By Steve Robinson | October 31, 2020 - 10:07 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – With one abstention in voting, Board members unanimously approved a contract between the district and employees who are member of the union representing the district’s support professionals. The contract expires in 2023. Due to restrictions caused by the Covid pandemic, a number of the bargaining sessions between the district and Union representatives for these employees were done using Zoom video technology. Board Member Barry Hitchins cast the abstaining vote as he is married to a member of the union representing these district employees.

Curt Richardson, attorney for the district, informed Board members, “We had some virtual sessions and that kind of made it challenging because we had never done it that way before.” Through a number of sessions, the number of which he didn’t specify, Richardson characterized the negotiations as “good discussions which resulted in a contract with not a lot of substantive changes.”

Among the highlights of the contract for school office personnel working under this contract represented by Unit Five Support Professionals Association (UFSPA) will benefit from are that full-time employees who have been with the district for 20 years will receive an added week of vacation. He added the district, over the term of the full contract will see an increase in cost of 4.32 percent. UFSPA represents 265 administrative assistants, secretaries, and paraprofessionals in the district.

The State will raise the amount of minimum wage to be paid to employees to $15 per hour by 2025. Hitchins asked Richardson how that raise factored into these negotiations. Richardson said that did factor into negotiating the increase, adding that by the end of school year 2022-23, Unit 5 will still be paying above the minimum wage educational office personnel and others represented by their union during the contract period.

During that third year, per hour pay for UFSPA members will range from $14.07 an hour to $14.67 an hour, Richardson explained. Hitchins clarified and Richardson confirmed the district is still not where it needs to be in terms of paying the minimum that the State will begin to expect districts to pay by 2025 and that the State will not be adding funding to what it already receives from Springfield currently.

Board Member Alan Kalitzky complimented Richardson on his work during negotiations, adding, “This is an opportunity to show the level of value or attempt to show the level of value we have for these resources in our schools.” Board Member Mike Trask added his appreciation to both sides in the negotiations as they tried to complete the task virtually during the pandemic.

Students’ Return To Class, Covid, Part of Superintendent Comments: District Superintendent Dr. Kristen Weikle announced that in the past couple weeks of October the three-quarters of district students from various grade levels who planned on returning to school during the pandemic were filing back into classrooms after having begun the semester participating in district learning. There are still about one-quarter of district students whose parents are opting for students to remain home continuing distance learning. The return began with Pre-Kindergarten through 2nd grade, 6th grade, and 9th grade students, followed a week later by students in grades 3, 4, and 5, followed by 7th and 8th graders, and high school sophomores through seniors.

Dr. Weikle said she had been visiting “a number of buildings, and a building is just not a building without the kids in it. I’ve seen so many smiles and students who have expressed their gratitude and pleasure and happiness to be back with their teachers. I saw a lot of smiling faces from the teachers, too.”

“I really just want to thank our students and families,” Dr. Weikle added. “I know, that for a lot of our families, this was a tough decision.” She added students are “doing a great job of wearing their masks and trying to follow social distancing.” She credited all staffers for their efforts for their efforts under these circumstances, acknowledging, “It’s not an easy task to do what our teachers are doing by trying to teach in-person learners,” as well as putting together “really engaging lessons” for students who are still learning remotely.

In terms of remote learning, Dr. Weikle said the district is using between 6-8 teachers per grade level in Kindergarten through 5th grade using teachers who either volunteered for the assignment or were reassigned to remote classes. Remote class sizes, she said range in size from between 12 and 35 students.

She said there are still some parents who desire for their students to switch from in-person to remote. But, Dr. Weikle said, “as sympathetic as we are to families changing their minds, we can’t have that constant back-and-forth because, as I said, some of the classes have 35 students in them for remote.” As a result, she said, the options open to the district are adding more students in the remote classes, or reassign additional teachers to teach remotely.

Dr. Weikle said adding more students to remote learning “isn’t a good idea, and adding more teachers to remote classes would also be disruptive.” As a result, she said, the district has ceased allowing students to go from in-person learning to remote learning.

The district conducted a survey over the summer concerning options concerning district versus in person learning. Dr. Weikle said stopping such changes from becoming an option “will make some parents really unhappy.” She added that from the options available to the district, Unit 5 is trying to make the best decision working with what she characterized as “really not great options.”

She added the district is keeping track of how many students may have or have contracted the Coronavirus and posted those details on the district’s website. “Our plan is to make parents and staff members aware of when we are made aware of a positive case,” she said, letting them know when a person with the virus has been in a school building at some point. Dr. Weikle said it is a procedure the district has been using since late August. She added the district has a team which monitors Coronavirus cases once they are made aware of them, and works with the McLean County Health Department to research contacts infected persons have had since contracting the virus.

The district’s website, www.unit5.org, indicates metrics, and that would include where students and staff have reported contracting a positive case of the disease.

Dr. Weikle reminded Unit 5 schools would not be open on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Normal Community West High School’s “Good News”: Dr. Weikle also introduced Board members and the small distantly spaced audience in Normal Community West High School’s cafeteria to Jasmyn Jordan, a senior at Normal West. Jordan is the winner of the Harry Hightower Award presented by the Bloomington-Normal NAACP. Dr. Weikle explained the award is given to a student who “embraces the spirit of diversity while being energetically and enthusiastically engaged in community service, community projects, and other community-based activities.”

Jordan is the founder of the Black Student Union at her school, which she accomplished toward the end of her sophomore year. She has been part of Normal West’s Freshmen Mentoring Program, as well. She is the daughter of Gail and Lyle Jordan. After being introduced, Jordan told the meeting, “Thank you to everyone who came out here tonight, and thank you to everyone who supported me throughout my years at high school, middle school, and elementary school when I was home schooled.” Of the Black Student Union, Jordan said, “I’m really proud of how far it has come and I’m really excited to see how far it goes next year.”

IASB Proposed Resolutions Recap Given: Board Member Dr. Kelly Pyle gave a report on virtual meetings due to the Coronavirus that were held or are scheduled to be held by Illinois Association of School Boards. IASB held one meeting Oct. 21 with the second session to be held Nov. 5. Pyle explained a final vote on the resolutions will take place on Nov. 14. IASB has submitted 12 resolutions for membership consideration. Topics ranged from gun storage to licensing of Pre-K teachers to E-Learning on Election Day to Pandemic Control for districts.

Dr. Pyle said the resolution on gun storage prompted “lengthy discussion, as did Pre-K teacher licensing.” With regard to gun storage, IASB’s resolution reads, “Be it resolved that the Illinois Association of School Boards shall support and advocate for legislation which strengthens child safe gun storage laws in the State of Illinois, requiring gun owners to store firearms, whether they are loaded or unloaded, in a securely locked container, if a person under the age of 18 is likely to gain access to the weapon without permission.”

Unit 5 experienced a shooting incident on Sept. 7, 2012 at Normal Community High School when a 14-year-old student brought a gun into a classroom and was subdued by his teacher. During a struggle between the student and the teacher, the gun went off with the bullet being fired into the classroom ceiling. There were no injuries. Students evacuated the building and went to nearby Eastview Christian Church, where students waited until they could be released to their parents.

NORMAL – While Normal Town Council members voted to approve awarding a bid for a water main project to Gibson City-based SNC Construction in the amount of $417,505.59 plus a potential $5,000 bonus for early completion, before voting to approve the resolution, there was some discussion which preceded the Council’s 6-1 vote approving it, with Council Member Stan Nord casting a lone opposing vote.

Town Water Director John Burkhart indicated to Council members SNC Construction is a new contractor in dealing with the Town, but he added at some point in their company’s experience, all companies have first time experiences working for municipalities. Burkhart’s report to Council members explained the project will provide an additional supply source for water to the Town and would minimize any service interruptions.

Nord said he had an issue with the timing of the project and that the Town would be experiencing a couple of expirations of Tax Increment Funding districts which would be a loss of income to the Town. “If we must spend the money in the water fund, I’d rather we spend it on something which is a current problem for our citizens,” he said. Two things he suggested were to eliminate lead piping from the current water system or simply just save the money.

Burkhart said the work to be done should not interfere with the road being worked on being used. He added the Town is continuing an inventory of what lead piping the Town has, which he said, “to date, number less than 35.”

“Staff is trying to stay ahead of projects when it makes sense,” Council Member Kevin McCarthy said. “I’m not in favor of putting this off.”

Resolution Regarding Grant For Extending Constitution Trail Approved: By a 6-1 count, Council members approved a resolution pledging financial commitment and acknowledging Town support for a grant from 2020 Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program, applying for an extension of Constitution Trail between Adelaide St. and Parkside Rd. Nord cast the lone dissenting vote on the measure.

Applicants may apply for up to $2 million in grant funds.

Mayor Chris Koos and Council Member Kevin McCarthy both explained because these two streets empty onto streets leading to main road arteries of the Town, adding them to Constitution Trail was important. Koos said adding this extension where it will be will help get people to both Parkside Junior High School and Parkside Elementary School, Normal Community West High School, and Maxwell Park. Nord said he wanted to see the Town seek another source of income which wouldn’t involve taking money from sources used to pay for Town roads, such as its Motor Fuel Tax Fund.

Resident Patrick Dullard, president of the group Friends Of Constitution Trail, addressed Council members, encouraged Council members to support the extension. He reminded the group invested nearly $5,000 in engineering fees to see what could be done to extend the trail. He reminded those dollars were collected before any formal request for the Town to put tax dollars into the project was even brought to the Town’s attention.

Resolution Amending Rules For Comments At Council, Board Meetings Passes: Council members unanimously approved a resolution amending two aspects of existing rules for public comments at Town Council meetings as well as at meetings of other Town Boards and Commissions. The first item is to provide a maximum of 30 minutes related to any item on that specific meeting’s agenda.

A second public comment period, not to exceed 15 minutes, will be added to the end of the agenda and allow residents an opportunity to address Council members on any matter germane to Town issues.

Nord told Council members he has heard from residents who wished to address Council members on a matter and were told they could not because their topic was not germane to the Council meeting agenda. He also took issue with making residents wishing to address items not germane to that night’s meeting wait through an entire meeting before they can speak. “Someone then has to decide what’s germane and not germane,” he added. “We should just let them come in and let them speak.”

Koos explained the thinking behind the changes was that “The Council meeting is not a public hearing, the Council meeting is a business meeting. I and the majority of the Council feel we’re going to take care of business that comes before us in that evening.” He reminded also that meeting minutes or bills to be paid are not action items to be addressed in public comments.

He added that people who want to talk about their issues with the Town can do so once the formal business session concludes.

Council Member Scott Preston said he had no problem with citizens addressing non-germane issues at Council sessions, whether it was before or after the regular Council session. “I will say that all comments germane to Town business is something that is important to me,” Preston said. “Making sure that all comments are germane to Town business, whether on the agenda or not, is something that is important to me.”

Koos added that there is no set rule for how communities handle allowing citizens to participate through public comments at such government meetings.

Having public comment at the end of such meetings would also allow Council members to mingle afterward with those who spoke at the end of the meeting, particularly if the citizens are expecting a response from Council members. But McCarthy countered on that point, saying Council members aren’t always the only people in attendance at such meetings. He said sometimes people scheduled to give presentations to the Council or citizens’ groups also sit in Council sessions, too. He said his preference would be that those who attend who have business with the Council receive priority at meetings.

Council Member Kathleen Lorenz reminded citizens have an opportunity to reach out to Council members on any topic through phone calls, 1-to-1 conversations, and email. Nord proposed a motion to remove the need for germane comments and allow for all public comments to be done at the beginning of meetings for 30 minutes. That proposal failed because no Council member would second it.

By Steve Robinson | October 19, 2020 - 10:15 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

NORMAL – A recently completed Tree inventory was part of Normal Town Council members’ agenda as the governing body met remotely Monday.

Council members heard from members of the Town’s Parks And Recreation Department who presented a report on a recent tree inventory taken which was approved at a Council measure at a meeting in June. Parks And Recreation Director Doug Damery, assistant director Gene Kotlinski, and recreation supervisor Tyler Bain walked Council members through the report.

Bain began by explaining over 11,000 trees were taken note of in the inventory, and noting “the majority of them were in good condition.” He said the Town has saved roughly $35,000 in benefits related to greenhouse gases, and over $300,000 in water-related benefits. The inventory is on a Town-related website and categorizes for each tree such as benefits related to water, energy, and property, assigning dollar values for each category.

Among other things, Bain said, the inventory site notes that a 5 ½ feet wide cottonwood tree in Fairview Park is the largest tree discovered.

Bain said the inventory is a useful tool for people seeking to learn about different species of trees and other bits of interest related to certain trees. Updating the site is a “constant evolution” Bain said as trees die and need replacing. Council Member Scott Preston called the inventory and the site “was an outstanding resource that helps us know what we have.”

Council Member Stan Nord noted that no trees along Constitution Trail appeared to be part of the survey. Bain said that was true, explaining areas such as the woods between Constitution Trail and the Camelback Bridge, near Vernon Ave. south, would require a separate inventory in which they would note larger trees and do it separately.

Council members unanimously approved an ordinance amending Town Code concerning trees and shrubs also in June. The tree inventory of the Town’s urban forest was conducted by Kent, Ohio-based Davey Resource Group and completed this summer.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources through the Urban and Community Forestry program of the US Forest Service funded the tree inventory. Council members unanimously passed an ordinance required of the tree ordinance amendment in order to fulfill a reimbursement request.

Smart Cities & Initiatives Update Presented: Council members received an update concerning the Town’s desire to become one of a number of “smart cities” across the country. Smart Cities are defined as being those that, among other things, “can effectively use the power of data and technology to cater to the changing needs of its citizenry.” Council members heard from Town’s director of innovation and technology, Vasu Vgadhiraju, who provided an update on progress Normal is making toward becoming a Smart City.

A Smart City, Vgadhiraju explained, are cities that use technology to solve numerous issues. Currently, Vasu Vgadhiraju explained, Normal finds itself between the first two phases of heading toward becoming a model Smart City. Those phases are ad hoc, where the community is just starting and opportunistic, where the community is forging partnerships with others to focus on shared outcomes.

She said the Town establishing a comprehensive plan toward becoming a Smart City started in November 2017. Among the goals for the Town to have smart operations is to get to the point where it has digitized applications and other forms, and increased training and resources, among other things.

She added the Town reaching out to forge partnerships also helps Normal toward a Smart City designation. She cited the partnership the Town has established with Normal-based Unit 5 School District to improve digital exposure within the community.

Following Vgadhiraju’s presentation, Council members appeared pleased with her efforts. Mayor Chris Koos pointing out she attended a Smart Cities initiatives conference where attendance was by invitation only.

Nord asked if there were other cities in Illinois who were also participating in this initiative. Vgadhiraju said many in the Chicago area, including Naperville and Aurora were, and that downstate, Champaign and Peoria was, too, and depending on the city, “there are varying degrees of effort.”

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

• Approval of the minutes of the regular meeting held Oct. 5, 2020.

• Report to receive and file Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of Oct. 14, 2020.

• A resolution authorizing a memorandum of understanding with McLean County Regional Planning Commission for a pavement rating and assessment project.

• A resolution to award the bid for Main Street water main extension project to SNC Construction, Inc. at a total cost of $417,505.59 plus up to a potential $5,000 bonus for early completion and authorize the City Manager to execute agreements with Union Pacific Railroad and RailPros.

• A resolution to appropriate $370,000 in Motor Fuel Tax funds and authorize the Mayor to execute professional engineering service agreements with The Farnsworth Group for Phase I and II design services for West College Ave. from Rivian Motorway to White Oak Rd.

• A resolution of financial commitment and acknowledgement of the Town’s support for a 2020 Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program (ITEP) Grant Application for an extension of the Constitution Trail between Adelaide Street and Parkside Road.

• A resolution authorizing the City Manager to enter into a six-month lease agreement with Enterprise Fleet Management for four (4) 2021 GMC Sierra double cab 4×4 and one (1) Chevrolet 15-passenger van.

• A resolution amending the rules for public comments at meeting of Normal Town Council and other Town Boards and Commissions.

By Steve Robinson | October 18, 2020 - 10:17 pm
Posted in Category: News, The Normalite

NORMAL – For a business open to the public during daylight hours, completing renovations can be like starting work on a jigsaw puzzle. Depending on the work needing to be done, you are bound to need to have different vendors passing through to get the job done. And most likely, they would arrive at different days and times.

Normal Public Library found itself in just that situation in March when it planned out work on two existing restrooms and plans for adding one on the building’s ground floor.

A total of $50,000 for the project came from a “Live And Learn Construction grant” which the library had begun working to apply for as far back as fall of 2018 and received from the Illinois State Library, explained Brian Chase, Director, Normal Public Library. He said it was a matching grant, meaning the library put up the same amount for the project.

The total cost of the project, he said, was around $200,000. The library used money from its special reserve fund which the library uses for improvements, Chase explained. The two existing restrooms on the ground floor had last been modified in the 1970s which created problems for some disabled patrons, something the renovation the grant money would be used for would rectify.

Chase said the library applied for the grant for the specific need of adding “accessibility enhancements” to the library. Laura Golaszewski, community engagement manager for the library, said Chase worked to coordinate with Bloomington-based architects Felmley-Dickerson to make sure that end of the project went smoothly during the time the library was shut down.

The new restrooms now only allow for single occupancy, and they are not gender specific.

But just as the project was getting underway in March, the country experienced a worldwide pandemic furthering complications to getting the job done. The library was forced to shut down as were all but essential public places by the middle of that month.

But at 12 noon on Wednesday, Oct. 14, Normal Public Library reopened to the public with some modifications. “Originally, when we planned to do the restroom project, we didn’t plan to close at all,” explained Golaszewski. The pandemic hadn’t begun when the project did, so patrons could be directed to use restrooms either on the second floor or in the basement, she pointed out.

She said the library had no intention of closing before the pandemic hit, and materials to begin the project started rolling in with work getting under way in late May. While the work was being done, there was no access to restrooms on the ground floor.

“But with the pandemic and handwashing being the best way to combat COVID-19, we didn’t want to open and have a main floor with no place to wash your hands,” Golaszewski explained.

Once COVID-19 was here, the library had a lot of supply chain issues, getting anticipated materials to arrive, in addition to scheduling contractors as needed to get the work underway. “They are for whoever needs them,” Golaszewski said of the restrooms. “They are nice and spacious, and are all ADA accessible.”

The library put finishing touches on the newly-completed restrooms just before the library reopened.

Pandemic-Related Changes: Patrons will notice a few pandemic-related changes at the library. There is Plexiglas shielding at stations at the front desk, and there are fewer public computer stations for use, which are spaced for health reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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