By Steve Robinson | October 17, 2020 - 10:14 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – When Unit 5 set a date for remote learning to come to an end with students returning to class this past Monday, the district not only anticipated but knew about 76 percent of the students would return to class. The district learned through a survey it conducted late last month parents of the remaining 24 percent still had concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic enough they wanted to maintain their children continuing schooling through remote learning.

Because of that division between students attending and not attending in person, “we had to reassign some classroom teachers at the elementary level from Pre-K to grade 5, to be fully remote instructors,” explained District Superintendent Dr. Kristen Weikle to Board members and a small socially distanced audience at Normal Community West High School during the Board’s Oct. 14 session.

The scheduling for students’ return will work this way: Students in Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten through 2nd grade, 6th grade, and 9th grade returned to classrooms this week. The week of Oct. 26-30, students in grades 3 through 5, 7 and 8, and 10 through 12 will return to in-person classes.

Shifting the teachers around meant students, regardless of whether they were general education, bilingual students, and special education students, would be affected by the rearrangement, in an attempt to meet students’ needs, Dr. Weikle explained.

When district officials estimated how many parents might opt to continue their children to learn remotely, Dr. Weikle said they anticipated between 20 to 25 percent might still want to continue remote learning.

Concerning the students participating remotely, Dr. Weikle said, “They are still getting instruction from a Unit 5 teacher, it is just happening in a remote environment so they have, with them learning remotely, they have daily attendance, and that attendance is taken by logging in, participating in the instruction by the teacher, and turning in work.”

The students who will be attending in person will do it in shifts, Dr. Weikle said, with half of the students attending on Mondays and Thursdays, and half doing remote instruction on Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are neutral with everybody taking in remote instruction from home, Dr. Weikle said.

Where families have children with multiple last names, attendance schedule will be determined based upon the last name of the oldest child will apply for all students in that family.

Public Comments To The Board Regarding Returning Students To Classrooms: Lindsay Mitchell, parent of a son who is a freshman and a daughter in her junior year at Normal Community High School, registered her concern that her daughter was experiencing some stress as a result of needing to do school work remotely. “Our children need to be in school five days a week and that this really does impact their future,” she told Board members. “I just, honestly, in my heart, feel that we need to return to full five days a week instruction is necessary and imperative.”

Board members also heard from three separate parents whose children attend the bilingual students program at Cedar Ridge Elementary School. Through an interpreter, the parents raised questions concerning, among other things, whether there would be enough space given to keep students safe from coronavirus.

“Good News” Concerns Susy Marcum Named “Best School Nurse”: Board members met and were informed that Registered Nurse Susann “Suzy” Marcum, who serves as school nurse at both Fairview Elementary School and Grove Elementary School, was named “Best School Nurse” in the State by Illinois Association of School Nurses. The association represents 900 nurses statewide.

Normal Community High School’s “Good News” About Honor For AD Nic Kearfoot: Board members learned from Normal Community High School Principal Trevor Chapman that NCHS athletic director Nic Kearfoot has been named Illinois High School Association Division 5 Athletic Director of the Year for school year 2019-2020. Chapman, in his memo to Board members, credited Kearfoot with “setting up for athletic events, ensuring that all logistics have been organized, and making sure events themselves go off without a hitch.”

Chapman also acknowledged Kearfoot’s work with the Great Plains Foundation, which assists young men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds, helping those young people to continue their educations and be able to contribute to their communities. Kearfoot has been AD at NCHS since 2018, when he replaced Mike Clark who retired.

UFEA Contract Approved: By a 6-1 vote with one Board member abstaining, Board members approved a three-year contract between the district and members of Unit Five Education Association members, which would expire in 2023. Because he is married to a UFEA member, Board Member Mike Trask abstained from voting on the contract.

Contract With Kelly Education For Hiring Substitute Teachers Approved: Board members unanimously approved a contract with Michigan-based Kelly Education for hiring of substitute teachers. From their offices out-of-state, Joseph Kelley, vice president for business development and strategic partnerships, and Stefani Neumann, strategic sales manager, introduced Board members to how their company, a division of Kelly Services which has been in existence for seven years, functions.

Kelley said the first thing Kelly Education will do is hire all current substitutes and would lift any pension restrictions regarding work with relation to the Affordable Care Act. He said new members to their program would receive professional development, as well.

Kelley told Board members while Kelly Education would be operating the substitute teaching program, it is the district who would have control of it. “You have the final say as to who is hired in this program,” he said. He said the company has a hiring pool ratio of 3-to-1, so that for every absent employee, three substitutes would need to be available.

He added that if there are retired district teachers who wish to continue teaching, Kelly Education encourages “wanting to keep as many people who want to work within your schools working once they retire.”

Board Receives, Unanimously Approves Annual Audit Report: Board members received, and voted unanimously to accept, an annual audit report from Hope Wheeler, a principal with Champaign-based audit firm of CliftonLarsenAllenLLP, reported to Board members they had no modifications or no issues found during the course of the audit.

Board Member Mike Trask reminded that there was one finding the district needed to address last year, and compared having a clean audit this time to a baseball pitcher throwing a perfect game, and added, “Collectively, across the district, it is, quite frankly, a team effort – not only with our finance department, but anybody who deals with any sort of transactions, whether it’s building principals, staff members, and to get an absolutely clean audit is phenomenal.”

The result of the audit “shows what an exempleary staff in every facet in every building our leadership has provided financially,” Board Member Dr. Kelly Pyle added. Wheeler returned the compliment to the district explaining the district has acted quickly to correct issues when discovered in previous audits.

By Steve Robinson | September 30, 2020 - 10:13 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – School buses, by the time they arrive at the school they are assigned to drop students off at, are generally packed with youngsters and packed again when it’s time for the students to return home at the end of the day. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Normal-based Unit 5 School District Board members heard there will be a set number of students on each bus in an effort to reduce potentially spreading the disease.

Officials from Cincinnati-based First Student Bus Co. informed Board members at a session held Tuesday, Sept. 29 that among the precautions the transportation provider is taking to keep students safe includes students boarding buses from the rear door and exiting from the front door. Although most full-size buses have seating for 52 students, First Student is reducing that number of students allowed to 44 per bus. The goal of this change is to social distance students as much as possible. Officials for the busing provider told Board members buses will be cleaned after each run, as well as each evening.

District Superintendent Dr. Kristen Weikle provided Board members and the socially-distancing audience members a thorough overview of the return to in-person learning plan. In her explanation, she included how the district came up with the plan, and the metrics being used to make decisions, as well as why the district currently plans to begin using a hybrid plan. She also shared plans for cleaning, social distancing, and air quality improvements.

While that plan is in the works on the belief all of the district’s over 13,000 students would be returning to classroom learning, current numbers show approximately 21 percent of students have selected to be fully remote.

Board members also approved the budget for the district for the 2020 – 2021 school year, including a $12.5 million structural deficit in the Education Fund. The budget will likely include items related to COVID. Prior to the vote, a public hearing was held at which one community member asked what cost-saving measures have been taken by the district. Board members shared that Unit 5 can’t continue to borrow to make its budget, explaining it’s not a sustainable plan, and that seeking out another source of revenue will be a necessity.

By Steve Robinson | August 26, 2020 - 10:06 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – In reference to assembling the budget for school year 2020-21, the district budget director cautioned members of Normal-based Unit 5 School Board the district will know more about what the district can expect by one of its September meetings in terms of what is ahead for the district financially. One thing the district faces a challenge of is get out from under some very large deficits.

“Putting this budget together has been, certainly, very challenging,” Marty Hickman told Board members. He briefly recapped the timeline the budget process follows for Board members. “It will catch your eye immediately that there are some very large deficits that we finished our last budget with.”

Of the eight budgets Unit 5 oversees, only the district’s working cash fund was in the black at the end of the previous school year, with $20,170,618 available. But that was after even having spent $10,045,969 in the previous school year.

The education fund finished the 2019-20 school year with $111,913,231, a deficit of $5,014,519. Hickman said the culprit for the deficit was delayed property tax payments, a matter that has been the subject of previous financial reports to the Board, Hickman said.

Prior to the delay in those payments, Hickman said, the district’s operations and maintenance budget was getting by, that is until the district had spent money due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the district tried to predict incoming dollars, Hickman said, officials simply carried the previous year’s numbers forward. He said Board members should expect more adjustments to the budget as the time gets closer for Board members to approve it.

Among the assumptions the district is making about future earned income are: Real estate earned assessed value, or EAV, is assumed to be flat for levy year 2020; In terms of revenue from the State, the district will receive all expected payments for the current fiscal year; An increase in the amount it receives from the Federal Elementary and Secondary School Relief (ESSER) grant; and an abatement of $13 million from working cash into the district’s education fund.

Another assumption the district is counting on is receiving all of its share of the anticipated property tax levy, which would be added to district coffers either next May or June. The district’s share is 52 percent of what McLean County takes in, Hickman explained. If the district were not to receive all of that amount, “it would make this budget look worse than expected,” he added. He said this more of a timing issue than a loss because the money could show up in the future.

The projections the district has for starting figures in its accounts looks like this, which needs to be approved at the Board’s meeting in September: Education fund, $124,912, 115 and expects to spend $$119,818,428; Operations and Maintenance, $12,964,366 and expects to spend $12,502,680; Bond and Interest $36,702,417; Transportation $11,977,117 and expects to spend $10,756,983; Municipal Retirement and Social Security $4,997,076 and expects to spend $4,697,605; and Tort Fund $6,153,591 expecting to use $5,817,391.

The district anticipates that at the end of the new school year there will be deficits in two remaining funds – Working Cash and Fire Prevention/Life-Safety. The district is starting out with $1,229,675 worth of working cash and anticipates having spent $13.1 million by the school year’s end. In January, Board members unanimously approved issuance of an amount not to exceed $29 million in working cash bonds for use by the district to help the district maintain operations for the school years 2020-21 and 2021-22.

The district has $245,000 put aside for capital projects and figures show the district believes it will use every penny to complete them.

Hickman said the money the district normally takes in from such things as building rental for events and parking passes are expected to be smaller as an effect of the pandemic.

Public Comments About Remote Learning On Students With Special Needs: Parents whose children do not require special services to help them adapt to a school environment most likely had only small adjustments to make when students were sent home when the Covid-19 pandemic began in March. But for parents of special needs students, the circumstances prove at times to be challenging. For parent Mollie Emery, the parent of a 5-year-old child with language skills of a child almost age 4, explained her son has been struggling with just sitting during remote class periods. “Is sitting him in front of a screen in front of him all day really in his best interest? It’s not,” she told Board members.

She said she and her husband have placed the boy in a private pre-kindergarten program because “he needs social emotional support, group activities, and he needs to be in-person at school with his peers.” She said the Center for Disease Control has stated distance learning puts certain students – low-income minority children and those living with disabilities – at a disadvantage. ”We have to stop pretending that virtual learning works for everyone,” she added. She characterized distance learning for those students as “a charade.”

Parent Kendra Long, a parent of a youngsters ages 4 and 7 with disabilities, showed photos of her kids and then told Board members Unit 5 was letting my children down currently not providing what she described as “in-person appropriate education.” She also showed a page of the classes her 7-year-old was to see using remote learning.

“You know what this looks like to me?” she asked Board members. “The district going off State requirements for remote learning and just checking their boxes with no concern for our children’s actual education.”

Superintendent Comments: In her Superintendent comments at the beginning of the meeting, district superintendent Dr. Kristen Weikle told District Board members and roughly dozen audience members there are some special education students who are receiving services at their respective schools. Those services include individualized forms of physical therapy and occupational therapy. She added Cincinnati-based First Student Bus Co. has been running routes for students who learn English as a second language. She said additional routes for students who are involved in activities at Bloomington Area Career Center will be starting shortly.

Summer Construction Projects Recapped: Board members were shown a video of numerous construction projects which the district undertook which were overseen by the district’s operations manager, Joe Adelman. Adelman and Craig Montgomery, manager of custodial services for the district, presented information, including a video on work that had been done in recent months at a number of the schools in terms of upgrades and repairs.

By Steve Robinson | August 13, 2020 - 10:21 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – After first approving in July it would resume in-person classroom teaching, at their regularly scheduled meeting held at Normal Community West High School to accomodate visitors for distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Board Members of Normal-based Unit 5 School District heard from parents displeased with the district’s decision earlier this month to reverse that order and opt to continue online classes.

Three people spoke to the district’s decision, all in the negative, concerned children not physically being together while being taught, and the affect distance learning was having on students with special needs.

Parent Kendra Young led off her comments to Board members saying what students were receiving under these circumstances which began on a remote basis in March when the district closed school buildings for the safety of students and staff “was not proper education.”

Young continued, “Proper education involves structure, teachers, and staff here working together to achieve personal excellence.” She said there will be some students able to achieve such a goal under the circumstances, and then added, “For some students, this is not possible.” She singled out difficulties students being taught using an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, tailored to their specific needs have had during the time schools have been closed. She pointed out children with disabilities such as autism are often taught with an IEP geared toward that child.

Another parent, Charles Baugh, repeated back to Board members that within the county at the time of the meeting there were 15 deaths, 572 people who have recovered from COVID-19, 1 hospitalized, and 82 recovering at home. “I do not disagree with safety. Safety comes first,” he said, but added, “However, this Board shut down the schools so close to the beginning of the school year with parents having to scrape to find meals and a safe place to live. Now you’re asking them to take on your responsibility that we pay you for.” He added that, of course, there are places that offer child care services but he said, for some, that can run into spending around $200 weekly. He asked Board members if they knew how many people could afford that.

Debra Marquis told Board members she is both a parent and a healthcare worker. She said she has had coworkers unknowingly exposed to COVID-19. “Our children are in danger,” she said, adding for the district to open schools is going against the advice of Center of Disease Control (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in its decision to open up schools, day one of which for students is on Monday, Aug. 24.

Marquis repeated something Baugh said about the number of COVID-19 cases in the area, which is that they are dropping.

The cafeteria at Normal Community West High School had seating spaced accordingly for social distancing in order to continue precautions during the ongoing pandemic, with seating in the corridors on two sides of the cafeteria, but added to that inside the cafeteria was a partition dividing the room in half with chairs spaced six feet apart.

Superintendent Comments: Prior to the public comments, district superintendent Dr. Kristen Weikle to the gathering of roughly 25 people, “Our ability to adequately staff for in-person and online learning has proven to be a challenge for us. And I think that’s just because we want to have high quality instruction taking place.”

Unit 5 Board members voted to resume in-person classes at their only meeting in July, but, Dr. Weikle said the district office reversed the decision Aug. 6.

She added there are eight key metrics established by Illinois Department of Public Health Unit 5 is continuously monitoring, one of which is the number of positive COVID-19 cases per every 100,000 residents in the county. She said over the past four weeks before the meeting, the number of cases was in the 20s but has been increasing ever since. In the week prior to the meeting, that number grew to 58 cases per 100,000 persons. She added the threshold established by Illinois Department of Public Health was 50 cases or less per 100,000 persons.

Dr. Weikle said students’ time to be instructed remotely would be the same as if they were in class depending on the school the child attends in a school building. She said students in grades 6-12, “they will be going through their traditional day.” She added the district understands it’s unhealthy for students to sit before a computer all day long. She said teachers would instruct for roughly 20 minutes and then allow students to do work or check with instructors the remainder of an hour class period.

Dr. Weikle added case managers of special needs students will be working with those families to help tailor ways for the student to get through their school day successfully under these circumstances.

She said the district did order computers for students in grades K-5, but she said through no fault of the district, there has been a delay on receiving those devices. “The biggest factor that we are facing is that U.S. government officials have said we are not allowed to do business or trade with that company.” She said that forced Unit 5 to find a vendor which met government approval. As a result, she said, Unit 5 had roughly 4,600 devices they can distribute to students.

“We realize that is not enough to have to distribute to every single child to have one, but we do feel comfortable that we are going to get one to every Pre-K through 5th grade family who needs one,” Dr. Weikle said.

NORMAL – As the pandemic which the country has dealt with since earlier this year continues, a plan formulated by Normal-based Unit 5 School District to reopen schools in August was unanimously approved by School Board members. The plan received unanimous approval of Board members with the condition that the district’s new superintendent will have latitude to revise the plan as situations develop.

But the plan was met with concern from parents and some district teachers who addressed the Board’s first in-person session since mid-March, held at Normal Community West High School.

The Board meeting was the first one held in person since the district closed school buildings by order of the State and had students engage in remote learning in March. About 125 people social distanced in and around the school cafeteria.

Two Board members – Taunia Leffler and Barry Hitchins – participated by phone, making use of a Board policy which allows for it. This was also the first Board meeting for new superintendent Dr. Kristen Kendrick-Weikle since being introduced in January and starting officially on July 1.

Spectators numbering around 125 spread out to be socially distant in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Some sat in the cafeteria and kitchen area while others sat in rows distancing from one another in corridors near the cafeteria, listening intently to Board members and citizens who made public comments.

Among the mandated precautions the plan devised by the district are: Students must wear masks at all times unless eating or outside; Schools will perform social distancing to the greatest extent possible; Physical education classes will take place while adhering to social distancing guidelines as much as possible and without the use of locker rooms, except for swimming classes.

The district will continue providing breakfast and lunch under the plan, with students only allowed to remove masks for eating. Under the plan, only 50 students at a time will be allowed in cafeterias to allow for social distancing.

Pre-Kindergarten students will attend half-day, either morning or afternoon; Kindergarten through fifth grade will attend in person five days a week, and sixth graders through high school seniors will attend in person Mondays and Tuesdays. On Wednesdays, teachers will lead remote discussions, followed on Thursdays and Fridays by students engaged in learning and working on assignments at their own pace.

Before the vote, during public comments, 13 people spoke, all in opposition to the plan. A few were district employees. Michelle Kraft, a Benjamin Elementary School second grade teacher, told Board members those who teach in the district are aware in-person learning “is best whenever possible.” She said the district plan for social distancing aren’t realistic when it comes to working it at younger grade levels. “The plan says to do social distancing the best that you can, but how can you in a busy second grade classroom?,” she asked.

Lyndsey Dickinson, president of Unit Five Education Association, the union that represents nearly 1,000 district teachers, told Board members. “When the pandemic hit, our members immediately adjusted and adapted, working remotely to support the growth and learning of our students. She called remote learning “an immense challenge for our students, their parents and caregivers.”

She stated UFEA did not “directly participate in the development of this plan,” established by the district’s pandemic advisory committee. “We would have liked to work collaboratively with the district on the development of the plan.”

Following the meeting, Dr. Kendrick-Weikle countered Dickinson’s claim concerning whether UFEA members were included as part of the advisory committee for input. “They were included in the pandemic advisory committee,” she said. “They were provided opportunities to speak up.” The superintendent specified Dickinson was present for a meeting held on July 17 in the district office when the district’s initial plan was reviewed prior to the plan being publicly announced.

“I am concerned the plan does not do enough to address the number of bodies in class each day,” added teacher George Van Winkle in his public comments, pointing out there are as many as 25 students or more in an average elementary school classroom, a number that jumps to around 30 or more once kids enter junior high and high school. He asked how, one aspect of the plan, splitting class sizes alphabetically, would assure class numbers would keep kids safe from potential exposure to the virus.

Tyler McWhorter, a teacher at Normal Community High School, asked Board members to vote in favor of the plan if they felt it was good enough to use in order to send their own children back to class, a request which received a smattering of applause from attendees. He also issued a challenge to Normal Town leaders and officials from the City of Bloomington, McLean County, and local State leaders to “come spend a full day in one of our schools under this new plan because we are past the point of merely discussing it in terms of public education.”

Prefacing her comments with the number of people who have lost lives as a result of the pandemic, Aditi Sharma, who will be an NCHS senior this fall, added, “There is one thing we should never be forced to compromise, and that is the safety of our families. Opening schools now is irresponsible and dangerous. People are tired, frustrated, and misinformed. As a result, they are not social distancing and wearing masks, especially teenagers.”

“Can you fully assure that students are social distancing in school of over 2,000 kids, who are being divided into three groups only for attendance?’ Sharma asked Board members, reminding that “teenagers are impulsive and don’t always listen to authority. Take it from me, a teenager.”

Contract With Laborers’ Union Approved: Board members also approved a contract with staff members who belong to Local 362 of Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents full-time and part-time custodians.