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Closer Look: The stories of the year

Geneva teachers picket before a special meeting of the Geneva School District 304 school board.
Geneva teachers picket before a special meeting of the Geneva School District 304 school board.

GENEVA – This was a year of unrest for Geneva District 304 teachers as they went back to school in August without a new contract in place.

Tensions rose through the summer and fall as teachers came to school board meetings clad in green T-shirts showing solidarity. At issue was the school board offering a hard freeze on salaries the first year, the same as other district employees.

Some community members pushed back, saying they could not afford raises for teachers when they were also suffering financially.

The Geneva Education Association sought mediation, then declared an impasse, took a strike authorization vote and then voted to strike – for the first time in the district's history. But a walkout was averted by a last-minute settlement of a three-year contract.

Tensions are still simmering though, as the teachers union filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the district, then refused to withdraw it after the contract was ratified. District officials, in turn, filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the GEA because the union refused to withdraw their complaint. Both complaints are still pending.

Enrollment numbers in District 304

GENEVA – As a taxpayer watchdog group, TaxFACTS focused on Geneva District 304, members discovered a discrepancy in the projected enrollment numbers in the district's 2007 referendum material, and the actual projections given by a demographer.

One of the demographer's projections shows an increase of 345 students from 2007 to 2012 as the most likely increase. Another calculation showed 888 as the highest possible increase for that same time period. The district claimed in its referendum material an increase of 1,618 students over that time period.

In materials presented to the public in the spring of 2007, the projected enrollment for 2011-12 school year was 7,276. The district's projections for the 2007-08 school year was 6,145, higher than the demographer's 5,949.

By a hundred-vote margin, voters approved an $80 million referendum to build two new elementary schools, one a replacement for Coultrap.

School officials admitted the enrollment projections were inflated, but no one knew how it happened. Still, officials maintained there was "nothing deceptive or unlawful" in the referendum campaign. Board president Mark Grosso said too much time had passed for a full blown investigation into how the inflated numbers came about.

With the additional bond, the principal on the district's debt is $155.6 million and the interest is $150.4 million, or $306 million, according to a presentation by the district's financial advisor this summer.

North Aurora soldier mourned

West Aurora High School said goodbye to one of its own in 2012.

North Aurora resident Christopher Patterson, 20, a 2009 West Aurora High School graduate, was killed Jan. 6 along with three other soldiers in his unit while conducting combat route clearance operations as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

His death left a deep impact at West Aurora, where his mother, Mary Patterson,  is a secretary in the copy room. Mary Patterson and her husband, Bob, said they are grateful for the support from the community.

“They appreciate what the soldiers are doing for them overseas,” Bob Patterson had said during a visitation for their son at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Batavia.

Patterson was enlisted in the Indiana National Guard and served as a 12B Combat Engineer with the 713th Engineering Company (Sapper) based out of the Valparaiso Armory. He here his mother, Mary Patterson , is a secretary in the copy room. Mary Patterson and her husband, Bob, said they are grateful for the support from the community.

West Aurora School Superintendent James Rydland had said he was proud of the outpouring of support from the school community.

“We’re a family,” Rydland said. “We will do whatever we can to help during this difficult time.”

Robbie Bilodeau, an office professional at West Aurora High School who works alongside Mary Patterson, remembered Christopher Patterson as someone who always was willing to lend a hand.

“He always had a kind word for anybody,” she said. “If you needed help, half the time he was there to help you before you even knew you needed help.”

That kindness and his ever-present smile was on full display at the visitation in photos showing Patterson growing up and helping out in his parents’ former candy store in downtown Batavia, Smiling Fox’s Sweet Tooth.

Settler's Hill plans take shape

GENEVA – After being the subject of debate and discussion for more than a year, the Settler's Hill redevelopment plan passed muster in October, when the Kane County Board approved a plan to transform the landfill into a regional outdoor recreation area.

It also got approval by the Kane County Forest Preserve District.

The plan includes trails for cross country running and mountain biking, a hilltop observatory, a winter recreation area with ice skating ponds, a golf course and an outdoor music venue along Kirk Road.

It is intended for a 700-acre swatch of land on the far east side of Geneva that includes two closed landfills, the old Kane County Jail site and land managed by the Kane County Forest Preserve District.

Supporters believed the plan would guide the redevelopment of the landfills from eyesores to amenities for the Tri-Cities.

Critics were concerned about the plan’s effect on the neighboring Fabyan Forest Preserve and about pollution from the landfill. Neighbors of the property opposed mountain bike trails in the Fabyan woods, saying the property was not an appropriate setting for the sport.

The approved master plan removed all recreational activities from those woods besides a bike trail from the Fox River to Settler's Hill.

Red Gate Bridge opens

ST. CHARLES – A bridge that had been fiercely opposed prior to construction opened to vehicular traffic on Dec. 15 without incident.

City officials, dignitaries and many others celebrated the opening of Red Gate Bridge with remarks at nearby St. Charles North High School and a ribbon cutting ceremony at the bridge's center.

Mayor Don DeWitte described Red Gate Bridge as a community asset that will serve the city's residents, neighbors and future generations.

As he said at the 2011 groundbreaking ceremony, DeWitte again noted that regardless of the office being sought, no candidate who opposed the bridge has ever been elected to public office, which signaled the community's long-term and unwavering support.

The entire project – including land acquisition, engineering and utility relocation – cost just more than $31 million, with construction costs totaling about $23 million. Grants paid for about 45 percent – $13.923 million – of the costs.

The project was decades in the making and fulfilled a need the city identified in a comprehensive plan from the 1920s.

Made with steel girders, the bridge extends Red Gate Road about 0.6 miles from Route 31 to Route 25. It is the city's fourth Fox River crossing, joining regional Main Street Bridge and the Illinois Avenue and Prairie Street bridges, which primarily serve local traffic.

The bridge is expected to open to pedestrians and bicyclists next spring.

Batavia moves forward with streetscape plans

BATAVIA – North River Street in downtown Batavia is sporting a new look these days after being under construction for much of the year.

The street was the first downtown street to receive streetscape improvements, which city officials hope will energize the downtown. The Batavia City Council approved a budget of $3.5 million for the project, which was funded with tax increment financing funds generated from the two active downtown TIF districts.

North River Street has been transformed into a curbless street in which pedestrians have priority over cars. Joi Cuartero, executive director of Batavia MainStreet, believes the streetscape improvements will create more buzz for the downtown. The group's mission is to revitalize the downtown.

Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke, who is running for a ninth term, said he is running again to ensure the completion of the downtown streetscape program.

“I would like to see the streetscape program finished,” Schielke said, in announcing his re-election plans. “I think that is an important enough project for Batavia.”

Schielke, 63, who began his first term as Batavia mayor in 1981, is the longest running mayor in Kane County.

Wilson Street will become the second street to receive streetscape improvements. The project is set to get underway in June in coordination with the Wilson Street traffic modernization and interconnect project that is already underway.

The city’s downtown streetscape advisory committee put together a plan for the downtown with Altamanu, the city’s design consultant company.

Elburn Station plans on hold

ELBURN – As 2012 dawned, village officials believed a vote on the proposed huge project to develop the area around the Elburn Metra station east of the village’s existing borders could come any week.

By the end of the year, however, the fate of the so-called Elburn Station plan and the associated Anderson Road extension remained in limbo.

For years, Elburn village officials and Geneva-based development company ShoDeen had negotiated over the future of Elburn Station.

Planned to be built on hundreds of acres centered on the Elburn Metra station between Route 38 and Keslinger Road, Elburn Station would add more than 2,000 new homes, including about 1,300 apartments and condominiums, to the village.

Several members of the Elburn board throughout the year expressed concern over the number of apartments, in particular, fearing that many apartments could change Elburn’s “character."

Village officials and ShoDeen also worked out disagreements over the Elburn Station annexation agreement, a legally-binding document that would set the terms under which the project would be built over the next 20 years.

But even after those issues were resolved, the board refused to bring the matter to a vote, for various reasons.

Finally in November, the board voted to put the matter on hold indefinitely.

As December closed, the board indicated it could bring the Elburn Station agreement back for a vote in January, as Trustee Ethan Hastert has reminded the board of the strategic importance of the proposed extension of Anderson Road, which would provide a bypass around the Route 47 railroad crossing in downtown Elburn.

ShoDeen owns the land for that bypass, and has stated its unwillingness to sell the land for the new road to Kane County without an agreement for Elburn Station in place.

Drought conditions

An abnormally hot spring morphed into an abnormally hot summer in 2012.

But the real problem came, not from the strange abundance of heat, but from the dearth of precipitation that accompanied the string of above-normal temperatures that seemed to become the norm in the year past.

In March, temperatures in Kane County and the Chicago area surged to levels rarely seen, with daytime highs of 80-85 degrees, sending many delightfully scurrying to Lake Michigan beaches to enjoy the balmy conditions.

But a novelty of spring stretched into a summer of often oppressive heat and humidity, with the summer recording a record number of days in which high temperatures hit 100 degrees or more, as well as total days in which temperatures stood at 90 degrees or more.

However, along with the heat came a lack of rainfall, producing drought conditions.

Stream flows and lake levels dropped, and fields dried out.

Farmers compared the conditions to 1988, an infamous year of drought for Midwest farmers.

Ultimately, the local corn and soybean crop did suffer, compared the string of more bountiful years the region had enjoyed in recent years. But the total harvest in Kane County did not suffer as much as many had feared - or as much as the crop did in other parts of the state that received even less rainfall than had Kane.

The lack of precipitation eased a bit in the fall, but as winter neared, local climate trackers said the county and the region remained abnormally dry.

All told, the region was short about 12 inches of rainfall this year, said Gilbert Sebenste, a meteorologist at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

And that, they said, could set the stage for a worse drought in 2013, should the region not receive sufficient precipitation this winter and next spring.

Wilco in Geneva

GENEVA – Chicago artist Wilco performed at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva on July 8, drawing thousands of fans to the home of the Kane County Cougars, marking the first concert venture at the ball park.

Wilco, a six-member alternative and indie rock group that has been active since 1994, took the stage in the ballpark-turned-concert-venue with fellow performers, Andrew Bird and The Congregation, marking the largest concert event in the ballpark's 21-year history.

Wilco has been nominated for six Grammy Awards and took home two awards in 2005 for best alternative music album and best recording package.

Curtis Haug, general manager of the Cougars, said back in April that the concert may open up more opportunities to bring bands to the venue in the future – an amenity that few suburbs have.

"We've always looked to host some concerts here," said Curtis Haug, the Cougars' general manager, in April. "I think with Wilco being a local band and all, that it's going to be a real good draw. It's a good band to have here for our first major concert."

Wilco also billed the event as the band's largest single headlining gig in its history.

Campaigns dominate headlines

The year 2012 marked a big election year, with the Kane County Board Chairman, Kane County Coroner, State Senate,  State Representative, Congressional and Kane County Circuit Clerk positions up for grabs.

Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen faced Sue Klinkhamer, who served as the mayor of St. Charles from 1997 to 2005. Six Kane County Board seats were also contested in the November elections.

One of the most contentious Kane County races was the bid for coroner. Republican Rob Russell was elected over Democrat Tao Martinez, and Russell described the race as "unsavory" after winning the election.

A Martinez supporter claimed to be bullied and intimidated by a Russell supporter in October when a Martinez supporter said a Russell supporter removed a Martinez campaign sign from his lawn and replaced it with a Russell sign.

Martinez also stepped outside of his party line by endorsing Republican Chris Lauzen for Kane County Board Chairman. A conservative political organization called the Kane County Conservative Coalition also stepped out of party lines by endorsing Martinez for coroner.

The two candidates often sparred over credentials. Russell questioned whether Martinez had enough education for the Kane County Coroner job, and Martinez often painted Russell as a politician.

And after several campaigns for U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and governor, Republican Jim Oberweis was elected to the State Senate, beating Democratic opponent, Corrine Pierog.

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