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A roofer with Doyle Exteriors helps lay trim on the future headquarters of Visit Beloit at the former Angel Museum and St. Paul’s Catholic Church at 656 Pleasant St. The space is getting a complete makeover inside and out, with a current focus on the office spaces in the lower level. It’s expected the Visit Beloit team will be able to welcome visitors at the new space in early March, according to Visit Beloit CEO Celestino Ruffini.

Evers targets broadband, fixing unemployment system

MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Tony Evers, in his State of the State speech Tuesday delivered virtually for the first time in state history, called on the Legislature to update Wisconsin’s antiquated unemployment payment system and spend nearly $200 million to expand broadband access, two problem areas the coronavirus pandemic laid bare last year.

Evers pre-recorded the speech which was broadcast on his YouTube and Facebook channels while lawmakers sitting at their desks in the Senate and Assembly chambers watched.

Traditionally, the governor would deliver the speech in the Assembly with lawmakers from both chambers, members of the Supreme Court, the governor’s Cabinet and other guests crammed in. Concerns about spreading the coronavirus scuttled such plans this year.

Evers announced he was calling a special session for the Legislature to fix the beleaguered unemployment system, which was overwhelmed with record numbers of people filing claims when the pandemic hit. It’s proven to be a huge political liability for Evers, who fired the agency secretary in charge and has sustained months of Republican criticism over how he handled the backlog in claims that’s left some without unemployment checks for months.

Now Evers, a Democrat, is trying to shift responsibility to the Republican-controlled Legislature by forcing them into a special session to take up his plan to modernize the system to speed the processing of claims. He was to release details of his plan on Wednesday.

Evers said if the Republican-controlled Legislature doesn’t address the problem, “the people of this state will hold them accountable at the ballot box.”

The pandemic also underscored the problem of broadband access in rural areas and the “digital divide” across the state, Evers said. He declared 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access” and said his state budget to be released next month will include nearly $200 million for broadband improvement. That is five times what was invested over the past three state budgets combined, he said.

Expanding broadband is an issue that has typically found bipartisan support in the Legislature.

Much of Evers’ address focused on the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic in what he called an “unrelenting” 2020.

Evers asked for a moment of silence and dedicate the speech to the more than 5,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin to date.

“We’ve made it through a difficult year, folks,” he said. “While it was discouraging, we aren’t defeated. While it was trying, we’re tough.”

Evers was fought by Republicans over many of his efforts to address the virus, including a “safer at home” order the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out in May. The court is currently weighing a challenge to Evers’ statewide mask mandate.

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Illinois law enforcement strongly opposed to sweeping police reform bill

ROCKFORD — Stateline Area law enforcement officials have come out strongly opposed to proposed legislation aimed at sweeping police reforms in Illinois.

Illinois House Bill 163, introduced in the lame duck session, would end cash bond; create a statewide use-of-force policy; ends qualified immunity for officers; create new procedures for reporting in-custody deaths; mandate crisis intervention trainings and reduce collective bargaining rights. The bill also would require expanded use of force training; maintenance of police misconduct records and use of independent special prosecutors in the event of officer-involved deaths.

The bill could be voted on today, with the legislation needing 60 votes to pass out of the Illinois House.

Supporters of the bill say legislation of this type is long overdue, while opponents say the bill would harm communities.

Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana took issue with the mechanism in the legislation that would end the cash bond system, saying ultimately the bill could put the public in harm’s way.

“It handcuffs us and binds our hands from going out and doing our jobs,” Caruana said during a news conference on Tuesday with area law enforcement leaders. “We are very concerned about this. This is an attack on victims and the community, not law enforcement.”

Caruana and others said the legislation would force unfunded mandates upon smaller departments, ultimately straining resources for smaller agencies.

Rockton Police Chief Stephen Dickson said he strongly opposed the bill.

“It is quite possibly the worst proposed legislation I’ve seen in 35 years,” Dickson said.

Roscoe Police Chief Jamie Evans said the legislation “vilifies the police.”

South Beloit Police Chief Adam Truman said the bill would negatively impact all communities in Illinois.

“The bill makes it more difficult for the police to investigate crimes in an efficient manner. The bill would create financial hardships to small municipalities with the mandates such as body-worn cameras, without the proper funding,” Truman said. “...the bottom line is that this bill is filled with poor language and has nothing to do with ‘police reform.’ Citizens in every Illinois community should be very concerned.”

State Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, who helped draft a portion of the legislation, said the unfunded mandates would have a funding source through legal cannabis sales revenue.

On Twitter, West called for “facts over fear” surrounding the legislation, pointing out that the removal of the cash bail system would allow judges to hold suspects in custody by way of a danger assessment rather than allowing some to be bailed out by “angel investors,” citing the release of Kyle Rittenhouse, who faces murder charges stemming from the deadly racial justice protests in Kenosha last summer. Rittenhouse was bailed out through a crowdfunding campaign.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney J Hanely said he was “concerned” how the bill was being quickly advanced through the Legislature.

“…provisions of this bill will lead to increases in violent crime, undermine public safety, and deny justice to crime victims. If passed, HB 163 will thwart our Office’s ability to carry out its mission: To seek justice, Hanely said.

Winnebago County Board Chairman Joe Chiarelli urged lawmakers “hit the pause button” on the bill.

“Let us all come together and come up with good policy,” Chiarelli said. “We need to slow this down.”

If passed, the legislation would take effect on Jan. 1, 2022.

Wisconsin guard Jonathan Davis (1) passes the ball around Michigan guard Franz Wagner (21) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

In this Beloit Daily News file photo, Jessica’s Restaurant waitress Kristina Pulliam serves food to a group of customers.

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Beloit School Board President resigns after hours of public comments on school reopening

BELOIT — Beloit School District Board of Education President Kyle Larsen resigned after the board heard more than three-and-a-half hours of public comment regarding the pros and cons of returning to in-person learning on Tuesday night.

The board had not voted whether to approve interim Superintendent Dan Keyser’s proposed hybrid model of student instruction as of press time Tuesday. The meeting started at 7 p.m. and the board was still hearing public comments via email at 10:45 p.m. The Daily News heard a tip that Larsen had left the meeting and possibly resigned. When contacted by the Daily News, Larsen said he sent board members an email informing them that he was resigning. He declined further comment.

In July, the board voted to have virtual/distance learning for the first quarter of the school year, later extended to Jan. 22. Under Keyser’s proposed hybrid model, students would be split into a group A which would come to school in the first half of week, with Wednesday remaining a professional development day. Group B would come in the second half of the week. Families would have the option of remaining in virtual learning.

According to families surveyed by the district, if schools had an in person option 62% of families would send their children to school, 31% would keep them in distance learning and 7% would keep some of the kids at home and send others to school, according to online board documents.

The public comment portion of the meeting kicked off with 8-year-old Kendall Shellenberger: “I’m unmotivated, unsocialized and stressed out. Hopefully you can make entrance to school not a dream, but a reality. Hopefully all of you make the right decision tonight. Thanks for having me.”

Kelly Clobes said other districts have figured out how to do in-person learning. Kids aren’t learning what they need to learn online and she said she has concerns about so much screen time.

Heidi Anderson said school can be the only safe haven for some kids. She asked what is happening to children already at a disadvantage and if they have a parent to help. She said it’s been almost a year. She said kids can go to water parks and Walmart but not school.

“We might have to go virtual here and there but at least they are in class learning,” she said.

Other parents and grandparents said children are going to fall further behind and are suffering emotionally and districts much larger than Beloit, and even districts in other countries, are open. Some said enough is known to open safely.

Beloit Education Association (BEA) President Tim Vedra said distance learning has allowed for instruction to be delivered effectively and safely, and the vast majority of students are engaged. Setting an arbitrary return date doesn’t take into account the new and more contagious variant of COVID-19 and the high rates of virus in Rock County and how it could strain hospital capacity. With the vaccine available to educators in the coming weeks, distance learning makes sense to continue until staff who opt for it can be fully vaccinated. He added schools lack the necessary staffing to complete sanitation and do adequate contact tracing.

School social worker Whitney Klein said there are no guidelines about how to do de-escalation with children and other unanswered questions for staff. Working with children as young as 4-years-old, she questioned how safety measures such as wearing masks would be enforced.

One woman said her grandma was in the home with Hospice service after contacting COVID-19. She said kids sending back to the buildings with so many family members at home with health conditions could put more people at risk.

Teacher Alicia Wash said teachers have not been equipped and trained to do in person and online learning simultaneously and given no professional development on how to navigate the hybrid model.

Other teachers said they have not been given adequate details of the plan to reopen safely.

Others spoke how districts which have in-person learning have kids in and out of school.


Beloit School District staff diversity shows slight decrease

BELOIT — The number of minority employees has slightly decreased in the Beloit School District over the past three years, according to data from its 2020-2021 diversity report.

The School District of Beloit reported 22% minority staff in the 2020-2021 school year; 22% in 2019-2020; and 24% in 2018-2019.

According to data from the 2020-2021 school year, 31% of students are white; 30% are Hispanic; and 25% are Black. The there are 6,467 students in the district, down from 6,943 in 2016-2017.

Of the district’s 903 total employees in the 2020-2021 school year, there were 702 white employees, 103 black employees, 83 Hispanic employees, 12 Asian/Pacific Islander and three Indian/Alaskan employees.

Out of the 903 employees, there were 716 female employees and 187 male employees.

The following are the percentages of minority employees per employment group: administrator, 21%; administrative support, 24%; educators, 16%; paraeducators, 47%; security officers, 25%; secretaries 23% and permanent substitutes 40%.

Human Resources Director Tonya Williams said the percentage of minority administrators has fluctuated. In 2016-2017 it was 36% minority. It increased through 2016-2017 through 2018-2019. It went down in 2019-2020 and this year’s percentage is 21%. She said the district had minority administrators resign for employment in other districts and the district will continue to monitor this, as well as recruit from diverse areas to support growth in this area.

There has been a steady increase of minority teaching staff from 2016-2017 through 2018-2019. In 2018-2019, the minority percentage was 14%. 2019-2020, brought a slight decrease of 0.2% followed by an increase in 2020-2021 to 16%.

Due to COVID-19, Williams said there haven’t been any in-person recruitment fairs. Spring is a heavy recruitment fair time, and the district will be participating in them in a virtual formal.

One of the successes of the year, Williams said, was the district signing up with diversityjobs.com which pushes jobs out to a variety of job sites.

“The people at diversityjobs.com have viewed our jobs 699 times this December,” Williams said.

The district includes a question on Wisconsin Education Career Access Network (WECAN) to find out where people are learning about positions so the district can be strategic about targeting diverse candidates.

The district is also using its Facebook careers page to build candidate pools.

“Our software platform is Wisconsin-based and sometimes doesn’t provide outreach outside of Wisconsin. We are using our Facebook careers page, to highlight positions such as paraeducators, crossing guards and substitute teachers,” Williams said.

To increase the diversity of teachers and administrators, the district is networking with a talent consortium which will enable it to partner with student cohorts with students at historically black colleges and universities. It’s a long-term recruitment strategy. With relationships built with students, the students may later recall the Beloit School District in their future career years after becoming teachers or administrators.

Williams noted concerns mentioned in the culture survey will be incorporated into the school improvement plan to help drive staff retention efforts. The district is working on creating a request for proposal to have a consultant come in and review the scope of roles to see if there is an appropriate number for staffing and help the district build a rewards and compensation plan that supports the district’s strategic plan. Williams said the consultant would be able to provide unbiased guidance.