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Blackburn receives $4.8 million grant from IDCEO



Funding Supports the Construction of a New Indoor Athletic Facility to Enhance the Blackburn Student Experience and Expand Community Engagement

CARLINVILLE, IL –  Blackburn College has been awarded a $4.8 million grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity. Blackburn will utilize the funding to help create and construct the College’s new $6+ million indoor athletic practice facility, which broke ground in May.

With over 40,000 square feet of space, the building project is part of a comprehensive effort to provide Blackburn students and the community greater access to expanded athletic and recreational facilities. Announced earlier this year, the Winning Together campaign for athletics and enrollment aims to build a critical new chapter of the College’s legacy. The efforts will better meet Blackburn’s needs, providing essential space for existing NCAA Division III athletic programs to increase the number of athletes recruited but also allow for an expansion of the athletic offerings. For the entire campus community, the new facility will provide a space for intramural and recreational opportunities and instruction related to academic programs, including physical education and sports management.

Perhaps more importantly, the new facility will increase access to athletic facilities for Carlinville and Macoupin County. Blackburn’s current facilities are already in continual use for campus needs, making it challenging to offer space for community use. The new building will provide space for new opportunities for the surrounding communities, including youth sports, summer camps, and facilitating large gatherings.

“We pride ourselves on offering a high-quality experience for all Blackburn students,” said Kim Camara-Harvey, Athletic Director at Blackburn College. This project will mark one of the most significant investments Blackburn has made into its athletic facilities, and the new building will be the only practice space of its kind for midwestern NCAA Division III schools. “The grant and the state-of-the-art building will further elevate our abilities to support student-athletes, connect with the surrounding communities, and enhance the profile of the College.”

Located on the north end of campus and will feature a 200 x 120-foot turf field, retractable batting cages, a golf performance center with simulators, and a putting and chipping green. New locker rooms, coaching offices, and athletic training space in the facility will serve as the home base for Blackburn’s golf, softball, baseball, and soccer programs, as well as for the College’s newly established men’s and women’s wrestling teams, which are slated to begin competition during the 2023-2024 season.

In addition to the new building, the $7.7 million campaign will modernize this historic Dawes-Woodward Complex. Constructed in 1913, it is a living monument to the students who built it brick-by-brick as part of the school’s unique Work Program. The Dawes project – which will include a new basketball and volleyball court, roof replacement, HVAC upgrades, and a revitalized entryway – will relieve the pressure off Dawes and allow it to continue serving as an integral part of campus life. Winning Together will also transform the tennis courts into a racquet, pickleball and outdoor basketball complex.

“The vital role athletics plays in attracting new students to Blackburn – and keeping them here – cannot be overstated,” said Glen Krupica, Winning Together Campaign Manager. “While these enhancements will help our dedicated coaching staff build and strengthen athletic teams, they also enhance the experience for our Work Program and academics. Student-athletes are more invested in Blackburn, with higher GPAs, retention, and graduation rates, and, for every volleyball player or golfer we recruit, we are also recruiting an artist, a business major, or a future educator.”


For more information regarding the Winning Together campaign, please visit

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Community News

School district apparently eyeing food management service




Bill Fritcher representing Opaa! Food Management said they provide both hot and cold entrees, and schools can tailor offerings to meet their needs and budgets.

Representatives of a food management company pitched their vision for reshaping school lunch and breakfast offerings at Community Unit School District 7 schools during Monday night’s regular monthly meeting of the Board of Education. Later, however, the head cook at BenGil Elementary School expressed doubts about what the company promised to deliver. “They make it sound like it’s all a gravy train,” said Jackie McKinney. “It’s not.”

No action followed a 20-minute presentation by Bill Fritcher, Business Development Associate, and Angie Eden, a food service worker, from Opaa! Food Management, Inc., Chesterfield, Mo. There was no clear indication whether the board or district administration is leaning toward contracting with the company.

Founded in 1978, Opaa! Provides food management services to more than 800 schools in 250 school districts spread out over seven states. The company serves 21 schools in Illinois, including the nearby Staunton, Litchfield, Jersey and Nokomis school districts. The company claims a 97 percent retention rate among its client schools.

Fritcher, a former administrator in the Neoga school district, said the company emphasizes home-cooked foods made from scratch. Opaa! provides both hot and cold entrees, and schools can tailor offerings to meet their needs and budgets. Hot entrees include items such as roast turkey, meatloaf, cheeseburgers, pizzas and spaghetti. The company also serves a variety of cold sub sandwiches. Again, depending upon the details of its contract with a school district, the company can provide a salad bar, along with fresh fruit.

Breakfast offerings can include hot or cold cereal, waffles, biscuits and gravy, and breakfast burritos. Some client schools offer a “breakfast on the go” option where students can grab a breakfast item during the mid-morning hours of the school day. As part of its service, Opaa! would provide an all-day “Gulp Station” with dispensers of lemonade, iced tea and water.

“There’s a lot of local control over menu items,” Fritcher said. “If a school doesn’t want us serving coffee to students, we don’t serve coffee.”

Fritcher said the school district would continue to set pricing for school lunches and breakfasts, collect payments and control the revenue stream. The district also would continue to own food service equipment and facilities. At a minimum, Opaa! would place it’s own employee as a food service manager, but other food service workers can be either Opaa! employees or employees of the school district. In either case, the school district would have final say over who is allowed to work in the school district.

“You’d have control of who is working in the school and is around your kids,” Fritcher said.


According to Fritcher, the company emphasizes presentation.

 “We want the food to look good so kids will eat it,” he said. “We strive to make it enjoyable for the kids.”

Client schools submit photos of daily offerings to the home office for approval, Eden said. As an example, she cited an instance when she submitted a photo from Neoga that included broccoli as a side item. The home office said the broccoli looked too brown and demanded it be replaced with fresher produce.

Fritcher said the company employees an executive chef to create recipes and standards for food served to students. The chef has created a number of streaming videos used to train on site staff.

Key to the operation is a computer program for food management. Eden said the program monitors what food the district has in the freezer and pantry, and adjust menus to best utilize resources on hand. The program also provides a portal parents and students can access to see weekly menus.

A food management contract would be subject to state bidding requirements, according to Fritcher. To start the process, the district would create a Request for Proposals to solicit bids. If Opaa! Is the successful bidder, the company would offer a five-year fixed price agreement, renewable on an annual basis. Either party would be able to end the contract upon a 90-day notice.

During a public comment period, McKinney alleged Opaa!’s promises have not matched reality in nearby school districts. The head cook at Litchfield, she pointed out, quit soon after Opaa! took over. Pizzas and some other food items, she said, do not match the company’s claims.

“We were told this is not about the money, it’s about the choices,” she said. “If you want more options, someone needs to tell us.”


McKinney said she has been employed by the district in food services since 2002. The proposal to hire an outside food management company, she said, comes as “a slap in the face.”

McKinney predicted problems if the district contracts with Opaa!, particularly in the elementary school.

“I don’t see how our kindergarteners are going to be able to carry their own tray and serve themselves,” she said. “They’re going to drop their trays. We get our kids through the serving line in five minutes so they have time to sit down and eat. When they have to make their own tray, how long do you think that’s going to take?”

McKinney also predicted issues with food sanitation when young children with runny noses and/or dirty hands are expected to serve themselves from the food line.

During a public comment period, Jackie McKinney, head cook at BenGil Elementary, alleged Opaa!’s promises have not matched reality in nearby school districts.

McKinney said an outside company cannot be expected to know local students like local food service workers know them.

“I watch for a little boy who comes through my line every day because I know he doesn’t get food at home like he does here,” she said. “We’re here for the kids and I don’t think these people are.”

In a somewhat related matter which could facilitate transitioning to an outside food service, the board accepted with “regret” the retirements of head high school/middle school cook Penny Feeley and GHS/GMS cook Janice Hammann, both effective on June 30.


The board took action on a number of personnel issues following an executive session of about one hour.

In separate actions, the board voted unanimously to rehire the following fourth-year teachers and grant them tenure for the 2024-25 school year: Nikki Jenner, Katie Lievers, Alex Newton, Pete Visintin and Jacob West.


The following non-tenured staff were hired for the 2024-25 school year: school nurse Rachel Bouillon, fifth grade teacher Radeana Gentzyel, speech pathologist Kaylee Collins, special education teacher Jaiden Braundmeier, kindergarten teacher Jessica Yeager, fist grade teacher Sydney Owsley, band teacher Brad Taulbee, chorus teacher Ben McCullough, Tim Biggs, special education teacher Cory Bonstead, and Dalton Barnes.

On a motion by Peyton Bernot, seconded by Mark Hayes, the board rehired the following tenured teachers for 2024-25: Lorraine Strutner, Jody Dunn, Melissa Bussmann, Tracy Hostettler, Darrick Urban, Kara Saracco, Kelly Lyons, Holly Nejmanowski, Jennifer Parker, Anastasia Hobaugh, Cate Plovich, Amy Price, Nickie Barrett, Jessi Luketich, Mindy Savant, Karissa Smith, Beth Sees, Valerie Jubelt, Carrie Scott, Dana Tieman, Marcia Johns, Colleen Favre, Celia Jubelt, Jamie Schmidt, Nancy Schmidt, Lori Emmons, Vanessa Barrett, Amy Geddes, Lisa Ballinger, Amber Allan, Kim Henderson, Christina Blevins, Chase Peterson, Jessica Kelly, Tammy Garde, Nate Heinrich’s, Casey Edgerton, Kyle Lamar, Stephanie Wilson, Elizabeth Thackery, Shanna Conner, Matthew Browner, Jeremy Smith, Rachelle Prough, Jarrod Herron, Jill Stole, Korben Clark, Kayla Wills, Nikki Browner, Kevin McNichols, Katie Orange, Robert Macias, Casey Sholtis, Jennifer Brown, Jeff Nelhs, Mark Goldasich, Troy Barker, Michelle Smith, Holley McFarland, Michael Bertagnolli, Mary Schuette, Nichole Stoecker, Amy Goldasich, David Edgerton, Ashlee Gibbs, Stuart Ringer, Kelly Bully, Whitney Page and Stephanie Bray.

The board accepted “with regret” the retirement of BenGil Elementary teacher Dana Tieman, effective at the end of the 2027-28 school year. The board also accepted “with regret” the resignation for purposes of retirement of GMS paraprofessional  Ella May Roemer, effective at the end of the 2024 fiscal year, and posted the position as vacant.

Board members accepted the resignation of high school paraprofessional Darian Gill, and posted the position as vacant. The board also accepted Gill’s resignation at the GHS/GMS cheerleading coach and posted that position as vacant.

Board members unanimously agreed to post vacancies for the following summer school positions: high school math, English and drivers’ education; middle school math, English and science; and six elementary positions. Additionally, the board posted two summer school food service positions.

The board accepted “with regret” the resignation of long-time GHS head women’s basketball coach Kevin Gray, and posted the position as vacant. The board also accepted the resignation of Korbin Clark as GMS seventh-grade basketball coach and posted the position as vacant.

The board voted unanimously to appoint Elizabeth Eaker as a volunteer assistant dance coach, pending verification of certification and a background check. In separate actions, the board agreed to appoint Foley Seferi and James Bryant a volunteer assistant high school football coaches, pending verification of certification and a background check. 

By a unanimous vote, the board accepted the resignation of district custodian Owen Parker, and posted the position as vacant. The board also voted to post vacancies for two full-route bus drivers for the 2024-25 school year, and hired Billie Bowles as a substitute bus driver, pending verification of certification and a background check.



The board awarded a $62,524 contract to DeLaurent Construction Co., Inc., Wilsonville, to repave five district parking lots. DeLaurent was the low bidder for the project. The contract will be paid from proceeds of a $1.6 million alternate revenue bond sale for capital projects.

Supt. Shane Owsley reported that he is starting to gather estimates for other upcoming projects to be underwritten with bond revenue, including a project to refinish the high school gym floor, a project to reline the all-weather track and a major HVAC project.


On Owsley’s recommendation, the board accepted a list of surplus weight room equipment and agreed to offer the equipment for sale via sealed bids. The equipment, which includes stationary bikes, running machines, free weights, benches, dumbbells and racks, was replaced with new equipment as part of a recently completed project to renovate and re-equip the weight room.


During a District Focus segment, the board recognized high school women’s basketball coach Kevin Gray, who is retiring after a career of 16 seasons. Kevin is pictured with his wife, Elaine.

On a motion by Bill Carter, seconded by Weye Schmidt, the board unanimously approved early graduation requests for Maria Alger, Eliana Barrios-Madison, Owen Baugh, Gage Bonds, Abby Carter, John Q. Halterman, Eva Hidden, Felicia Lambert, Emma Luckshis, Ashley Markulakis, McKenna Montoro, Kaden Reiffer, Abigail Sharp, Jayden Stangle, Cooper Wentler, Ashton Whitlow and Avery Young. The students will be allowed to graduate at the end of their eleventh year of high school at the end of the current school year, provided all graduation requirements have been met.


During a District Focus segment, the board recognized high school women’s basketball coach Kevin Gray, who is retiring after a career of 16 seasons. High School Principal Jill Rosentreter noted that Gray led this year’s team to the Sectional Tournament in Beardstown after winning their first regional championship since 2012. The team also won its first County Tournament since 2002, and celebrated 26 wins—the most ever.

During the Carlinville Rotary’s All-Star Game, Gray was named Rotary’s Coach of the Year.

“On behalf of CUSD 7 and all you former players, we express much gratitude for your many years of service, dedication, leadership, wisdom and professional demeanor on and off the court,” Rosentreter told Gray.

Also during the District Focus, a group of fifth graders told the board about their recent field trip to Busch Stadium, where they learned about practical math applications and other subjects.


In other action, the board:

  • Gave final approval to the 2024-25 school calendar, calling for the first day of school attendance on Aug. 14 with the last day of school set for May 29, or earlier if no emergency days are used.
  • Approved a schedule of board meeting dates for the coming year. The board will meet in executive session at 6 p.m. on the fourth Monday of each month with the open session beginning at 7 p.m. The December meeting is set one week earlier on Dec. 16 to avoid conflict with the winter break.
  • Awarded the annual bid to supply fuel to low bidder M & M Service Co., Carlinville.
  • Voted to renew the district’s annual membership in the Illinois High School Association.
  • Rescheduled the April board meeting from Monday, April 22, to Tuesday, April 23, to avoid a conflict.

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School board approves three-year contract




By a vote of 6-1, the Community Unit School District 7 Board of Education approved a new three-year contract with the union representing the teaching staff during a special board meeting Monday night.

The action followed an hour-long executive session during which board members discussed contract provisions behind closed doors. Upon returning to open session, Peyton Bernot moved to ratify the contract with a second from Kelli Vesper. The measure passed with Dennis Tiburzi casting the sole negative vote.

Members of the teachers union ratified the contract a week earlier.

The new contract calls for a wage increase of 3.5 percent in addition to the step increase, which averages two percent. Wages will increase 3.25 percent in both the second and third years of the contract, for a total increase of 10 percent over three years. The district’s share of health insurance costs will go from $605 per month plus one-half of the balance to $615 plus one-half of the remaining cost for coverage. In year two, the district’s contribution increases to $625, plus one-half of the balance. The district’s share will increase in the third year to $635, plus one-half of the remaining cost for coverage.

Compensation for coaching and sponsorship duties was increased by $500 per activity. The hourly rate for instructional duties, such as summer school, homebound instruction, etc., is increasing from $30 to $35.

The tiered system of awarding 12 to 18 days of sick leave is now standardized across the board at 12 days. The contract also gives administrators the ability to deny personal day requests if more than seven persons district-wide have requested the same day off.

The new contract was negotiated over a period of several weeks using an innovative negotiating technique called Evidence-Based Negotiations. Both sides of the process were required to provide a rationale for each concession proposed. The less adversarial negotiating program was moderated by a representative from the Illinois Association of School Boards.

Union Secretary Jennifer Parker appeared at Monday night’s meeting to thank the negotiating committee and the board for their work on reaching an agreement.


The district now turns its attention to reaching a contract agreement with non-certificated staff. Action on that contract is likely later this month.

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CUSD 7 teachers, administration reach tentative contract agreement




Students Sydney Wilson, Madison Durston and Macie Wright pose with photographs and and art that earned them recognition in the Mid-Illinois regional Scholastic Art and Writing competition. Wilson will advance to national judging with her photograph, “The Road Ahead,” a Gold Key winner. Durston received an honorable mention with her photograph, “Driving Into Dreams,” and high schooler Wright had two Gold Key pottery submissions, “Sea Urchin” and “Under the Sea.”

Members of the Community Unit School District 7 Board of Education are set to meet in special session at 6 p.m., Monday, March 11, to consider ratifying a tentative contract between the union representing district school teachers and the school district. Union membership was set to vote on the contract on Tuesday.

Board members learned an agreement had been reached during their regular monthly meeting Monday night. Supt. Shane Owsley did not discuss details of the contract in open session, pending final approval and ratification by the board and union.

The contract resulted from several weeks of meetings conducted as “interest-based” negotiations—an innovative bargaining structure designed to lessen the adversarial nature of many contract negotiations. Owsley said the method was introduced by the Illinois Association of School Boards, which sent a representative to facilitate the meetings.

Under the meeting structure, union members and members of the board’s negotiating committee were seated around a round table instead of across from each other. Each side was encouraged to discuss proposals based on the interests of each group. The ideas, however, had to be accompanied by a rationale for why the parties wanted a specific consideration and how it could be accomplished.

“It became more of a back-and-forth discussion,” Owsley told the BenGil Post. “It was less adversarial than normal negotiations.”

Union President Jennifer Parker had high praise for the new approach, reading a statement from the union to the board:

“We would like to thank Superintendent Owsley and the board negotiating team for their time and the opportunity to share interests,” Parker said. “Together we have undergone training on a new bargaining method, and over the past several weeks met multiple times to discuss shared interests.  Over this time, we not only reached a tentative agreement on a contract extension but also a deeper understanding of the reasons behind each other’s requests. We look forward to continuing this open exchange of ideas between all parties and thank the board and Mr. Owsley for their willingness to try this new method.”

In addition to voting on the contract on March 11, members of the Building and Grounds Committee will convene immediately after the special meeting to discuss capital improvement plans for the next three years. Owsley pointed out the district has three years to spend proceeds of a $1.6 million alternate revenue bond sale late last year. The district has dipped into those funds for a new weight room and improvements to the high school baseball and softball fields, but roughly $800,000 of the money remains uncommitted.

Casey Edgerton, with examples of student photography displayed in front of her, addresses the school board about students from her Encore Photography class who placed in this year’s Scholastic Art and Writing Awards program at the regional level.

The committee is expected to start proposing and prioritizing projects.

Though no date was set, Owsley also encouraged the Strategic Planning Committee to meet in the near future, noting that some aspects of the Strategic Plan may overlap with projects proposed by the Building and Grounds Committee.

“I think it would be good for us to sit down and make a list of projects and prioritize them,” Owsley said.


Following an executive session of 90 minutes, the board voted unanimously to extend the contracts of BenGil Elementary Principal Angela Sandretto, High School Principal Jill Rosentreter, and Assistant Principal Tara Cooper by one year each, and Middle School Principal Patrick McGinty by two years. Board President Mark Hayes said the action places all four administrators on standardized three-year contracts.

By unanimous votes, the board hired Casey Fellin as head high school women’s soccer coach, Michael Rodriguez and assistant high school women’s soccer coach, and Lindsay Bearden as volunteer high school women’s soccer coach, all pending confirmation of certification and a background check.

Elizabeth Visintin was unanimously hired as eighth-grade girls basketball coach, pending confirmation of certification and a background check, and Pete Visintin was unanimously hired as seventh-grade girls basketball coach.

Jessica Kelly was hired as middle school assistant girls track coach.

Board members accepted the resignation of Chase Peterson as eighth-grade boys basketball coach and posted the position as vacant.

Former Transportation Director Gary Niehaus was hired as a full-route district bus driver. Niehaus previously served as Transportation Director, retiring in 2021.



During a “District Focus” segment, the board recognized participants in this year’s Yotes basketball program, as well as student photographers whose works were recognized this year in the Scholastic Art and Writing competition.

GMS Principal Patrick McGinty told the board the middle school does not have a formal art competition but that he is happy that Casey Edgerton has somewhat addressed that void by sponsoring an Encore photography class. This year, two photography students submitted prints to the Mid-Illinois Regional competition. Madison Durston received an honorable mention, and Sydney Wilson was one of 59 Gold Key winners. Wilson’s photograph, “Driving into Dreams,” will advance to judging at the national level.

Surrounded by students who participated in this year’s Yotes basketball program, GHS Special Education Coordinator Jen Houck speaks to the CUSD 7 School Board about the program, which pairs special education students with other student athletes to expand special education students’ opportunities to participate in organized athletics.

In addition to those enrolled in Edgerton’s photography class, high school art students Lex Collins and Macie Wright were recognized at the regional level. Collins had two honorable mentions for her drawings and Wright had two gold key pottery submissions.

Edgerton said she started the photography class last year to provide GMS students with a creative outlet. Durston submitted two pieces that year, earning two Silver Key awards.

This year’s regional competition had 762 entries from 32 schools representing 33 counties.

High School Principal Jill Rosentreter offered high praise for the Yotes basketball program. Offered under the auspices of the Special Olympics organization, the Yotes (short of “Coyotes,” the team’s mascot), pairs special education students with high school athletes, providing students with an opportunity to participate in organized athletics.

“This is more than just a Gillespie basketball program,” Rosentreter said. “This is a unification program that builds relationships between students in Mrs. (Jen) Houck’s classroom and other student athletes.” She said the program provided special education students with experiences that “none of them have had before,” including the opportunity to play games in front of a packed gym.

Coached by Dalton Barnes, the team played games this year against North Greene and Triad, with another home game planned against North Greene.

Surrounded by team participants, Houck told the board Community Unit School District 7 has been designated a Unification Champion School, in part because of the Yotes program by the Special Olympics organization. As part of the Unification designation, the school will observe Respect Week next week, she said.


In addition to the basketball program, the school is sponsoring a Yotes bass fishing team, members of which will compete in tournament fishing this spring.

“All these kids had a blast,” Houck said, adding that she hopes to add Yotes bowling, track and dance next year.


Pastor Dane Solari visited the board meeting to advise that Trinity Baptist Church recently completed a 10,000 square-foot addition, featuring classrooms, office space and a common area for fellowship events. Solari said the congregation wants to “open our doors” to the community, and invited the school to make use of the structure if there is a need.

He also volunteered members of the congregation to take part in landscaping projects or other projects the school needs to have completed.

Trinity Baptist Pastor Dane Solari addresses the Community Unit School District 7 Board of Education about the possibility of church members volunteering labor to make school improvements.

“We’d like to offer our church to come take something off your ‘to-do’ list,” he said. “We have a lot of skilled workers in our church.”

Supt. Owsley told Solari the district greatly appreciated the church’s offer. “I’m sure we will be reaching out to you,” he said.


The board voted to again retain Loy, Miller, Talley, P.C. to perform the district’s annual audit at a cost not to exceed $14,030. The firm has performer the annual audit for the past several years.


Board members placed on first-reading a tentative school calendar for the 2024-25 school year. The tentative calendar calls for 173 days of class attendance with five hours and 50 minutes of instruction each day. The first day of student attendance would be Aug. 14, with the last day of attendance on May 29.  Commencement ceremonies would be May 18.

School holidays would be as usual on Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day and Memorial Day. The Thanksgiving Day holiday would run Nov. 27 to Nov. 29. The Winter Holiday would run from Dec. 23 through Jan. 3, and Spring Break would be April 17-21. One change from past practice, students would have Monday, Nov. 4, and Tuesday, Nov. 5, off for Election Day.


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