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Benld Council eyes development at former Benld school site

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Meeting in a relatively brief session Monday night, the Benld City Council briefly discussed the future development of the former Benld Elementary School site as a sports park and recreation area, approved $6,150 in masonry repairs at the Civic Center and directed City Attorney Rick Verticchio to write to Gillespie Police Chief Jared DePoppe regarding a potential issue with the city’s police protection contract with the Gillespie Police Department.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources recently announced the award of a $600,000 Open Spaces and Land Acquisition and Development (OSLAD) grant to develop the 11-acre site formerly occupied by Benld Elementary School. The City of Benld is acting as the sponsoring agency for grant purposes. The Benld Sports Association will be in charge of developing the site, as well as ongoing maintenance. Construction, with much of the labor provided by volunteers, could begin as early as this summer.

On Monday night, Mayor Jim Kelly announced the city is waiting for grant guidelines from IDNR, and that he is appointed Ald. John Balzraine and Association Chair Anthony Kravanya as point persons for the property. Balzraine and Kravanya will bring specific issues to the council for approval as development gets underway. Officially known as the Benld Family Sports Complex, plans for the site include construction of a baseball field, a softball field, a soccer/football field, basketball courts, a walking trail and playground. 

The site was the location of the Benld Elementary School, which was destroyed by mine subsidence beginning in 2009. Community Unit School District 7 declared the property surplus after building a new elementary school in Gillespie and demolishing the old school. The Board of Education later reached an agreement to transfer the property to the City of Benld for development as a park.

Mayor Kelley also announced that the architect who voluntarily drew up plans for the park has volunteered to help the Sports Association and city council through the process of fulfilling the grant requirements.

Council members also unanimously voted to approve Balzraine’s motion to spend $6,150 for tuck-pointing and other masonry repairs on the back wall of the Civic Center. Balzraine said he was able to obtain the bid from Josh Marinacci.

Council members voted unanimously to have the City Attorney contact the Gillespie Police Chief about the amount of time a Gillespie officer is sitting in Mt. Clare. A few minutes of debate followed a report from Police Committee Chair Ald. Mickey Robinson stating he had talked to the Police Chief about the city’s concerns. At issue is whether or not the Gillespie Police Department is fulfilling its obligation for 24/7 police protection in Benld since the Mt. Clare location is outside the city limits. Mayor Kelly said the city is aware Gillespie police routinely drive through Mt. Clare during shift changes but the city wants to make sure it is getting the police protection it is paying for within the Benld city limits.

The council table voted to formally sign a trash contract with Republic Services pending receipt of a revised contract. Verticchio said the contract Republic provided appeared to be the company’s standard contract which included some items that were not in the city’s old contract and which omitted some specifics. He said he wrote to the company to point out the discrepancies and recommended tabling action on the contract until the council’s next regular meeting.

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On a motion by Ald. Jerry Saracco, seconded by Balzraine, the council voted unanimously to have the City Attorney file ordinance violations against the owners of property located on South Second Street.

Saracco also questioned the continuing court actions against some derelict properties in the city. “We don’t want the fines, we want the property cleaned up,” he said. “How do we get them to clean up their properties?” 

Verticchio said the only thing he can do in most cases is to keep going back to court and increasing the fines. About the only way the city can get an emergency order to clean up a property is if the property is deemed a hazard to public health or safety. Verticchio and the council discussed the status of actions against the owners of about eight properties in the city which have been cited for ordinance violations of declared public nuisances.

Tilashalski asked if the city needed to again advertise for sale the location of the old Doggie’s Tavern since the property description incorrectly described it as the old bank building. Verticcho said he would rerun the ad at his expense if the city wanted but it technically was unnecessary since the property address and parcel number were correct. No bids have been received for the property, but Verticchio said that since the property has been declared surplus and advertised for sale, the city can accept any bids from this point forward.

On a motion by Balzraine, seconded by Ald. Dustin Fletcher, the council voted to have the property owner pay for the cost of a 40-foot, 12-inch culvert that recently collapsed, with the city to pay the cost of installation. The damaged culvert is located at the end of North Fifth Street and was originally installed to keep the road from washing out.

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School board deals with personnel issues during special meeting

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Stephanie Bray

Meeting in special session Monday night, members of the Community Unit School District 7 Board of Education accepted “with regrets” the resignation for purposes of retirement of Stephanie Bray, one of the district’s three technology integration specialists, effective June 4.

The board called a special session to deal with the apparently unexpected resignation before the board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting later this month. However, board members tabled action on approving a revised job description for the Student Information System/Data Integration Specialist position, pending further discussion.

The board also tabled action on posting the newly created vacancy and tabled posting a district-level secretary’s position.

In February of 2022, the board accepted “with regrets” Bray’s announcement of her retirement “no later than the end of the 2025-26 school year.” There was no indication of why Bray moved her retirement date up by two years.

On a motion by Weye Schmidt, seconded by Amanda Ross, the board voted unanimously to accept Bray’s resignation. The action followed a 50-minute executive session to discuss personnel issues behind closed doors. The public portion of the meeting lasted less than 10 minutes.

In other action, the board voted to renew the district’s One Room contract to offer a remotely taught Spanish class to fulfill the district’s foreign language requirement for the 2024-25 school year. This will be the second year an off-site teacher will teach foreign language at GHS, using remote communication technology. Supt. Shane Owsley said the district had no applications for the vacant teaching position last year. This year, an applicant from Brazil explored the possibility of teaching in Gillespie but ultimately accepted a tutoring position at Greenville University. Owsley said hiring the applicant could have become cumbersome because she was not yet certificated to teach high school Spanish. He said he recently changed the job description from Spanish to foreign language to expand the pool of potential applicants.

In other personnel action, the board approved the maternity leave request of Amber Allan, BenGil Elementary physical education teacher, effective Aug. 28 through Jan. 20.

In separate actions, the board accepted Nathan Henrichs resignation as Gillespie High School freshman football coach, posted the position as vacant, and appointed Henrichs as a varsity assistant football coach. The board also voted unanimously to appoint Alex Jasper as an assistant freshman football coach. The board unanimously accepted Wayne Ireland’s resignation as a volunteer assistant football coach, and voted unanimously to appoint Jarrod Herron and hire Trenton Cleveland as volunteer assistant football coaches.

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The board voted unanimously to hire Michael Rodriguez as a high school volunteer assistant women’s basketball coach.

On a motion by Schmidt, seconded by Kelli Vesper, the board hired Alexis Ollis as a head cook and kitchen staff member, pending documentation of certification and a background check. The board also Brittany Hughes as a district kitchen staff worker, pending documentation of certification and background check.

On a motion by Vesper, the board voted unanimously to post a vacancy for a one-on-one paraprofessional aide.

Board members voted unanimously to accept the resignation of Jessica Kelly as a middle school assistant track and field coach and voted unanimously to hire Jay Weber as the high school head track and field coach.

The regular monthly meeting of the board is set for 6 p.m., Monday, June 24, at the district’s administrative office.

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Americana festival set for July 4 at Benld Park

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Jess Barker, The Lodge Brothers, and The New Prairie Drifters are set to take the stage at Benld City Park on Thursday, July 4 as part of the Americana Festival.

The music festival intends to celebrate the birthday and spirit of America with thriving local culture of music, food, and art. It is scheduled to begin at 12 noon and end at 6 pm.

Food will be available for purchase from The Barracks American Table, a new Gillespie restaurant, and skincare products will be available from Nature’s Bliss, a Benld gift shop.

The park is located at 305 North Main Street in Benld. Admission is free.

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Macoupin County Fair underway until Sunday

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Rides, tents, food trucks, music, animals, and plenty of other offerings fill the grounds at the Macoupin County Fair for the 172nd year. The fair is held June 4 through June 9 at the Macoupin County Fairground north of Carlinville.

The oldest county fair in Illinois, the Macoupin County Fair welcomes thousands of guests to the area and unites agriculture, family, and community. The fair continues through Sunday with highlights every evening.

The fair also meets the needs of families on a budget, for just $10 per person you get parking and all-access to the carnival rides. The cost-friendly fun draws in visitors and locals who get to embrace the county’s namesakes.

Tracy Lawrence and Walker Montgomery are set to take the stage Thursday evening, June 6, at 7:30pm. Friday evening features the tractor and truck pull, and Saturday evening is the crowd-favorite demolition derby.

The fair opens every morning at 8am and closes at 12 midnight. For a full list of schedule of events or to pre-pay for entry, visit the fair’s website here.

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