Unit 5 Superintendent Gary Niehaus speaks to parents of Benjamin Elementary students at a redistricting forum Feb. 28. (Stephanie Pawlowski/WJBC)
NORMAL - Continued growth in Unit 5 has caused the board to consider more than redistricting to ease overcrowding pressure on district schools.
A one-cent county-wide school facility sales tax and a more traditional property tax referendum are both being considered as the school board discusses future needs and options. Unit 5 Board President John Puzauskus said at a special work session on Friday that nothing is set in stone yet but the dialogue needed to begin.
"Public opinion is the basis for moving forward and further discussions about when and if we decide to build a new elementary school or a new high school and/or add on to the junior high," Puzauskus said. "Those are all ifs and we also have to consider how do we pay for it."
The earliest any referendum would be presented would be for the March 2014 ballot. Unit 5 will join District 87, Heyworth, LeRoy, Lexington, Olympia, Ridgeview, and Tri-Valley in presenting whichever referendum to McLean County voters.
The session on Friday was meant to introduce the ideas, and Superintendent Gary Niehaus said it won't be a quick process.
"We're playing with teammates for the first time," Niehaus said. "The sales tax is an option we didn't have in 2008. We do know we need to go to referendum in 2014."
Niehaus was clear that only one of the options will be used. While no options have been chosen, the sales tax route would generate $16-17 million estimated annually for the eight McLean County public schools districts. The board heard from Rod Wright of the consulting firm Unicom Arc based in St. Louis. Wright has dealt with many school facility sales tax referendums throughout Illinois, including successful efforts in Logan, Champaign, and Macon Counties.
"Most proposal fail despite high public opinion being very high because it's all about the presentation," Wright told the board.
Wright said recent failure in LaSalle County was due to poor communication and lack of unification among the county's districts. The problems were similar to the municipal aggregation failures in Bloomington and Normal due to a lack of clearly presenting the benefits. Tazewell, LaSalle, and Livingston Counties are all considering or re-considering proposals while Peoria announced on Friday that it will place a referendum on the ballot for March 2014.
"It's really good to score all these options so we the board and the well-aware public can see that we're redistricting now because we have many full buildings," Puzauskus said.
Future building priority discussion will include the possibility of expansions at Evans Junior High in 2014, a new 600-student east side elementary school on Towanda Barnes Road for 2015, and even a third high school or high school expansions possibly between 2018 and 2020. According to Niehaus, the option of a new high school could cost $75 or $80 million.
Unit 5 makes up roughly 53 percent of the student population in McLean County. The school district has expanded by 2,930 students since the 2002-03 school year. In comparison, that increase rivals the size of the Olympia and Tri-Valley districts combined. Niehaus and Puzauskus both said the most important takeaway from the district's referendum introduction is that the public will decide what to do with growth.
"Right now I don't have a good answer because it can go so many ways," Puzauskus said. "My position will be based on what the public has to say. My answer will be what they tell me."
Meanwhile, the discussion over class size will be very influential in which direction Unit 5 takes. Additionally, athletics and travel distance will also likely be a factor.
Zach Dietmeier can be reached at email@example.com.