By Steve Robinson | June 18, 2020 - 10:52 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – Keeping technology throughout Unit 5 was the goal when Board members, meeting distantly on June 17, unanimously approved the district to enter into a four-year lease $2 million agreement with a tax levy not to exceed 0.5 percent, in order to purchase technology equipment.

District Business Manager Marty Hickman informed Board members Unit 5 anticipates receiving $1,494,000 as part of the Elementary and Secondary School Relief, or ESSER Grant. The money will go toward purchases of laptops or tablets for students. The amount should be enough for the district to purchase over 10,000 devices for elementary school students.

Hickman said one-quarter of the funds Unit 5 gets from the Act will be used to refresh the district’s Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi system. Congress put aside approximately $13.2 billion for the ESSER Fund, which was awarded as part of the Federal-based Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Security Act. That act was designed to prepare for and respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Referring to district Wi-Fi, Hickman responded to a question from Board Member Mike Trask, explaining the district will purchase equipment for Wi-Fi, but added the Wi-Fi equipment at the elementary school level “should be able to handle the bandwidth requirements.”

Monies used will pay for students in third through fifth grades to have individual Chromebooks, Pre-Kindergarten through 2nd grade students to receive individual tablets, and charging equipment for district staff. The district would be looking at paying $500,000 principle payment annually minus interest, Hickman said.

Hickman said the district had a purchase order ready to go to the vendor pending Board approval, and that many school districts in the country find themselves readying to make such purchases at this time in time for distribution sometime next month. Devices for student use should arrive by mid-July, he said.

Board Member Alan Kalitzky inquired as to where the purchase puts Unit 5 in relation to similarly-sized districts. Michelle Lamboley, director of special education for the district, responded to Kalitzky, saying, locally, other area district are also in the process of updating such technology and that such purchases by Unit 5 would put the district, in her words, “on par” with surrounding districts.

Amended School Year 2019-20 Budget Approved: Board members unanimously approved an amended budget for the district for the 2019-20 school year totaling $193.6 million for all funds. Unit 5 showed it is closing out that school year in the black courtesy of a $14.4 million surplus, Hickman explained.

However, Hickman added, compared to property tax dollars the district received last year, Unit 5 came up short by about $20 million. The district is uncertain it will receive any further tax payments by the time the current fiscal year ends on June 30.

Remote Learning Update Provided: Board members received a progress report concerning how remote learning was working in the district since school facilities were closed toward the end of March in light of the Coronavirus situation Michelle Lamboley, director of special education for the district, provided Board members with a report which included mention that some teachers used Google Classroom to maintain structured learning for students. She said the district made sure foreign language students learning English and special education students were able to continue keeping up with lessons using modified lessons, when necessary, which connected to subjects being taught.

She added that parents were surveyed twice during the remote learning period to see what comments or issues may have been addressed to the district. The first survey generated 3,000 responses when it was taken during the first week of remote learning, and the second survey, taken the last week of remote learning, brought in 1,300 responses.

Each school were shown results from the surveys, Lamboley explained. She said among issues addressed by parents included the amount of time students spent on remote learning activities and how parents felt about the difficulty level of the activities the students were doing.

The district also surveyed teachers, checking to see how they felt about how engaged they believed students were during remote learning, Lamboley said. “We definitely saw that student interest started to decline as the year went on,” she told Board members. Teachers and staff monitored student participation by reaching out to families, she added. School counselors, school resource officers, and Greg Leipold, Security Director for the district, were dispatched to make home visits as a means of doing well-being checks on families, she explained.

“Overall, the feedback we received showed remote learning was successful,” Lamboley reported. “Our teachers, our students, our families really adjusted quickly to this new learning environment and I would just say that I am very proud of how people adjusted.” During the period, she noted Unit 5 met learning guidelines established by Illinois State Board of Education.

The surveys showed “parents were satisfied with our efforts,” Lamboley added. “They understood the restraints of moving to remote learning so quickly.” But, she added, parents did express the belief that, should remote learning be a necessity come the fall semester, they would like to see the district do more to meet students’ needs. Unit 5 is studying responses in order to respond to parents’ concerns should remote learning be employed again in the fall, Lamboley said.

Board Member Barry Hitchins verified whether younger students would continue to interact with one another without technology sidetracking them. Lamboley responded by saying, “I think we would work carefully to make sure that we have a balance between the use of technology and our regular processes. We know that, at the elementary level, the amount of screen time is important to keep an eye on.” A district task force continues to study the subject of technology use by young students in the classroom, she added.

Two Long-Time Employees Promoted: Promotions bestowed upon two long-time district employees were brought to Board members’ attention during the session. Joe Adelman, district operations manager, relayed to Board members that Norm Hicks, a 32-year employee with the district, was recognized by Adelman for his efforts during his time at Unit 5. His career began at Parkside Junior High School as a custodian. For the last 18 years, he has served as a groundskeeper, during 10 of those he has added supervising snow and ice removal crews.

Adelman also recognized Tom Rockwell, a 20-year district employee, a manager of special operations. Rockwell’s career with the district began as a custodian at Normal Community High School, moving his way to work with HVAC special maintenance.

Supt. Mark Daniel Absent From Board Meeting: Although the 1 hour 21 minute session was to have been the final one for District Superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel, he was not present. On May 26, Dr. Daniel was introduced to media as the new superintendent of the district known as Fort Wayne Community Schools, according to reports by Peoria’s WMBD-TV and the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette newspaper.

Last September, Dr. Daniel publicly announced that he would be leaving Unit 5 at the end of the current school year so that he and his wife, Janet, could live somewhere closer to family because they had become first-time grandparents, which meant attempting to seek an opportunity in the Chicago area. His last day on the job with Unit 5 is June 30.

By Steve Robinson | May 28, 2020 - 3:02 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – Unit 5 School Board members were informed at their regularly-scheduled meeting May 27 by the district’s business manager that the 2019-20 budget “had changes but no surprises.” Marty Hickman added said the district did well at controlling financial matters that he said were things the district could control in terms of expenditures while items out of the district’s control were continuing to be addressed.

The budget for the district’s fiscal year, which will end June 30, will show Unit 5 with a budget of $193.6 million in all of their funds, which include categories such as operations and maintenance, and transportation. That is the result of a $14.4 million surplus.

That budget figure presented has been amended upward from the budget the Board adopted in September which indicated a total of $192 million for all district funds, and indicated the district also was running a deficit of $12.8 million.

One area where the district saw a decrease in both revenue and expenses was in the district’s food services because of school closings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hickman said.

The district’s operations and maintenance fund had more money spent on it than took in this year, Hickman said. The district budgeted $12,443,728 but spent $87,999 above that during the school year, he said. When the budget for this fund was originally rolled out, the district projected coming out ahead by over $9,600. On another matter, he added there is some uncertainty concerning property taxes for the budget year as a result of when the district receives those dollars. He said some of those monies might not get to the district until July.

Hickman said the district is still looking to receive one categorical payment due it from the State, which would be the last of four due the district. The district has received three others due the district this school year.

Another expense yet to be ironed out for the district is what amount it will owe its transportation provider, Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student Bus Co., Hickman said, explaining the two sides will need to settle up on how much the district owes as a result of the pandemic. He added he expects expenses coming out of the transportation fund will be less than they would in an ordinary year.

Official action on the budget will come at the Board’s next meeting, to be done remotely, scheduled for June 17.

Two Task Force Units To Study Social/Emotional, Instructional Needs: Board Member Dr. Kelly Pyle informed Board members the district’s Curriculum Committee will establish two task forces this summer, one concentrating on social and emotional needs of elementary school students returning to school in the fall, and the other concentrating on how to address any missed instruction students should have received during the time schools were not physically open.

She added because elementary school students didn’t get to attend their annual visit to the junior high school they would attend in the fall as a result of the pandemic forcing schools to be closed, teachers at the district’s four junior high schools produced a video virtual tour for students to watch to substitute for the physical tour in order to prepare those students for the years ahead.

Superintendent Comments: Dr. Mark Daniel, District Superintendent, opened his comments to the meeting with congratulations for teachers involved in 35 projects which received Beyond The Books Foundation awards totaling $68,748. Projects from Unit 5 teachers accounted for 27 of the 35 projects, he said. Those projects totaled $54,060. “This is the testimony to the amazing staff we have at Unit 5,” Daniel added.

Beyond The Books Foundation also awards a $10,000 Beyond The Box grant award, Daniel reminded, as he announced that Glenn Elementary School second grade teachers Hayley Mennenga and Angela Trask for their submission, “Augmented Reality Sandbox.”

Dr. Daniel also expressed a word of thanks to the NAACP’s Bloomington-Normal chapter for donating snacks for students, as well volunteering to take senior pictures for students who didn’t have opportunities to get photos taken.

Dr. Daniel also noted May 27 was the official last day of school for students for the current school year. Calling the year “the most unusual school year in anyone’s career,” he added.

“I never could have imagined how well our students and staff could adapt to our new normal,” he continued. “It was truly inspirational. While remote learning had its challenges, our students and staff members worked extremely hard to transform our educational model.”

Dr. Daniel gave credit to the district’s Food Service Department which, as of the meeting, surpassed serving 100,000 meals to students since the closure began in mid-March.

“To our retirees, I want to wish you well in your retirement, and thank you for all you’ve done for the students of Unit 5,” Daniel said, adding, “We know this isn’t how you planned your final school year, but we want you to know how much we appreciate your efforts.

Dr. Daniel concluded his comments to the Class of 2020, saying, “We congratulate you on this amazing milestone and look forward to celebrating your achievement.” Because of the pandemic, Unit 5 high schools had to move their graduation ceremonies until Saturday, Aug. 1.

“Each and every day, I continue to be amazed by what a tremendous school district we have in McLean County Unit 5,” Dr. Daniel said. “I wish you all a safe and relaxing summer.”

Daniel To Become Superintendent In His Indiana Hometown: Careers often take people away from places where they grew up, so when a job opportunity opened up where he attended school himself, Dr. Daniel applied. On May 26, Dr. Daniel was introduced to media as the new superintendent of the district known as Fort Wayne Community Schools, according to reports by Peoria’s WMBD-TV and the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette newspaper.

Last September, Dr. Daniel publicly announced that he would be leaving Unit 5 at the end of the current school year so that he and his wife, Janet, could live somewhere closer to family because they had become first-time grandparents, which meant attempting to seek an opportunity in the Chicago area. His last day on the job with Unit 5 will be June 30.

By Steve Robinson | May 14, 2020 - 10:36 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – The current Covid-19 pandemic has not allowed for people to have much face-to-face interaction unless there was either a computer monitor or some distance between people interacting. A recent survey taken of Unit 5 parents of high school seniors indicates they would like to see their children receive their diplomas. And if that’s permissible, the district superintendent said at the most recent Normal-based Unit 5 School Board meeting, that will happen.

During the scheduled Board meeting on May 13, done electronically, District Superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel told Board members the results of a recent survey of parents of high school seniors in the district showed they were in favor of seeing seniors receive diplomas in person. To that end, and if public health guidelines allow for it, he said, that in-person ceremony will take place on Aug. 1 at Grossinger Arena.

In addition to the tentative date announced, both Normal Community High School and Normal Community West High School plan to release a graduation video to parents of high school students on what would have been the originally scheduled graduation day, May 23.

“This video will highlight the positives of the Class of 2020 and will hopefully serve as something that everyone can cherish in the coming days,” Daniel said.

Pandemic Postpones Summer School: Daniel announced the scheduled summer school for district students has been postponed.

Breakfast, Lunch Delivery To Continue Through June: In addition, Daniel said the district will continue to deliver breakfasts and lunches to students as they have since late March, through June. By the end of the middle of May, he added, the district has passed the 80,000 lunches mark.

Teachers Going Beyond Recognized: Three district teachers received recognition for how they have tried to maintain contact with their students and their families during separation from the classroom as a result of the pandemic. First, Daniel recognized Lauren Romero, a kindergarten and first grade music teacher at Benjamin Elementary School. A scheduled concert got cancelled as a result of the district schools shutting down, Daniel said. But Romero created videos of each song on the meeting platform Zoom that included the words and music and accompanying gestures for each song to give to each student so the student could share the performance they would have given with their families.

George L. Evans Junior High School Principal Chris McGraw was also mentioned by Daniel, specifically for his morning announcements he gives students to start their day over the school public announcement system. Daniel said McGraw’s announcements “are quite uplifting. He is a caring person, no doubt, and the announcements are focused on a kindness mindset.”

Daniel also gave a nod to Towanda Elementary School Principal Scott Vogel for the way he presents daily messages to students on the school P.A. system. Daniel said a parent who had occasion to hear Vogel mentioned it to Daniel in passing.

“I just want to thank all our staff – our teachers, our administrators – for all that they are doing,” Daniel said.

Board Meetings To Start 30 Minutes Earlier Beginning In July: When the 2020-21 school year begins, it will mean a change for start times of Board meetings. Beginning in July, all Board meetings will start one half-hour earlier than they have before, starting at 6:30p.m. That new time will begin with the lone scheduled Board meeting set for July 15.

In a text to The Normalite, Dayna Brown, Director of Communications and Community Relations for Unit 5, explained, “Every year, we look at the calendar and see if we should make any changes. We decided to make the change for the upcoming year.” As for moving the singular meeting date in July, Brown said meetings were moved to that date because it’s the only meeting that month and there are no conflicts with that date. Meetings during the school year will remain on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays.

Board Approves Revised Graduation Policies: Board members unanimously approved a resolution which would suspend Board policies and approve graduation requirements revised as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. District Deputy Superintendent Dr. Ray Epperson told Board members explained Illinois State Board of Education recently made a change in State graduation requirements related to number of hours needed for a diploma.

Credit requirements for primary areas of study such as English, Math, and Science were shortened by one half-credit, or one half-semester, Epperson said, adding, Illinois State Board of Education had approved a change in State graduation requirements as a result of the pandemic.

As a result of the change, seniors at both Normal Community High School and Normal West Community High School will need a total of 21 credits to graduate instead of 24 credits which was normally required. Epperson said there are about 110 seniors total from both schools who will need to complete coursework right up until graduation in order to receive their diploma.

Board Member Meta Mickens-Baker asked Epperson about whether some seniors might have to take additional classes once they get to college because they now, as a result of the pandemic, need to take at the college level to satisfy admission requirements. Epperson said that matter would be up to the individual colleges. He added ISBE is working with individual colleges to resolve any matters related to that, and that some colleges are changing their admission requirements because of Covid-19.

Mickens-Baker also asked Epperson what issues the reduction in course hours required might cause students once they get to college. Epperson said such matters would have to handled by individual colleges.

Board Approves Abating Working Cash Fund: Board members unanimously approved abating the district’s working cash fund emptying those dollars from working cash into the district’s education fund to cover operational expenses, according to Marty Hickman, district business manager.

By Steve Robinson | May 2, 2020 - 10:25 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – Board members of Normal-based Unit 5 School Board conducted a special session on April 29 remotely due to the continuing Coronavirus-19 pandemic, with the primary subject of electing officers for the Board for the next year. All votes taken for the positions of those nominated for president, vice president, and secretary were unanimous.

Amy Roser was voted in to serve as president of the Board, succeeding Barry Hitchins. Hitchins had held the post since May 2018 succeeding Jim Hayek, Jr., who resigned from the Board due to a job transfer that year through his employer, State Farm. Roser assumed a seat on the Board in July 2018 filling a seat following Hayek’s exit. Roser works in the office of Illinois State University’s University College division.

Board Member Alan Kalitzky was elected Board Vice President succeeding Roser in that post. Kalitzky assumed a seat on the Board replacing David W. Fortner’s resignation in spring of 2018 to take a job in Chicago. Dr. Kelly Pyle was unanimously named Board Secretary. She came onto the Board assuming a seat in August 2018, filling a vacancy left by Joe Cleary, who departed for a job in California.

Last Day Of School Year Announced: In a memo to Board members, District Superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel reported the last day for remote learning for district students has been set for Friday, May 22. He added district staff members will have a Remote Learning planning day on Tuesday, May 26, and a School Improvement day on Wednesday, May 27.

Despite Pandemic, District To Maintain First Day Exclusion Policy: Board members were informed the district will, despite the pandemic, continue its use of a first day exclusion policy, explained Dayna Brown, Director of Communications and Community Relations for the district.

Under the policy first established in 2009, if a student is due for a school physical because they are about to enter either pre-school, kindergarten, sixth, or ninth grade, the physical must be turned in and the immunizations must be up to date by the first day of school. If this is not completed by the first day of school, the student will not be allowed to attend until the District receives the required forms. No appointment dates are currently accepted because the district found it difficult to track and created additional work for the district, Brown explained.

Brown told Board members that, given the current environment as a result of COVID-19, the McLean County Health Department has indicated to Unit 5 it does not know what its immunization capabilities will be this summer. In addition, Brown explained, several pediatrician offices have been closed to patients for several weeks, and are just beginning to see patients, thus potentially creating a backlog.

As a result of those facts, Unit 5 will continue its policy of First Day Exclusion, but will allow for appointment cards to be accepted this fall only. This exception would be based on a delay in the ability to obtain the necessary immunizations and/or physicals due to COVID-19. If an appointment card is accepted, families will have until Oct. 15 to show proof of completion. If the appointment is missed, a student will be excluded from school on Oct. 16.

“If students don’t have their shots by that first day of school, they have to have had a medical appointment set up by then,” Brown explained. She added the policy has “been extremely successful at implementing this policy resulting in a small number of students who were not compliant on the first day.”

The district did not extend the deadline for students to have their shots or the appointment arranged, Brown said. She said it will be necessary for students to have one or the other by the first day of school slated by the district for Wednesday, Aug. 19.

Online registration of students began May 4.

Meals And Belongings Collection: On a couple of other subjects, Brown said the district has recently surpassed serving 50,000 meals to students, breakfasts and lunches, through May, with plans being sorted out to continue the service into the summer. She added the district has been granted a waiver by the State which would permit high school students back into their schools to collect any belongings. Brown added Unit 5 is working on logistics for those students who left items at school in March to be able to collect them. But with close to 2,000 students per school, accomplishing the task takes some advanced planning when social distancing is being required, she said.

By Steve Robinson | April 16, 2020 - 2:02 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – Employing a phone-in system, Normal-based Unit 5 School Board members met a week later than scheduled, on April 15, to hold their regularly-scheduled meeting. During the session, which lasted 30 minutes, Board members were informed the district will need to issue working cash bonds earlier than planned to have available working cash on hand to finish the fiscal year. That decision came as result of a McLean County Board decision concerning it property tax deadline.

District Business Manager Marty Hickman informed Board members relayed to Board members McLean County Treasurer’s Office moved back the due date residents have to turn in their property tax payments to June 17. As a result, Hickman explained, the district is cashing the bonds to have money on hand for expenditures.

Board members voted last July to inject the cash into the district’s coffers. At a meeting last December, Board members passed a measure intending to sell $29 million in working cash bonds as a means of addressing a deficit.

Hickman said cashing the bonds ahead of schedule was “to avoid any risks on our cash flow or have any issues with payments in June.” Not doing this now, he added, would have jeopardized the district’s ability to meet payroll distribution in July.

Superintendent Credits IT Staff, Food Service, District Directors For Efforts: District Superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel gave credit to a number of things taking place in Unit 5 which are helping families who are in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. First, he gave appreciation to the district’s food service staff for being able to feed roughly 1,200 daily meals to students, and followed that up with thanking district custodians who have been assisting food service in the assembly and distribution of those meals. “Bus drivers have delivered those meals, so they have been involved as well as food service, and principals have followed the buses on Fridays when we distribute those,” Daniel explained.

He added United Way of McLean County has joined in the food distribution effort, helping distribute dinners. “I am very, very appreciative for this because our food needs are growing and it seems as though we are continuing to raise the bar and meet that expectation.”

Daniel added the district is doing what it can to, also, “meet social and emotional needs of students and staff.” In addition, Daniel said, “Teachers have been phenomenal in contacting their individual students that they had in their classrooms. Principals have also been following up with staff, and those few students we have not yet connected with.”

He added Greg Leipold, the former Normal Police officer and recently-named Security Director for the district, has been checking up on students with home visits when the district has not heard from those students. In addition, he said, members of schools with Promise Council members have touched base with students, providing the students with activities to do.

The district has been in remote learning mode since the pandemic began. “At first, it was extremely intense, learning to use the devices,” Daniel said. He reminded that Unit 5 would prefer staff and students use Google Hangout, Google Classroom, and Google Webex for remote learning because the district’s Instructional Technology department staffers are able to support those items.

“Teachers have been very creative in their lessons,” Daniel added. He said he had a chance to observe lessons given by teachers in sixth through 12th grade and said he found them “very engaging. We’re very thankful for that.”

He said the district was responding to questions from both students and parents in a timely manner. He praised Maureen Backe, director of elementary education, and Dan Lamboley, director of secondary education, Michelle Lamboley, director of special education, and Darrin Cooper, director of teaching and learning, for their efforts in assembling the format used for remote learning. He also added his appreciation to Lindsey Dickinson, president of Unit Five Education Association for her efforts in helping organize the distance learning program.

“Without us coming together and truly rowing in the same direction, and supporting each other, I don’t think we’d be where we are today,” Daniel said. “And it’s very obvious that having our teachers in the front of the classroom is the best learning model.”

With regard to problems experienced with computer connectivity, Daniel added, “We’re working hard addressing issues we are having. If students have computers that are broken, we are able to swap those out and get them repaired.” District IT staff had 650 service requests once distance learning began last month and managed to reduce that number to 10 just prior to the Board meeting.

UFEA Introduces New Website: Dickinson wrote a public comment to the Board, which was read by Kim Stewart, Executive Assistant to the Superintendent and Clerk of the Board.

In the past few weeks, Dickinson penned, “We’ve been teaching remotely and our students have been learning remotely. It has been a challenge for teachers and students and for their parents and caregivers. And it has been a real challenge in how we do our work and how our students learn.” She said the current situation has called on teachers to seek creative ways to do their jobs. UFEA, she explained, has launched a new website to help students, parents, and caregivers called ufeacares.org.

Dickinson wrote the site features a directory of remote learning resources which the organization recommends. She added all grade levels and content areas are covered. She said resources will be updated for as long as the closure lasts, and welcome suggestions from students, parents, and educators.

“We miss our schools and classrooms, and we miss our colleagues,” Dickinson wrote. “But most of all, we miss our students and the connections we make with them at school. There is no way remote learning can replace, reproduce, or replicate the one-on-one interactions that happen in our schools every day. All we can do as students, parents, educators, and caregivers is to do the best we can. We know we are – and will be – better together.”