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Unit 5 board seats new members Adams, Williams; considers rooftop solar panel system

Newly elected Unit 5 school board member Alex Williams, left, shakes hands with outgoing board president Barry Hitchins, right, while board member Jeremy DeHaai stands in back, at the board meeting Wednesday, April 26, 2023. Hitchins didn't run for re-election. He's served nearly eight years on the board.
Emily Bollinger
New Unit 5 school board member Alex Williams, left, shakes hands with outgoing board president Barry Hitchins, at the board meeting on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. Board member Jeremy DeHaai stands in the middle.

McLean County’s largest school district is considering adding solar panels on some buildings, after a year of researching the possibility.

On Wednesday, the board — including new members Mark Adams and Alex Williams— listened to a pitch for the energy-savings initiative. The presentation was information-only; no vote was taken.

“This is about a $2 million project that is not going to cost the district anything,” thanks to a power purchase agreement, said Joe Adelman, district facilities director.

On the contrary, adding the solar panel technology from Clean Energy Design Group would save the district money over the 25 years of the warranty, said Adelman.

Also at the meeting, at Normal Community West High School, the board approved spending about $260,000 on a trio of school maintenance projects; OK’d a five-year contract totaling $200,000 for the district’s website and communications platform; and elected new officers, with Kelly Pyle as board president.

Panels could mean significant energy savings

The district completed a year-long solar panel study of a few district buildings, Adelman told the board.

That included creating engineering and design plans for Northpoint Elementary School, the Unit 5 warehouse, the bus garage, and nearby shelters.

Solar panels

Architect John Bishop of the Farnsworth Group explained the origins of the project, and how it led to a partnership with Clean Energy Design Group that would own the panels proposed for Unit 5, and Halo Solar, which would operate and maintain the devices.

“Halo was actually already working on a study with the bus garage,” said Bishop, adding he’d previously worked with Clean Energy Design on a solar energy project for Lincoln Community High School.

Putting in and operating solar array systems would have no up-front costs to the district, according to Halo Solar representatives.

Given the recent Olympia High School fire and it's apparent tie to solar-panel arrays, the topic of safety came up — with more than one board member referencing safety concerns.

The Olympia solar array was installed back in 2018, Halo’s staff told the board. While they said they couldn’t speak to that particular system, they said the technology has improved.

The panels proposed for Unit 5 buildings would have rapid shutdown for the modules. Halo staff also noted the U.S. Department of Energy estimates only 1 in 10,000 solar arrays have a malfunction of the nature seen at Olympia.

Bishop noted for the arrays proposed for Unit 5, there is a rapid shutdown module for every two panels. So, any malfunction would be localized, he said.

Hitchins, Kalitzky leave; new members seated

For the first half of the meeting, the new board members hadn’t been seated yet. During that time, members took time to bid farewell to Alan Kalitzky and Barry Hitchins. Neither sought re-election in April.

Kalitzky was appointed to the board in 2018, and elected in 2019; and Hitchins was first elected in 2015, and re-elected in 2019. During his eight years, Hitchins served as board president twice.

The men recounted key points from their tenures, including being a part of hiring Superintendent Kristen Weikle and navigating the COVID pandemic and remote schooling. Both said the greatest challenge and achievement was addressing the district's ballooning deficit, and ultimately seeing the tax referendum pass on April 4.

The men said they felt confident the referendum's approval will put the district on the right path.

Newly elected Mark Adams, takes his seat at the Unit 5 school board meeting, Wednesday, April 26, 2023, at Normal West Community High School.
Emily Bollinger
Newly elected Mark Adams, takes his seat at the Unit 5 school board meeting, Wednesday, April 26, 2023, at Normal West Community High School.

“I hope you know the difference you’ve made for students and staff in the district,” Weikle told Kalitzky and Hitchins.

After Adams and Williams were sworn in, the board elected Kelly Pyle president; Jeremy DeHaai vice president; and Stan Gozur, secretary.

In the April 4 election, Pyle and Amy Roser were re-elected to their seats; both were appointed in 2018 and elected in 2019.

Adams said he's looking forward to serving on the board, and being a voice for the community. He noted his wife, a teacher, was in the audience Wednesday, and that his mother and sister also were watching the livestream from his home state of Pennsylvania.

Williams also gave a shout-out to his wife in the auditorium. He said hearing Wednesday night during "good news" reports about the success of individual students, as well as student groups, reminded him not to take for granted the opportunities Unit 5 provides students. Advocating for that educational experience is one thing he intends to make a priority, he said.

Williams and several other board members lamented the party politics that entered the school board race, saying the school board elections should remain nonpartisan.

Several members noted Williams’ election marked a milestone: He's the first Black man to serve on the Unit 5 school board. During public comments, Jade Lamar Hursey celebrated the achievement. She was speaking on behalf of the community group Equity and Excellence in Education that advocates for minorities in the school district.

The school board has had Black women as members, including current member Kentrica Coleman, who told Williams she would be remiss not to acknowledge his achievement. “It’s an important time to recognize the history” being made with his arrival, she said.

In other business, the board:

  • Approved using fire prevention and safety funds to make repairs and upgrades at Kingsley Junior High School ($178,000); Chiddix Junior High School ($67,000); Sugar Creek Elementary School ($17,000).
  • OK'd making May 25 the final day before summer vacation. Students will attend for a three-hour session.
  • Approved a five-year agreement with Connecticut-based Finalsite. The nearly $200,000 contract covers the district’s website and communications software platform.
  • Learned new Illinois School Superintendent Tony Sanders visited the district on Wednesday.
  • Heard the district plans festivities to mark May 8 as Unit 5’s 75th anniversary as a school district.

Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.