By Steve Robinson | October 22, 2012 - 10:12 pm
Posted in Category: News, The Normalite

NORMAL – At the dedication of Uptown Station in July, Tom Carper, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Amtrak, told the audience gathered for the ceremony high speed rail would not just allow passengers to get from Chicago to St. Louis at 110 miles per hour, but also to other parts of the Midwest, like Dearborn, Mich., too.

At one point on a test run from Joliet to Normal on Oct. 19, the train carrying dignitaries such as Gov. Pat Quinn; U. S. Sen. Dick Durbin; Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood; Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann L. Schneider; and Normal Mayor Chris Koos, clocked a top speed of 111 miles per hour as it cruised the tracks between Dwight and Pontiac.

As a result, the train, scheduled to pull into Uptown Station between 12:30p.m. and 12:45p.m., made its debut nearly a full 20 minutes ahead of that time frame, surprising both onlookers and media gathered for the event.

It will be around Thanksgiving when rail passengers will get the opportunity to experience such a quick trip for themselves, according to IDOT. At a news conference upon their arrival at Uptown Station, lawmakers advanced the positives of future travelers using high speed rail.

“We made history today,” Quinn told the roughly 40 people gathered for the press conference that followed their arrival. “We’ve taken a great train trip to Normal, Illinois. Along the way, we went more than 110 miles per hour.” Quinn emphasized the 111 mph was the fastest speed for a train traveling outside of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which includes service to cities like Boston, Montreal; New Haven, Conn. and Portland, Me. in the east; To Atlanta, New Orleans, and Orlando in the south; And as it heads west to Harrisburg, Pa.; Cincinnati; Indianapolis; and Chicago.

As part of his remarks, LaHood thanked Durbin for his efforts in getting high speed rail in the State. He added that in an effort to get tracks laid that will allow trains to move at such speed, jobs were created, which helped the economy. A total of $1.2 billion in Federal money, added to roughly $800,000 in State funding, helped make the high speed rail a reality for the State, he explained.

LaHood added USDOT has “invested over $2.5 billion in the Midwest to increase the speed and frequency of service.” He said that should be helpful to many area residents, including the numerous students who attend local universities who travel to and from Chicago and St. Louis and attend school here, and at other schools along the line such as Western Illinois University in Macomb and Galesburg-based Knox College.

Over a two-year period, according to IDOT, construction took place on 90 miles of railroad track stretching between Chicago and St. Louis. That includes over 237 track miles of new rail.

The State has traveled a good deal in terms of political miles, in an attempt to get to this point for high speed rail, Durbin said. “Five years ago in Washington, D. C., they wrote off Amtrak. No more Federal subsidy for passenger rail.” Now, however, Durbin countered, “The President had the courage to step up and say that, as part of saving this economy, we will address the infrastructure that will serve us for decades to come.”

Durbin said local leaders like Koos also stepped up and contributed ideas for how keeping rail moving in the area would aid the economy. He added that having rail service in the area benefits local college students, “keeping them from having to buy a car and add a new expense to the college experience.”

“We’re going to be expanding service all over the state,” IDOT’s Schneider told the gathering. “We’re going to be adding service to the Quad Cities, and to Rockford, on to Dubuque. That’s important to help create jobs and bring economic opportunity into those areas.”

Koos told the gathering high speed rail was part of “the new Normal.” He said Normal’s rail station has seen thousands of rail passengers go through the local station annually, as well as touted the Bloomington-Normal Marriott a short half-block walk from the station, new business openings; and the anticipated construction of the Uptown One project which will include a nine-floor apartment complex and seven-story Hyatt Place Hotel, complete with ground floor retail space. Koos added that what has been constructed so far “could not have taken place without” Federal and State help.

Koos said a total of $155 million worth of private development has been invested in Uptown Normal. Amtrak’s Carper told the gathering there has been an upswing in the number of passengers who commuted along the Chicago-To-St. Louis line in the last year. He said there were 675,295 passengers riding the rails in the last 12 months, an increase of 11 percent.

Union Protestors Present: But although there was a milestone being marked at this event, not everybody was in a celebratory mood. Roughly 30 members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 greeted Quinn as he exited the train and stood next to reporters in the crowd, holding signs such as “Save Dwight Prison,” a reference to a location targeted for closure in an attempt to help the State get out of its current fiscal difficulties.

By Steve Robinson | October 21, 2012 - 10:08 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

NORMAL – If a proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution is passed by voters on Nov. 6, it will take a vote of three-fifths of the state legislature to approve any kind of changes concerning pension and retirement benefit increases for State employees.

Currently, a vote of two-thirds of the members of each chamber of the Illinois General Assembly is required for passage of such changes.

Benefit increase would include such things as receiving a raise in benefits or changing eligibility requirements to receive benefits.

Proponents of the change say doing so requires a larger consensus to approve the measure from all parties concerned about it; and would prevent unfunded liability for pension benefits.

Those opposing the change argue the new higher vote requirement may limit the bargaining power of both employers and employees; and requiring such a supermajority vote for pension increases could make it more difficult to recruit people to work for the State.

As State Rep. Dan Brady (R-88th Dist.) sees it: “I voted in favor of voting on the amendment – in other words, letting the people have the ability to vote on it – because, I think, whenever you bring something in to the delicate issue of pensions and pension reform, that more rank-and-file legislators’ votes will be important.”

“Making it a three-fifths majority rather than just a simple majority, is something I look favorable toward, and we’re going to leave it up to the people of Illinois to vote on,” Brady said. Brady was in Normal’s Uptown Station on Oct. 19 for the arrival of the Amtrak high speed train which made a round-trip between Joliet and Normal, as a demonstration of what rail passengers could expect in the future with high speed rail lines being considered for going between Chicago and St. Louis by 2014.

But while Brady sees the positives of letting the people decide whether a super-majority is required, a local college professor said he sees passage of the law as an open invitation to future lawsuits.

Dr. Robert C. Bradley, a recently retired professor of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, sees voters’ approving the change as an open door to future litigation.

Bradley said voters should keep a couple points in mind when they come to this measure. “First of all, this amendment does nothing to address the pension crisis in the State of Illinois,” Dr. Bradley said. Secondly, Bradley said, the law is so lengthy that the entire scope of the amendment’s purpose will not seen on voters’ ballots.

Dr. Bradley said what people will see when looking at their ballots is an explanation of the amendment as provided by the office of Secretary of State Jesse White, but the full text of the amendment will not be present on the ballot.

“I feel very strongly that, if you want to inform voters on this issue, the entirety of the wording of the amendment should appear on the ballot,” Dr. Bradley said.

Dr. Bradley said the ballot gives voters only a short explanation of the measure rather than the item in its entirety.

While some say the wording for the amendment “might not be the only thing that came out of Springfield that worded badly, my focus is, if we’re going to have something as important as pensions and pension reform – and whether anything is raised or lowered down the road – that there are more rank and file members voting on it than just a simple majority,” Brady said.

Dr. Bradley counters Brady by saying the amendment “reads very much like statute, rather than an amendment. This is the only amendment that defines terms like ‘benefit increase’ and ‘beneficial determination’ is.” Dr. Bradley said he has never seen a Constitutional Amendment that has ever defined terms. He said such definitions usually are regularly found in the body of statues.

By Steve Robinson | October 20, 2012 - 10:05 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

It’s time for the annual Unit 5 Junior High Book Drive again.

Last year, Unit 5, which had normally done this event at one school at a time each year tried something bold by running it simultaneously at all four junior high schools.

George L. Evans Junior High School, which opened in August of 2011, will take center stage as home of the event this year. The campaign began Oct. 19 and runs through Nov. 2. Books can also be dropped off at the Unit 5 District Headquarters, 1809 W. Hovey Ave., in Normal during regular business hours.

Again this year, teachers are seeking donations of gently used young adult books suitable for 5th through 8th graders. Books can be brought in by students, parents and members of the community. The school is also accepting monetary donations for new books, as well. Donations are also being accepted at the Unit 5 District Office.

Rexie Lanier, a secondary literary specialist for the district is one of Unit 5’s two secondary literacy specialists helping to organize the drive. She explained the drive is an attempt to build up the number of books available to kids in the middle school grades because EJHS is a fairly new school. She said it is hoped this year’s drive will bring in 1,000 books for students’ use.

“We’re looking for gently used books that would be appropriate for middle school students that would go into our classroom libraries,” Lanier explained.

Lanier said literature that would fill the bill (not to mention the library) here are books that are “popular with teenagers or books like you would find in the ‘young adult’ section of a bookstore – just anything that would be of interest to a young adult.”

Lanier said all genres are accepted, so long as it would be of interest to these young adults.

She said that, even with all the family activities and distractions we encounter as we get older, these young people in the junior highs are continuing to make time for reading. Lanier said having libraries – both the individual ones in the students’ homerooms and larger school library – available to them has helped kids find a book that holds their interest.

If you’re wondering if there is a genre the Evans library could use, it’s anything non-fiction, Lanier said.

At the first book drive EJHS participated in last year, where all four junior highs took part in the venture for the first time, EJHS collected over 1,000 books for student use, on a wide array of subjects. Last year’s drive collected about 1,000 books for each junior high. “That was great,” Lanier said of the previous year’s effort.

“We want every classroom library to be big enough to have 10 books on hand for every student,” Lanier said. That means a classroom with 27 kids, for example, needs at least 270 books on its shelves.

In addition to books, book drive organizers will also accept monetary donations, giving organizers the chance to purchase additional books, Lanier stated. Checks should be made out to George L. Evans Junior High School, with the words “book drive” written on the check’s memo line.

Lanier reminded that having all four junior highs involved in the book drive last year assisted in promoting the event to the community. When the drives were held by the individual schools, Parkside Junior High School was able to get 1,300 books during their campaign in 2009; Kingsley Junior High School collected 1,000 books last year, and Chiddix Junior High gathered over 2,000 at their drive.

She said that even in in an MTV-MP3 and so-called celebrity-glutted environment, junior high kids in the district “have teachers who are really promoting reading whenever they can.”

“Of course, we all have those distractions, but all four middle schools are very literature-rich environments,” Lanier said. “I mean, their teachers are talking about books and the kids are talking and sharing about books.”

To Lanier’s last point, I discovered there are book clubs in the middle schools. I will tell you about that subject in a future column. But it is sounding like the junior high schools are off on the right foot trying to get their students interested in reading, and that’s something none of us can argue with.

By Steve Robinson | October 14, 2012 - 10:01 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – One observer of the meetings between Unit 5 and its auditors described them as similar to a parent-teacher conference. But from what members of Normal-based Unit 5 School Board learned at their regular meeting on Oct. 10, the district is doing well thus far, despite some financial obstacles.

Hope Wheeler, representing the auditing firm of CliftonLarsonAllen LLP, updated Board members on their recommendations to help the district maintain positive financial footing. Wheeler noted the district had $88 million in disbursements from its education fund as of when fiscal year 2012 ended for the district on June 30.

In terms of the dollars the district took in over disbursements, Unit 5 took in $600,000. The district disbanded Mackinaw Valley Special Education Association recently. At the time of its dissolution, Mackinaw Valley was $400,000 in the red. Wheeler said had Unit 5 not had to cover Mackinaw Valley’s operating losses, the district would have had a $1 million surplus.

Wheeler said the district’s capital projects fund is $731,000 over budget, the primary cause for that being asbestos removal and renovation done at Chiddix Junior High School last spring.

Chief on the auditors’ list of items the district needs to bolster is making sure individual schools continue improving their cash handling. Niehaus told Board members he has reminded school principals they are the ones responsible for the accounting procedures that take place inside their buildings. He added the district needs to screen for accounting skills when hiring new employees who would work in the school buildings.

Board members voted unanimously to accept the audit report. Board member Jay Reece was not present at the meeting.

Board Receives Energy Conservation Update: The energy saving program Unit 5 has undertaken since 2005 has brought the district “financial and environmental gains,” according to a memo to Board members from Bruce Boswell, Unit 5’s energy educator-manager. Boswell addressed Board members at the meeting, explaining the energy savings program has produced both monetary savings and a decrease in carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere because of the decreased demand, brought on by improvements made to school buildings.

In a memo to Niehaus and Board members, Boswell explained district utility costs have gone down in the last seven years. He added that even with an increase in student population, adding six new sites to cover, either because of new facilities or adding improvements to older buildings, and increasing building use demands, energy savings is “apparent.”

In the period the program has been in effect, Unit 5 has spent $19,486,825 in actual energy costs. The district expected to have energy costs ranging around $28,254,729. In effect, that means the district saved over $8.7 million before expenses, or just over 31 percent in energy expenses since the program began.

Enrollment Opens Year At 12,000: Board members heard an update on attendance figures from Nate Cunningham, assistant superintendent for human resources. In the same day enrollment comparison taken on the last school day in September, Unit 5 had 13,616 students in its 17 grade schools, four junior high schools, and two high schools. That compares with 13,255 students in class on the last school day in September last year, an increase of 361 students, or 2.72 percent.

Among the schools, at the elementary level, Sugar Creek Elementary showed the biggest increase in its population during the period, reporting 547 students, an increase of 74 students over the same day last year. Carlock, Fairview, Colene Hoose, Hudson, Northpoint, Oakdale, and Prairieland Elementary Schools all reported single-digit drops in their populations from the same day last year.

All four of the junior high schools showed increases in population from the previous same day totals last year, with George L. Evans Junior High School reporting the biggest increase – 730 students this year versus 667 last year, a jump of 63 students.

Normal’s two high schools saw their population counts go in opposite directions. Normal Community High School saw an increase of 87 students in its same-day count versus a year ago, bringing the student count to an even 2,000 students. Conversely, Normal Community West High School lost 110 students from the same day last year, dropping its population to 1,606 students.

Brusso Becomes Assistant Business Manager: Kirsten Brusso has been hired as the district’s assistant business manager, reporting to Business Manager Erik Bush. Prior to the appointment, Brusso was a bookkeeper in the District Office.

Hickman Hired As Interim Technology Director: Board members approved the formal promotion of Marty Hickman, the former executive director of the Illinois High School Association, as director of technology. He had been serving in that position in an interim basis since being hired in August. Hickman replaces Loren Baele, who is now working with the East Peoria School District.

By Steve Robinson | October 12, 2012 - 10:12 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

One can’t say University High School’s Theatre Department hasn’t challenged their student body since the school reopened a refurbished Stroud Auditorium last spring after Illinois State University, which operates the lab school, spent $2.7 million over two years to renovate Ruth A. Stroud Auditorium.

The school’s theatre department christened the renovated auditorium with a student production of “Phantom Of The Opera.” For its fall production, U-High is bringing “The Laramie Project,” a play by Moiseìs Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, on Friday, October 19 and Saturday, October 20 at 7:00 p.m., with a matinee performance on Sunday, October 21 at 2 p.m. in Stroud Auditorium. Tickets are $5 for the general public and may be purchased online at the school website (www.uhigh.ilstu.edu) or at-the-door one hour prior to the performance.

As the press materials provided by U-High explain, “The Laramie Project” is “an emotional drama based on interviews conducted by members of the Tectonic Theatre Project after the murder of University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard. The play explores the struggles of the Laramie community after Shepard’s death. University High School Theatre Director Benjamin Webb is assisted by ISU theatre student Sara Phillips and student Becca Gocker. The cast consists of 15 students who all play multiple characters along with additional student voice-overs, video interviews, and imagery provided by generous assistance from the Matthew Shepard Foundation.”

Shepard was a 21-year-old was a student at University of Wyoming who was gay. He was tortured and murdered in October 1998. He was targeted and attacked by two men on the night of October 6 that year, and died on Oct. 12 in a Fort Collins, Colorado hospital from severe head injuries. Published reports indicated Police arrested Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson shortly after the attack, finding the bloody gun and Shepard’s shoes and wallet in their truck. Henderson pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against McKinney to avoid the death penalty, receiving two consecutive life sentences. McKinney was found guilty of felony murder. Published reports indicate that as McKinney’s jury began deliberating the death penalty as punishment, Shepard’s parents brokered a deal resulting in McKinney serving two consecutive life terms without parole.

Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard wrote a book The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed. President Barack Obama signed legislation on October 28, 2009, which the U. S. Congress passed, called the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (Matthew Shepard Act for short). James Byrd was a black man who was murdered by three white men, of whom at least two were admitted white supremacists, in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998. One of Byrd’s killers has been executed; one is continues his appeals through the justice system; while the third man convicted is serving life in prison.

Members of the ensemble cast of this worthwhile and interesting production are: Cole Bateman, Isabel Dawson, Jordan French, Ashley Genung, Linnea Griffen, Veebha Gowda, Andrew Loy, Jacob Mattia, Carly McShane, Sullivan Peterson-Quinn, Everson Pierce, Anna Prinzler, Caroline Ray and Tim Zaitzeff.

“This play is reader’s theatre and testimony,” explained Webb. “The script is a compilation of interviews, diary entries, and a pieced-together script of actual words from the community of Laramie, as well as the members of the project from New York.” Webb adds the play shows the audience the reaction of Laramie residents to what took place.

Of the 15 actors who are in the play, 14 will be playing multiple parts because there were interviews done with over 70 people that were used. That means each actor represents roughly five people. The 15th actor on stage is a narrator. Doing this, Webb explained, was done to help make the play show a wide range of emotions brought about by this tragic true-life incident. Another 30 U-High students serve on the production crew helping with lights, projection, and sound.

Webb said adding this piece to the list of recent productions shows U-High is “trying to do a variety of projects.” He reminded that that variety has ranged from Shakespeare’s “The Importance Of Being Earnest” in Fall 2011 to “The Drowsy Chaperone” by Don McKellar and Bob Martin with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, which U-High produced last spring.

Webb explained that, “One of the questions we ask as a Fine Arts Department is, ‘after four years of students being in this school, are they getting a variety in terms of types of theatre?’”

He said finding a way to keep a student who is interested in doing just comedy or just drama is a challenge he needs to always consider. “With this show, the main motivation was not just to do something different, but something that has a message behind it or just exercises students’ different skills, for both our actors and those students doing the technical work.”

Webb said when he approached his bosses, Lab Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Hill, and acting U-High Principal Andrea Markert, he explained his students were looking to do something different; something powerful; and something that would fit in with the theme promoted by the Illinois Theatre Festival. That theme: “Social Change On The Stage.”

“The content of the play is mature but we think that, for students, it’s real to students,” Webb said. The play has mature language although actual profanities are bleeped out. There is an introductory announcement of caution before the performance begins, as well as written notice to that effect on the play’s program, Webb said. He added The Tectonic Theatre Project allowed U-High to make those such edits possible.

This is a bold step U-High appears to be taking, and to some, it’s probably seen as a gamble as to how it will be received. But you have to commend Webb, the U-High administration, and most of all, the students involved, for wanting to tackle such a different, gritty, and touchy subject.

On another, much lighter note: Congratulations to Cole Trickel and Jalee Kletz, who were named Homecoming King and Queen at Bloomington High School last weekend.