful but have already been factored into the district’s plan. And they do not come close to addressing the far greater $11 million deficit and needs of the Unit 5 district.
MYTH: “Rising home values will take care of the problem.”
Yes, the past couple years home values have increased dramatically. But that followed more than a decade of stagnant home values in our community. Unit 5’s budget projections already include a 6% annual EAV increase, which might or might not happen. Even with that increase, the education fund deficit will continue to grow.
MYTH: “Holding classes online will save money.”
Remote, online learning is a great option when it’s the only option, but was never meant to replace in-person learning. Whatever your views on the remote learning students experienced during the pandemic, focusing strictly on dollars, there is no evidence that remote, online learning saves money. In fact, recent pandemic experience shows costs and educator workload significantly increased as students transitioned to a remote, online learning environment.
MYTH: “We’re building housing all over town, and that’ll give the district plenty of new tax revenue.”
It’s great our community is growing, but more people also means more students who will need educational resources. Simply put, as the community grows, so do costs. Additionally, houses aren’t built overnight; it will be many years before those houses are constructed and sold. A successful referendum will help the district embrace growth over the long term and help drive it by continuing to offer a top notch public educational system that affords all students access to the quality education they deserve.
MYTH: “This is an empty threat. Unit 5 will never actually cut that stuff.”
Without the referendum, attaining more stable financial footing requires further cuts. Many have already been made. Unit 5 has larger classes, 28 unfilled teaching positions, and no longer offers foreign language in eighth grade. More cuts have been approved for the next two years, with more likely after that. This community has an opportunity NOW to rally around its schools and students to ensure further cuts are avoided and some offerings can be restored.
MYTH: “The district got $21.9 million dollars in COVID relief from the federal government. They can just use that money.”
Those funds were used for devices for remote learning, additional staff to support learning loss, mental health supports for students, after school tutoring, and summer school for 3 years – as Unit 5 was legally obligated to do. Many of these services will continue to be paid out of ESSER funds during the 2023-24 school year. Additionally, law expressly forbids school districts from using that money to cover budget deficits that existed prior to the pandemic.
MYTH: “A YES vote is a vote for higher taxes.”
A successful referendum means the overall tax rate will actually decrease, beginning with Levy Year 2024. The current tax rate is $5.51 per $100 of a property’s Equalized Assessed Value (EAV). If the referendum passes, the tax rate drops from $5.51 to $5.47 in Levy Year 2024, to $5.16 in Levy Year 2025, and to $4.92 in Levy Year 2026.
The education fund rate, which a YES vote increases, is only one component of the overall tax rate. An increase in the education fund component of the overall rate means less dollars going to another key component – debt. As the debt is retired, the overall rate – which is what matters to a taxpayer’s bottom line – actually decreases. Again, this decrease will be realized beginning in 2024.