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Unit 5 board OKs solar panels plan, fittingly on summer solstice

Kristal Shelvin, Unit 5 diversity, equity and inclusion director, addresses the school board on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, at Normal West Community High School.
Michele Steinbacher
Kristal Shelvin, Unit 5 diversity, equity and inclusion director, addresses the school board on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, at Normal West Community High School.

Northpoint Elementary School and a few other Unit 5 buildings are getting solar panels, with the district expecting long-term energy savings.

The school board authorized the plan on Wednesday, which coincidentally was the summer solstice, District officials say work could begin this summer, after the administration negotiates a solar power purchase agreement.

Unit 5 is hosting the panels, so it doesn’t incur installation or operations costs. Instead, it can access lower energy costs, district leaders explained in April.

Also on Wednesday, the board heard an update on Unit 5’s Equity Action Plan (EAP), and slightly amended the district’s fiscal 2022-23 budget. As part of the meeting at Normal West Community High School, a public hearing on the amended budget was held, but no one spoke.

Solar panels also planned for Eagle Road site

The board voted unanimously to OK the solar panel installation, but didn't discuss the matter.

At their April meeting, members learned about a yearlong solar panel study for the Unit 5 sites, in collaboration with Clean Energy Design, Halo Solar, and the Farnsworth Group.

At that time, during the informational session, Unit 5’s operations director Joe Adelman urged the board to consider a solar purchase plan.

Solar panels

“This is about a $2 million project that is not going to cost the district anything,” he said at the time. Moving forward with the project would save money over the 25-year warranty of the panels, he said.

Besides Northpoint school on East College Avenue in Bloomington, panels will be installed at the district’s Eagle Road site in Normal that is home to the transportation building and its warehouse.

If the agreement comes back in the next few weeks, work could begin this summer, Unit 5 chief financial officer Marty Hickman said after Wednesday’s meeting.

Amended budget comes in slightly lower than original

The board voted unanimously to amend its fiscal 2022-23 budget.

There was no discussion on this vote, either. But board president Kelly Pyle did announce no changes had been made to the document since Unit 5 finance leaders shared the proposal in May.

“We do an amended budget every year,” said Hickman, adding — though not required — it’s a chance to present again, a chance to talk to the board about how the district’s funds are performing.

The May 17 meeting presentation included a chart showing a total of about $212 million, or 1.5% less than the budget adopted in September.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Hickman said he doesn’t talk about the budget in terms of a single total figure. “In my presentations I never talk about that. I go fund by fund,” he said, adding, “I’m trying to emphasize the things that actually make an impact."

“For our guidance to the board and to the public, we’re trying to talk about the significant differences. Education, transportation and operations and maintenance — those are the big three,” he said.

Those three are considered the district’s operating budget, and accounts for about 70% of the overall budget.

The ed fund leaned favorably this year, said Hickman. That was mainly due to a better return on this year’s Corporate Private Property Replacement Tax (CPPRT) revenue. Expenses actually were lower than expected in the ed fund. But while that’s good for the budget, it reflects savings in salaries and benefits due to Unit 5’s inability to fill many positions. That’s a negative — because students were underserved, as staff was stretched thin.

“Our next budget will assume, again, that we can hire all those folks, and hopefully we can,” said Hickman.

The higher-than-expected CPPRT revenue also enabled Unit 5 to transfer fewer working cash funds to balance the ed fund.

Equity Action Plan update

Kristal Shelvin, who heads diversity equity and inclusion for the district, led a presentation about Unit 5’s progress on its Equity Action Plan (EAP).

The plan, adopted in August 2021, focuses on several categories such as systemic changes; curriculum and professional development; student involvement; and family and community involvement.

Several board members praised Shelvin, and the project’s leadership team for persevering on the EAP.

Board member Kentrica Coleman said she remembers when the district’s focus on an Equity Action Plan began. The intentional way the district has implemented the plan is noteworthy, she said.

It’s been a year since the board adopted a formal statement on Unit 5’s commitment to the plan, added Coleman. “You still have our commitment and support,” she told Shelvin.

Alex Williams, elected this April, said he applauded Unit 5's commitment, and Shelvin's work — especially in a political climate where some question the value of such work.

Shelvin and other Unit 5 leaders shared highlights from the EAP's past year. Those included the district hiring more family coordinators at the high schools, developing a teen Student Equity Advisory Team, and providing training to nearly 1,200 district staff.

In Unit 5's efforts to recruit and retain a diverse staff, which is a part of the EAP, the district has launched affinity and interest groups, said superintendent Kristen Weikle.

She also said that in a period when fewer people are entering the education field, it's highly competitive to recruit minority candidates, those with second languages, or diverse backgrounds.

"Those individuals are really hard to find, and districts across — not only Illinois, but across the U.S. — we're all competing for that same group of candidates," said Weikle.

The superintendent said she's proud of Unit 5 though, for recruiting earlier this year, and finding some success in diverse hires of highly talented professionals.

Earlier in the meeting, Weikle noted the district continues to recruit, in general, for the upcoming school year. Many faculty and staff positions remain open — everything from classroom teachers to custodial staff to substitutes for all areas. Several job fairs are planned this summer, with information available on the Unit 5 website, she said.

Weikle also told the board the district's summer school programs are running smoothly, with more than 900 students enrolled. She added anyone 18 and younger can eat free meals at Cedar Ridge Elementary School, Bloomington, through June 30, and at Chiddix Junior High School in Normal, through July 20. Lunch only also is available through mid-July at the Unity Center in Normal, she said.

In other business, the board:

  • Renewed annual employee group medical and dental insurance plans; the district insurance plans includes workers' compensation.
  • Approved spending about $112,000 with Middleton Associates to oversee energy conservation work at Kingsley Junior High School.
  • Heard from a handful of public commenters, concerned with safety at Colene Hoose Elementary School. They said Unit 5 leaders aren’t communicating well with parents about the issue.
  • Approved changes to nearly 20 district policies.

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.