By Steve Robinson | August 10, 2017 - 10:06 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

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.”

By Steve Robinson | July 29, 2017 - 10:29 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Steve RobinsonLate buses, either at the start or end of the school day. Uncertainty over where a bus is exactly when it is expected at a specific location. A shortage of regular and substitute drivers. All of these items plagued Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student Bus Co., the transportation provider for Normal-based Unit 5 schools at the beginning of last school year.

As a result, there were many angry parents who made their feelings known at a number of district Board meetings. It took a change in First Student’s chain of command for the matter to see a turnaround.

This newspaper did extensive reporting on the busing situation that arose last school year, and the most notable quote from the whole episode for me was from Unit 5 Board Member Mike Trask, who reminded First Student officials who attended those meetings that Dr. Mark Daniel was the district superintendent and not the bus depot supervisor. That comment came as a result of Daniel having had to be involved in the matter practically daily until it could be smoothed out. It took most of the first semester for that to get done, and included a change in First Student’s hierarchy when their location manager at the time resigned five days into the new semester.

But as the current school year approaches, district and First Student officials both say they are ready for the start of school and look forward to making sure such episodes like last year’s aren’t repeated this time around.

Last month, I met with Mark Bohl, location manager, and Ladel Cass, a district manager for First Student, to find out just how preparations were going. Also at that meeting were Daniel and Joe Adelman, operations manager for the district. Bohl assured me the busing routes – all 126 of them – are completely mapped out and that he has enough drivers, substitutes, and monitors to get the job done when school opens in the district Aug. 16.

Right now, Bohl said, he has 145 drivers on his roster ready to drive. That means they have completed the necessary training and are certified by the State. In addition to those, he added, the company has “a significant number of driver candidates in the pipeline.”

At the time I did the interviews in mid-July, Bohl added that First Student was still waiting for information from the close of summer school and from parents who would submit changes before making any last minute tweaks to routes. Those changes are something the busing provider anticipated, he explained.

Bohl was “able to turn the situation around very quickly” after his hiring in October, explained Adelman. Adelman added First Student has made sure they have a 20 percent staffing of substitute drivers on hand to step in if there are issues. Bohl added parents can access routes using the district’s Skyward information system. That information, he said, is regularly updated.

For parents who read this and still are skeptical that their fears and concerns over what took place last year might get repeated later this month, Bohl said all aspects have been addressed, adding, “It’s going to be better. We’re going to accomplish the task. I foresee a great startup. We’ve got everything in place. The drivers are engaged, and everyone’s excited.”

Preparation for the situation will also include keeping the public informed through the local media, Daniel added. In addition, parents will receive notices through Skyward, he said.

“We’re going to be starting this year with what we ended last year with in terms of expected performance,” Cass added. He said once problems developed as they did last year, First Student’s corporate staff in Ohio offered suggestions to help improve the situation.

“I know this is a business operation. First Student is watching what is going on this school year,” Cass added. He said both he and Bohl have frequent calls from their superiors asking about progress made, and inquiring about any sort of assistance which might be needed at this point.

Bohl said working with Unit 5 “is key and has been a joy.” He said doing the job the company does without any kind of support from a district makes First Student’s job harder. But the two groups have been working as a team to see that last year’s problematic start isn’t repeated.

I also spoke to Trask about the situation and about his hopes for how the situation will progress as the new school year begins. I will bring you his comments in my next column.

By Steve Robinson | July 28, 2017 - 10:09 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

Town of NormalNORMAL – The very first group Carl Teichman ever volunteered for was the local United Way campaign in the mid-1980s at the request of a colleague. From there, his efforts earned him a reputation as someone who could be counted on to aid his community when asked.

At the annual Town of Normal Appreciation Reception on July 27, Teichman, Director of Government and Community Relations at Illinois Wesleyan University who has been there since 1979, was recognized as the Town’s Citizen of the Year. The announcement was made by Mayor Chris Koos when the function was held at the Astroth Community Education Center on the Heartland Community College campus.

From that first time of being asked to volunteer, Teichman said, he has been asked to become involved in other efforts to help benefit the Town. He is the past president of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission, a governing body he has been part of since 2006. He has also served as a member of the Main Street Call For Investment Committee, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, which he has served as Board President since last year.

Born in Chicago, Teichman graduated from high school in Antioch, Ill., but said after attending and graduating from IWU, he liked the Twin Cities so much that he decided to stay.

Teichman also currently serves on the Board that oversees the McLean County Museum of History, telling the gathering, “I certainly would like to see what happens with the Museum, and I’m part of the Board of the Ecology Action Center. Obviously, making the community more sustainable is a good thing.”

Teichman credits his employment at IWU with helping him achieve all that he has done and which allows him to help the community. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the University because they’ve given me the ability to do a lot of things as part of my job.”

Teichman’s wife of 33 years, Laurel Mode Teichman, said she was notified of her husband’s honor a few weeks back. “It was exciting to find out, and I’m very proud of him and for him,” she said.

In his remarks introducing Teichman, Koos said, “He is a humble and modest individual who lives each day asking, ‘What good did I do today?’ He has helped the Town of Normal by creating a vibrant and exciting future.”

After being introduced, Teichman, the father of two children, said, “I certainly thank the Town of Normal, all the people who were part of the decision-making to make me Citizen of the Year.”

“While I do my part, I know all of you in this room do your part,” Teichman said to the 250 invited guests attending. That number included some past Citizen of the Year recipients. “I think that’s one reason Normal is such a great community to live in.”

This function marked the 60th year the Citizen of the Year award has been given by the Town. Past recipients have included: Clarence Ropp (1960); Howard J. Hancock (1976); Hall Riss, Jr. (1982); Stanley R. Ommen (1994); Edward Jelks (2004); and Myra Gordon (2012). The honor has gone to a married couple five times during its history, the last couple to receive the honor being Dan and Kathy Steadman in 2014.