NORMAL — It seems everyone associated with McLean County Unit 5 knows overcrowding is one of the biggest problems facing the district.
What they don't know is what to do about it.
"We can look at classes and continue to say, 'They're too large and we need some relief,' but with the budget as is, we have all our resources in the classrooms," said Superintendent Mark Daniel. "We're planning no changes."
Bloomington's District 87 is in the same position: overcrowded with no easy way out.
More than 20 percent of Bloomington-Normal elementary school classes are over their recommended capacity, and administrators expect state funding that would help them hire more teachers will continue to fall.
At Unit 5, one in five classes is over the limit. The worst is at Benjamin Elementary School, where all 11 kindergarten to second grade classes are over capacity.
Among local school districts, only 87 compares, with 28 of 112 — exactly one in four — elementary classes overcrowded.
District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly hopes the aging process will eliminate Bloomington's class size issues — district enrollment fell this year — but "we get so many ebb and flows of students that it’s tough to tell,” he said.
Trends suggest Reilly should be skeptical. District 87's enrollment has increased in prior years, and while Unit 5's has held steady since 2012, district officials do not expect that trend to continue. McLean County's population has increased by about 2,000 each of the last two years.
Funding has not kept up. Both districts have maxed out what they get from taxpayers for the education fund, which pays for teachers' salaries, and the state of Illinois paid only 89 percent of what it promised schools in 2014.
Daniel and Reilly said staff is at risk in future budget cuts that could increase if a new funding system like the one proposed under Senate Bill 16 — which would cost Unit 5 $3.3 million per year — passes.
Both districts would be clear had a school sales tax referendum passed this year, but it was voted down convincingly. Reilly said a general fund referendum is "a possibility down the road," but "we’re not anywhere near that at this point.”
“I anticipate we certainly could see higher class sizes,” he added. “Hopefully, we start to see better things from our local resources. I’m not counting on more increases from the state.”
Make the best
In the meantime, more students means more distractions, less individual attention and potentially lower test scores for both districts.
All Fox Creek Elementary School teacher Kjersten Woodward, can do is try to make the best for her 29 third graders.
"The day-to-day challenge is how long it takes to get things done," she said.
Despite handling her largest class in 16 years at Unit 5 this fall, Woodward thinks "we're right on track" because students "can work independently."
During a typical day this fall, she spent some time speaking to the entire class but far more working with small groups. In groups, students can teach each other, and they get something like individual attention when they're in front of Woodward.
Woodward gets help from Title One-funded instructional aides and a special education teacher who visits most afternoons to help students with individual education plans (IEP's), although "she can help everybody," Woodward said.
Daniel said he hopes to expand the number of student teachers from Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities to give teachers more help. Reilly isn't convinced that's a solution.
“Student teachers require a lot of supervision and work on the part of our current teachers,” he said.
For now, Woodward said, "I have the tools I need no matter what my class size is to meet the needs of my students."
Some question just how far a piecemeal approach can stretch, including four Fox Creek parents who told the Unit 5 board in August that reducing from three sections to two for kindergarten, third and fourth grades would hurt students.
When asked about their greatest concerns for the district over the next four years, board secretary Mike Trask and board candidate Barry Hitchins started with the same two words: class sizes.
Hitchins is running in part because of a class size problem. He and other parents lobbied the district to add another third-grade class at his daughter Amanda's school, Cedar Ridge Elementary.
"There were 60 students in two classes and an open classroom when most classes there had about 20 students. It just didn't seem fair," Hitchins said.
Barring a dramatic change such as the legislature pumping more money into education — educators recently collaborated on a plan called Illinois Vision 20/20 that recommends just that — or a decline in local population, both districts are likely to be overcrowded for the foreseeable future.
"I would ultimately like to see (class sizes) come down, but I understand unfortunately why we are there,” Trask said. "The financial constraints are going to continue to be an issue.”
Reilly asked local residents to contact their legislators about the problem.
“I want them to pay attention to what’s happening in their state government in particular,” he said. “We have such a great education community here, and we want that to continue, but we can't do it alone."