By Steve Robinson | October 10, 2019 - 10:36 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL — Board members of Normal-based Unit 5 School District unanimously approved renewing its contract with YouthBuild Charter School for five years. In doing so, the district will continue providing help to YouthBuild so that the organization can increase learning opportunities for students, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for at-risk pupils. The vote took place at the Board’s regularly-scheduled meeting at district headquarters on Oct. 9. The district signed its first contract with YouthBuild in 2008.

In explaining the contract agreement between the district and YouthBuild, which expires in 2024, Curt Richardson, attorney for the district, informed Board members YouthBuild “is constantly working and changing and adding new programs to their curriculum. In addition to Unit 5’s Board approving this, YouthBuild’s Board of Directors needs to approve it. Once those two votes take place, the agreement is submitted to Illinois State Board of Education. If ISBE has anything they believe needs changing, the agreement would be brought back to Unit 5’s Board to vote on, Richardson said.

Tracey Polson, the local organization’s executive director, and Michelle Klatt, local chief financial officer for YouthBuild were both present at the session and thanked Board members for approving Unit 5’s portion of the contract.

Board Member Meta Mickens-Baker asked Richardson about the kinds of major changes which would be made to the contract before ISBE would give its approval. Richardson responded updates made to the contract would be related to new laws passed by the State which once didn’t apply to charter schools which now do so.

“In the last four years, we’ve looked at diversifying our vocational offerings,” Polson explained to Board members. She said while construction work had become a focus for placing students in jobs, not all of her students are gearing themselves toward that field. To address other fields of study, she explained, YouthBuild added an information technology track, which upon completion would give students a certification they can use once they get to secondary education.

Polson added YouthBuild has added a Certified Nursing Assistant training program, something she said will aid any of students who want to expand into the healthcare career field in the future. She said YouthBuild’s CNA program has begun a partnership with Heritage Senior Care Center. She said the CNA program will aid students wishing to expand their studies in the healthcare field.

Polison said YouthBuild is looking at expanding its culinary arts program, as well.

Resolutions Concerning School Safety Discussed: Board members engaged in a discussion related to items to be discussed at the IASB Resolutions Committee meeting in Chicago next month. Among the items to be discussed is whether or not to allow teachers in some districts to be armed, in light of the phenomenon of school shootings that have happened across the country over the years.

In beginning the conversation on the subject, Board President Barry Hitchins mentioned smaller school districts in the State don’t have the ability to afford resource officers – police officers whose primary beat is a school during the school year, and as a result, would consider training teachers to use guns to protect students.

Board Member Mike Trask addressed the subject by saying he doesn’t feel a need to arm teachers. He said arming teachers puts teachers in the position of having to taking on that responsibility. Board Member Meta Mickens-Baker had the same feeling about arming teachers, she said. She said she didn’t want to have to put teachers “in the position of being judge and jury” by carrying the weapon.

Richardson added a resource officer wouldn’t know which teachers would be armed in a shooting circumstance, adding to the concerns such situation present.

In a situation where a shooter is involved, explained Deputy Superintendent Dr. Ray Epperson, “Police are trained to neutralize a threat. If they see a third grade teacher with a gun, they don’t know if the teacher is the threat.”

Superintendent Search Survey Available, Forums Scheduled: Daniel announced at a news conference Sept. 9 his intention to exit Unit 5 at the end of the current school year, on June 30, when his current contract with the district expires. He explained at that news conference his decision was based on his and his wife’s desire to be closer to family who just had the Daniel’s first grandchild. He has been Superintendent since July 1, 2014.

At the Board’s Sept. 11 meeting, Board members heard a pitch from and voted to hire Oak Park-based School Exec Connect to help in the search for the district’s superintendent.

On Oct. 7, the district put out a memo addressed to “District Staff, Students, Parents, & Community Members” seeking input about what they would like to see in the next superintendent. The survey is available on the district website and went up Oct. 14 and will be up until Oct. 25.

Two forums on the subject will also take place, both at Sugar Creek Elementary School, on Tuesday, Oct. 22. The first forum is for Unit 5 staff members only beginning at 4:30 p.m. The second forum for students, parents, and community members will be held at 6:30 p.m. Findings from the survey, open forums, and several focus group conversations will be used to develop a new superintendent profile that will be reported to School Board members at a special meeting at on Wednesday, October 30, held at the district office. The public is invited to that meeting.

In a memo announcing the dates of the forums, Board President Barry Hitchins added, “As we move forward, our most important consideration is securing the strongest candidate pool, and ultimately the best person to lead our District. To that end, the Board of Education has decided to conduct a confidential search and only the final candidate’s name will be announced publicly.”

By Steve Robinson | October 8, 2019 - 10:23 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

NORMAL – In recent months, there have been concerns regarding service provided to public transit riders in the Twin Cities. Fare increases and service being reduced with the elimination of routes recently prompted Normal Town Council members to invite Board members from Connect Transit to address the issues before Council. That meeting, giving Connect Transit officials an opportunity to provide answers took place at Monday’s regularly-scheduled Council meeting.

Mike McCurdy, Chair, and Ryan Whitehouse, Vice-Chair, of Connect Transit’s Board of Directors, responded to the Council’s request to address Council members and answer questions concerning how the public transit system operates. Whitehouse began by touting that the transit system has seen a ridership of 2.4 million rides in the past year, giving the system a third consecutive year of increased ridership.

Whitehouse added the system has received $7.5 million in grants over the last two years which allowed the system to purchase updated buses. Council Member Chemberly Cummings challenged Whitehouse’s statement about grants, stating that grants usually need to be applied for to address a specific need. Whitehouse responded by explaining the most recent grants applied for were directed at Connect obtaining electronic buses.

If the dollars applied for aren’t specified for that use, Whitehouse said, the money goes back into the coffers of the Federal Transportation Administration. He added that the weight of buses prompted Connect to make the decision not to have the vehicles go through store parking lots, a policy which began in 2016.

Council Member Kathleen Lorenz verified with McCurdy as to why buses no longer go through parking lots at grocery stores and places like Walmart and Meijer. McCurdy explained that not going through those lots “increases efficiency” and helps keep routes on schedule.

McCurdy reminded Council members Connect looked at route restructuring in 2015 and implemented a plan where buses would only make pick-ups at bus stops, a change from previous years, in 2016. Since making that change, McCurdy told Council members, “Ridership is rebounding and we have had our third best year for ridership.”

McCurdy explained that ridership is calculated as per ride. He used the example of if he gets on one bus, that’s one ride. If he transfers from that same bus to another bus, that gets counted as another ride. This formula, he added, is in line with rules established by Federal Transportation Administration.

McCurdy added that if the number of transfers asked for aren’t up, but Connect sees more rides taken, it shows them ridership is increasing. In response to not serving certain areas due to what Connect’s analysis sees as areas with low ridership, Whitehouse explained Connect “doesn’t feel it’s right to put money into an area until it has data to back it up. We’re trying to provide the best service possible.”

Connect Transit is attempting to phase out 30 foot buses in favor of 35 foot vehicles, McCurdy said, explaining maintenance costs are the reason for the change.

Connect receives money from Illinois State University which allows students, faculty, staff, and retired staff to ride with just a swipe of a University I.D. card. Council Member Karyn Smith mentioned this and referred to it as a “subsidy.” Mayor Chris Koos was quick to correct Smith informing her it is not a subsidy. ISU pays Connect to cover the cost of that service.

Smith addressed McCurdy and Whitehouse, explaining there are reports of areas where buses drop off at points that are not compliant with the American with Disabilities Act. One of those is outside of OSF St. Joseph Hospital across from the former Bergner’s along Eastland Dr. In part, McCurdy responded by saying the transit system predates ADA.

Normal and Bloomington both provide money to Connect Transit’s operation. Council Member Stan Nord added to the conversation saying if the transit system wants money from the Town, Connect needs to see to it the money is spent to help provide service for citizens in areas currently not served or not served as well by the transit service.

McCurdy responded to Nord’s comment saying, “If this Council wants us to serve low ridership areas, then you should help us find the financing to do that.”

Previous Meeting Minutes Questioned: During the section of the meeting where omnibus items – items Council members address and use one vote to decide on — Nord and Smith took issue with minutes from previous council meetings because they say key details are left out. Nord referred to doing that as rewriting history, adding he believed to do so was wrong.

City Clerk Angie Huonker takes the minutes at Council sessions and found her work being defended by Council Member Lorenz. Lorenz cautioned the Council should be careful in suggesting history is being rewritten. When a vote was taken to edit the minutes of the Council’s previous meeting held Sept. 16, Only Nord and Smith voted in favor. Koos, joined by Council Members Chemberly Cummings, Kevin McCarthy, Scott Preston, and Lorenz, voted against any edit taking place.

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

• Approval of minutes of regular meeting held Sept. 16, 2019.

• Report to receive and file Town expenditures for payment as of Oct. 2, 2019.

• A resolution to accept water treatment plant chemical bids from November 2019 through October 2020.

By Steve Robinson | September 26, 2019 - 10:54 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – Players and parents associated with the local lacrosse team in the Twin Cities must have felt as though they scored a goal at the regularly-scheduled meeting of Normal-based Unit 5 School Board on Sept. 25. That’s because Board members unanimously approved adding the sport to the spring schedules of both Normal Community High School and Normal Community West High School starting in 2020.

With their vote, Board members agreed for the district to enter into an agreement with Friends Of Bloomington-Normal Lacrosse to assemble two varsity teams — one boys’, one girls’ – for competition beginning next spring. The teams will incorporate players from Bloomington High School into their teams

The students representing the organization and their parents listened as Nic Kearfoot, athletic director at NCHS, and Stan Lewis, athletic director at Normal West offered to address any issues Board members may have had. The teams will practice at the practice field at Kingsley Junior High School, the former home of NCHS, and games will take place at Ironmen Field at NCHS and Wildcat Field at Normal West. The ADs explained boys’ games will be played at NCHS while girls’ games will be played at Normal West. Lewis said the reason for that is because fields for girls’ games are marked differently than they are for boys’ games.

Lewis said since the schools got a bit of a late start in getting the organizational matters taken care of, more than likely the teams would travel to Chicago suburban schools for some games rather than playing host to those schools this time around.

Board Member Meta Mickens-Baker asked about what amount of class time would students be absent from if they are playing on the road. Lewis said that is a “valid concern for any of our sports,” adding if games are in the Chicago suburbs or St. Louis, he envisioned doing those games on Saturdays to prevent any class time from suffering as a result.

He said the teams’ options for local contests are a little more limited, but would be looking to play “during as many Saturdays as we could get within the confines of the season. The regular season runs from mid-March through mid-May followed by playoffs which run through May and part of June.

Bloomington-based District 87’s School Board was to have a presentation given to them to consider related to this venture. That meeting took place the same time Unit 5 met in the cafeteria of Normal Community West High School for their Board meeting Wednesday.

The sports conference both NCHS and Normal West belong to, Big 12 Conference, has no schools competing in lacrosse, Lewis said, but there are a couple coop teams within driving distance of the Twin Cities, including in Washington and Dunlap.

During public comments Mike Buelow, president of Friends of Bloomington-Normal Lacrosse, told Board members the group began in 2011 and only had 15 kids when it started and now has ten times that number now. “The dream of these athletes to play for their school is real, and with your help, it can become a reality.”

Layne Scheck, an NCHS sophomore and a member of the girls’ team associated with Friends of Bloomington-Normal Lacrosse, told Board members playing the sport has been beneficial to her in a number of ways including gaining close friends in the six years she has played the sport. She said the sport has taught her, among other things, perseverance, hard work, teamwork, and leadership skills.

After the meeting, Dr. Ray Epperson, assistant superintendent, explained Lewis and Kearfoot will next turn in a cooperative agreement with Illinois High School Association to have this team added to IHSA’s ranks in this sport. Epperson added the schools will post ads to seek coaches for the teams. There will be a varsity team and a junior varsity team for each of the schools being combined in this effort, he added.

Lewis and Kearfoot submitted applications with IHSA to have a two-year agreement for both boys’ and girls’ co-op teams once District 87’s Board approves the agreement.

Epperson said costs involved with this sport will include transportation, equipment, and coaches’ pay. Friends of Lacrosse, he added, will do fundraising and will turn proceeds from that over to the schools. The schools, in turn, will pay for officials, uniforms, and other related expenses.

Taking this approach, Epperson added, going forward should any other group wish to add a sport, a similar process for how it financially gets started could be used.

Normal West Girls Junior Varsity Basketball Team Honored In “Good News”: The resilience of Normal Community West High School’s girls’ junior varsity freshmen basketball team was honored in a ‘good news” item presented by the team’s head coach, Corey Ostling. On December 5, 2018, the school’s junior varsity “B” girls’ team was heading home from a game against Champaign Central when the bus was struck by a semi-truck heading the wrong way, resulting in a loss of life for two of the individuals, the driver of the truck that hit the bus and the team’s scorekeeper, Charlie Crabtree. The team’s head coach, Steve Price, and bus driver, Mark Kuhn, were injured in the accident and were both hospitalized.

“I cannot express enough gratitude to the counselors and the resources that Unit 5 have put into social emotional learning into understanding the importance of it,” explained Ostling. Explaining there is no test the girls could take in handling this, that this was an event which tested the girls’ character. In explaining how the girls handled the circumstances, Ostling added, “Time and time again, these girls rose above their challenge.”

“They showed strength not to give in to pain,” Ostling added in his addressing Board members. “They could have gone into a really dark place, but instead, were selfless and kept each other going. They also showed great self-awareness when they needed to reach out for help, and they did.”

The girls on the team are: Jori Bishoff, Abby Hoeft, Moni Howard, Kirsten Lellelid, Jess O’Brien, Olivia Reed, Grace Storm, and Haley Willan.

To honor Crabtree, the school has redecorated the entrance to the school’s large gym to honor the 72-year-old. The doors to the gym have been given a shiny new coat of black. Above the doors are draped the words “Westside Wildcats…Eat ‘Em Up, Eat ‘Em Up.” On the adjoining wall is a full-size black and white photo of the gym. In the upper right corner of the photo can be found the words, “In Memory Of Charlie Crabtree.”

Budget For 2019-20 School Year Approved: Board members unanimously approved a budget for the 2019-20 school year. It was the same budget shown them during a Board session in August. The district has a budget of $192 million but shows a deficit of $12.8 million. The district’s education fund from which most dollars used come from has a small surplus.

By Steve Robinson | September 17, 2019 - 1:01 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

NORMAL – The battle struggle concerning Normal Town Council established rules went on for another session on Monday in Council Chambers on the fourth floor of Uptown Station. Current Council meeting rules for public attendees include that they may speak to Council members during a public comments portion of the meeting, but only on topics listed on that meeting’s agenda.

During the public comments segment, former mayoral candidate Marc Tiritilli, while quickly addressing a few issues he wanted to cover, mentioned the need for the Town to fill a vacancy for a representative from the Town on the Connect Bus Transit System Board. Mayor Chris Koos interjected reminding Tiritilli the Board vacancy was not among the listed items on the agenda and that public comments should pertain to items on the evening’s agenda.

Hearing this, Tiritilli ended his comments about Connect. But during the Council Member Comments portion of the meeting before adjournment, Council Member Stan Nord asked for Tiritilli to be able to continue his comments regarding the situation concerning Connect’s Board appointment. Koos informed Nord that could only take place if Council members voted to suspend the established public speaking rules. A vote to suspend those rules took place with Koos and Council Members Chemberly Cummings, Kathleen Lorenz and Kevin McCarthy voting against doing that. Nord and Smith voted in favor of suspending those rules.

With regard to this particular issue, the Office of Illinois Attorney General is currently investigating a challenge to that rule filed in the spring by council member Karyn Smith.

Nord then became insistent Koos fill the Connect Board vacancy. Koos replied saying there was an interested party who withdrew their name from consideration as a result of not wanting to be involved in what the interested party saw as “toxicity” present on Connect’s Board.

At the start of the meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, Smith requested an edit in the minutes from the Council’s Sept. 3 meeting. Smith wished to have Town Clerk Angie Huonker edit minutes from that meeting to, in her opinion, more properly reflect statements she had made. Supporting Huonker’s capabilities as Town Clerk, Koos denied Smith’s request.

Brewpub Design Approved: Council members unanimously approved waivers from the Uptown Design Review Code requested by two brothers desiring to open a brewpub at the former location of a longtime key shop. Having gotten that approval, brothers Ryan and Steven Fiala will demolish the original structure and replace the former key shop location with a two-story structure which will house a microbrewery. Being two stories will add square footage to the property. Also included in the design of the proposed new building are a pair of outdoor patios.

At the Sept. 9 meeting of Uptown Design Review Commission, the design was approved after the brothers and the architects they hired to do the work spoke. No members of the public spoke at the session.

Fiala Brothers Beer LLC will create craft brews and operate a full-service kitchen according to the report provided Council members by Assistant City Manager Eric Hansen.

At the Council’s Sept. 4 meeting, Council members approved brothers Ryan and Steven Fiala’s request for proposed plans for a brewpub by a 5-2 vote with Council Members Nord and Smith voting in opposition to the plan. The Fialas proposed brewpub would be established at 127 E. Beaufort St., the former location of Bill’s Key And Lock Shop.

Annual Town Financial Trend And Condition Report Reviewed: Town Finance Director Andrew Huhn presented Council members with an annual summary concerning the Town’s Financial Trend and Condition Report. Among the highlights of the report was continued increase in assessed property values. Equalized Assessed Value increased from 0.7 percent in 2017 to 1.4 percent last year. While this is a good trend, Huhn reminded Council members the Town would prefer to see EAV growth of at least 2 percent annually. Having that happen, Huhn explained, helps the Town to take in sufficient property tax dollars to offset increases in expenditures.

A slight piece of good news came courtesy of travelers, Huhn said, in explaining numbers of folks using Central Illinois Regional Airport. In 2017, CIRA saw a drop of 12 percent in passengers using the airport, a drop of usage of nearly 12.4 percent versus 2016 numbers. But in 2018, it looked like folks were flying out of CIRA again, as the airport registered 364,482 travelers going through the airport last year, an increase of 9.15 percent.

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

• Approval of minutes of regular meeting held Sept. 3, 2019.

• Report to receive and file Town expenditures for payment as of Sept. 11, 2019.

• A resolution to amend the lease agreement for the Illinois State University Art Gallery to extend the term to Feb. 28, 2020.

• A resolution to accept the proposal and award a contract to Layne Christensen Co. for drilling test wells at three locations within the corporate limits in the amount of $32,960.

• A resolution to waive the formal bidding process and accept a quote from Peoria-based Presidio Networking Solutions Group LLC in the amount of $112,443.42 for the purchase of body camera video storage and protection and related professional services.

By Steve Robinson | September 12, 2019 - 10:46 pm
Posted in Category: Unit 5

NORMAL – At Wednesday, Sept. 11’s regularly-scheduled meeting of Normal-based Unit 5 School Board, two days had gone by since Superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel made his intentions known that he would be leaving at the end of the school year, on June 30, the result of a decision to take a job to be closer to family in the Chicago area. At the Board meeting held at Parkside Junior High School, Board members received details on how the search firm the district was considering hiring in aiding in the search for the new leader would proceed.

Dr. Jill Hawk and former school administrator Diane Robertson, representing Oak Park-based search firm School Exec Connect, gave Board members insight into how the firm works to help the district find the most qualified candidates for the position Daniel has held since July 2014.

Robertson explained that using focus groups and interviews with district staff, parents, students and other interested parties, the firm “will be looking for a good fit for your community. The only way to do that is to come in for a couple of days and talk to people.” Such community input, Robertson explained would give the firm an idea from those talks an answer to the question “what kind of skills does the superintendent need to possess?”

Robertson added the group would also produce and post an online survey for residents of the district to complete, as well as host “a couple of open forums.” “We don’t want you to settle,” Robertson told Board members. “We don’t want to bring you candidates number 8, 9, or 10.”

This next search for a new Unit 5 Superintendent would be the third consecutive one for the district using School Exec Connect, the previous two resulting in the hirings of Niehaus and Daniel. The cost for finding a new superintendent through School Exec Connect breaks down as $23,500 for consulting services; travel expenses not to exceed $5,000; and costs for advertising the opening, based on options chosen by the Board. The Board also has a background check option available from the company, which if the district opts to use it would cost $750.

Robertson said the firm generally begins with a planning meeting with Board members shortly after the firm is hired. She told Board members that during that meeting is the Board’s opportunity to tell the firm how they want the search to be done.

School Exec Connect’s reach stretches to not just Illinois but also Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Board members will take up whether to hire the firm at their Sept. 25 meeting.

Transportation Issues Continue: The issue of transporting students continues vexing the district. In his Superintendent Comments segment, Daniel said he understands parents are frustrated by issue of buses not getting students to their schools on time. Daniel told the audience he is frustrated about the situation, too. “The service we are receiving is not acceptable,” Daniel said in referring to the district’s transportation provider, Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student Bus Co.

“We understand most buses are running on time, but most is not enough,” Daniel said. He added he and Board members expect a quick solution from the provider. In addition to Daniel’s remarks, there were two public comments on the subject from Lindsey Dickinson, president of Unit Five Education Association and Tony Cole, a parent with two students in school in the district.

Dickenson pointed out that as a result of buses arriving late to some schools, those students miss out on between 30-45 minutes of class time at the start of the day. Cole added it sounded to him as though Unit 5 was attempting to solve the issue which he saw as primarily a communication breakdown between the district and First Student.

LaCrosse Co-Op Proposal Presented: Illinois Wesleyan University has both men’s and women’s lacrosse. There is a club lacrosse team, comprised of high school age players, both boys and girls, known as the Bloomington-Normal Warriors. Board members were presented with a proposal by Normal Community High School Athletic Director Nic Kearfoot which he and Normal Community West High School Athletic Director Stan Lewis have worked on which Kearfoot presented to start a lacrosse program at those two schools.

Currently, there is only a practice field for the club team – the field at Kingsley Junior High School, known as Truman Keys Field when the school was used by NCHS, Kearfoot explained. Kearfoot said in order for Lacrosse teams to use that field once more would require getting the field into shape as though it would be used for football. It has been over a decade since high school teams played football on that field, when it was a high school facility.

Being a spring sport, Kearfoot said he and Lewis have approached Illinois Wesleyan University Lacrosse coach Zach Iannucci about using Tucci Stadium, which is used for football and men’s and women’s lacrosse. Board Member Alan Kalitzky asked about how much money it would take to add the sport to its roster of athletic activities. District Operations Director Joe Adelman told Kalitzky answers to questions like that are being researched presently.

To get the sport approved by Board members and thus get set things in motion for the work needing to be done so that the sport can debut, potentially by next year, Board President Barry Hitchins informed Kearfoot that for the item to appear on the agenda of the Board’s next meeting on Sept. 25, Kearfoot would have to have the item submitted to the district office by Sept. 20.

Benjamin Elementary 4th Grader Recognized For District 70th Anniv. Art Contest Entry: When Board members met for their Aug. 28 session, they were introduced to a group of seven students from varying grade levels who won an art contest, the goal of which was to honor the district celebrating the milestone of its 70th anniversary. While she was not able to attend the prior session, Benjamin Elementary student Kaitlyn Call was recognized for her effort. At this latest meeting, Call’s art work displayed with her present by her principal, Marlys Bennington doing the honors.