By Steve Robinson | September 17, 2020 - 10:10 pm
Posted in Category: News

NORMAL – Members of the Normal-based Unit 5 School Board heard plenty of comments about opening the school year remotely – most of it in opposition — at their regular session held Sept. 16.

By mid-October, when the second half of the first semester gets underway, Unit 5 officials’ plan is it will be with kids in the classroom, a plan the district had laid out for parents recently.

During their meeting, held in the cafeteria of Normal Community West High School so that social distancing could be used during the current COVID-19 pandemic, a total of 22 people – a mix of parents and teachers – addressed remote learning currently employed by the district. Each speaker’s time was kept using a portable scoreboard clock, some taking three minutes or slightly more to state their cases to Board members.

Parent Amberly Herbst did not lead off the session, but her brief explanation of how remote learning with four boys ages 7, 11, 13, and 14, set the stage for how many of the roughly 40 parents attending felt remote learning was going for many district families. “Even with fantastic teachers, ideal home environment, and four boys who do well at learning, E-Learning falls drastically short,” she said.

“Currently, at our home, we are surviving but not thriving,” Herbst said. “That’s all I have to say.” Her brief comments were met with applause from attendees.

Parent Kevin Draeger told Board members his elementary school age daughter has gone from being a child who loves being at school to being one who dreads doing remote learning. He added that although he and his wife “fully support public schools, my wife and I took a tour of a private school because of the experience that we’re having right now.” He asked Board members why, if other schools were basing being open on metrics, why weren’t Unit 5 schools currently open.

“Let’s not wait around again for some made-up date in October,” Draeger concluded, finishing by punctuating his comments with, “Let’s get them back today.”

Lyndsey Dickinson, president of Unit Five Education Association (UFEA), the union that represents nearly 1,000 district teachers, told Board members, “First, I have to say to the State first, unequivocally, we want to be back in school in person.” She added UFEA wants to be involved in the decision making process concerning the matter of when schools are opened, as well. She added decisions made at this time “need to prioritize the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff.”

She said while UFEA agreed with the original decision to not to return to class this summer, it took issue with the district changing plans and resuming remote learning when the current semester started. She said that decision “was not made by us and not made because of us.”

Dickinson said she has heard some district administrators blame UFEA teachers for students not being back in classrooms. “Those messages are inaccurate and inappropriate and we want them stopped immediately.”

Sarrah Brubaker addressed Board members saying she started a Facebook page for people who want McLean County schools kept open during this time. She said the group had varying concerns including financial burdens families are experiencing and struggles students are having with the remote learning process.

Her husband, Tom Brubaker, told Board members, “COVID and health department metrics are not closing schools. Local leaders decide to close the schools.” He added the Center For Disease Control has recommended schools be open for in-person learning.

Jim Capparelli, a father of two, said Unit 5 teachers “basically gave up” on the kids when COVID-19 first forced school closings in March. “It’s time to check this and see it’s not working,” he added.

John Starnes, the father of a kindergartener and fourth grader, said while the older child is doing well, the younger one is struggling. “The children need structure,” he said. “Being at school together is how we all learned. The children need to be in school, the teachers need the children in school. The parents need the stress lifted off our chests because this is a stressful situation in America” with children not going to a physical school.

The perception that the kids are being given up on by teachers and administrators prompted two Normal Community West High School teachers to come to the defense of their colleagues. The first one to do so was Jim Rumps, who has taught English there for 21 years. “I have seen a lot of teachers come and a lot of teacher go,” Rumps said. “But one thing that stays is passion, and the fact that we can have people who say our teachers gave up is absolutely 100 percent beyond my comprehension. We show up on a daily basis for your kids. We show up for their social-emotional needs. We show up for when we can see them when they don’t understand concepts. To accuse a teacher of giving up is insane.”

Rumps was followed immediately by West driver’s education teacher Brian Cupples who called this past year “the hardest thing I have ever had to do in Education because you don’t have relationships through a computer screen.”

“We’re doing the absolute best we can,” Cupples said. “We’ll do whatever we have to do to get back in school and be with our kids.” He added education goes beyond what takes place in the classroom. He said it’s also about interaction with students in the halls of the building, as well. He said it’s about watching kids grow up.

Superintendent Says “We’re Working Hard To Get Our Students Back”: Following the session, Dr. Kristen Weikle, district superintendent, said Unit 5 “is doing our best” with the situation and had reasons which were outlined in a plan provided to parents.

“We are working hard to get our students back, hopefully, at the start of the second quarter,” Weikle said.

Board Member Dr. Kelly Pyle added afterward that Dr. Weikle formed a pandemic advisory committee over the summer which has been meeting continuously to work on plans for returning students to their classrooms. “That committee is looking at what must be in place in classrooms so that students and staff can be brought into classrooms safely,” Dr. Pyle added.

UFEA’s Dickinson added afterward teachers are nervous about safety precautions not being enforced or that enough supplies such as hand sanitizer or personal protective equipment, also known as PPEs, will be on hand for teachers and students alike.

Dickinson said much of the blame for the circumstance students and teachers find themselves in is the fault of teachers, and she wishes parents would not look at the situation that way.

By Steve Robinson | September 12, 2020 - 10:00 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Cornbelters, The Normalite

NORMAL – Week two of Kernels Fall League Baseball action saw local athletes engage in a close game in the first of the two games played at The Corn Crib Friday night while game two ended after coaches mutually agreed to end the game deadlocked at 9-all after seven innings.

Yard Goats Get Past BNBA Hoots, 2-1: The Yard Goats, an 18 and Under team comprised of high school students from Mahomet and Champaign areas defeated BNBA Hoots, 2-1, to open week two of KFL action Friday night. Bloomington High alum Nate Johnson, the Hoots’ leadoff man, singled to start the contest in the first inning. But that was followed by a pair of quick strikeouts delivered by Yard Goats pitcher Hayden Brazelton, a St. Joseph Ogden High product, shutting down Hoots second baseman and Normal West High’s Mason Buzicky and U-High’s Chase Adams for two of the offense’s three quick outs. A double by Bloomington Central Catholic High’s David Broadbear scored Johnson for the only run in the inning putting the Hoots up, 1-0

A double by Brazelton in the bottom of the fourth helped Jesse Worley from St. Joseph Ogden High home to tie the game, 1-1. Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley product Hunter Brewer got credit for scoring the winning run. Brazelton claimed the win, while Alex Willey, a Normal Community West High player, took the loss.

Central Illinois 18U Outlaws, 29ers 18U Play To A 9-9 Draw: In the nightcap game, two teams with players primarily from outside central Illinois gave fans plenty of action to see, enough that by mutual agreement, both team coaches agreed to end the game after seven innings, with Central Illinois 18U Outlaws and 29ers 18U playing to a 9-9 tie. The majority of the players on the Outlaws roster were high school players from East Peoria area. The majority of 29ers 18U players were from Chicago with one exception – Patrick Mulcahey who was listed as having played high school ball at Bloomington Central Catholic.

By Steve Robinson | September 8, 2020 - 10:29 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

NORMAL – During a work session prior to their scheduled meeting Tuesday, Normal Town Council members heard a presentation from Town Finance Director Andrew Huhn for increasing the current 4 cents per gallon Motor Fuel Tax pushing it up four cents to 8 cents per gallon to match the amount per gallon charged by the City of Bloomington.

When the Town began using the 4 cent MFT in 2015, Huhn told Council members, it raised around $1 million. The City of Bloomington raised their MFT tax to 8 cents per gallon on May 1, 2019. Huhn said that prompted the Town to research doing their increase May 2 of that year and continued it until March. During the period, Huhn said, Bloomington gas stations were selling product at a cost of roughly 3 cents a gallon than stations in Normal.

City Manager Pam Reece added gas tax dollars are often spent by the Town on such items as bridges, sidewalk improvements, and public transportation. “What we believe we can poll from the data is that a four cent change in the local Motor Fuel Tax does not change consumer behavior,” she said. “At this point, we would like that Council consider a four cent increase to become comparable with Bloomington.” She said the potential added funds would allow the Town to invest dollars in its transportation system.

Reece added Town officials have been also discussing improvements the additional money brought in by the potential increase could provide to pay for improvements related to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to make travel easier for disabled residents.

The idea for the increase was originally proposed at a Town Council January work session, Reece reminded Council members but was set aside when matters surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic took precedence as the year progressed.

Getting additional funding for Connect Transit would also be a possibility in the use of the money from the increase, Reece said, adding it could also aid the bus company to get more funding from Springfield.

Cummings asked if Bloomington lost any gas stations as a result of the increase. Huhn responded saying he was told officials there “were pleasantly surprised activity remained pretty much consistent” after the City implemented the increased tax.

Council Member Kevin McCarthy asked Reece how soon Council members would see an ordinance to vote on, and after that, when would the tax increase take effect. Reece said it would not take long for an ordinance to appear on their agenda to vote on it, but once approved, there would be a 90-day period during which the Town would notify gas dealers, allowing them to make any necessary changes on their end.

Public Comment Centers On Public Transportation: Prior to the work session, Council members heard a public comment from former Town Council candidate Ron Ulmer. Ulmer criticized Connect Transit, the Twin Cities public transportation service, for among other things, moving bus stops to locations further from places like shopping complexes, among other locations. “Riding the bus is no longer convenient or even a possibility in the need of public transportation.” He cited difficulties people who have appointments at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington have waiting for a bus and that bus stop, where there is no shelter and only a bus stop sign on a pole at that corner.

Town Audit Report Presented, Accepted: By a unanimous vote, Council members passed a resolution which accepted the audit report conducted on the Town. The audit was done by Naperville-based Certified Public Accounting firm Lauterbach and Amen. Jamie Wilkey, a partner with that firm, told Council members the Town received what auditors call a clean audit, or audit without issues needing to be addressed.

She also said the Town received a Certificate In Excellence In Financial Reporting from a third party, the Government Finance Officers Association. “It’s really the highest form of reporting that you can have for a government entity,” Wilkey told Council members. The Town received that honor for the outcome of the audit done on Town finances in March 2019.

Trend Report Has Cautious Optimism On Employment, Police And Fire Pensions Still Down: Huhn delivered to Council members his department’s annual Financial Trends and Condition Report at Monday’s regular meeting, as well. The report had cautious optimism concerning unemployment, explaining that Normal, along with other governments in the region “experienced a decrease in its unemployment rate as compared to the prior year and Normal’s rate remains amongst the lowest compared to the eight largest downstate communities in Central Illinois south of I-80. It should be noted that the pandemic caused significant increases in unemployment rates across the United States and as of June, the Town’s rate was10.3 percent and the State’s rate was 14.6 percent.”

But as has been the case for a few years now, both Police and Fire pensions received negative reports. The report on the police pension explained “the Town experienced a decrease in funding level for Police. Funding levels remain very concerning and will be a significant long-term problem for the Town and all Illinois municipalities. The sharp drop in the 2020 funding level is primarily the result of updating the mortality assumptions used for the plan participants.”

In part, the Fire Pension report said, “The Town experienced a decrease in funding level for Fire. Funding levels remain very concerning and will be a significant long-term problem for the Town and all Illinois municipalities.”

Meeting Held Tuesday: The Council session was held a day later than usual because Town offices were closed in observance of Labor Day Monday.

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

• Approval of minutes of regular meeting held Aug. 17, 2020.

• Report to receive and file Town expenditures for payment as of Sept. 2, 2020.

• A resolution waiving the formal bidding process and authorizing the purchase of seven (7) Otterbine Industrial Aerators from MTI Distributing in the amount of $61,893.16.

• A resolution to accept bids and award a contract to H.J. Eppel and Company for the construction of the Eagle’s Landing Multi-Use Trail Project in the amount of
$280,736.15.

• A resolution selecting Crawford, Murphy & Tilly and authorizing the City Manager to execute an agreement for water system analysis and project design in an amount not to exceed $250,000.

By Steve Robinson | September 7, 2020 - 6:19 am
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Nobody, particularly sports fans and especially high school sports fans, can deny the Coronavirus crisis threw us all for a curve ball in March, and just about literally turned our sports seasons on their ear. That could not be a truer statement for players and fans of high school baseball and softball teams as they saw their burgeoning season start come to a complete stop with what had to feel as subtle as a sliding player coming in from third being called out by the ump at the plate.

And usually, especially on Friday nights in the fall, I gear up for football, as I have regularly now for 14 years. But with Illinois High School Association postponing the start of football season until March in light of the pandemic, I could relate to the feeling players and their families must have been experiencing with no games.

Fans of those sports were missing out, yearning to have some kind of normalcy. For high school baseball fans, there is a partial solution in the form of the Kernels Fall League (KFL), with teams featuring high school players taking to the diamond at The Corn Crib on Normal’s north end, with games that began Sept. 4. The league was organized in conjunction with Play 9 Sports. The fall league play is advertised as “Friday Night Spikes” and will run through mid-October to give baseball fans both a resolution for what they couldn’t have last spring and a fix of their favorite sport until next spring. There are divisions for players in their junior and senior years of play and a separate set for freshman and sophomore players.

Organizers of Kernels Fall League are being given use of The Corn Crib, and there are some CornBelters staff on hand to assist KFL. KFL is being organized independently. One of the organizers is Steve Clapp, head baseball coach at Bloomington High School, who has been with the school’s athletic department since 2001.

Published media reports indicate Matt Stembridge, operations manager for the CornBelters and KCL director Mike Brown among others gave the notion of putting together a league for high school players some thought and then went to work making KFL a reality.

In a conversation I had with Brown Monday, he explained, “Our goal was to get kids to play baseball at a time when everything else is being cancelled. We’re just trying to get kids something to do in what has been a very, very difficult time for them as most of their stuff has been cancelled.”

Players will get in an 18-and-under division and a 16-and-under division, Clapp said. He added while this is what he termed a developmental league, “there will players here who have already signed Division I scholarships. There will also be players who have never played a high school game before.”

“The high school coaches were really heartbroken when they saw their kids lost their spring season with the pandemic,” Clapp said. “The biggest thing we had was when Gov. J. B. Pritzker mentioned there were different sports that could play, and baseball was one of those that got the green light to go.”

With Illinois High School Association punting football until spring, organizers “tried to develop something so that baseball players who chose to play would have a place to go,” Clapp added. KFL games start with 5:30 p.m. first pitches on Fridays at The Corn Crib, and also play Saturdays at 8 a.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. In addition to Fridays, games are played at Illinois State’s Duffy Bass Field and O’Neil Park in Bloomington.

Brown makes a suggestion that ought to give us all thought: “Just to be outside and being kids is something that we appreciate more than we did before the pandemic. We’re just trying to get it right and hope the kids have a great experience.”

I attended the game between CornBelters 18U and Team Game 7 18U Friday, and 18U CornBelters won, 4-3, thanks to University High’s Evan Kochel’s 4th inning grand slam home run, scoring teammates Adison Worthman (Bloomington High), Eli Hensley (Normal West), and Charlie Vercruysse (U-High). Team Game 7 18U players attempted to mount a 5th inning comeback but weren’t able to overtake their opponents. Players who scored for Team Game 7 18U were Mitchell Murphy (Normal Community), Mac Conklin, and Matthew Davenport (both U-High).

With KFL week one in the books and five more weeks to look forward to, fans will be able to enjoy its run through its final weekend Oct. 9-11. But the bottom line for KFL organizers, while making sure kids maintain social distancing, Clapp said, is helping develop players and “to give kids an opportunity to get better, to get them some good instruction, and, really with COVID, just a release for them to go out and be kids.”

Even in these uncertain times, we can’t ask for anything more for their sakes, can we?

NORMAL – Normal Town Council members held a special session remotely on Wednesday, Sept. 2, during which they voted to approve extending a pair of ordinances related to the COVID19 pandemic which were due to expire that day. As a result of the votes taken by Council, the ordinances will now expire on Dec. 31.

Ordinance Related To Size Of Gathering, Social Distancing Approved: The first ordinance restricts parties and gatherings in affected residential units to 10 people, requires attendees’ faces to be covered, and adhere to State and county regulations related to the pandemic. Illinois State University students, currently on campus since the fall semester opened in August, will finish learning remotely when they go home for Thanksgiving break beginning November 20. Council members voted 6-1 to approve the ordinance, with Council Member Stan Nord casting the lone opposing vote.

Ordinance Related To Seating Limits, Safety Measures Approved: The second ordinance set seating restrictions and other safety restrictions for on-premises liquor establishments. This ordinance requires patrons, among other things, to be seated to be served, and can result in fines of up to $750 per violation of the restriction. Council members voted 6-1 to approve the ordinance, with Nord voting against.

Part of Nord’s objection to both ordinances was he believed they should be decided by the county’s public health department to put such items into effect, not the Council.

City Manager Pam Reece told Council members Mayor Chris Koos “has the flexibility to rescind ordinance should conditions change. In response to a question from Council Member Scott Preston, Koos said the ordinances are “broader based” than just to be aimed at college students who frequent bars. He credited owners of restaurants and bars “for doing the right thing already” to try to maintain safety for patrons. He added the ordinances give teeth if they should have to deal with businesses which violate ordinances.

During public comments on the matter, Brian Rejack, an Illinois State University employee, told Council members he questioned where the Council received information which restricted the numbers of people allowed to gather. In part, he argued there are more than 10 people allowed to gather in retail stores than at social gatherings. “While you members were elected to represent the members in the community, that election was not based on your competence as a decision maker for individuals or public health,” Rejack said.

Rejack added, “If the Council does decide to move forward with this in the interest of public health, may we consider a few additional public health items? Seeing as there are more public health concerns that are much more well documented than COVID, we should take a look at heart disease, Diabetes, or obesity along with things like anxiety and depression, which have been directly linked to poor eating habits.”

After public comments concluded, Council Member Karyn Smith responded to Rejack’s remarks, saying diseases such as Diabetes can’t be passed from one person to another simply by sitting next to them. “This virus is a respiratory illness that spreads through the air, and that there is evidence that points to the effectiveness of masks. I want to make clear that we are not health experts, in a time of crisis, we are asked to think of what would serve our community well.”

She acknowledged the hardship restaurants have faced as a result of the pandemic, adding, “In an effort to work together as a community and get through this together, that is part of the rationale for why we are taking this action.”

Rejack concern centered on whether it was the Town’s responsibility to enforce restricting the number of people who could gather during the pandemic for safety reasons. “Is it the Council’s responsibility to be limiting the activities of those who are, in fact, educated on the risks of COVID, and made the voluntary decision to come back to the University….?” he asked. Rejack also asked if protests or other politically-related events would be included as part of the ordinance.

Koos said the ordinance concerning gathering does not affect free speech or protests, explaining there are Federal and State statutes on the books which cover such items. “We’re not going to disband any marches or protests that have issues with our current situations or political issues,” the Mayor stated.