When it comes to hosting a gathering at their six-generation Kankakee County farm just southwest of the Kankakee city limits, Gina O’Connor is most often the point person for putting everything in its place.
When her husband, Jeff, received a telephone call late Wednesday, May 4, regarding a potential visit from President Joe Biden — yes, that Joe Biden — he turned to his wife and wondered if this was something they could handle.
“It’s planting season,” Gina noted as she recalled the conversation while anxiously waiting Wednesday for the president’s scheduled arrival.
The family farm is some 800 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. On a normal year, it would be highly probable that the O’Connors would have the corn seed planted and, more than likely, the soybeans.
For those connected with local agriculture, 2022 has been anything but normal.
Cold, wet weather reduced farmers to spectators through much of April and early May. Planting weather did not really arrive until Monday or Tuesday.
And while farmers put their planters to work this week, the O’Connors were dealing with the extra task of getting the family homestead ready to entertain guests.
When the president of the United States of America is headed to your home, can someone ever be truly ready?
Following the conversation with White House officials, there was a delay regarding the commitment. It wasn’t until Friday morning, May 6, the family received confirmation the president — and everything and everyone who comes with him — would be their guest on Wednesday.
“Then we started getting busy,” Gina said.
She became a blur.
The toolshed shop needed to be cleaned. The yard put into tip-top shape. What about the house? Would they sit at the kitchen table?
“We were torn in so many directions,” the 49-year-old wife and mother said.
They couple realized transforming the property from top to bottom — at the same time Jeff is focused on planting his corn and soybean fields — was likely an impossible task.
“He said just do the best you can do. This was about being honorable to the office,” she said. “We brought ourselves back to what was about to happen. He was coming here to visit with us. He was not coming here to see our house.”
True enough. The nation’s 46th president would be visiting to gain insight as to how an American farm family was living and working in these strange times where prices for fuel, fertilizer and equipment are rapidly rising due to issues here in the U.S. as well as abroad.
He was not likely seeking to complete a family profile for Better Homes & Gardens.
PLANTING SEASON DELAYED
Jeff noted, of course, that at this time of year he faces a mountain of work. The time devoted to the making preparations for hosting the man many consider the most powerful person in the world, would have been spent planting this year’s crop.
But the opportunity to personally deliver a message of what is needed to make farmers even more productive — as well as successful — was too big to pass on.
So how did he get that call. Jeff has been highly involved in many ag organizations, particularly the Illinois Soybean Association, and that is likely where this 55-year-old farmer made his impression on someone.
And how did Jeff spend an anxious morning waiting for Biden’s arrival? That was an easy question to answer. He was planting corn. Some equipment issues led to him only getting about 15 acres completed that morning.
Following the presidential sendoff, Jeff was back on the seat of his tractor. There was still plenty of sunlight available to sock more seed into the soil.
“This is just a small Illinois farm,” the 1984 Herscher High School graduate said.
Gina would state her husband is being modest.
“He is such a fantastic advocate for agriculture,” she said.
And, she noted, the family hosts many gatherings on their picturesque farm property.
“We love to entertain people here, but to this magnitude?”
BRADLEY — The need to spread the word about facility issues at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School was a concern shared by school officials as well as the public at an informational meeting Thursday in the school’s cafeteria.
About 15 people attended the first of four meetings scheduled to discuss how the building’s problems would be addressed with the community’s support for a referendum for multi-million-dollar improvements.
Additional meetings are set for 6 p.m. May 18, 10 a.m. May 21, and 6 p.m. May 24 in the cafeteria.
“Whatever we do, it is a generational decision,” Superintendent Matt Vosberg said.
Vosberg said if the school board places a referendum on the ballot in November and it passes, construction would likely start in 2024 and could take until 2027 to complete.
“With every scenario you see, we are still running school,” he noted. “We’d be doing the project in multi-year phases.”
Vosberg noted that parts of the building were built to serve a few hundred students. Today, about 1,950 students attend BBCHS; enrollment typically hovers around 2,000.
“We added these pieces [of the building] over time that served a purpose but probably wouldn’t be how you’d draw them up today,” he said.
The building was given an overall “functional adequacy” score of 54.9 in an assessment by architecture firm BLDD Architects.
Chris Hammond, chief school business official, said that while the score means the building is in good shape for its age, the school is not doing so well in terms of fostering modern educational practices.
“It is very traditional, and so that number doesn’t mean we are not doing our job educating,” he said. “We are doing our best with what we are given, but there are limitations to the building, and you are sitting in one of them.”
The school’s biggest limitation is its cafeteria, where students eat lunch from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Hammond said.
“We can’t change the way we educate kids in the classroom,” he said. “We are tied to a 45-minute class period that is split during the lunch hours because we are trying to feed so many kids in a small space.”
A building task force identified four main priorities: get everyone under one roof, address dining constraints, spread student services throughout the building, and create environments to enhance student programs.
Vosberg noted that the four annexes containing 12 mobile classrooms would need to be replaced if the referendum fails; their life expectancy is around seven years, and some are close to 20 years old.
“It’s not typical for districts to replace portables,” he added. “It’s a temporary situation. It’s been a long time.”
The layout of the building also causes safety concerns, as some students walk outside to get to their next classes.
“We do have students who decide it is quicker to walk out of the building than through it,” he said. “It’s not a secure way to run a school.”
Additionally, a school the size of BBCHS should have three lunch periods, not seven, he said.
“It’s a long stretch of time, especially if you are a student athlete and you eat lunch at 10:30 [a.m.], you could be here until 8 o’clock at night,” he said. “That’s an issue.”
Vosberg explained how the various proposed options would increase the building’s functional adequacy score.
For instance, the $49.9 million model — with a price point in the mid range of the other options — would bring the score up to 88.
By comparison, a brand new building would cost about $160 million and bring the score to 97.5.
Hammond said the $49.9 million option [option 5B] would mean the owner of a $100,000 home has an increase of about $137 per year on their tax bill.
Hammond said the architecture firm designed this option with some compromises from option 5, which would bring the score up to 90 but have a higher price point of $73.9 million.
“We really like [option 5] in terms of functionality, but it’s so expensive, there’s no way in our mind that this could ever be supported because of how much money it is,” Hammond said.
Meanwhile, option 4 would cost $45 million, while cheaper options are priced at $12 million, $27.2 million, and $36 million.
“The disparity [between options 4 and 5] is roughly $30 million, and the adequacy difference isn’t a whole lot. Is there a way that we can redesign this to try to still get some of the STEM spaces, try to fix our concerns with our cafeteria, with our ADA issues, with our dead-end corridors, all these different things we have issues with here?” Hammond said. “And they came back with that 5B.”
A feature of the $36 million option (option 3) would be to convert the main gym into educational space; it would also bring the building up to a score of 82.
“The main gym, there’s some history there, some nostalgia I guess,” Hammond noted. “I like that kind of thing. It’s a hard-to-swallow piece, getting rid of the original gym.”
Vosberg said that if the district pursues a new building, the farmland it purchased on Larry Power Road in 2005 would be a consideration, although the land has been known to have flooding issues.
“We know [a new building] is a long shot,” he said. “Again, this is for the community to discuss and tell us [what] they value.”
A referendum asking residents to fund construction of a new building failed twice more than 10 years ago, and the purchased land has since been leased to a farmer.
Vosberg said the district has also been mulling asking solar power companies for proposals to use the land, since the state has initiated tax credits for solar energy.
SPREADING THE WORD
Sara Heusing, of Bourbonnais, said her children attend St. George Elementary School, and she was not aware of the building issues at BBCHS until a friend commented about it on Facebook.
“I don’t think my little community out there knows the problems here,” she said. “How are we going to spread the word?”
Heusing noted the benefits of renovations completed at St. George Elementary School after a referendum for about $7 million passed in April 2019.
“Eliminating those mobiles at our school has made a big difference in the environment my kid is now learning,” she said. “They are not going back and forth in the rain. They are all eating together. There’s a nice multipurpose area. It’s gorgeous. We fought to get that, too, and it’s just 400 students, not 1,900.”
Vosberg said the district is still in the process of informing the community of its needs and possible solutions.
In addition to hosting community meetings and mailing fact sheets, the district also plans to conduct additional surveys via phone, email and text and to circulate information through social media.
“If we get feedback that 35% support it, we know we are not going to pass a referendum,” Vosberg said.
An ideal percentage of support would be in the 60% range, he said.
Other options could include presenting to parents at feeder schools about how their children would benefit, as well as encouraging community-led efforts.
Marge Corbet, of Bradley, said her children were in high school when a referendum passed for the auditorium and swimming pool to be built.
At that time, parents were willing to knock on doors to discuss the benefits of the proposal, she said.
“Knocking on doors is a good way to get information out to people, and a flier, if nobody is home, stick it in their doorway; they just might read it.”
KANKAKEE — Kankakee police investigated a recent break-in to a shed at the Kankakee Valley Park District’s River Road facility.
The May 7 break-in was discussed during the board’s Committee of the Whole meeting this past week.
A golf cart and gator were taken for joy rides, park district executive director Dayna Heitz said.
Both were found that same day on the walking path.
Heitz said those were the only two items involved. A garage door was damaged.
Commissioner Dave Skelly said there were other items taken. Skelly is a retired Kankakee police officer.
Heitz said she would look into it.
On Wednesday, Heitz told the Daily Journal other items, including a chainsaw, an air compressor and trimmers, were taken.
On Monday, installing security cameras was discussed.
Heitz said she recently talked with the Kankakee Police Department officials about working with them.
That took place after a vehicle had its window smashed and items taken while it was parked at Ice Valley Centre Ice Arena in April.
Within the last year, three other cars have been burglarized.
Cameras would be installed at River Road and Ice Valley as well as a few parks, Heitz said.
“I would love to have cameras at every park,” she said. “One reason is for the safety of the neighbors living near our parks. This will take a couple of years to do that.”
Daily Journal staff report
WATSEKA — The Iroquois County State’s Attorney’s office has charged Allan R. Thompson, 64, of Watseka, with aggravated battery to a child, according to a news release from Watseka Police Department.
A week-long investigation involving Watseka police, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Iroquois County State’s Attorney’s office led to the Tuesday arrest of Thompson, according to police.
Watseka police were called to a residence after receiving a report of an injured 10-month-old child. They learned the male child had sustained substantial injuries and was transported to a hospital.
The child since has been discharged from the hospital, Iroquois County State’s Attorney James Devine said.
Thompson is the child’s step-grandfather. The child’s mother works full time, so her mother and Thompson watch the child, Devine said.
Thompson was transported to Iroquois County Jail, where he is being held in lieu of a $100,000 bond.
Thompson should appear in court today for formal reading of the charges. No further charges are expected to be filed, Devine said.
Aggravated battery to a child is a Class X felony with a prison sentence of six to 30 years.
BRADLEY — More pieces are moving into place toward improving air quality and fully air conditioning Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School.
The BBCHS District 307 School Board gave approval Monday for the district to seek bids for proposed heating and air conditioning upgrades to take place during the summer of 2023.
“This is just permission to start the bid process; it doesn’t mean we are going to accept any bids,” Superintendent Matt Vosberg explained during the board meeting. “This is the next phase of air quality work, and delaying approval would set us back a little bit, because this is time sensitive.”
In March, the board approved about $3.9 million in expenses toward the first phase of HVAC and air quality upgrades, including HVAC for the original 1948 wing and classrooms on each floor of the 1973 addition. That work is slated to begin this summer.
The district is putting federal COVID-19 funding toward its goal to bring the school from 40 percent to 100 percent air conditioned and eliminate its 1948-era steam heat boilers.
The next phase of work [to start in summer 2023] would consist of adding new heating, ventilation and air conditioning to both levels of the original 1960 wing, including six classrooms on the first floor, 10 classrooms on the second floor, and the corridors on both floors.
It would also include adding HVAC to the second level classrooms of the 1973 addition above the lobby and offices as well as replacing the HVAC system in the first floor main office area and superintendent offices.
“This project hopefully would be completed by summer of 2025,” Vosberg added.
The probable cost is estimated to be about $4.2 million for work on the 1960 wing and about $2.5 million for the work on the 1973 classrooms and office areas, according to the project proposal by Bright Architecture.
The preliminary project schedule, based on current supply chain and delivery issues, would be to complete design work this summer, seek bids in the late summer or early fall and start construction in the summer of 2023, according to the proposal.
Also on Monday, the board approved the addition of a full-time physical education teacher in order to open five more sections for behind-the-wheel driving instruction.
The additional teacher will double the number of sections already scheduled.
In December, the board approved an additional teacher for one semester.
The previous driver’s education teacher had moved to another department, and the school was already falling behind in getting students behind the wheel instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the time, about 200 students had yet to get behind the wheel.
Principal Brian Wright said Monday that 133 students still have yet to drive, and when the new school year begins, it will have 500 new sophomores.
Typically, about 100 students out of the sophomore class either choose not to drive or learn through private lessons.
Wright said the additional teacher will be needed needed to serve students needing to take the wheel next year so the school does not continue to get backlogged.