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 24, 2020 - 10:38 pm
Posted in Category: Hudson Quill, The Normalite

HUDSON – The memories of swimming, hiking, making crafts, and doing things all Girl Scouts do when at camp while cementing lifelong friendships still resonate with the women who attended a set of special farewell ceremonies at Camp Peairs on Lake Bloomington Saturday. For decades, the rustic surroundings and tents played host to many Girl Scouts who were in kindergarten through 12th grade five decades.

For Nancy Kelly Brady, being a Girl Scout and attending Camp Peairs as a result had some historic significance. Her late mother, Loretta Hundman Kelly, had the distinction of being the first Girl Scout leader of McLean County in the 1940s. Kelly’s debut troop had just three girls of which Brady was the youngest, she explained. The other girls in the fledgling troop were Brady’s sisters, Mary Kelly and Pat Kelly Pence. Hundman Kelly said she remembers being age 7 when the troop made its debut.

“I just wanted to come over and see the place because it was such a big part of her life,” Brady said, referring to her mother.

Anna Watkins Richmond is now in her 60s but can share similar experiences of her times being at Camp Peairs. She said she attended the camp as a Brownie troop member and all the years growing up after that. Once she became an adult, she became a troop leader, too. She said she benefitted from the experience because “I learned how to cook outside, I learned how to camp, and I learned more about nature.” Those experiences, she said, included swimming in the lake and even signaling to the Boy Scouts at Camp Heffernan across the lake with flashlights.

“We always kept busy,” Watkins Richmond remembered. “We’d do a lot of crafts and we’d take hikes, and we’d do our own cooking. And we earned a lot of badges out here.” Watkins Richmond said she still has her Scout Sash as proof of the badges she earned as a girl.

Watkins Richmond called coming out to Camp Peairs a final time very tough for her.

Chloe Machula, director of programs for camp and events for the Girl Scouts of Central Illinois, anchored a camp closing ceremony, one of three scheduled for the day. The ceremony included mention of all the things girls received from being at the camp: Increased confidence, bonding with other girls which forged lifetime friendships, girls singing favorite camp songs, and interest in potential career choices.

The ceremony finished with the women gathering for a “friendship circle,” but with social distancing being a priority due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ladies used yarn to maintain their distance while still maintaining their close bonds. As they gathered together, although distantly, the women sang another camp song, “Make New Friends.”

Machula said it will be tough to not have Camp Peairs to be available to future Girl Scouts to share the same experiences the girls and women at the ceremony have had, but she said there are three other camps in central Illinois, including in East Peoria. Machula added for girls who were able to come here, “It was more about the people that you knew here and the memories you made rather than the property itself.” At its height, a number of camp sessions were held over eight weeks with potentially as many as 50 campers per session.

Kevin Kothe, public works director for the City of Bloomington, explained that, last year, representatives for the local branch of the Girl Scouts were interested in getting out of the lease they had with the City for the camp.

Up until the closing on Saturday, the local Girl Scouts organization had leases with the City since 1969, explained Kelly A Day, Chief Operating Officer for Girl Scouts of Central Illinois.

Kothe said the City had always owned the property and always had a lease with the Girl Scouts. He added representatives with the Girl Scouts approached the City about the purchase explaining they sought to get out of their lease and there had been improvements made upon the 88 acre camp facility located 15 miles from the Twin Cities and situated on Lake Bloomington.

Camp Peairs Started in 1969: Camp Peairs was named for Myra Peairs, born Myra Anne Long in Milwaukee in 1906. According to an obituary on legacy.com, she graduated from Normal Community High School where she was active in girls’ athletics and a member of the national Junior and Senior Honor Societies.

She graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1937, where she was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. She obtained a Master of Science in Social Work from the University of Southern California.

Peairs’ marriage to Canadian Fred A. Long in September 1941 lasted 46 years until he died in 1987. She died on Jan. 19, 2007 at the age 100.

At a June 24 meeting, Bloomington City Council members approved an ordinance allowing the City to purchase the Camp from the Centrillio Council of Girl Scouts of Bloomington for $40,000. The ordinance also terminated the lease of the camp the Girl Scouts had with the City. Since 1969, the Girl Scouts have leased approximately 70 acres from the City at Lake Bloomington for the camp. The facility served an overnight camp for the Scouts.

The City’s water department oversees the Lake Bloomington property, and a memo presented to City Council members stated that due to “increased financial restraints,” the Girl Scouts approached the City in 2019 to discuss possibility dissolving their current lease.

McLean County Easter Seals Crippled Children’s Camp Was Here, Too, For Three Years: It wasn’t just the Girl Scouts who had fun at the lake and enjoyed being outside with friends here. For two weeks each year during the summers of 1972 through 1974, the McLean County Crippled Children’s Camp, as it was known then, operated by Easterseals, brought roughly 40 kids and 60 counselors and staff to enjoy two weeks together while their camp’s original home base since the 1950’s, Boy Scouts’ Camp Heffernan across the lake, was undergoing renovations.

By Steve Robinson | August 17, 2020 - 10:55 pm
Posted in Category: News

NORMAL – Residents looking for a spot to start or continue their fitness training will soon have a new place to continue their regimen at the Shoppes at College Hills thanks to a measure passed by Normal Town Council members.

At their meeting Monday night, done remotely as a result of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic, Council members unanimously approved an amended final development plan for the Shoppes at College Hills. Crunch Fitness Center will be the next occupant to the space originally occupied until 2018 by Hobby Lobby. But Crunch’s plans call for occupying 43,000 sq. ft. of the space while the remaining 35,000 sq. ft. of space in the facility will be offered for multi-tenant uses. The report on Crunch provided to Council members by Town Planner Mercy Davison did not indicate there were any prospective tenants for the remaining space available.

Kyle Cowan, head development partner for the project who works for NAI Wheelhouse, the Lubbock, Texas-based realtor who helped arrange the deal between the parties, told Council members Crunch has signed a 15-year lease for the facility. He added there are 300 Crunch Fitness Centers across the country.

At one time, the store facing west at what was once known as College Hills Mall was home to Montgomery Ward. More recently, hobby enthusiasts could get supplies and other items when Hobby Lobby moved in. But when Hobby Lobby moved across the complex to the former Gordman’s discount store site on the property in 2018, the site for the one-time anchor has been vacant.

Site Planning, Rezoning Approved For Illinois Art Station: Council members took two votes relating to three properties recently purchased by Illinois Art Station for their new educational facility. The properties are located at 101 E. Vernon Ave., 605 and 607 S. Linden Ave. The proposed Illinois Art Station location, according to a Town Staff report provided to Council members, “will provide art educational opportunities to children and families in an area of the community with trail and transit access.”

The report, prepared by Town Planner Mercy Davison, also stated facility “will complement the cultural offerings available in Uptown a few blocks to the north and at the Connie Link Amphitheater a short distance to the south.”

Two votes were taken regarding the property, the first one being an ordinance rezoning the property to S-2 Public Lands & Institutions, changing them from being zoned R-1B Single Family Residential. On that measure, Council members voted 5-1 in favor with Council Member Stan Nord voting against the measure.

His vote on rezoning stemmed from asking Dr. Laura Burke, President of Illinois Art Station if the group was going to file for tax exempt status, making the property no longer one the Town could collect funds from. Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McCarthy quickly intercepted Nord’s question, informing Nord he wondered about the relevance of taxable property during the discussion of a site plan. Nord said the property could be “a significant taxpayer investment.”

McCarthy pointed out to Nord “property tax has nothing to do with a site plan.” Nord countered saying he disagreed. Mayor Chris Koos was unavailable for Monday’s session, and when a vote was taken on rezoning the property to S-2, Council voted 5-1 with Nord voting against it. But he then joined the other Council members in voting 6-0 in favor of a resolution to approve the site plan for the property.

Vacating Easement On Undeveloped Property Approved: Council members unanimously approved an ordinance vacating an easement located on a lot in the Eagle’s Landing commercial subdivision, located at 1290 Healing Stone. The property at that address is zoned R-3A Medium Density Multifamily and is currently undeveloped.

There are no utilities located within the 10 feet proposed to be vacated. Vacating of the proposed easement will facilitate development of the site for multifamily dwellings, and all pertinent utilities have approved.

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

• Approval of minutes of the regular Council meeting of Aug. 3, 2020.

• Report to receive and file Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of Aug. 12, 2020.

• A resolution authorizing renewal of the Employee Group Health, Dental, Life/AD&D Program.

• A resolution waiving bids and authorizing staff to execute an agreement with Glenwood, Maryland-based HCIactive and eHealth for employee wellness services.

• A resolution approving a water service contract with Michael Masching for property located at 4252 East Raab Rd.

• A resolution authorizing the execution of a Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Police Benevolent and Protective Association (PBPA) Unit 22.

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 — To conclude the inaugural season of a league during a year when fans yearned to hear about something else other than an ongoing national political race and an ongoing pandemic, the end of the game between the CornBelters and the Bobcats, both local teams, seemed just what the fans needed.

Although the CornBelters trailed for the first three innings, they did catch up and managed to earn the league’s very first championship trophy, with bottom of the seventh heroics, 5-4, Sunday at The Corn Crib, before roughly 700 people.

The winning run came in the bottom of the 7th as Alex Steinbach’s walk-off single with two on allowed former Normal West football player Peyton Dillingham to cross home plate, giving the CornBelters a 5-4 win over the Bobcats in the Kernels Collegiate League championship game. When the playoffs began, the CornBelters were the top seed, followed by second seeded Bobcats in the four-team league.

Dillingham, who played quarterback at Normal Community West High School, said for him to walk away with having contributed to helping the team win the league championship was “icing on the cake…icing on the cake. It was the best summer of my life. Great time. It would not make sense to come out without a championship. All we wanted to do was come out and win.” He called this summer “the best summer of my life.”

“This year has given these guys so many question marks and to see them come out here and grind it out…30 games isn’t that much but in the time frame they’ve had to be able to come out and push through and come in every day when some of them are just starting to get hot right now,” explained CornBelters head coach David Garcia, who coaches baseball at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. “For them to finish strong like that, I was really proud of them.”

“We lost first place twice and got it back both times the next day, so it was fun,” Garcia said.

The Bobcats had to play both games scheduled for Sunday because they lost one to the Gems Saturday, explained Bobcats head coach Jake Wegner. Wegner is actually still in college himself although his playing days are behind him, and about to enter his senior year at Central College in Pella, Iowa.

“We got four in the first inning, and Platt settled in and they shut us down,” Wegner said. Platt is CornBelters right hander and Pennsylvania native David Platt.

Game Rundown: The contest started on a four-run first inning by the visiting Bobcats as outfielder Jordan Libman blasted a grand slam home run, putting his team up 4-0. Prior to that, singles by infielder Jackson Chatterton and catcher Keaton Rice, and outfielder Dan Bolt loaded the bases.

A 4th inning double by infielder Austin Simpson scored Steinbach, putting the CornBelters on the scoreboard, 4-1. A bottom of the fifth homer with two on by outfielder Brant Vanaman scored outfielder Lincoln Riley and infielder Kai Moody, both of whom singled.