By Steve Robinson | August 24, 2016 - 10:57 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Unit 5NORMAL – Reports of overcrowded buses, students temporarily misplaced, or arriving home late from their first day of school prompted officials from Normal-based Unit 5 School District to move the location of their regularly-scheduled meeting Aug. 24 from district headquarters to Normal Community West High School’s cafeteria to accommodate what the district thought would be a high number of concerned parents wanting to address issues.

That proactive action turned out to be correct as 325 people crowded into the school’s cafeteria for the session. There, Dr. Mark Daniel, district superintendent, began the session with an apology. “We have had transportation challenges to say the least, and I want to apologize to the entire community for the service we have provided our students, and these problems are unacceptable.

“Things didn’t materialize as we had hoped,” Daniel added. “In fact, we were very far from it.”

Daniel’s comments were followed by comments from parents during the three-hour session, two-thirds of which was used by frustrated and angered parents who used allotted time during the meeting’s Public Comments section to voice their frustration at how the first day of activity had gone.

Josh Smith was the second of 23 parents to have their say concerning how the end of the first day of school on Aug. 18 went for his daughter, a 9-year-old fifth grader at Parkside Elementary. He told Board members he was likely to be emotional as he told his story about having to call Normal Police when his daughter was missing for two hours following the conclusion of a band practice. The district had arranged for fifth grade band students to get home directly from band without having to go back to their grade school, but NPD found his daughter two hours later on a bus going in a direction opposite from where she should have been to get home.

“She was with five other kids in a bus across town,” Smith detailed. “You just can’t have students missing. That’s completely unacceptable.”

Jonathan and Elysia Amaya told Board members they moved into the district because of what they felt were positives for their non-verbal 4-year-old son, one of their two children. In trying to finding out what had happened to cause their son’s ride to be more than an hour, Jonathan Amaya said his wife called the district office seven times to get some kind of explanation. She never got a return phone call he told Board members.

Jonathan Amaya concluded his statement to Board members with, “Our trust is really vanishing.”

Loretta Palmer relayed to Board members that 30 kids who attend Kingsley Junior High School opted to walk to their homes in the North Meadow Village area from school – a site that bothered her. She said this situation wasn’t just a problem alone for Unit 5 parents. “This isn’t just my children,” she said. “And it’s not just other people’s children. It’s our children. We are a community and as a community, we have to make it right.”

Tom Sennett, the father of a sixth grader, told Board members, “The lack of respect for parents on the part of the district is unbelievable.”

Steven Dean, an employee of First Student Bus Co., the transportation provider for the district, told Board members the district’s busing plan has failed. “You changed things too much, too fast,” he said. He said Unit 5 provided the bus company with information that couldn’t be double-checked quickly enough for the start of the school year. “I agree with these parents,” Dean said. “They should know where their children are.”

From their seats, a couple of people in the audience openly called for Daniel to resign as a result of the circumstances.

Unit 5 mapFollowing the public comments, Board members gave their assessment. “I, personally, was embarrassed, extremely disappointed, appalled on how the busing situation was handled,” said Board Member Mike Trask. “I accept minor hiccups at the beginning of the year, but what happened last week and this week is unacceptable.” He added changing school start times so that elementary, junior high, and high school students start their day at school in that order. That comment brought jeering from some audience members.

He reminded the audience that the total numbers of bus routes were reduced by Unit 5 to help reduce a deficit in the district’s transportation budget of $1.4 million. The district hoped different start and dismissal times, along with decreasing the number of buses and reworking bus routes would help Unit 5 save the district $1.2 million.

“We, as a district, were assured by our contracted vendor, First Student, that with the new changes and the reduction of routes, this would all be manageable. I am extremely disappointed in the lack of service Unit 5 has received from First Student.” That admission prompted some in the audience to applaud.

“I never want to see these extreme situations ever occur again,” Trask added. He offered an apology to anyone who had been affected by the issues involved with the situation.

Board Member Jim Hayek, Jr. said he believes the district owes an explanation to those parents who contacted Unit 5 with concerns but who have not yet been contacted by the district.

“We need a recovery plan that can identify problems that can be addressed quickly,” added Board Member John Puzauskas. “Unit 5 and First Student need to work on restructuring and reworking our current plan.”

State Rep. Dan Brady (R-105th Dist.) was present at the meeting and spoke having heard the parents’ stories, told Board members he fully agreed “the State of Illinois unfortunately put you in this situation to some degree” as a result of the district receiving tardy state aid payments.

First Student Manager Resigns: As a result of the circumstances surrounding the bus issues, media reports out of Peoria indicated Jim Stonecipher, location manager for First Student, resigned on Aug. 22.

Board Votes To Return $3.5 Million To Transportation Fund: Board members unanimously voted to abate a $3.5 million working cash fund for the purchase of new buses and also unanimously returned that cash to the district’s transportation fund. Board members had agreed in April to apply $7 million toward new bus purchases.

A hearing on the district’s budget is scheduled for the Board’s Sept. 28 meeting at district headquarters.

Opening Population Up Slightly: Unit 5 schools had an opening day population of 13,478 students which was an increase of 36 students compared to opening day of school last year, explained Curt Richardson, the district’s director of human resources and its attorney, in his report to Board members.

By Steve Robinson | August 22, 2016 - 7:30 am
Posted in Category: Illinois Wesleyan, The Normalite

FootballBLOOMINGTON – When Illinois Wesleyan University’s football team takes the field for the 2016 season, opposing defenses will find a comparatively young offensive line trying to keep them from getting through to their quarterback and running backs. Opponents will also find that IWU’s squad has “Just One Thing” on their collective mind, as well.

Three specific words could be heard from every Titans player on media day Friday, Aug. 19 at Tucci Stadium: Just one thing. That one thing is to win the Collegiate Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title.

Last season, IWU looked to be well on their way to doing that with a 7-0 mark until coming up short against their last few foes on the schedule last season, North Central, Wheaton College, and North Park.

But with a leg injury sidelining junior first string quarterback Jack Warner, this season could start with his backup, junior Jack Donegan, to get IWU’s potential positive start underway.

As the season opens up, a preseason poll by D3football.com has Wheaton College and North Central ranked in the Top 25. Wheaton College is ranked 8th in the poll, with North Central sliding into 13th. The CCIW preseason poll has IWU ranked third behind these two foes in that order.

Illinois Wesleyan FootballLexington’s Laible Now Full-Time Linebacker: At Lexington High School, Donavan Laible was at the controls of a team as its quarterback. He also served as a defensive back in the Minutemen’s two-way system. Now a senior at IWU, he will stay on the defensive side of the ball as an outside linebacker.

“I played a good deal of linebacker in high school,” the 6 foot-1, 195 pound Laible said. “To do it in college is new territory than it was in high school. I’m getting used to play the position with the instincts needed. I’m used to reading defenses. Now, I’ve got to read offenses.

Being a former quarterback will help Laible read potential routes opposing quarterbacks call for in the passing game, but when it comes to run patterns, he admits those will be trickier for him. His goal this season is to “find time on the field.” When he is not on the field, he will be in the classroom finishing up to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He said he wants to study for his CPA exam.

Donavan appeared under center for IWU in two games, completing 36 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns. He has 31 rushes to his credit for 108 yards, with his longest being 23 yards

CCIWBut with Wagner and Donegan poised to be IWU’s chosen quarterbacks for the foreseeable future, Eash worked with Laible to find a position where his skills could be used. “Donovan is a great kid and we wanted to find a place for him on the field,” Eash said, adding, “I think you’ll see him on the field.”

BHS Alum Stephon Rudicil Shifting Positions, Too: Bloomington High alum Stephon Rudicil, a fifth year senior, is moving in Eash’s defensive scheme, as well, from linebacker to defensive end. In 2015, he appeared in one game making three total tackles, two of them solo.

Circle Your Calendars: IWU will have nine starters on offense and 10 on defense as the season opens at Nebraska Wesleyan on Sept. 10. IWU’s 2016 home part of the schedule begins by hosting North Central Sept. 10 at 6p.m., and Wheaton College visits for IWU Homecoming Oct. 1 at 1p.m. Elmhurst College will visit on IWU Senior Day Oct. 29 for a 1p.m. game.

By Steve Robinson | August 20, 2016 - 10:42 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

BaseballJustin Fletcher admits that, as far as finding an unaffiliated team to play for with proximity to his native Pekin, he feels very lucky. He’s been playing second base for the Normal CornBelters since signing with the club about a month ago.

Being able to play pro ball this close to home “is awesome,” Fletcher said, because he is able to do it in front of so many people he knows. The situation to join the CornBelters “wasn’t expected but I got an opportunity at a tryout and I had a good day in front of Coach Carey and he decided to sign me.” “Coach Carey” would be Normal CornBelters Manager Brooks Carey.

Fletcher’s folks, Jake and Tammy Fletcher, live in Pekin and have made it to some games as have some of his friends from his hometown. Normal is 22-year-old Fletcher’s first pro assignment straight out of graduation from Northern Illinois University. When it came to adjusting to Frontier League play, Fletcher said the first thing you notice “is that everything at this level is just a little bit better.”

“All the pitching’s a little bit better, all the hitting’s a little bit better, team defenses are a little bit better,” Fletcher said. He said that with the knowledge he came into Normal with – that of a Division I player.

Getting used to the changes a player of his experience needs to “means you have to fine tune your game a little bit,” Fletcher admitted, a process that is in progress at this very early stage of his career.

Cornbelters“I’ve played second base my whole life,” Fletcher said, and he said he is grateful for advice and knowledge about this level of the game he has been getting from ‘Belters shortstop Santiago Chirino, who had been playing some at second base before Fletcher arrived. Fletcher said Chirino has been giving him quick details on opposing hitters to help him tune his defensive play.

Advice like that at this level can be invaluable for rookies, so said Fletcher, “and I listened to Santiago because he’s been here, he’s played pro ball for seven or eight years now. It’s important to listen to those guys.” Fletcher said listening to the veteran players on the team is something he does often.

One of the biggest adjustments Fletcher said he had to make was getting used to playing a longer season than he had been as a college player. The Frontier League season of 90 games is roughly one-third longer than a college baseball season. Another thing he had to adjust to once he got to the Frontier League was faster pitching. Frontier League pitchers throw around 92 miles per hour versus roughly 85 miles per hour in the collegiate ranks.

Frontier League“He’s as good as any second baseman in the league,” CornBelters Manager Brooks Carey said of Fletcher. “I had to move Chirino to shortstop after some injuries this season, and I needed someone who could turn double plays. Wherever he hits is just a bonus. He’s done a good job. He’s going to be a good player down the road.”

‘Belters Present At Top Of Most Categories: If you look at the stat page for the Frontier League, you will find CornBelters players at the top of almost all of the key stats. The only one where CornBelters players aren’t immediately listed is in Earned Run Average. In fact, you can find Normal outfielder Nolan Meadows at the top of two categories. As of Monday, he was leading the league in home runs with 26, putting him nine in front of second place contender Alexi Colon of River City. As a result, he and Normal first baseman Aaron Dudley were tied at the top in runs batted in with 72.

‘Belters Visit Florence Mid-Week, Host West Division Leading Miners: Before the season ends, the CornBelters will get six chances to overtake Evansville, which is in second place in the West Division. Starting with a three-game road trip Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 23-25, Normal will try to overtake the Otters. The Otters will pay their last visit of the season to The Corn Crib for a three-game series Tuesday through Thursday, Aug. 30, 31, and Sept. 1. All of those games begin at 6:35p.m.

By Steve Robinson | August 19, 2016 - 10:19 pm
Posted in Category: Illinois Wesleyan, Pekin Daily Times

FootballBLOOMINGTON – When Illinois Wesleyan University’s football team takes the field for the 2016 season, opposing defenses will find a comparatively young offensive line trying to keep them from getting through to their quarterback and running backs. Opponents will also find that IWU’s squad has “Just One Thing” on their collective mind, as well.

Three specific words could be heard from every Titans player on media day Friday at Tucci Stadium: Just one thing. That one thing is to win the Collegiate Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title.

Last season, IWU looked to be well on their way to doing that with a 7-0 mark until coming up short against their last two foes on the schedule last season, North Central, Wheaton College, and North Park.

But with a leg injury sidelining junior first string quarterback Jack Warner, the season could start with his backup, junior Jack Donegan, to get IWU’s potential positive start underway.

As the season opens up, a preseason poll by D3football.com has Wheaton College and North Central ranked in the Top 25. Wheaton College is ranked 8th in the poll, with North Central sliding into 13th. The CCIW preseason poll has IWU ranked third behind these two foes in that order.

Illinois Wesleyan FootballWashington Alum Herrell Looking To Finish By Fostering Traditions: Washington Community High School product Austin Harrell, now a senior at IWU, “brings some differences to the game,” IWU head coach Norm Eash said, adding, “He’s different because defensive backs don’t know how to take him. He’s big. If you’re thinking of hitting him high, you’d better not think of hitting him high because he’s 6 foot-4 and 214 pounds. He’s got tremendous speed. When he’s running, he takes long strides. Defensive backs don’t know how to take him.”

One of the captains for the team this season, Harrell said he would like to finish his IWU playing career “helping younger guys on the team and to foster traditions for players in future years.”

During the 2015 season, Harrell continued to make his mark at IWU, as he had 49 rushes last season for 341 yards and one touchdown, the longest of which was 60 yards. He also caught nine passes for 128 yards and one score.

Morton Alum Monferdini Moving From Tackle To Guard: Morton High School alum Nicholas Monferdini will be among those on the front line looking to protect IWU’s offense for the Titans’ Sept. 3 in an exhibition game against Mexico’s Monterey University at Tucci Stadium.

CCIW“We started four sophomores last year and he was among them,” Eash said, referring to Monferdini. “That was rough going but we were still at 7-0. Now those kids like Monferdini who were in the thick of it last year will be a year older and I think there’s a big jump in the offensive line from sophomore year to junior year.”

Now that those front line troops are in their junior year, Eash said, “We’ll have a veteran offensive line, and Monferdini will be a big part of it.”

The new season will also mean a position shift for Monferdini, from left tackle to right guard – a move Eash believes the 6 foot-4, 270 pounder is more suited for. “Nick was more of a guard for us,” Eash said about the role he saw for Business major.

“Being on the field was great and it was a great learning experience,” Monferdini said. “Playing at this level, after playing at the high school level, really made me step my game. It made me work a lot harder for this season so I could get better.” For instance, he said, being a Titan has taught him how to adjust his pass blocking style.

Squib Kicks: IWU will have 9 starters on offense and 10 on defense as the season opens…..IWU will open the season at Nebraska Wesleyan on Sept. 10….IWU’s 2016 home part of the schedule begins by hosting North Central Sept. 10 at 6p.m.…. Wheaton College visits for IWU Homecoming Oct. 1 at 1p.m…..Elmhurst College visits on IWU Senior Day Oct. 29 for a 1p.m. game.

By Steve Robinson | August 17, 2016 - 7:44 am
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Connect TransitNORMAL – Changes in public transportation in the Twin Cities were recognized at Uptown Station as Connect Transit, the Twin Cities’ public bus service, announced the start of a redesigned system.

Connect Transit officials held a news conference Monday morning amid travelers going to trains and buses in Uptown Station to formally welcome the changes that had been implemented as of 5a.m. that morning.

As part of the new system, the following routes will stay but have been reworked according to new maps Connect Transit has released: Red, Green, Teal, Aqua, Orange, Purple, Blue, Brown, Pink, and Yellow. Joining those routes are three new routes signified by the new colors of Gold, Tan, and Olive.

Andrew Johnson, general manager of Connect Transit, called the revamped system “a game changer for Bloomington-Normal. It has simple and easy-to-understand routes, Sunday service, and buses that are much more frequent – some as often as every 15 minutes.

“Today, Connect Transit becomes a far more convenient option to get to work, to school, and to shopping,” Johnson added, as roughly 50-70 local dignitaries or their representatives, residents, and interested citizens listened in.

Johnson said the changes passengers will experience is “the result of years of discussions,” including 18 months of research and analysis the company did. He said the hours of research done by the company were done with the thought that “the system belongs to the community and has to work for the community.” He said financial assistance from Federal, State, and Twin Cities governments helped make the changes Connect Transit implemented possible.

Mike McCurdy, vice president of Connect Transit’s Board of Trustees explained to the gathering a Comprehensive Operational Analysis done by the company was among the factors that brought forth the new routes. McCurdy said the transit company held more than 100 public meetings to address bus patrons’ concerns.

McCurdy said the new routes were approved by Connect Transit’s Board of Trustees in a unanimous 7-0 vote.

U. S. Rep. Darin LaHood (R-18th Dist.) addressed the news conference and credited Johnson and his staff at the transit company “for continuing to be proactive, and to continue to think outside the box, and continue to come up with ideas.”

Toward the end of the news conference, Johnson was asked about future placement of shelters at bus stops. Johnson said Connect Transit is looking at installing 25 shelters throughout the community, and that placement of the shelters would be determined by frequency of use. He said shelters come with a price tag that ranges between $10,000-$12,000.

Johnson added State and Federal funding is covering the cost of Sunday service, which costs around $1.5 million. He said 27 new full-time staff, most of them drivers, have been hired to help with the additional hours.

As for having a seventh day of service, Johnson said, “Everybody we’ve talked to is thrilled to have it.”

Johnson said Connect Transit has an average daily ridership of 9,000 people. He said the company is anticipating an increase in ridership of 19 percent once people get used to the new routes.

The news conference concluded with the dignitaries and members of the media taking a ride on the Green route out of Uptown Station on a round trip up through Bloomington, into its downtown district, past the outskirts of the campus of Illinois Wesleyan University, back into Normal’s city limits.

Green Route Buses Replace ISU “Nite Ride”: With Illinois State University students back to begin the fall semester, they will notice the familiar “Nite Ride” buses that have been used, mostly for late excursions to Bloomington pubs since the late night service began a dozen years ago, will now be serviced by buses running on the Green route. Those Green Route buses will keep later hours.