This story will be updated.
NORMAL — After a seven-hour meeting largely filled with impassioned public comments, the McLean County Unit 5 Board of Education voted to move forward with budget cuts affecting dozens of positions but spare the fifth grade instrumental music programs that had been set for elimination.
The cuts did include the eighth grade foreign language program, 36 teacher positions and two administrator positions. The proposed cuts of the band and orchestra programs would have affected two more teaching positions.
Board members indicated that more painful decisions remained in the future if the district couldn’t find another source of revenue, such as a referendum asking voters to increase the education fund tax rate.
“If we don’t get a referendum or another source of revenue to the tune of about $11 million, that deficit is going to grow,” board president Amy Roser.
The education fund tax rate has increased by only 10 cents since 1983, Superintendent Kristen Weikle has said. The last increase was in 2008.
Without action, the district’s structural deficit was estimated to be around $14 million in the next fiscal year and to continue increasing. The total across the next three fiscal years would be around $54 million, officials have said.
After a closed session following the public comments, board member Barry Hitchens moved to remove the music programs from the cuts. The measure passed unanimously.
Class sizes may increase, Weikle said, including high school classes becoming around 30 students.
Other program changes include reducing what the district calls “sixth assignments” where a teacher gives up a plan period to teach an extra class, in exchange for increased pay. At the elementary level, some extra duty positions, like advising student council, will be reduced or cut to save on the stipends that go with them.
Unit 5’s program for students to receive an associate’s degree in computer science will be based only in Normal West High School. Students at Normal Community will still be able to participate but will attend Normal West to do so.
The other staff reductions are being handled through normal loss of teachers and involuntary transfers.
A total of 75 people signed up to make public comments, though some had to leave early. Board President Amy Roser allowing other people to read statements from students who could not attend or who had to leave before the meeting concluded after 1 am, and the board ultimately heard from 69 people.
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Multiple speakers came back to a single phrase they asked of the board: “try again.” Many said they wanted the board to work with community and employees to find solutions.
“We can blame the state all we want (…) but if we truly care about the things we talked about tonight, we are going to have to step up,” board member Alan Kalitzky said.
Many students spoke about the importance of having the chance to spend time in the junior high and high schools before they started attending. They also highlighted the friends they were able to make through the band and orchestra, as well as the fact that they would often turn to the music teachers for emotional support.
“While other classes may teach you skills, music teaches you character and honor,” NCHS junior Nathan Maestas said.
The students who spoke included many alumni of the music programs as well as some younger students who are either involved this year or had planned to be in the future.
“Band is not only a class; it’s a place where you can meet new people, learn new skills and have fun,” said Disha Rai, a fifth grade student who plays the alto saxophone.
Unit 5 Music Parents Association President Karen Fryer has three children who grew up playing music in Unit 5 schools. Eliminating fifth grade band and orchestra would have a negative impact far beyond fifth grade, including worsening the district’s competitive edge in music.
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The Normal Community High School Orchestras brought back a win in their class from the Illinois High School Association Solo and Ensemble Competition this past weekend.
“We have great concerns about plucking out the instrumental music program, basically cutting off the front end of our instrumental music program,” Fryer told The Pantagraph.
The district’s music curriculum is based on having a specific amount of time with the students to get them to the desired level by the time they are seniors, she said. Taking away a year from that curriculum would not only impact Unit 5’s performance at competitions, but would also hurt students who are applying for college music programs or music scholarships.
“It’s more than a one-year impact; it ripples out,” she said.
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At the end of the meeting, board member Stan Gozur said he was impressed by the students who spoke.
“Parents, staff, we expected what you brought, I was proud we are educating these individuals, I hope they hear this message and I hope they know they are representing this district well,” he said.
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M. Curt Richardson
Contact Connor Wood at (309)820-3240. Follow Connor on Twitter: @connorkwood