By Steve Robinson | November 23, 2009 - 10:15 pm
Posted in Category: Bloomington HS, The Normalite, U-High

BasketballBLOOMINGTON – University High basketball fans take note: Your team knows it needs to toughen up. The bad news is head coach Bob Fitzgerald’s crew had to learn that the hard way in the opening game of the 2009 Boys Intercity Basketball Tournament on Monday, losing the opener to Bloomington High School, 48-21.

BHS (1-0) jumped out to a fast 5-0 lead on a deuce by senior forward James Wimp and a three-pointer by senior guard Nate Caldwell.

U-High’s first basket of the night came was a jumper from sophomore center Mitch Styczynski at 5:48, cutting BHS’ lead, 5-2.

But from there, the Purple Raiders went on an 8-0 run with two more baskets by Caldwell, and one each from junior guard T. J. Riggs and senior forward Darius Mims, giving BHS a 13-2 lead going into the second quarter.

A trey by sophomore guard Kurtis Ellis at 6:53 in the second quarter was the jumpstart the Pioneers needed, as Styczynski added two more baskets in the quarter to cut BHS’ lead to 16-9.

But the Pioneers closed out the second quarter sending BHS junior guard Brandan Monroe to the free throw line once and Caldwell twice, resulting in the Purple Raiders going 3-for-6, helping increase their lead to 21-11 at halftime.

U-HighRiggs and Caldwell started the third quarter at the free throw line for BHS, the result of being fouled by Styczynski and senior guard Peter Schiller, respectfully. Styczynski scored twice, once with an assist credited to sophomore guard Marlon Pettis, at 2:49 in the third, cutting BHS’ lead to 29-17.

Pioneers sophomore guard Kyle Morris fouled Riggs with 7.5 seconds left in the quarter, and Riggs’ successful free throws increased BHS’ lead to 31-17 heading into the fourth quarter.

Although U-High fans did manage to see a bucket each by senior guard Brady Knapp with six minutes to go in the game, and by Styczynski with 3:41 left in the contest, it was not enough to offset a pair of scoring runs, totaling 11-0, that the Purple Raiders, led by junior guard Cole Jackson and Wimp, put up against the Pioneers’ defense.

Caldwell led all scorers with a game-high 15 points, including one trey. Styczynski was U-High’s only player in double-figures, starting his season with 12 points.

U-High senior guard Eric Robb caught a knee to the face, requiring stitches, in the opening moments of the contest, colliding with a Purple Raiders player in a scrum for a loose ball early in the first quarter.

“Our effort wasn’t all that bad,” Pioneers’ third-season head coach Bob Fitzgerald said of his team’s defensive performance. “We made them play in the half-court. They got some penetration against us.”

Fitzgerald said he thought the game’s end result was caused by his team showing “a lack of toughness on the offensive side.

Bloomington Raiders“We weren’t tough tonight, in all facets of the game,” Fitzgerald added. “We didn’t take care of the ball tough. We didn’t post tough. We didn’t pass tough. We didn’t rebound tough. We didn’t get after loose balls tough.

“I think if you’re going to have a chance to beat a team like Bloomington, you’d better be tough, and we weren’t,” Fitzgerald concluded.

“Defensively, we did a good job of getting into (U-High’s) passing lanes,” said first-season Purple Raiders head coach Peter Goff. He added his team needed to improve on keeping opponents from scoring off of rebounds. Goff said he was willing to assume that “more than half” of the Pioneers’ points came off of rebounding.

Ironmen Win At Intercity, Too: In the second game of the tourney’s opening night, Normal Community (1-0) beat Bloomington Central Catholic, 60-49.

By Steve Robinson | November 17, 2009 - 10:38 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

Town of NormalNORMAL – For over 20 years, Normal Parks and Recreation has operated a pair of preschools – something that might not have been very common at the time when they started.

But as the Town of Normal, looking for ways to cut expenses, has decided the two operations – Rising Stars and Small Wonders – will cease operations in May.

Normal Town Council members heard a report from Assistant City Manager Pamela Reece which calculated the current intake of the two preschools and compared them to some locally run operations.

One of Normal Parks and Recreations pre-schools, Rising Stars, a preschool serving children ages 3 and 4, has 20 children in it and operates two days a week. Reece said 75 percent of the youngsters are from Normal, with the other 25 percent coming from Bloomington, Carlock, and Hudson. Parents pay an annual fee of $300 for their children to attend.

The other pre-school, Small Wonders is a preschool serving children 4-6 years old, has 31 children currently enrolled. Reece said 68 percent of the children are from Normal, with the rest from surrounding communities.

Reece said that, after crunching numbers, it was determined that to keep Rising Stars running, for example, the Town would have to charge an annual fee of $840, or $70 monthly, to keep running, and Small Wonders would have to increase its fee to $1,375 annually, or $153 monthly, to keep operating, just to break even for a year’s worth of operation.

Reece said the money would help pay for utility costs, a custodian, and expenses incurred by Normal Parks and Recreation.

Reece reported to Council members that had researched the prices charged by other preschool operations in the area, discovering that others charged a monthly fee that ranged between $75-$200, not including, in some cases, a registration fee on top of that.

“We launched these programs over 20 years ago,” Reece said following the meeting. “(These preschools) were started then because there was an unmet need.”

Reece said the Town “has been delighted to have offered” such a service to parents of children of that age for so long, but that, with other preschools in the community now, “we can’t justify, we can’t justify keeping it, based on what’s in the area.”

The closings of the pre-schools was discussed at the Council’s Nov. 2 meeting, in which Council members discussed eliminating the program as one way to balance the Town’s General Fund.

Property Tax Hearing Scheduled: A hearing on a proposed property tax increase of just over nine percent will be held on Monday, Dec. 7 as part of that evening’s regularly scheduled Normal Council meeting. The hearing is necessary before the tax levy can be approved because the Town is considering a property tax hike that is over five percent.

In voting to approve the preparation of the tax levy, the Council vote was 6-1 with Council member Jason Chambers casting the lone opposing vote. In Council discussion that took place prior to the vote, Chambers said he wished the Council would hold off on increasing the tax rate for one year.

“I stated at our (Nov. 2) meeting (that) we have a lot of retirement benefits we have to pay for that are mandated by the State,” said Council member Cheryl Gaines. “We have to be responsible and step up to the plate and therefore, I will be supporting (the increase).”

“Our goal has been to keep our tax bite as low as possible,” said Council member Jeff Fritzen. “I don’t think we have to apologize for increasing the tax rate in Normal. I, too, will support this.”

Fritzen said the consequences of not supporting the increase could include the Town having a smaller balance in its general fund, and potentially, the prospect of laying off Town employees.

Fritzen said the Council realizes job actions like layoffs might come in the future, but that there is hope layoffs will not occur.

“We try to de-emphasize tax rates in the income stream,” Mayor Chris Koos said.

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

• Approval of minutes of the Council’s regular meeting held Nov. 2, 2009.

• Approval of Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of Nov. 11, 2009.

• A motion to Motion to Waive the Formal Bidding Process and Accept a Quote from Decatur Industrial Electric for Motor Soft Starts for the Water Department Well Pumps in the amount of $29,822.

• A motion to Authorize the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) to Award a contract to Otto Baum Company, Inc. in the amount of $1,740,798.19 for the Virginia Avenue Bridge Replacement Project.

• A resolution conditionally accepting bids for the Water Treatment Plant Clearwell Piping, Baffles, and Pumps Project and authorizing notices of Intent to Award.

• A resolution authorizing the Execution of a Contract with Joe’s Towing & Recovery for Towing Services.

• A resolution approving and authorizing the Execution of an Intergovernmental Agreement Establishing the Northern Illinois Municipal Gas Franchise Consortium.

• A resolution conditionally and Partially Approving the Final Plat of the Uptown Crossing Subdivision by Expedited Process.

• A resolution conditionally approving an amended site plan for the Newman Center, 501 S. Main St. – Monument Sign.

By Steve Robinson | November 15, 2009 - 6:04 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Unit 5NORMAL – At the Nov. 11 meeting of Normal’s Unit 5 School Board, three students who were recently invited to The White House to participate in a one-day celebration of classical music were recognized.

The three Unit 5 students selected to attend were: Shelby Bays, daughter of John and Melinda Bays, Normal, an eighth grader who attends Chiddix Junior High School; Sam Birsa, a senior at Normal Community West High School, son of Terry and Paula Birsa, Bloomington; and Brandon Churchill, a Normal West freshman, and son of Edward and Cynthia Churchill, Normal.

Bays, Birsa, and Churchill were among 13 students from six area school districts who were selected to participate in an afternoon of learning from concert performers at The White House in Washington, D. C. on Nov. 4.

Among the performers students heard and learned from were: Concert pianist Awadagin Pratt; Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell; Guitarist/recording artist Sharon Isbin; and American cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

Shelby Bays said students got to attend a class conducted by the professionals in their selected fields as well as hear them play.

Being taught by a famous violinist “was amazing,” said the eighth grader. “(That was because) you got to meet someone that you can look up to, to (help you) become better at what you do.”

“(These students) were extremely grateful for getting the opportunity,” District Superintendent Gary Niehaus said. “They were extremely honored for getting the chance to play in front of the First Lady. (Plus) the experience to get the chance to meet the other kids, was phenomenal from their vantage point.

“I think it’s a once in a lifetime experience that they will probably remember for a long time,” Niehaus said.

Unit 5 Has New Contract With UFEA: Negotiations between the district and the union that represents about 925 teachers and certified staff have yielded a new two-year deal for members of the Unit Five Education Association (UFEA), it was announced at the meeting.

UFEA members ratified the contract during a Nov. 4 vote, and the Board voted unanimously to approve the collective bargaining agreement at its regular meeting. The previous contract expired Aug. 17. The contract runs between the first day of school in 2009 and expires one day before the first day of school in 2011.

There were no monetary details released concerning the contract.

Tax Levy Hearing Set: Unit 5 will hold a Truth in Taxation hearing as part of the Board’s next meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 9 at District Headquarters, 1809 W. Hovey Ave., starting at 7p.m. The hearing is required if the district’s tax levy is projected to go above five percent over the one from the previous year. The Board will vote on whether or not to accept the resolution concerning the tax levy at that the same meeting. Residents who own a $150,000 home would see a $65 increase in their bill if the tax levy is approved.

The levy would generate $95,794,314, which would be an increase of over 7 percent above last year.

Help Desk To Be Created: Recent incidents on Unit 5 buses have generated complaints, causing the District to consider creating a help desk, which would be set up, presently, at the District’s Transportation office. Two recent incidents in recent weeks have caused District officials to find the need for the help desk.

Those incidents included a 4-year-old boy being left on a bus in the bus yard after he fell asleep on his way to Oakdale Elementary, and a 5-year-old boy on the Carlock Elementary route allegedly being picked up by his feet and dropped on his head by the bus monitor. Published reports indicate the bus monitor has been suspended by the District.

Unit 5 mapConstruction Update: Board members received the latest update on construction taking place at two elementary schools and one junior high school which will be expanding Unit 5’s number of schools to 17 elementary schools and four junior high schools by next fall.

Richard Ach, representing Chicago-based Turner Construction, updated the Board on how construction was faring thus far.

At Sugar Creek Elementary, work is being done on the front entrance should be completed soon, Ach reported. He added that concrete sidewalks are being installed, and that work on the parking lot should be completed soon, also. Ach said work crews have experienced 14 days of weather delays on this site, but those will be made up by the end of the year. It is anticipated the renovation project at Sugar Creek will be completed by the end of 2009.

Following the meeting, Board member Gail Ann Briggs said she had taken a tour of all of the renovated areas and the classrooms on the second floor at Sugar Creek Elementary. She also went to the Cedar Ridge Elementary and Benjamin Elementary sites.

At the site of the new Cedar Ridge Elementary School, roofing continues to be installed, and fire hydrants have been installed on the property. Ach said workers have experienced 40 weather delay days on this site, but have been able to make up for 25 of those.

At the site of the new Benjamin Elementary School, Ach said crews have had 48 days of weather delays. Of those 48, he reports, 25 have been made up. Ach said the work at the Benjamin Elementary site is lagging behind the work being done at Cedar Ridge by two weeks.

Briggs said the work that has been done on the schools to this point will allow work crews to concentrate the winter on working inside the buildings.

At the site of George L. Evans Junior High, Ach reported, gym walls are up, and that the locker rooms and music room areas are currently being worked on. Ach said construction at the Evans Junior High site experienced 56 weather delay days, and that work done by crews have been able to make up for about 16 of them.

“This has always been the most challenging site,” Ach said, adding that coming winter weather will continue to make it a challenge for crews.

Enrollment Update: Board members heard the latest enrollment report from John Pye, assistant superintendent for human relations, at this meeting. In its one-day comparison report, Unit 5 reported a total of 12,937 students in class on Oct. 30, as compared to 12,673 on the same day a year ago. That notes an increase of 264 students, or 2.08 percent.

At the elementary school level, Unit 5’s 15 primary schools had 6,521 students in class that day this year — an increase of 237 students, or 3.77 percent from the same day last year. That increase held, even with four schools reporting population declines from the same period last year.

The four schools (and the number of students they lost this year) were: Carlock (lost 14 students); Glenn (lost 3 students); Parkside (lost one student); and Prairieland (lost one student).

With two junior high schools reporting drops in their population numbers from the same day a year ago, Unit 5’s junior high population fell in comparison to last year. There were a total of 2,811 students in the district’s three junior highs on Oct. 30, compared with 2,876 students that were in class a year ago, a drop of 2.26 percent. Chiddix Junior High lost 48 students this year, dropping its population to 859 students. Kingsley Junior High lost 35 students this year, dropping its population to 1,030 students. Only Parkside Junior High saw a marked increase in its same-day enrollment figures, reporting 922 students in class, compared to 904 in class on the same day last year.

Normal Community High School and Normal Community West High School each saw their same-day numbers go up. NCHS reported 1,883 students in class on Oct. 30 – an increase of 60 students from the same day last year, while Normal West reported 1,722 students in class this year, compared to last year’s same day figure of 1,690, or a 32-student increase.

By Steve Robinson | November 13, 2009 - 10:44 pm
Posted in Category: News, The Normalite

MariottNORMAL – Local dignitaries and guests, numbering nearly 350, as well as numerous residents came out to a ribbon cutting ceremony at the new Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel and Convention Center, which opened Oct. 30, at 201 Broadway.

The 230-room hotel’s lobby was packed prior to the ceremony, as local officials mingled with business owners awaiting the formal ceremony.

“What a vision of (hotel developer) John Q. Hammons to put something like this here, to create over 150 jobs,” said Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-11th Congressional District).

Halvorson mixed a little politics in, adding, “What a beautiful sight (the hotel will be) when we get high speed rail,” something local legislators are lobbying to bring through the area to help travelers going between Chicago and St. Louis.

“I, too, just want to my congratulations to (hotel manager) Jeff Pritts and the entire staff of the Marriott, to Mr. Hammons, and, really, to all the visionaries in the Town of Normal who have been a part of this,” said State Rep. Dan Brady (R-88th District).

“We have more work to do,” Brady said, referencing the proposed multimodal transportation center the Town intends to build along Beaufort St. Brady presented Pritts with a certificate from the Illinois General Assembly recognizing the ribbon-cutting having taken place that day.

“Wow…It has been a long time coming,” Mayor Chris Koos said in opening his remarks. “It’s just incredibly wonderful to have this facility in our community.”

Koos said had people been approached 10 years ago about having such a facility as the Marriott, Koos said people would have thought it was a “crazy” notion. “But (this hotel) is such an important part of the revitalization and the renaissance of Uptown Normal, and fits so closely with the mission of Illinois State University…,” Koos said.

Pritts relayed to those gathered the thanks of Hammons and his own thanks to those gathered at the ribbon cutting. That was followed by picture-taking leading up to the ceremony, in which Halvorson and Brady held the ribbon while Koos and Pritts each took one end of an oversized pair of scissors to cut a red ribbon to the applause of those gathered for the event.

“(Getting the hotel up and running) has been a key to the whole Uptown redevelopment,” Koos said after the ceremony. “To see it done and done at such a high level of quality is very gratifying.”

City Manager Mark Peterson, and Council members Chuck Scott and Cheryl Gaines were among those dignitaries spotted attending the events leading up to and following the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Scott said the timing for the ribbon-cutting fits well considering upcoming events for the community, including The Jingle Bell Run. “I think the Marriott organization has done a wonderful job of putting a really urban feel to the Midwest,” Scott said.

“You can go up to any of the floors, look to the east and see the Uptown renaissance taking place,” Scott said. “You can look to the west and see the Illinois State University campus. (The hotel) is sitting in such a wonderful space, and when we get the multimodal transportation center, it will help even more.”

AAA Gives The Hotel 4 Diamonds: The hotel received an even larger boost by the American Automotive Association (AAA) awarding it with its highest rating for a hotel – four diamonds. Pritts said AAA sends staff to critique the hotel, simply checking in unannounced and experiencing the hotel as though they were a guest, and then announcing themselves the next day and continuing with a further look at the facility, guided by hotel staff.

AAA awarded Normal’s Marriott its highest rating of four diamonds. The rating will be published in AAA’s future publications, such as its lodging listings in 2011, but for now will appear on the websites of both AAA and the hotel.

“Less than three percent of the hotels in the world are rated as four diamonds,” Pritts said.

The Marriott was the only hotel from central Illinois, based between Chicago and St. Louis, to receive the four diamonds rating, Pritts said. “With all the hotels in central Illinois, for us to be the only hotel in central Illinois to score enough points to be a four diamond hotel, it just speaks volumes for what Hammons has done with this building, and then, for what we have been able to do with our staff.”

“At the Chamber, we’re certainly glad to see the hotel open because it is a new source of opportunity for new groups (to use when they come to town),” explained Charlie Moore, CEO of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, prior to the ceremony.

Nancy Hobson, a lifetime Normal resident, was sitting in the lobby prior to the ceremony, marveling at the architecture of the interior of the hotel prior to the ribbon-cutting. “I was just checking out the building,” Hobson said. “I love the Frank Lloyd Wright look to the building.

The interior design of the hotel seemed to strike Hobson, particularly the bowl-like structure to the lamps in the lobby, as well as the angular look of wall light fixtures.

“I think (having the hotel) will be very, very convenient for families that have relatives coming in, as well as for parents of students when they come to visit,” Hobson said. “I think it will be especially convenient for them.”

Hobson added she thought the convention center at the hotel would add revenue to the economy of the Town.

Groups, Dollars Coming: The hotel will be busy if, in addition to the hotel staff, the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has anything to say about it. Currently, BNCVB has 21 groups booked into the hotel – a total of 4,607 rooms — representing a direct monetary impact of $600,000, explained Crystal Howard, executive director of the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Howard said BNCVB is also working on leads from 15 more groups considering events in Normal in 2010, and leads from five groups considering events here in 2011.

By Steve Robinson | November 2, 2009 - 10:32 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

Unit 5NORMAL – Normal’s Unit 5 School Board heard a report concerning how its summer school program worked out for nearly 400 students enrolled in it in 2009.

Two of the three directors of the summer school program – Karrah Jensen from Parkside Elementary School and Julia Schoonover from Parkside Junior High School – reported to Unit 5 Board members at the group’s regular meeting on Oct. 28 at District headquarters.

A total of 395 students attended Summer session, Jensen and Schoonover reported. Summer session ran from June 29-Aug. 6, creating a 24-day attendance span.

There were 192 students at PJHS, which included 159 special education students, and 33 students English language-learning students, overseen by a staff of 66.

At Parkside Elementary, there were a total of 120 students with various disabilities in class, aided by a staff of 45.

At Brigham Elementary, 82 students, being taught by six bilingual teachers, and three English language instructors. The school also had one administrative aide and its director. Brigham was a new location for the English Language-Learning program.

There was 88 percent attendance by students at Parkside Elementary, 91 percent attendance by students at PJHS, and 86 percent attendance by students at Brigham Elementary.

PJHS and Brigham ran a breakfast program for $1 a day.

Brianetta Hoosier, the third summer school director from Brigham Elementary School, was not present at the meeting.

Unit 5 mapAudit Of District Completed: Board members heard from District Chief Financial Officer Jim Gillmeister and Tom Pfeffer, auditor with Peoria-based Gorenz and Associates, concerning a recently completed audit of the district. Gorenz and Associates conducted two audits, when examining the district. One audit was of Unit 5 and the second audit was of its special education co-op.

Gorenz noted that the district’s budgeting process continues to work well, and that the district has stayed within it’s budget.

Gillmeister noted the State of Illinois still has yet to repay Unit 5 for three special ed and regular education transportation payments owed the district – reimbursements Unit 5 has been looking for, totaling $2.1 million.

“Beyond The Books” Deadline Extended: The deadline to apply for grants from the “Beyond The Books” Foundation has been extended to late March, explained Board member Gail Ann Briggs.

Those interesting in applying for a grant and to receive more information can visit the group’s website, www.beyondthebooksbn.org, or the websites of Unit 5 (www.unit5.org) or District 87 (www.district87.org).

Contract Renewed With SchoolReach: Board unanimously approved renewing its contract with SchoolReach, a company that provides schools with an electronic notification system. Unit 5 has a contract with SchoolReach at a net cost of $46,534.25. SchoolReach’s product has the capability to contact up to 6,000 parents per minute through email and/or phone. It can be used for things like announcing snow days to notifying specific parents about matters such as athletic event delays and any school-wide crisis.