Unit 5 school board approves program cuts, saves fifth grade band and orchestra

Unit 5 school board meeting on Wednesday
Unit 5 school board meeting on Wednesday(25 News/Heart of Illinois ABC)
Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 9:10 AM CST
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NORMAL (25 NEWS) - The Unit 5 school board voted to approve $2.1 million in budget cuts, voting to keep the district’s fifth grade band and orchestra program.

A packed house crowded into the auditorium at Normal Community West High School Wednesday night as the board considered ways to help reduce a ballooning deficit in the district’s education fund.

Dozens spoke during public comments, speaking against the proposed cuts. The public comment session lasted until 11:50 p.m. Wednesday.

It wasn’t until early Thursday morning the board voted on the plan, which will eliminate 36 teacher and staff positions, two administrator jobs and cut the eighth grade foreign language program.

Fifth grade band and orchestra were saved.

75 people signed up to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting. Each were given three minutes to speak.

Students, parents, and staff brought several arguments to the podium, most notably, how important they believe the programs are to the mental health and development of young students. They also feel there wasn’t enough notice or discussion from district leaders before the proposal was made.

“For current students, music instruction supports district initiatives in equity, social-emotional learning, and culturally responsive instruction,” said Lauren Romero, Unit 5′s music department chair.

“Music is inherently human. Music is not extra.” Romero said.

Student Maddie Beirne told the board, “We believe that this meeting is just an attempt to calm an angry crowd, and that the decision that will impact thousands of lives and careers has already been made.”

“Prove to me that this is not a formality,” Beirne said.

Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle speaks during Wednesday night's Board of Education meeting.
Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle speaks during Wednesday night's Board of Education meeting.(25 News / Heart of Illinois ABC)

Board members said even with these cuts, the district still has to find ways to increase revenue.

“I strongly strongly strongly feel that we still we have more work to do in this space,” said board member Alan Kalitzky. “I don’t want to cut people. But unfortunately, no matter how many times we sharpen our pencil, that is what it comes down to,” he said.

“This is not a one-time activity,” Kalitzky said.

The vote to amend the fifth grade band and orchestra proposal saved two staff positions from being eliminated. That added an extra $108,000 to district expenses to cover the two salaries.

Until now, the district has taken a band-aid approach to fill budget gaps by selling working cash bonds. One longer-term solution would require voters to approve a property tax increase.

Board President Amy Roser said if the district doesn’t get another source of revenue, the deficit will only grow. That means future cuts would likely have to be much more expansive.

“We wouldn’t be talking about just fifth grade band,” Roser said. “I need every single person who spoke tonight and who advocated for fifth grade band and orchestra to fully understand the scale and the magnitude of what $14 million looks like for this district.”

“We’re gonna need some help,” Roser said.

The education fund deficit, which is projected at $14 million next fiscal year, is expected to rise to $32.5 million five years from now.

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