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Olson: Schools, parks and annoying buzzes

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It’s easy to understand the opposition to the DeKalb School District 428 plan to trade 41 acres of property near Fairview Cemetery and Huntley Middle School on the south side of DeKalb.

The property, known as Kiwanis Park, is big and flat. It has been an ideal spot for youth soccer leagues including the American Youth Soccer Association, which has more than 750 players, to hold several games at once, all in a central location.

Of course, District 428 officials aren’t trying to unload the land just to aggravate the community’s soccer moms. Although they say they don’t have any use for the property, they’d probably be OK with sitting on it for awhile if it weren’t for the $42,000 a year they’ll owe developer ShoDeen Construction in 2013, an obligation carried over from when they bought the high school property several years ago.

What seems odd to me is why the school district owns park land at all. According to the district’s website, their mission is “to educate our students to reach their potential while preparing them to contribute to our global society.”

No mention of providing open space or recreational opportunities in there.

That would be one of the DeKalb Park District’s goals, which include offering quality recreation programs and facilities, and providing a comprehensive park system.

So what about the park district? Why don’t they buy the property?

After talking with park district Executive Director Cindy Capek this week, it seems there are two reasons: They weren’t asked, and the district can’t swing it, anyway.

Capek said school district officials told them of their plans for the land swap about six weeks ago.

“Since they are the owners of the land, that really is their decision,” Capek said. “The concern that we had is the displacement of the soccer programs, and the school district assured us that they would provide space at alternate locations in the district.”

Even if they wanted to, there’s no money in the parks budget to buy a 41-plus-acre park used almost exclusively as a soccer complex. The park district would need a tax increase referendum to buy the property, Capek said.

“I would like to say we’re in acquisition mode, but we’re taking care of infrastructure issues now,” she said. “We have aging facilities that need attention.”

The district’s last tax-increase referendum was in 2010, asking to create a new, vastly improved aquatic center at Hopkins Park. That’s one of the park district’s marquee amenities, and voters shot it down by a 3-to-1 margin.

There aren’t enough soccer moms and dads to push through a referendum to buy Kiwanis Park in what Bill O’Reilly likes to call the “Age of Obama.”

Meanwhile, if the school district were to keep the land and put more pressure on its finances, critics would certainly bring up that they were paying $42,000 a year – about the price of a new teacher – to a developer for land they aren’t using now and do not plan to use in the future.

I’d be among them.

So it’s a shame that the school district can’t hang on to the property. Youth sports are important and we all want them to have a place to play.

But property owners shell out a lot in taxes to the school district already, and it’s not to provide park land. At a time when District 428 is running a $2.3 million deficit, they don’t have the luxury of throwing money away.

This might not be the best change for the soccer leagues. It will probably mean changes in the future to where they play and how their schedule is structured. But as long as they can have space to play, they will be OK.

• • •

About that pool: Although the DeKalb Park District won’t be building the aquatic center complex envisioned in 2010, Capek said there is a plan to fix the pool at Hopkins Park.

The pool there now was built almost 40 years ago and is nearing the end of its useful life. The park district pursued a grant for the work, but missed out in the face of stiff competition, Capek said.

“The board made the commitment to do that within existing financing,” Capek said. “The project will move forward at end of pool season in 2014 and they hope to have it open for the 2015 season.”

Unlike the old plan, this time park officials plan to save money from their annual bond issue to put toward the pool improvements. The new pool will fit within the footprint of the existing pool, Capek said.

The park board has agreed to allow staff to stat moving forward with the project, and it should be discussed more at the park board’s budget meeting Dec. 6, Capek said.

• • •

Bzzzzzzt: It has taken about five years for smartphones to completely permeate our society.

But technology is improving and changing faster than we can keep up with it in some ways. Like, in our etiquette.

Everywhere you go, people are staring at their phones (I don’t know how much longer we should even call them “phones,” given that placing calls has really taken a backseat to searching the Web, sending text messages, playing Words with Friends and so on.)

If you own a smartphone, as I do, you understand how quickly they suck you in. They’re extremely convenient. They put information and entertainment at your fingertips and fit in your pocket.

But sometimes it would be a lot better if we left them there.

Next time you stop at a red light and there’s a car next to you, look over at the driver. I’d say the odds are almost 50-50 that they’re staring at their “phone.”

If they’re not, look down. Maybe you are.

That’s kind of worrisome, especially because not everyone immediately looks away as soon as the light goes green.

Yes, there are laws against texting and driving. But there are scenarios for which there are no governing laws and seemingly no accepted rules of etiquette.

I spent several hours in a room full of professionals this week. Busy people.

Every five minutes or so, you’d hear it: Bzzzzzzt.

You probably know the sound. It’s that humming buzz of an iPhone or some other device alerting its owner to a new text message, new email, someone’s witty comment on Facebook or maybe even an actual phone call.

Here’s a tip: When you set your phone to vibrate and then put it on the table in front of you so you can stare at it longingly, it’s not silent.

People nearby hear it. We look over to see where the sound is coming from. We see you staring down at the phone and deciding if whatever message has just been sent to you matters more to you than what the actual people in the room are discussing.

And when enough people decide that they can’t have their phone out of their sight for a few hours, it’s like a plague of smartphone locusts, buzzing at random again and again.

Please, just put the thing in your pocket.

Or even turn it off.

Sorry. Got carried away there. I know nobody ever unplugs anymore.

• • •

Big win: You want to talk about impressive stats? How about 21 wins in a row at Huskie Stadium, 15 Mid-American Conference wins in a row, and three consecutive MAC West Division titles?

The Huskies are rolling, and after they dispatch Eastern Michigan on Nov. 23, they’ll be on to the MAC title game at Ford Field in Detroit on Nov. 30. Quarterback Jordan Lynch has led them there, including Wednesday night, racking up 569 yards of total offense in a game televised on ESPN2.

The Heisman Trophy probably will go to a player from one of the power conferences, but that doesn’t mean Lynch isn’t something special. Same goes for his Huskies teammates, who have had another great season, which hopefully ends with another conference title and a great bowl pairing.

The student-athletes on the Huskies’ football team are perhaps the highest-profile example of the excitement the university brings to the community. They help put DeKalb on the map and they bring a lot of people, interest, and yes, money here.

Not every headline is a bouquet of flowers, but it’s still plain what an asset NIU is to our community.

That’s why it’s worth caring that it be well-run.

• • •

A thank you: I wrote in October about Stephanie Abbott’s plan to host a “Liver for Bill” benefit at Mardi Gras Lanes in DeKalb to help her father, William Abbott Jr., who needs a liver transplant.

More than 50 people showed up at the event Oct. 20, Stephanie Abbott said, and they raised about $2,500.

“I’d just like to thank everybody who donated and showed up to support my father,” she said. “I appreciate every single one of them.”

• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, and follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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