By Steve Robinson | September 21, 2021 - 10:17 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – Members of Normal-based Unit 5 School Board received a course on the current state of the district’s finances from its finance director during the governing body’s regularly-scheduled meeting Sept. 20, held in the auditorium of Normal Community West High School.

Board members unanimously approved a budget for the 2021-22 school year totaling $212.3 million. Marty Hickman, chief financial officer for the district, talked to Board members about historical budget trends which often create deficits. The budget passed is the same as the tentative one presented before Board members in August.

Hickman reported the fund in which there is the most revenue, the district’s education fund, expects to stay in the black once the new school year ends. He showed the district will take in $121,353,815 and anticipates spending $121,023,837 over the course of this school year. That will allow the district to have money left over totaling $329,977.

Almost 60 percent of Unit 5’s revenue is the result of citizens paying local property taxes while about 20 percent is the result of state funding. Another 10 percent is from federal funding.

But four funds used by the district will be in the red when the new school year ends in June. In descending order, those are: Working Cash, Fire Prevention and Safety, Transportation, and Municipal Retirement.

First Student Bus Co. Presented Update: The session began with Chris Coyle, area general manager for First Student, the Cincinnati, Ohio-based transportation service, updating Board members on progress being made as the new year began, with location manager Nick Sorey at his side. Coyle reminded Board members First Student is transporting students in “a new reality, a Covid environment.” He said that meant dealing with “protocols we have never had to deal with before.” That has included having employees in quarantine for up to 10 days if they contract the disease, causing the company to look for new drivers while others recover.

He pledged the company would continue “to train and retain” the numbers of drivers needed to help the district transport students in a timely manner. Board Member Jeremy DeHaai asked Coyle how long it would be before families could expect service from the company to be routine in terms of regularly-expected pick-up and dropping off students. “We’re committed to working with the superintendent and the Unit 5 staff to get through challenges,” Coyle responded.

Even with vaccinations being obtained, this fall, Coyle told Board members the company struggles to hire enough drivers. He added the company has had to insist sick drivers not come in to work. “We really don’t want people with COVID symptoms to come to work,” he told Board members.

Steven Dean, president of the bus drivers’ union, AFSCME local 2608, spoke to Board members during the meeting’s public comment segment, adding the only solution the company has for meeting the challenging period it’s facing is to hire more drivers.

Coyle added First Student has a goal of 95 percent arrival in their routes. Board Member Stan Gozur double checked with Coyle to see if the company was looking at what he called “habitually late routes.” Coyle said the company does look at those.

By Steve Robinson | August 31, 2021 - 10:32 am
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – When Normal-based Unit 5 School Board members met during their regularly-scheduled meeting Aug. 25, they were informed the current budget includes a deficit which totals $18.5 million. That amount, as it turns out, according to a District official, is not as much as it was anticipated to be.

Marty Hickman, the district’s chief financial officer, explained to Board members the district didn’t spend as much money on transportation because of remote learning during the previous school year. Transportation accounted for $8 million being spent while taking in $11 million.

Informing Board members in the auditorium at Normal Community West High School, Hickman explained the district also transferred $11,750,725 from its working cash fund placing that money into its education fund. That amount, it turns out is lower than was anticipated for the school year, as the district expected that amount to be around $16 million. The district also received a payment of $1.5 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) Grant dollars.

Looking at the eight individual funds the district manages, the coming school year will see half of them with net changes in the red. The largest of those is the district working cash fund with a deficit of $11.3 million. The district Fire Prevention and Safety account has the next highest deficit of $4.4 million, followed by its transportation fund with a deficit of $3.2 million. The district’s educational, operations and maintenance, debt service, and tort funds all currently remain in the black.

With students returning to classrooms this month, Unit 5 officials are working on financial assumptions that, among other things, food service incoming money levels should return to normal with students back in class, Tommy Hoerr, director of financial services for the district, told Board members.

Hoerr added lunches the district dispensed last year during the pandemic were paid with Federal grant dollars. This year, he added, local revenue will pay for that expense. Hoerr said

Among the financial assumptions the district is making concerning the coming school year, Hoerr said, are that income from food service should return to pre-Covid levels at the district’s two high schools and should increase at its four junior high schools. He said that ought to add $1.6 million to district coffers.

In addition to those assumptions, Unit 5 anticipates a 1 percent increase in the levy for earned assessed valuation of real estate for 2021.

Where State-provided funding is concerned, because of remote learning last year, the district lost roughly $1.7 million in transportation revenue. Evidence-based funding, however, saw an increase of around $400,000.

From a labor perspective, Hickman recapped for Board members the district continues to negotiate with employees who are members of Laborers Local 362 to agree on a contract. The district is in the middle of a second year of a three-deal with both members of Unit Five Support Professionals Association, the union representing paraprofessionals and educational office personnel, and Unit Five Education Association (UFEA), the union which represents the district’s teachers.

Board members anticipate adopting a finalized budget at their Sept. 22 meeting.

By Steve Robinson | August 14, 2021 - 10:55 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

BLOOMINGTON – For many youngsters, aside from earlier bedtimes to encourage a change in routine, shopping for school supplies is another sure signal another school year is about to take place. Add to that list of signals the annual Back2School Alliance backpack giveaway. Normally, it has been held at Grossinger Arena in Downtown Bloomington, but this year, with COVID-19 still a concern, organizers opted to get creative in their means of distribution.

This year, they tried the “drive-through” approach, holding their event on the ground floor of a parking garage at State Farm’s Illinois Corporate South Offices, located on Bloomington’s south end. The same number of youngsters grades Pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade from Normal-based Unit 5 School District and Bloomington’s District 87 benefited from the event even if the distribution method used was a little different.

Jan Meadows, chair of Back2School Alliance, explained the organization put together 4,000 packs containing basic school supplies based on the grade level of the child. Meadows added this event in the past has been a party of sorts where youngsters get to meet their respective school principals and where parents of children who are eligible can sign up for free or reduced-cost lunch. Being able to sign up for the lunch, Meadows explained, makes those children eligible to receive goods from the Alliance.

Invitations to this event are issued by the school districts, to families who meet specified income criteria and whose children are registered for school, Meadows explained. She added students’ health records must be current and up to date, as well, to qualify.

Meadows said children must be registered for the first day of school and that they have received their necessary vaccinations. Without those, she said, children are turned away on their first day of school.

“Covid has impacted the way we have collected supplies,” Meadows said, explaining that in the past the Alliance has held numerous supply drives to obtain donations of supplies to make this event possible. But this year, COVID-19 created an obstacle to doing that, forcing the Alliance to do the collecting at more and smaller events to get the job accomplished.

She said COVID-19 also caused the Alliance to change how distribution would take place, doing a drive-through event rather than the usual event which resembled a children’s party.

Meadows said the Alliance were granted space to pack the supply bags at Midwest Food Bank. Officials from that organization told Meadows last year they were seeing an increase in people in need of 30 percent coming to the food bank. Based on that, Meadows said, “we decided to base our predictions of the number of students coming to our event on that number.” That meant going from distributing 3,000 packs of supplies previously to 4,000 packs this year.

Admitting school supplies can be expensive for the families the Alliance helps because many of them are single parent families working with tight budgets. “For many families, this is a first-time need for this and we’re happy to fill that need,” Meadows said. “We know the importance of that kid being ready to start on that first day. So having everything with them when they come in is a huge confidence builder.

The packs are assembled per each child’s grade level, Meadows said. Each pack comes with basics such as scissors, pencils, crayons, file folders, dividers, paper packs, zipped binders, colored pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners, and because of having to contend with COVID currently because school districts require them, face masks.

Meadows said corporate support “has been a great supporter” of their efforts, and said the Alliance appreciates all that local businesses have done to help the program. In addition, members of the public have directly made donations to aid the Alliance, and some churches have done their own supply collecting which was then passed onto the Alliance. Some donations are done through the website PayPal, as well, she said.

For Emily Brewster, a senior at Illinois State University, giving credit for where she is now in Education started with her third grade teacher at Fairview Elementary School, Maureen Thomas. Thomas is now a third grade teacher at Grove Elementary School who will retire when the current school year ends.

Brewster is going through her teaching internship and will do student teaching at both Grove Elementary School and Sugar Creek Elementary School this fall. “Mrs. Thomas is the reason why I am even here today,” Brewster said. Brewster added she is excited to be student teaching in the same school one of the teachers she had growing up was currently working.

By Steve Robinson | August 2, 2021 - 10:13 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – When the 2021-22 school year opens for students in Normal-based Unit 5 School District, all students will be back in classrooms and masks will be required. That was the result of a 6-1 vote taken by Board members at a special meeting held in Normal Community West High School’s cafeteria on July 28. Board Member Jeremy DeHaai cast the lone opposing vote. DeHaai did not respond to emailed interview requests from The Normalite.

That vote approved a school plan for the coming year – a plan which includes masking requirements based on updated guidance provided by Center For Disease Control. That approved plan begins with students’ first day of school on Wednesday, Aug. 18. Board President Amy Roser said among issues being looked are “whether students can be outside without masks during recess, and right now, it looks like that is a possibility.” She said Unit 5 will follow guidelines established by Illinois Department of Public Health and CDC to determine the district’s decision concerning that.

District Superintendent Dr. Kristin Weikle said, “Most of our students will be in classrooms, and that’s pursuant to a resolution passed by Illinois State Board of Education, indicating students should be in person learning this school year unless they meet certain medical criteria.” But even if there are such cases, Dr. Weikle added, “It’s not a guarantee, but that’s the first step in a family determining if their child may be eligible for remote learning.”

Getting such approval, Dr. Weikle explained, will require both parent and the child’s physician must submit paperwork to the district office to be reviewed. Students who meet such medical requirements would get their lessons via online learning. The online learning would be done with those students using an online learning program called Edmentum. District officials would check in regularly on the progress of students using that platform, Dr. Weikle added.

Roser said the Board’s vote established that students should return to classrooms in the fall wearing masks. “Unit 5 has been and will continue to monitor our Covid practices on a daily basis to see what’s working and what’s not, to see what’s working and what’s not to keep our students healthy while they are in school,” she explained.

Dr. Weikle said Unit 5 invested in a system called Needlepoint Bipolar Ionization (NBI) is a process that is used in heating and cooling systems of district buildings to provide cleaner breathing air in facilities. Those were installed this summer, she added. She said, to her knowledge, Unit 5 is the only district in McLean County which is going to utilize that process. “It has been proven highly effective and killing the airbourne viruses such as Covid before the virus can infect an individual,” she explained. NBIs have been installed all summer, she added, with the last of them being installed this week.

The district is also having weekly screenings parents can sign their children up for to test for Covid, Dr. Weikle added. Doing that, she said, “helps make sure the children are not carriers of the disease. The district also has testing available for symptomatic individuals, too, she said. Proper hand washing and respiratory hygiene is continually being stressed to students, as well.

She added Board members will re-evaluate the procedures put in place to protect students from the virus at their Sept. 21 meeting. Such things that would be looked at include are COVID numbers relatively low, the number of COVID cases in McLean County, and how many of those have affected school-age county residents.

“IDPH has made it very clear that it wants students back in classrooms, so remote learning is not an option as it was this past academic year,” Roser added. She added applications requesting for a student to remain continuing remote learning can be made if the student has a health condition which requires verification from a physician. The physician’s report would be turned in to the student’s school administration who would pass it to District office staff for review, Roser said.

“Teachers are working to arrange their rooms in the safest way possible,” Roser added. She said the district has determined that class sizes do not always allow for maintaining a distance of six feet between persons as health officials have recommended. Roser said the district “has made it clear to all our parents and families the recommended 6 feet is not doable, and we will try to provide 3 feet distance between students in most scenarios.”

But Roser was quick to point out that even the ability to maintain 3 feet of distance between students “is not possible at all times.” She added IDPH and CDC, recognizing 6 feet of distance is not always possible in some classrooms, does allow that distance to be reduced to 3 feet where there is the need.

“I think every Board member has spent a substantial amount of time weighing and considering all of the information in making this decision,” Roser said about sending kids back to classrooms. “I know for each Board member, it has been a very tough decisions to make and we spent a lot of time weighing all of the different perspectives” brought forward to them by constituents.

Dr. Weikle added she “is confident in the mitigation strategies that we have in place,” and she added a half-dozen pediatricians have reached out to the district advocating all persons ought to wear masks because of the newly discovered Delta variant of the disease.

NORMAL – When Normal Community High School plays their first football game at home on Sept. 3, they will not be playing at Ironmen Field — and the reason for that has nothing to do a cancellation or the game being moved to another venue. It has everything to do with honoring one of the school’s more recognized head coaches. That’s because, prior to that Ironmen first home game against Big 12 Conference foe Peoria Manual, the moniker of the stadium the team has played in since 1996 will be formally changed to Dick Tharp Field.

Board members unanimously approved the measure, part of the Board’s omnibus agenda, to make the change at their July 19 meeting. Tharp coached the Ironmen for 22 seasons from 1968 until 1988. During that time, his teams amassed a 158-50-5 record, making him the Ironmen’s winningest coach in school history. His teams reached IHSA quarterfinals seven times managing to finish in 2nd place to close out their 1974 season. The team also made eight playoff appearances. The team was also the 1974 Class 4A State Runner-Up. No district funds will be used for this change. Any costs will be covered by private donations.

Former NCHS head coach Mike Goodwin explained the notion to make the change was brought up when the school moved from its previous location on Kingsley Street, but that there were many other priorities needing to be addressed then and the notion about naming the stadium got benched. With NCHS preparing for their 125th football season this year, he said, the timing seemed appropriate. Goodwin said a conversation between himself and current Ironmen head coach Jason Drengwitz which put the idea of naming the field after Tharp in motion.

The name change will happen in a ceremony preceding the Ironmen’s 2021 season home opener Friday, Sept. 3 prior to NCHS hosting Big 12 Conference foe Peoria Manual at 7p.m.

District Elaborates On How Sex Ed Will Be Taught: School Board President Amy Roser addressed issues which the Board had heard public comment on at the Board’s lone meeting in June and again during this session. On the subject of sex education, State Senate Bill 818 allows for age-appropriate material to be taught, Roser explained. She added the bill puts requirements on the subject if school districts offer comprehensive sex education at various grade levels.

“Unit 5 does not teach sex education at the elementary level, and therefore, is not required to follow the resulting K-5 guidelines,” Roser said. She added, “Unit 5 does teach sex education as part of our health curriculum at the secondary level, and is thus, subject to the resulting grade 6 through 12 guidelines.” She added both abstinence and contraception are part of the district’s curriculum with teaching materials used are “evidence based and medically accurate.”

She added the district has a task force which reviews its health education curriculum as a result of passage of SB 818. Task force members, she said, “use National Sex Education Standards as a resource along with training from the Illinois State Schools Alliance.” As a result, what will be taught “is expected to be more inclusive and affirming for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.” A junior high task force will examine the curriculum this fall, she added. She mentioned parents do have the right to opt their students out of this instruction.

NCHS’ “Good News” Regarding Track & Field: Those attending the meeting were informed about a 1st place finish achieved by Leslie Fisher in the triple jump with a distance of 14.67 meters. This not only helped the team but also was a personal achievement for Leslie.

Board members were also informed about members of Normal Community High School’s Track and Field team’s most recent accomplishment – finishing in 3rd place in Class 3A while competing in Illinois High School Association Track and Field Championship at Eastern Illinois University’s campus on June 19. NCHS Principal Dave Johnson acknowledged the efforts of head coach Chad Aubin, and assistant coaches Megan Starkey, Kyrin Tucker, and Grant Basting for their efforts for the successful season the team experienced.

First Student Reps Address Coming School Year: Unit 5’s 2021-22 school year is about a month away and representatives from the district’s busing provider, Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student Bus Co. gave Board members a brief presentation on their preparedness with students returning to classrooms. Nick Sorey, location manager for the bus company, told Board members, “We are excited to go,” and followed that up by introducing Zachary Corey, safety manager for handling Unit 5. That’s after transporting 1,700 students to and from summer school daily this year, Sorey explained, adding that was done with an on-time performance rate of 97 percent throughout the previous school year and into summer school.

Sorey said First Student needs 147 drivers to be able to cover all routes, and added that as of the meeting, the firm “is on track to be above that at the start of school.”

Opposition To Mandating Masks Continues: Some members of the audience of roughly 50 people attending the session refused to adhere to the State mandate concerning wearing masks and displayed signs registering their opposition to the mandate.

Kari Donoho, a college instructor, said, “There is not a single study that proves that masking works. It is an unproven conjecture at best, and an evil fear mongering control tactic at worst.”

Parent Dawn Bergeron told Board members she raised two children in the district and has one child remaining in Unit 5. She told Board members masking is unhealthy and “compromises our kids’ health, not to mention their psychological well-being. It blows my mind how many people cannot see through the deception we are being fed.”

Parent Mollie Emery, who also introduced herself as a fill-in school nurse for the district, said her child did regress last year in what had been learned, and “pray that we, as a district, a board, and a community, can encourage choice and student-centered decisions.” She said she was bothered by the fact the State of Illinois is now fully open but that schoolchildren “were being forced to wear masks.” She added nieces and nephews in Iowa didn’t miss school time and aren’t wearing masks.

Dana Niswonger told Board members he believes children should be in school because it helps them to learn in that setting. But he added he understands if young people pick up the Covid virus, there is a potential of them spreading it. He suggested that until a vaccine is found for school age kids, that a mask mandate be put into place. That comment prompted some voices in the audience to say “no.”

Parent Christina Faulkner said there was “no evidence or documentation that proves masks work,” adding evidence of “more and more districts going mask optional for the fall.”

Parent Jason McCullough told Board members, “My children will not be your students nor your sources of revenue if you continue this mask madness.” He added he was pulling his kids out of the district because of how the district was handling the pandemic currently. Parent Danielle Renee said she also opposed mandated mask mandates, explaining, “the only people who should be making health decisions about my children are my husband and myself.”

Critical Race Theory, Diversity Addressed In Public Comments: Another different matter was brought up when Marc Judd addressed Board members saying he objected to the teaching of Critical Race Theory, explaining, “CRT is racist. It seeks to divide us into a black America and a white America. There is one race and one blood – the human race. God made all of us in his image.” Judd also objected to sex education being taught, saying teaching that subject was “not the government’s business” and doing so was the job of parents. He said parents who don’t want their children being taught sex education could request the child be asked to opt out of it. He added even a student being opted out won’t keep them being with kids who took part in the classes. He requested the district return to “classic education.”

Public Comment Concerning Disciplinary Practices Mentioned: Courtney Marks addressed concerns of a parental group which has concerns about what the group sees as inequity in the district with matters concerning disciplinary practices related to black students, hiring practices to incorporate a more diverse staff, and academic achievement among those students in the district.