By Steve Robinson | December 11, 2019 - 10:10 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – A new leader for Normal-based Unit 5 School District will be introduced next month.

Before the regularly-scheduled meeting of Normal-based Unit 5 School District Board came to a close at district headquarters on Dec. 11, Board President Barry Hitchins reminded Board members they would be interviewing a total of six candidates who are seeking to serve as Unit 5’s next superintendent. Current Superintendent Dr. Mark Daniel announced in September he would be stepping down when the current school year ends June 30 and seeking a similar position in the Chicago area to be closer to family there. Daniel and his wife, Janet, have just become first-time grandparents.

Hitchins announced six candidates have been found the Board wishes to interview. Those candidate interviews would took place Dec. 13 and 14. That candidate list would be narrowed to three and the three finalist candidates would be interviewed Dec. 16, 17, and 19. Hitchins said the announcement of the person to become the next superintendent of Unit 5 would be made once school is back in session sometime in January. The district’s Christmas break runs from Dec. 23-Jan. 6.

Daniel became Unit 5 Superintendent on July 1, 2014 succeeding Dr. Gary Niehaus, who retired after serving as superintendent for seven years.

Vote On 2019 Tax Levy Taken: Also at this session, Board members voted unanimously on approving the 2019 tax levy in time to meet the deadline for submitting it to the McLean County Clerk’s Office for filing. The County Clerk’s Office will verify the levy in March or April and begin collecting the tax in May or June.

Board Approves $29 Million In Working Cash Bonds: Board members unanimously approved using an amount not to exceed $29 million in working cash bonds with the intent to use them to increase the district’s working cash fund. Marty Hickman, business manager for the district, explained to Board members approving this is the first in a number of steps to getting this matter approved including holding a public hearing in January. Among the items to be purchased include new buses. Hickman reminded Board members the district is responsible for purchasing their own fleet.

Grove Elementary’s “Good News”: In the only “good news” item for this meeting, Grove Elementary School Principal Sarah Edwards introduced Board members to teachers at her school who serve as several members of the school’s Student Support Team. It has become clear that one teacher cannot meet all the needs of every child by themselves. Edwards introduced Board members to Beth Beaty who serves as social worker at Grove. Beaty came back to Unit 5 after taking a few years off to raise her children, and since returning has provided crisis counseling, serves as a lead member of the school’s special education assessment team, and is part of the school’s Behavioral Leadership Team. In addition to all that, Edwards explained, Beaty finds ways to assist our families.

“Most recently she helped a single mother find a new apartment, assisted with her move, and found a way for her to get a reliable car to get to her new job and school program,” Edwards told Board members. I am so proud to work alongside Beth to assist the Grove School Community.

Next, Edwards honored the Grove Elementary Learning Behavior Specialists team. Jennifer Hawkins, Michele Kinley, and Katie Matthews make up the LBS team at Grove. “They work tirelessly to plan interventions, accommodations, and modifications to ensure that our students have equitable access to an excellent education at Grove,” Edwards told Board members. “They develop strong relationships with classroom teachers to plan instruction and develop goals and objectives. They regularly communicate and build trust with our families for strong and positive working relationships.”

Edwards also shined a spotlight on Kindergarten teachers Veronica Collins and Nikki Dillow, who encountered a unique issue with one student this year. Early on, they realized he was not talking at school — at all. Rather than letting time go by and hoping that he would become more comfortable, they took a unique approach to the problem. Collins called the family and built a trusting relationship. From that, the family opened their home to Collins to come and talk with the student, where he was more comfortable. Then each week, they took an additional step. One week they walked to school, talking with the boy the entire trip. The next week they planned a play date with a peer after school. The following week they invited the student’s mother in to start volunteering in the classroom.

All of these steps, Edwards explained, build comfort and trust with the student. “I am so proud to say that the student walks in the front door and says hello and talks at school, all because of the extra efforts of this pair of educators,” Edwards said.

Recently, the State of Illinois released their school designations, and Grove Elementary has been rated as Exemplary, Edwards informed Board members.

Board Receives Update From First Student: Board members received an update from officials of the district’s transportation provider, Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student Bus Co. during the session. Chris Coyle, area general manager for the company, began by telling Board members he admitted the company had some struggles at the beginning of the year but that the issues which plagued the company at the start of the school year had been resolved.

The company has been at “95 percent on time performance for the last six weeks,” explained Roger Moore, a senior vice president for the company. “We’re confident that with the recruiting, the compensation package we have that we can keep that level of 95, 96 percent or higher going for the remainder of the school year.” He credited the current positive economy for being able to have potential employees come their way to seek employment.

“The bar keeps going higher and higher to try to retain drivers,” Moore added. Coyle said that as of this meeting, locally, First Student stands at having a 97 percent staffing level for drivers. However, he did admit he is borrowing drivers from other communities to fill vacancies for between 8 to 10 drivers calling in daily to not report for work.

“Rather than put it on the backs of the community, we’re bringing folks in,” Coyle said, explaining some of those drivers are borrowed from adjoining states. He added that from May through December, the company has hired 36 drivers while losing 15 drivers. He said the company has raised it wages by $2 to help keep employees.

First Student has had a contract with Unit 5 since 2012 but there has been conversation about not renewing the contract as late as November last year after a series of delivery issues. With the contract under examination for renewal again, Coyle told Board members, “We think we have a good team and can continue with the district. We know the district very well. We know you have different options and that you were, once, doing this in-house. You could extend with us – that’s our desire – hopefully, tonight we have shown you we are operating at a high level. We’re confident we can maintain it.”

Board Member Mike Trask told Coyle and Moore he “continues to struggle with issues” related to communication between the district and the busing provider, calling those issues “horrific.”

“At the end of the day, we’re paying you a significant amount of money to handle this operation and it’s not our problem to fix driver shortages or communication issues,” Trask told the men. “It’s not what we’re supposed to be doing. You talk about the size of your operation but I cannot figure out why the communication part is as poor as it is.

“I don’t know where I am on this issue,” Trask added. “All I know is we have a community that doesn’t have the trust that they should have in their bus company in transporting the kids to and from their house.”

On another matter related to busing, Coyle stated First Student has “a very good relationship with AFSCME,” the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, represented by AFSCME Council 31. Prior to signing an agreement with First Student, Unit 5 bus drivers were represented by AFSCME Local 2608 and Council 31. A total of over 200 drivers are represented by Local 2608.

During public comments, Renee Nestler, staff representative for Council 31, told Board members the local hopes to agree with First Student on a second contract for drivers. “With whatever decision the Board makes regarding the transportation employer for next fall, our expectation is that our union contract is honored and followed.”

2020-21 School Calendar Previewed: Board members got a sneak peek at the district’s 2020-21 school calendar, courtesy of Dr. Ray Epperson, deputy superintendent. He explained to Board members that district staff were asked to complete a pair of questionnaires in order to fill in certain dates on the calendar. With regard to one survey, Epperson said in the first questionnaire, most respondents said they wanted to continue having Friday, April 2, designated Good Friday, as a non-attendance day. Epperson said 77 percent of the staff said they would prefer to have that day off. He said with that response, the district then wanted to find out what day worked best for staff as the start day for the new school year.

The majority of staff, two-thirds, voted they would prefer to have institute days on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 17 and 18, followed by Wednesday, Aug. 18 as the first day for students to start school. He added that a couple of scheduled institute days for teachers have been moved from Mondays to Fridays. He said the reason for that has to do with there being a number of holidays which fall on Mondays. As a result of institute days on Mondays, some students missed out on attending art, physical education classes, or scheduled study hall in the school library. Making the change would eliminate students missing those classes, Epperson said.

With the change that was made, the four institute days teachers need were split evenly between Fridays and Mondays. Epperson said there will be a total of 12 “late start” dates – dates when school starts late so teachers can attend in-service sessions – with six in the fall and six in the spring. Should there be no use for the five snow days or any other days when school is cancelled, the last regularly-scheduled day of classes would be Wednesday, May 26.

Insurance Renewals Approved: Board members also unanimously approved renewal of insurance policies for the district. Those include property and general liability insurance, school board liability insurance, workman’s compensation, automobile, and group medical.

Next Board Meeting Jan. 15: With the Christmas holiday coming, there will be no second Board meeting this month. The next scheduled Board meeting will be Wednesday, Jan. 15 at district headquarters, beginning at 7p.m.

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