By Steve Robinson | August 13, 2017 - 3:48 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Steve RobinsonBy the time you read this column, the school year will have been underway. The people at First Student Bus Co., the company that has a contract with Normal-based Unit 5 School District, have assured the district school board they have the busing matter under control and were ready for the new school year.

But in addition to the routine transport of kids to and from school, First Student needed to be concerned about helping get certain students to lessons which took place at schools other than the ones they regularly attend.

The students I’m talking about in this case include 5th grade band students, kids involved with the Heartland Computer Science Cohort, 8th grade Foreign Language, and 8th grade Geometry. These kids either need to go to a junior high school or one of Normal’s two high schools, respectfully, to receive these lessons.

Mark Bohl, location manager for Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student Bus Co., explained accomplishing this particular component of busing students “wasn’t a big piece of the puzzle but it definitely added to the puzzle.” He added the team of people he has who map out the routes “did a great job and worked it out.”

Understanding that there is always the unforeseen on the road, Bohl said, “We’ve got things in place so we can get kids there on time.” He said routes will be adjusted as necessary to make sure they get where they need to be on time.   

That need to make sure buses arrive on time also will include students who are attending the Bloomington Area Career Center (BACC) and Vocational Transitional Assistance Program, (VTAP). BACC offers an introduction into various occupations for students. VTAP is an evaluation, training, and employment program that prepares students with disabilities for transition to employment. All of the bus routes to BACC and VTAP have been mapped out, Bohl told Unit 5 Board members at the governing body’s Aug. 9 meeting.

In addition, Board members were informed construction around Benjamin Elementary School has been completed and therefore, the need for two additional buses to transport students has been eliminated. He further explained early childhood class bus routes have been established, as well, and will be revised based on the number of children registered.

“All of this takes a lot of planning, and the routers have worked hard,” Bohl said. “We took the lessons from last year and used those and applied them for this year.” Last year, among other issues, late buses became a concern for First Student and Unit 5 to overcome.

Getting students to these lessons struck me as being a puzzle within a puzzle. Bohl explained, “The simplest piece of the puzzle was just the basic routes we started with. The routes were set. We knew they worked. We just fit the other programs the district wanted within those boundaries of the requirements the district put forth to us.” 

To ensure that timing and routes are verified, First Student ran dry runs just before the school year started.

Here is hoping the smaller puzzle within a puzzle has as much success as was being hoped for on day one of the school year, with the pieces falling into place – for students, parents, First Student, and the district.

By Steve Robinson | August 10, 2017 - 10:40 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

portillos logoNORMAL – Over the years, the Town of Normal has tried to maintain the quality of hospitality it offers to residents and visitors, whether one was thinking in terms of restaurants or lodging. On Thursday, Aug. 10, Portillo’s held a media event introducing itself to the community, some members of which were already familiar. Portillo’s is located at 202 Landmark Dr. In addition, on the same day, the new Radisson Hotel and Conference Center on Normal’s north end of I-55, held a ribbon cutting to re-open a five-story, 158-room hotel which, for the last decade, had been closed after a number of changes in owners and branding. The hotel’s address is 8 Traders Circle.

Portillo’s Opened Aug. 15: Portillo’s, which bills itself as the seller of hot dogs, burgers, salads, and chocolate cake shakes, began when founder Dick Portillo took his family’s savings of $1,100 to invest in a small shack from which to sell hot dogs, in 1963. He was in town to preview his 51st restaurant the Oak Brook-based chain has opened.

When his family moved to Villa Park over five decades ago, Portillo said he noticed the community needed a hot dog stand. During the event, Portillo stood in the parking lot of the franchise next to a replica of the shack he first used when he opened up his business in Villa Park, which he opened as The Dog House. That little shack had no running water, so he improvised using a garden hose. Because there was also no sink in the shack, he and his wife, Sharon, cleaned dishes in the bathtub of the home they lived in at the time.

In 10 states now, “Today, the restaurant has 6,000 employees,” Portillo told a gathering of roughly 40 people including media. Normal’s Portillo’s location will hire about 200 people.   

At a news conference following Portillo’s introductory remarks, Normal Mayor Chris Koos informed Portillo, “I know Portillo’s will be a home run for the community.” He informed Portillo “There are, probably 7- or 8,000 Illinois State University students” who will want to stop in for some of his product. Those products now range from hot dogs to burgers to chicken and salads, in addition to shakes and chocolate cake.

The Town of Normal agreed to give the project developer, Bloomington Landmark, $1.875 million in future sales tax receipts from the restaurant. That total could grow to be as much as $2.5 million with interest which would help pay for demolition of the three-story Motel 6 which had been on the land beforehand, and construction.

The restaurant, with its 1920s era theme, included a Ford Model T, which is overhead in the center of the eatery. In addition to media, local residents who had gone onto the restaurant’s website to obtain a “golden ticket” could use that ticket to get into the eatery for a sneak peek and have what, for some, was a first taste of Portillo’s items.

Radisson Comes “Back To Life” At Formal Debut: When the Staywood Inn located at the north end of Normal off I-55, closed more than a decade ago, it left many with a feeling the Town had shuttered its “front door,” as it were, because for many travelers entering the community from that end of town, that was the first business that welcomed them as they drove by.

radissonOpened as a Sheraton Hotel in the mid-1970s, the hotel has changed monikers, becoming a Holiday Inn, before changing to Staywood Inn at the time of its closing. A separate ownership group proposed opening a Crowne Plaza Hotel at that site a decade ago but poor economic conditions which lasted for a couple years at that time forced the then-developer to sideline the project. The current ownership group is Minneapolis, Minn.-based Swift Hospitality Group.

It was a former Normal Town Council member, Adam Nielsen, who, as the Town was hoping someone would invest and revive the hotel a decade ago, referred to the hotel as being at Normal’s “front door.”

After an $18 million renovation, the five-story hotel with a 12,000 sq. ft. conference center had a formal introduction to the community, with roughly 200 invited guests and media members later in the day on Aug. 10. The hotel and its bar had a soft opening in July, but local dignitaries and officials from the ownership group were on hand for the formal opening event.

Before a formal ribbon-cutting took place in the hotel lobby, City Manager Mark Peterson, addressing the gathering reminded that the property was “the premier property to bring people to from out of town” in previous years, and that thanks to the renovation, “I think it’s back. We so appreciate the investment the Swift Group made in this property.”

Normal Mayor Chris Koos told the gathering, “The Swift Group had the vision and the tenacity to see this vision through. This is the end result. It’s a fantastically beautiful property that’s going to serve our community for years to come. We wish the Swift Hospitality Group and its employees all the best.”

“We are thrilled to be entering into a relationship with Swift Hospitality Group with this fabulous hotel,” said Teresa Glatz, director of global sales for Radisson Hotels, addressing the gathering. ”After having sat vacant for the past decade, Swift Hospitality Group has brought new life to this area and to this city.”

Dave Swift, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Swift Hospitality Group, told the gathering his partners “wanted to put life back into this hotel. We never gave up. We knew we were going to do this right.”

Unit 5NORMAL – As the new school year approaches, both Normal-based Unit 5 School Board members and an official from First Student Bus Co. agreed on one thing to be paramount on the first day of class Aug. 16: Busing students must show a complete turnaround from the way it was handled at the beginning of last school year.

Mark Bohl, location manager for First Student Bus Co., addressed Board members at their Aug. 9 meeting at district headquarters, assuring them this year’s transportation situation will be a complete improvement from last year, which included among other things, late buses both to and home from school.

“The 16th is game time,” Bohl said, putting a positive spin on how ready he and his drivers are to get the job done. He told Board members First Student has 144 drivers total, with another 26 in training to handle the 126 routes they must cover to get kids to and from school.

“It was stressed to drivers how important what happened last year can’t happen again,” added Joe Adelman, operations manager for the district, who participated in the meeting’s busing discussion. Adelman added that Bohl “has taken ownership of” the district’s busing component.

Should overcrowding on buses become an issue this year, Bohl said, additional buses will be deployed to meet up with buses needing to reduce its number of passengers, getting those additional students on a particular bus to class safely. There was such crowding on some buses last year that students were sitting in the aisles. In addition to late buses, overcrowding on buses was a frequent complaint lodged with the district.

There will be enough buses on the street, Bohl told Board members, “With the exception of three or four buses, I expect the bus depot lot to be empty.”

Unit 5 mapAdelman added, however, parents will need to exercise some patience during the first few days buses are running. “We can’t control trains going through,” he said. “We can’t control ISU students coming back which might cause delays.” That was a reference to Illinois State University students coming back to town as their fall semester begins Aug. 21. They have been arriving back in town for the semester this week.

Mike Trask, perhaps the most vocal Board member to be critical of how the busing situation developed last year, told Bohl after hearing what First Student has planned, “I have full confidence in you. I appreciate the driver numbers and where they’re at. We fully expect Aug. 16’s activity to not be outside the norm.”

Leading up to Aug. 16, Bohl informed Board members First Student drivers would hold dry runs on routes on Aug. 14 and 15, a process which would include verifying routes and spot-checking for miscellaneous issues.

Despite such planning, Bohl cautioned, buses could run late at times. When those moments occur, should the bus be late getting to school by over 10 minutes, the school will be notified by phone and email. Should that delay happen on the way home, parents will receive a phone message through the district’s Skyward messaging system.

Working Cash Abatement Approved: Board members unanimously approved abating the working cash fund the district had used to spend $3.5 million to purchase 26 buses and renew leases on five others. The money used to pay for the buses was approved last year and the money went from the district’s working cash fund into the Transportation fund to make the purchases. As a result of the recent purchases, Unit 5 now has a total of 145 buses, explained Marty Hickman, business manager for the district.

Board Approves Memorandum Of Understanding With Town: Board members approved a Memorandum of Understanding between the district and the Town of Normal. As a result, the two governing bodies will form a Liaison Committee which would be comprised of two members from the district and two Town Council members. With an initial meeting scheduled for Aug. 29, it is anticipated that group will meet quarterly. Each group will choose two members to be part of the committee, with City Manager Mark Peterson and Dr. Mark Daniel, district superintendent, attending, as well. However, Peterson and Daniel would not be voting members.

At a joint meeting of Unit 5 Board members and Town Council members held in Council Chamber July 26, Normal Mayor Chris Koos directed Peterson to draw up a Memorandum of Understanding between the Town and the district. Peterson would negotiate the agreement with Daniel.

Town of NormalNORMAL – Before the regular meeting of the Normal Town Council began Monday in Council Chambers on the fourth floor of Uptown Station, the Town’s police department received an honor for attempting to curb distracting driving. NPD was one of 10 departments statewide to receive the honor, and the second one in central Illinois. The Traffic Safety Commission of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police made the presentation to Chief Rick Bleichner and officers who were part of the project. Normal was one of 10 departments awarded the inaugural honor. It was only one of two in central Illinois to receive it, with Pekin Police being the other.

Gov. Bruce Rauner declared April 24-28 “Illinois Distracted Driving Awareness Week,” according to Scott Kristiansen, law enforcement liaison for Illinois Department of Transportation. Kristiansen said over 300 police agencies spent that week working to inform and educate motorists on the hazards and dangers associated with distracted driving.

NPD members were recognized “for their important efforts during this important campaign. Kristiansen said writing tickets wasn’t the chief goal, but rather using education, public outreach, community involvement, as well as enforcement. He said the public education component of the program on the part of all 300 communities’ police departments that took part carried the most weight with judges.

Bleichner said NPD took a “kind of a balance of a holistic approach between the education outreach to the community and enforcement.” Part of the outreach NPD did involved community groups, using resource officers at the local high schools, as well as assembling distracted driving details with Illinois State University campus police to help make the public aware.

Kristiansen said the problem of distracted driving is going up, with most offenders being members of the millennial generation, ages 18 to 23. As time has gone by now that these devices are so common, he said, it’s no longer just people in that age range who are guilty of distracted driving.

City Manager Peterson To Retire Next March: The Town announced Monday Normal City Manager Mark Peterson will retire in March, concluding a 30-year career. He began his career in Normal as Assistant City Manager, under then City Manager David Anderson in 1988. In 1998, after Anderson retired, Peterson was promoted to the City Manager’s office.

Prior to working in Normal, Peterson held posts in Missouri and Iowa. Normal Town Council members will hold an initial discussion concerning finding Peterson’s successor in a special executive session on Aug. 11.

Council Approves Sewer Rates And Sanitary Master Plan: Council members unanimously approved a plan which will double residents’ sewer usage rates over the next five years. Council members approved the plan by a 5-0 count, as Mayor Chris Koos and Council Member Scott Preston were not present for the session, which lasted nearly two hours.

Currently, residents pay $10.12 for sewer service which with the hike over the five-year period, will increase it to $15.12. Aldrich stressed “the Town will not be increasing water rates.” The sewer cost increases would begin in October and repeat every April, bringing in $1 million this fiscal year and $1.2 million each of the next four years, with the cash going to handle sewer maintenance and to bolster a financial reserve for future maintenance.

The Town’s sewer fee is part baseline fee and part user charge per every 1,000 gallons of water used. The proposed maintenance fee increase would be by 50 cents and the user charge by 75 cents for every 1,000 gallons used.

Council members received a recap of work that has been done to the system in recent years in a presentation by Scott Desplinter, engineer with consultant Crawford, Murphy, and Tilly, and Aldrich.

Aldrich told Council members three pump stations used by the Town are approaching the 20 years of service mark and need replacement. He added the Town has cleaned 19.9 miles of its sewer system and is proposing cleaning another 62.5 miles of the system, while an additional 97 miles would be cleaned by a company the Town contracts to do the job.

But the planned rate increase does have critics. Former Mayoral candidate Marc Tiritilli and former Town Council candidate Ron Ulmer each addressed Council members objecting to the uptick in rates.

“Is there an intermediate point for this?” Tiritilli asked Council members. Following the meeting, he said he “agrees in principle” to the Town’s plan, but added it seemed odd to pay what it will cost in over a five-year span.

Addressing the Council, Ulmer said he had concerns about the cost of sewer service going from $20 to $45 over the next five years.

McCurdy Reappointed To Connect Transit Board: It was announced Mike McCurdy has been reappointed to the Bloomington-Normal Public Transit Board, which oversees the Town’s public bus transportation system, Connect Transit. The reappointment would give McCurdy another four-year term, expiring June 30, 2021. McCurdy was originally appointed to the Board in 2012, filling the seat vacated by Peterson when the City Manager became an ex-officio, non-voting member of the Board through passage of a Town ordinance when the Board was reorganized.

Omnibus Agenda Items Approved: Omnibus agenda items approved by the Council included:

• Approval of minutes of the public hearing held July 17, 2017.

• Approval of the minutes of the regular meeting held July 17, 2017.

• Approval of Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of Aug. 2, 2017

• A motion authorizing execution of a memorandum of understanding between the Town of Normal and Community Unit School District No. 5 regarding the creation of a joint Town of Normal/Unit Five Liaison Committee.

• A resolution authorizing execution of an intergovernmental agreement with Illinois State University pertaining to fire protection service.

• A resolution authorizing execution of an intergovernmental agreement with Illinois State University for information sharing.

• A resolution to appropriate $118,000 of the Town’s allotment of Motor Fuel Tax funds for communication and traffic signal upgrades on College Avenue and Mulberry St. from Oak St. to Main St.

• A resolution authorizing the execution of a lease agreement with Union Pacific Railroad Co. for the passenger rail platforms at Uptown Station and an associated budget adjustment.

• A resolution conditionally and partially approving the final plat of the Summit House Subdivision by expedited process (602 Dry Grove St.).

• An ordinance amending a cell tower lease at 1301 Warriner St. to extend the lease term.

• An ordinance to renew and amend the cable television franchise agreement with Comcast.

Steve RobinsonIn the column I wrote last week, I mentioned that First Student Bus Co. officials say they believe they have done as much as possible to prevent the problems students, their parents, and district officials experienced as a result of late buses, and a shortage of regular and substitute drivers

The situation resulted in a need for change in time for the start of this school year. No one – not district administrators, First Student representatives, and of course, parents and students – want a repeat of that situation.

Members of Normal-based Unit 5 Board of Education looked to make every effort to get in front of the situation once they had the full scope of it, including making sure the Cincinnati, Ohio-based transportation company knew there would be consequences – including the possibility of terminating the contract the two parties had in place – if First Student didn’t fix matters.

Among those Board members, Mike Trask, who is in the middle of his second term, once he saw what was unfolding at the start of last year, referred to the situation on the part of First Student as “an epic fail.” It was a term those who attended Board meetings heard him use whenever the subject of the start of last school year’s situation was brought up.

But with school starting next week, on Aug. 16, Trask admitted to me he still has “some skepticism” about how things will go. Trask admits that skepticism is based on last year’s events.

As Trask assesses the situation at this point, “I will say with the new management structure at First Student, the new alliance, between First Student and its drivers, and of course, the number of drivers that are actively showing up, I have a lot of strong confidence that we will start off the first day much, much, much better than last year.”

“Will it be perfect?” Trask asked rhetorically. “No. But I don’t think any school year, when we start off, ever starts perfectly.” He said he’s looking for “what should be the norm when things start this year than what they did last year.”

He said First Student having an adequate number of drivers – enough drivers for the 126 routes – was important. He also said communication between the district and the bus company, and then extending that communication and information to parents was important to consider.

Trask said the communication between the district and First Student “needs to be open and proactive.”

To First Student officials, Trask reminded there is a binding contract between them and the district which needs to be honored.

As for the parties who receive service through this contract, Trask had some thoughts for parents whose children get to and from school because of First Student’s efforts. “My advice to parents is that if there is something that isn’t going right, to make sure they make the proper contacts and reach out to First Student.”

He added, after contacting First Student, and they still aren’t feeling good about the response they get, “parents can reach out to Dr. Daniel.” That would be Dr. Mark Daniel, Unit 5’s District Superintendent.

But Trask reminds, “There is a normal amount of patience we all have to have at the beginning of the year.”