By Steve Robinson | October 14, 2019 - 1:45 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

NORMAL – With Gov. J. B. Pritzker on hand and Rivian Motors Chief Executive Officer Dr. R. J. Scaringe beaming, Rivian Automotive took area residents for a Sunday drive of sorts in Uptown. The electric car and truck manufacturer showed off prototypes of the kinds of vehicles the company wants to assemble at the former Mitsubishi Motors North America plant on the Town’s west side. The electric car manufacturer first came to town in 2016.

Area residents numbering a few thousand or so got to look under the hood and inside of two Rivian products – an R1T truck and an R1S Sports Utility Vehicle. Area residents were able to join local politicians and Town Council members among others in getting a glimpse of the sort of vehicles which will soon roll off the assembly line at the plant starting next year.

In the One Uptown On The Circle building, residents could go through a self-guided tour of displays Rivian had which would tell more about the company and what plans it had for manufacturing at the facility. Outside of that building, a model of the underside of Rivian vehicles was on display, showing what the manufacturer calls a Skateboard chassis, the inner-workings of their electric vehicles.

Currently, the Rivian plant employs nearly 200 people. The company is looking to expand their workforce to over 1,000 people once Rivian’s products are available for purchase by late 2020. Rivian expects to employ a number of residents which would include former Mitsubishi workers who saw the plant close and now look forward to being part of its rebirth with this new type of vehicle.

“This is so exciting to be here with these cutting edge vehicles and these cutting edge people that are making this vision come true,” said Mayor Chris Koos as he addressed the gathering. Describing Scaringe as “wicked smart,” Koos went on to answer a question he said he gets asked about Rivian coming to town. “It’s here because Normal is wicked smart and cares about this community. Normal cares about sustainability. So we’re a good fit.”

In addressing the crowd which gathered for the event, Scaringe said, “We are having this event to say thank you face-to-face.” He recounted for spectators how Rivian first heard of the plant’s existence a few years back. At that time, he said, Rivian had heard there was equipment in the closed MMNA plant which Rivian believed would be of use to them.

Scaringe recounted that Rivian sent a team to inspect the equipment but that team quickly reported back to him the company might want to consider purchasing the entire plant. He said he came to Normal a few days later, inspected the plant, and as he told the crowd, “saw something I thought we could make our home.”

He said he and his team talked to a number of former MMNA employees who expressed a desire to see the shuddered plant revived. “You can’t buy that kind of passion,” Scaringe told the gathering.

In explaining the objective of the event held around Uptown Circle, Scaringe told the gathering, “We wanted you to get to know us because we’ve had the chance to get to know you.”

One of those Rivian employees who got to reacquaint himself with community members was Mark O’Keefe, now doing a job for Rivian in which he supervises people doing the job he used to do as a former MMNA employee. He was a maintenance technician for MMNA and now supervises those employees for Rivian. He was showing off Rivian’s R1T truck in Mark R. Peterson Plaza on Sunday. He had a couple dozen people crowding around him and the vehicle trying to get a better look.

O’Keefe went to work doing similar work as a technician for Hopedale Medical Complex when he left MMNA after a career of nearly 30 years there. He said he “thought long and hard” about leaving that job to return to the automotive industry because he liked what he was doing at the hospital.

“I did miss the high speed of the automotive industry,” O’Keefe said. “When Rivian started talking about an electric vehicle, that really peaked my interest. Now, I’m in my own wheelhouse and I love it. I do anything that I can knowing we have to get production going here next year.”

“The crowd out here looking these vehicles over sets a very good tone for the future,” said Matt Tall, vice president of manufacturing for Rivian, with his office based here. Relocating to any kind of town, you can’t be successful without the town rallying behind you, especially when you are looking to hire 500 or 600 people to start. Having the community behind you puts a charge in your batteries.”

For starters, to get a supply started, Tall said Rivian would manufacturer around 10,000 vehicles with more once production gets fully engaged. The facility will also, in addition to building cars and SUVs be building delivery trucks for Amazon, Tall added. As a result of that, Tall said, a portion of the former MMNA plant responsible for building small cars is being demolished.

“They are nice looking vehicles,” said Bob Price, a former MMNA employee who now works on an assembly line for Chrysler in Belvedere. He stood next to his friend, Mark Painter, a Normal resident, who added, “I like it. The technology and everything…I have been following this stuff on line.” Price and Painter both worked electronic maintenance for MMNA when the plant closed.

The presidents of both Illinois State University and Heartland Community College appeared impressed with what they saw, adding the plant will provide an educational benefit for the community. “Actually seeing one of their products is very, very exciting, but the numbers of people who are here shows the excitement from the community,” said Dr. Larry Dietz, ISU President.

“Anything in terms of economic development is good for the community and the University and vice versa,” Dietz said. “We hope to partner with them down the road,” adding looking into helping students with an interest in mechanical and electrical engineering would serve a certain population of students wanting to enter into those fields. He added besides people with mechanical aptitude, there was potential for students who are interested in business and human resources, as well. He added he also saw potential for ISU to collaborate with Heartland Community College regarding academic programs.

Dr. Keith Cornille, Heartland Community College President, added his school has already been working with Rivian to help get students trained so that they can acquire the skills needed to work in that environment. “We have the structure in place for an apprenticeship program in maintenance and industrial maintenance,” Cornille explained. “We are working on one as well to do with auto technology and the energy associated with it. So we’ve been crafting that and now we’re getting ready to sit down with them and make sure what we offer will fit their needs as far as their work force.”

“We want to make sure we are getting people ready for the jobs of today and the jobs of the future,” Cornille added. “What we’re doing is not just to get people ready to work in that plant, but also associated with those vehicles and that battery technology.”

By Steve Robinson | October 12, 2019 - 10:28 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, U-High

NORMAL – University High’s season of struggle continued Oct. 11 amid the school’s homecoming celebration at Hancock Stadium, as Central State Eight Conference leader Chatham Glenwood came to town. The visiting Titans outmuscled the Pioneers en route to a 48-0 victory.

Chatham Glenwood (7-0) won the pregame coin flip and deferred receiving the ball until the second half giving U-High (2-5) first crack at getting down field. Despite a flag against each team during the drive, the Pioneers got as far as the Titans’ 31 before senior quarterback Camden Barclay’s pass was picked off by senior defensive back Jacob Crabtree, allowing the Titans their first possession of the night.

Three plays later, senior quarterback Luke Lehnen took advantage of an opening in the Pioneers’ defense and rushed 61 yards for an opening touchdown at the 6:48 mark in the opening quarter. Senior kicker Alek Votava’s extra point began the scoring with the Titans leading, 7-0.

U-High’s ensuing possession would end in a punt, giving the Titans the ball at U-High’s 48 after a short return. But a facemask call against the Pioneers on the first play of the Titans’ drive would allow Chatham Glenwood to begin again from U-High’s 14 yard line. One play later, senior running back Norkel Leflore would dodge Pioneers defenders to enter the end zone for his team’s next touchdown, followed by Votava’s extra point, giving Chatham Glenwood a 14-0 lead going into the second quarter.

Chatham Glenwood would score three more times, putting 20 more points on the board for a 34-0 lead when it looked like U-High had found a solution to only having short drives against the Titans defense. Starting at their own 29 yard line, Barclay connected on passes to senior wide receiver Zane Sorensen, junior tight end Angelo Bernal, and junior wide receiver Savion Jackson to get to the Titans’ 34 yard line. Jackson caught his pass but briefly fumbled, recovering it to salvage the drive. On 4th down, officials called pass interference against the Titans, moving U-High to the Titans’ 19 with a new set of downs.

A pass to and two running plays by senior running back Rashad Wilson got the Pioneers to the Titans’ 8 yard line. That was followed by two short yardage runs by Barclay on second and third down, one that gained two yards and one that lost one yard, getting the Pioneers to the Titans’ 7 yard line in preparation for a fourth down play. But on fourth down, officials called holding against the Pioneers and Chatham Glenwood opted to decline the penalty ending the drive, turning the ball over to the Titans.

Three plays later, Leflore found an opening in the Pioneers’ defense and dashed 93 yards for the Titans next score followed by Votava’s extra point, giving Chatham Glenwood a 41-0 lead at the half.

At that point, game officials employed IHSA’s “Mercy Rule,” – as a result of the 40-point difference in the game score, game officials used a continuously running clock, stopping it for only timeouts taken by a team or because of an injury. The running clock began as the third quarter opened.

By Steve Robinson | October 10, 2019 - 10:36 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL — Board members of Normal-based Unit 5 School District unanimously approved renewing its contract with YouthBuild Charter School for five years. In doing so, the district will continue providing help to YouthBuild so that the organization can increase learning opportunities for students, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for at-risk pupils. The vote took place at the Board’s regularly-scheduled meeting at district headquarters on Oct. 9. The district signed its first contract with YouthBuild in 2008.

In explaining the contract agreement between the district and YouthBuild, which expires in 2024, Curt Richardson, attorney for the district, informed Board members YouthBuild “is constantly working and changing and adding new programs to their curriculum. In addition to Unit 5’s Board approving this, YouthBuild’s Board of Directors needs to approve it. Once those two votes take place, the agreement is submitted to Illinois State Board of Education. If ISBE has anything they believe needs changing, the agreement would be brought back to Unit 5’s Board to vote on, Richardson said.

Tracey Polson, the local organization’s executive director, and Michelle Klatt, local chief financial officer for YouthBuild were both present at the session and thanked Board members for approving Unit 5’s portion of the contract.

Board Member Meta Mickens-Baker asked Richardson about the kinds of major changes which would be made to the contract before ISBE would give its approval. Richardson responded updates made to the contract would be related to new laws passed by the State which once didn’t apply to charter schools which now do so.

“In the last four years, we’ve looked at diversifying our vocational offerings,” Polson explained to Board members. She said while construction work had become a focus for placing students in jobs, not all of her students are gearing themselves toward that field. To address other fields of study, she explained, YouthBuild added an information technology track, which upon completion would give students a certification they can use once they get to secondary education.

Polson added YouthBuild has added a Certified Nursing Assistant training program, something she said will aid any of students who want to expand into the healthcare career field in the future. She said YouthBuild’s CNA program has begun a partnership with Heritage Senior Care Center. She said the CNA program will aid students wishing to expand their studies in the healthcare field.

Polison said YouthBuild is looking at expanding its culinary arts program, as well.

Resolutions Concerning School Safety Discussed: Board members engaged in a discussion related to items to be discussed at the IASB Resolutions Committee meeting in Chicago next month. Among the items to be discussed is whether or not to allow teachers in some districts to be armed, in light of the phenomenon of school shootings that have happened across the country over the years.

In beginning the conversation on the subject, Board President Barry Hitchins mentioned smaller school districts in the State don’t have the ability to afford resource officers – police officers whose primary beat is a school during the school year, and as a result, would consider training teachers to use guns to protect students.

Board Member Mike Trask addressed the subject by saying he doesn’t feel a need to arm teachers. He said arming teachers puts teachers in the position of having to taking on that responsibility. Board Member Meta Mickens-Baker had the same feeling about arming teachers, she said. She said she didn’t want to have to put teachers “in the position of being judge and jury” by carrying the weapon.

Richardson added a resource officer wouldn’t know which teachers would be armed in a shooting circumstance, adding to the concerns such situation present.

In a situation where a shooter is involved, explained Deputy Superintendent Dr. Ray Epperson, “Police are trained to neutralize a threat. If they see a third grade teacher with a gun, they don’t know if the teacher is the threat.”

Superintendent Search Survey Available, Forums Scheduled: Daniel announced at a news conference Sept. 9 his intention to exit Unit 5 at the end of the current school year, on June 30, when his current contract with the district expires. He explained at that news conference his decision was based on his and his wife’s desire to be closer to family who just had the Daniel’s first grandchild. He has been Superintendent since July 1, 2014.

At the Board’s Sept. 11 meeting, Board members heard a pitch from and voted to hire Oak Park-based School Exec Connect to help in the search for the district’s superintendent.

On Oct. 7, the district put out a memo addressed to “District Staff, Students, Parents, & Community Members” seeking input about what they would like to see in the next superintendent. The survey is available on the district website and went up Oct. 14 and will be up until Oct. 25.

Two forums on the subject will also take place, both at Sugar Creek Elementary School, on Tuesday, Oct. 22. The first forum is for Unit 5 staff members only beginning at 4:30 p.m. The second forum for students, parents, and community members will be held at 6:30 p.m. Findings from the survey, open forums, and several focus group conversations will be used to develop a new superintendent profile that will be reported to School Board members at a special meeting at on Wednesday, October 30, held at the district office. The public is invited to that meeting.

In a memo announcing the dates of the forums, Board President Barry Hitchins added, “As we move forward, our most important consideration is securing the strongest candidate pool, and ultimately the best person to lead our District. To that end, the Board of Education has decided to conduct a confidential search and only the final candidate’s name will be announced publicly.”

By Steve Robinson | October 8, 2019 - 10:23 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

NORMAL – In recent months, there have been concerns regarding service provided to public transit riders in the Twin Cities. Fare increases and service being reduced with the elimination of routes recently prompted Normal Town Council members to invite Board members from Connect Transit to address the issues before Council. That meeting, giving Connect Transit officials an opportunity to provide answers took place at Monday’s regularly-scheduled Council meeting.

Mike McCurdy, Chair, and Ryan Whitehouse, Vice-Chair, of Connect Transit’s Board of Directors, responded to the Council’s request to address Council members and answer questions concerning how the public transit system operates. Whitehouse began by touting that the transit system has seen a ridership of 2.4 million rides in the past year, giving the system a third consecutive year of increased ridership.

Whitehouse added the system has received $7.5 million in grants over the last two years which allowed the system to purchase updated buses. Council Member Chemberly Cummings challenged Whitehouse’s statement about grants, stating that grants usually need to be applied for to address a specific need. Whitehouse responded by explaining the most recent grants applied for were directed at Connect obtaining electronic buses.

If the dollars applied for aren’t specified for that use, Whitehouse said, the money goes back into the coffers of the Federal Transportation Administration. He added that the weight of buses prompted Connect to make the decision not to have the vehicles go through store parking lots, a policy which began in 2016.

Council Member Kathleen Lorenz verified with McCurdy as to why buses no longer go through parking lots at grocery stores and places like Walmart and Meijer. McCurdy explained that not going through those lots “increases efficiency” and helps keep routes on schedule.

McCurdy reminded Council members Connect looked at route restructuring in 2015 and implemented a plan where buses would only make pick-ups at bus stops, a change from previous years, in 2016. Since making that change, McCurdy told Council members, “Ridership is rebounding and we have had our third best year for ridership.”

McCurdy explained that ridership is calculated as per ride. He used the example of if he gets on one bus, that’s one ride. If he transfers from that same bus to another bus, that gets counted as another ride. This formula, he added, is in line with rules established by Federal Transportation Administration.

McCurdy added that if the number of transfers asked for aren’t up, but Connect sees more rides taken, it shows them ridership is increasing. In response to not serving certain areas due to what Connect’s analysis sees as areas with low ridership, Whitehouse explained Connect “doesn’t feel it’s right to put money into an area until it has data to back it up. We’re trying to provide the best service possible.”

Connect Transit is attempting to phase out 30 foot buses in favor of 35 foot vehicles, McCurdy said, explaining maintenance costs are the reason for the change.

Connect receives money from Illinois State University which allows students, faculty, staff, and retired staff to ride with just a swipe of a University I.D. card. Council Member Karyn Smith mentioned this and referred to it as a “subsidy.” Mayor Chris Koos was quick to correct Smith informing her it is not a subsidy. ISU pays Connect to cover the cost of that service.

Smith addressed McCurdy and Whitehouse, explaining there are reports of areas where buses drop off at points that are not compliant with the American with Disabilities Act. One of those is outside of OSF St. Joseph Hospital across from the former Bergner’s along Eastland Dr. In part, McCurdy responded by saying the transit system predates ADA.

Normal and Bloomington both provide money to Connect Transit’s operation. Council Member Stan Nord added to the conversation saying if the transit system wants money from the Town, Connect needs to see to it the money is spent to help provide service for citizens in areas currently not served or not served as well by the transit service.

McCurdy responded to Nord’s comment saying, “If this Council wants us to serve low ridership areas, then you should help us find the financing to do that.”

Previous Meeting Minutes Questioned: During the section of the meeting where omnibus items – items Council members address and use one vote to decide on — Nord and Smith took issue with minutes from previous council meetings because they say key details are left out. Nord referred to doing that as rewriting history, adding he believed to do so was wrong.

City Clerk Angie Huonker takes the minutes at Council sessions and found her work being defended by Council Member Lorenz. Lorenz cautioned the Council should be careful in suggesting history is being rewritten. When a vote was taken to edit the minutes of the Council’s previous meeting held Sept. 16, Only Nord and Smith voted in favor. Koos, joined by Council Members Chemberly Cummings, Kevin McCarthy, Scott Preston, and Lorenz, voted against any edit taking place.

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

• Approval of minutes of regular meeting held Sept. 16, 2019.

• Report to receive and file Town expenditures for payment as of Oct. 2, 2019.

• A resolution to accept water treatment plant chemical bids from November 2019 through October 2020.

By Steve Robinson | October 5, 2019 - 10:57 pm
Posted in Category: Bloomington HS, NCHS, The Normalite

NORMAL – Normal Community High School managed to outpace Bloomington High School in the second half Friday night to defeat the Purple Raiders in their Big 12 Conference contest, 43-26, at Ironmen Field. For NCHS head coach Jason Drengwitz, it has been a season of trying to put a complete game – offense, defense, and special teams – together. This night, Drengwitz said afterward, his team accomplished that.

A scoreless first quarter and a fast-paced first quarter contributed to NCHS’ getting and keeping ahead of their guests as roughly 850 fans watched.

BHS had first possession but would up punting on fourth down to NCHS (5-1 overall, 5-0 Big 12), who began their first drive from their own 44. On the first play of the drive, senior quarterback Aidan Oliver rushed for 33 yards getting the Ironmen into Purple Raiders’ territory, to BHS’ 13. Two plays later, Oliver dashed into the end zone from BHS’ 2 yard line for a touchdown, followed by a successful 2-point conversion run from sophomore quarterback Chase Mackey. That gave NCHS a quick 8-0 lead at 8:43 in the first quarter for what would be the only score going into the second half.

A 33 yard pass from junior quarterback Ben Wellman to senior wide receiver Ivan Smith ended in Smith dashing down the far sideline for the first points of the game for BHS (3-3 overall, 3-2 Big 12) followed by Wellman and Smith connecting on a 2-point conversion play. That tied the score at 8-all with 5:09 left in the quarter.

BHS’ ensuing kickoff, although briefly fumbled by NCHS, wound up recovered by the Ironmen, who started their next drive from their own 45. Eight plays later, Oliver would rush for his second touchdown of the night from 15 yards out followed by the senior quarterback keeping the ball and completing the 2-point conversion play solo. That had NCHS up, 16-8, going into halftime.

The Ironmen were able to advance the score further having received the second half kickoff, using a 10-play drive to get into the end zone as Oliver scored on a five yard run with eight minutes left in the third quarter. His score was followed by Millmore’s point after advancing NCHS’ lead, 23-8.

BHS’ next possession ended in a punt and the Ironmen were able to get the return to their own 42 to start their next drive. Six plays later, senior tight end Reid Watkins caught an Oliver pass from 15 yards out to put NCHS up, 30-8 with 3:07 left in the quarter, following Millmore’s extra point.

BHS’ next possession ended in a punt and began NCHS’ next possession at the Ironmen 47 after NCHS was flagged for holding. Five plays later, Oliver dashed into the end zone from five yards out, but Millmore missed the extra point. Despite that, NCHS held a 36-8 lead with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.

BHS started their next drive from their own 24 after the ensuing kickoff but Wellman’s 76 yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Eric Johnson stunned the Ironmen briefly, followed by a failed 2-point conversion try, reducing NCHS’ lead, 36-14 with nine seconds remaining in the third quarter.

NCHS’ return team fumbled BHS’ ensuing kickoff, briefly giving the Purple Raiders the ball at midfield with one second left in the quarter, but then committed a turnover of their own as NCHS sophomore defensive back Keewan Grismore intercepted Wellman’s intended pass giving the Ironmen the ball at BHS’ 20 to open the fourth quarter. Senior wide receiver Camron Jackson scored on a running play from that distance, followed by Millmore’s extra point, advancing the Ironmen’s lead, 43-14.

From there, BHS would sacrifice possession on a turnover on downs and NCHS would punt the ball away before another score. That score would come with 4:08 remaining when Wellman would connect with senior wide receiver Diontay Griffin from six yards out for a touchdown, capping a 6 play 57 yard drive. BHS’ try at a 2 point conversion after scoring was unsuccessful, but the added points cut NCHS’ lead to 43-20.

NCHS being deep in their own end zone in the closing moments of the game would help BHS achieve their last score on the night as sophomore linebacker Sam Pena would block the Ironmen’s punt and fall on it in the end zone. That would result in the final score after the Purple Raiders failed to convert a 2-point conversion.

“It seems like every game, it’s been one phase or two phases that have played well while others were lacking,” Drengwitz said. “I feel like if we can ever put all three phases of the game together, we’d be really good. But that’s why you go to practice and why you go and watch film.

Jackson rushed for 110 yards as he stepped in for an injured Jake Hileman. Hileman suffered a torn meniscus in a knee in the Ironmen’s road game at Lapeer, Mich. two weeks ago and had surgery on that knee the afternoon before this game. “We hope Hileman is healthy and we want to do right by him,” Drengwitz said. If all goes well with Hileman’s recovery, he could be back by week 9 or in time for playoffs, his coach explained.

“Our guys – they didn’t quit and they kept battling,” said BHS head coach Scott Godfrey. “We had some things fall our way – penalties and blocked punts fall our way – we put a scare into them, but I felt Normal was always in control.”

Godfrey credited NCHS with “being so strong on the offensive line both offensively and defensively. That is where we are losing some of these bigger games. We’re having a hard time winning the line of scrimmage.”

Godfrey finished by adding, “When you play these guys, you know you’re going to have your work cut out for you.”