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updated: 12/29/2011 9:31 AM

Fox Valley's top stories from 2011

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  • Dawn Keller, founder and director of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation, releases the first of two eaglets Nov. 12 at Starved Rock State Park near Utica. The birds were rescued from a fallen nest earlier in the year at Mooseheart.

       Dawn Keller, founder and director of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation, releases the first of two eaglets Nov. 12 at Starved Rock State Park near Utica. The birds were rescued from a fallen nest earlier in the year at Mooseheart.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Supporters rally for a new Centegra hospital in Huntley earlier this year.

       Supporters rally for a new Centegra hospital in Huntley earlier this year.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Pallbearers carry out the casket following the funeral for Eric M. Galarza Jr., 5, at St. Joseph Catholic Church. The boy was killed in a gang-related shooting in Elgin. His parents, Eric and Denisse, are following behind the casket.

       Pallbearers carry out the casket following the funeral for Eric M. Galarza Jr., 5, at St. Joseph Catholic Church. The boy was killed in a gang-related shooting in Elgin. His parents, Eric and Denisse, are following behind the casket.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Eric Galarza Jr. was the victim of a gang shooting Oct. 7, Elgin police said.

       Eric Galarza Jr. was the victim of a gang shooting Oct. 7, Elgin police said.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Randy Suchy

      Randy Suchy

  • Max Dobner

      Max Dobner

  • Sam McKinney holds a photo of his friend, Max Dobner, who died from smoking fake cannabis. McKinney was protesting outside an Aurora store where Dobner purchased the synthetic cannabis.

       Sam McKinney holds a photo of his friend, Max Dobner, who died from smoking fake cannabis. McKinney was protesting outside an Aurora store where Dobner purchased the synthetic cannabis.
    PAUL MICHNA | Staff Photographer

  • A mini memorial left near the bike path on the east side of the Fox River near the Geneva dam Aug. 6. Randy Suchy died in the river trying to save a companion.

       A mini memorial left near the bike path on the east side of the Fox River near the Geneva dam Aug. 6. Randy Suchy died in the river trying to save a companion.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Shoppers go past one of many window displays Wednesday announcing that the Merra-Lee Shops will close after 82 years in Geneva. The going out of business sales for the five stores will continue until the end of the year.

       Shoppers go past one of many window displays Wednesday announcing that the Merra-Lee Shops will close after 82 years in Geneva. The going out of business sales for the five stores will continue until the end of the year.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • An artist's rendering of the proposed art space facility to be built on the former Elgin Community College Fountain Square property in downtown Elgin.

      An artist's rendering of the proposed art space facility to be built on the former Elgin Community College Fountain Square property in downtown Elgin.
    Courtesy of artspace.org

 

The biggest news stories of the year exemplify the ups and downs many experienced in 2011. While some enjoyed new beginnings -- like the eaglets from Mooseheart who were nursed back to health, to students and a community who celebrated the opening of the new auditorium and field house at Batavia High School -- others saw incalculable lows. A mother lost her son in a car crash blamed on synthetic marijuana, and a man drowned while trying to save a young boy who had fallen into the Fox River in Geneva. Other big stories of the year involved school districts and municipalities, legal fights, contracts and taxes.

District 300 takes on Sears and state legislators

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Community Unit District 300 Superintendent Michael Bregy started and ended 2011 on either side of the popularity spectrum. In May, Bregy was on the receiving end of angry protests by parents and students after the school district announced mass layoffs and ultimately handed out 363 pink slips to teachers in order to overcome a budget deficit. But the dust soon settled and the district negotiated a one-year agreement with the teachers union, which enabled the district to recall the laid off teachers. By the end of the first semester, Bregy found allies across the community in a fight for a fairer share of revenues from tax breaks afforded to Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp. The company was looking to extend the 20-year-old Economic Development Area, or EDA, which allowed a majority of property taxes typically paid to taxing bodies such as the school district, to return to Sears for development purposes. While District 300 initially opposed extending the EDA, using slogans like "No Way EDA," it changed its tune in the fall toward a compromise. Gov. Pat Quinn in December signed legislation that extends the tax breaks for 15 years, but also doubles the revenue District 300 and others receive, among other assurances.

Feathered friends in Batavia

Birds were the word in Batavia in 2011. First, there was the backyard chicken debate in the spring, as the city council ultimately approved letting residents raise up to four chickens in their backyards. Then in August came a story that tugged at the heartstrings: A pair of bald eaglets at Mooseheart lost their home in a storm one night, tumbling with the nest to the ground. Mooseheart and wildlife rehabilitation specialists built them a new nest, but their parents refused to move into it. The eaglets were removed, raised at a rehab center in Barrington, then set free in November at Starved Rock State Park near Utica.

Deer culling a hot topic in Kane County

Emotions erupted when the Illinois Department of Natural Resources proposed a plan to use sharpshooters to cull 75 white-tailed deer in a 25-square-mile area of Kane County that included Sleepy Hollow and Dundee Township. Its goal was to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease, which forms lesions in the brains of affected animals and kills them. After sharpshooters kill the deer, biologists test the brain and a pair of lymph nodes for the presence of the disease. Scientists discovered the disease among two deer within the targeted area of 482 deer. In the end, the Sleepy Hollow and Dundee Township boards gave IDNR permission to cull the deer, but there was no evidence of chronic wasting disease among the 75 deer the agency killed.

Construction begins on Elgin Artspace Lofts

The Artspace project finally got under way in downtown Elgin. The plan will convert property once owned by Elgin Community College onto the tax roll via a 55-unit housing project. The idea already received a $1.1 million annual grant of federal dollars through the Illinois Housing Development Authority to see the project come to life. The project, called Elgin Artspace Lofts, will also be the main focus of federal Housing and Urban Development money distributed by Kane County. The total cost of the project is about $14.6 million. The site is the Fountain Square building at 15 S. Spring St. A total of 49 of the 55 units will be affordable housing units that will rent for $480 a month for some two-bedroom living spaces. The remaining six units will rent at market rate.

Sears, Borders, Merra-Lee, Hubbard's and Avenue close

In a down economy, several iconic businesses vanished. Sears made a very public exit from Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, leaving an entire anchor unit vacant at the struggling mall. New ownership has promised spring of 2012 will breathe new life into the mall with new restaurants and an indoor skating rink. St. Charles also joined many other suburban communities in losing its Borders location as the books, movies and music retailer shuttered its location across the street from Charlestowne Mall.

Geneva also saw an economic loss as Merra-Lee Shops, a longtime downtown Geneva shopping institution, announced it would close. Owner Mike Simon locked his doors for the last time after more than 80 years in the community.

It wasn't the economy, but a desire for retirement saw Hubbard's Ethan Allen Gallery in Batavia close in 2011. At 101 years of existence, the gallery was Batavia's oldest business in the downtown. And just this week it was announced Avenue Motor Sales (formerly Avenue Chevrolet) in Batavia was closing after 81 years.

Year of bickering in Kane County

Kane County taxpayers saw plenty of big dollar fights among their elected officials in 2011. Taxpayers paid out about a half-million dollars to fund attorneys for both sides in a lawsuit between the county board and Circuit Court Clerk Deb Seyller. Part of the settlement puts taxpayers on the hook for what may be another $12.6 million bill to fund a new computer system for Kane County's justice system. The process of determining how much that computer system will for sure cost and how to implement it will continue in 2012. Taxpayers also began footing the bill for the prosecution of Coroner Chuck West on his charges of misconduct. That case will also continue into 2012.

Despite some chatter about a full-blown discussion of the pension and health care benefits board members receive for their part-time positions, neither a full debate nor any changes materialized in 2011. The benefits will be a campaign issue in 2012, as will the problem of half the county board members missing at least 20 percent of the meetings they are supposed to attend. A rewrite of the county board's ethics policy blew up at the end of the year despite months of work over concerns that the latest version is too watered down to have the intended impact.

Mom blames crash on synthetic marijuana

A car blew the stop sign at Mooseheart Road and Route 31, hit a low wall and a tree and flew into the front bedroom of a house in May. The crash killed 19-year-old Max Dobner, the driver, but spared the residents of the house. What could cause such a tragedy on a dry, sunny day? Dobner's mother, Karen, came to believe her son was suffering a panic attack from being high on synthetic marijuana, sold as "herbal incense" by an Aurora tobacco shop. She has begun a national campaign to get such products made illegal.

Batavia High's new auditorium, field house

Batavia High School students in 2011 got to enjoy two of the most visible parts of a three-year expansion of the school: a field house and an auditorium. The 56,000-square-foot field house opened in February, and the Batavia Fine Arts Centre opened in September. Voters in 2007 gave the district permission to borrow $75 million for the expansion of the school and some repairs and other work at the district's other schools. The field house includes four basketball courts and a six-lane, 200-meter track. There is a sand pit for long-jumping and pole-vaulting. No longer does the indoor track team practice by running around school hallways. The auditorium has 800 seats, a main stage, plus a black-box theater and a gallery.

Community mourns slaying of Elgin boy

The death of 5-year-old Eric Galarza Jr. prompted members of the Elgin community to organize a march in his honor and against gang violence on Oct. 15, a week after the boy was killed in what authorities said was an attempt on the life of Eric's father, Eric Galarza. On Oct. 8, Eric and his parents, aunt and two younger siblings got in the family car to go to dinner at Eric's great-grandmother's house. Shots rang out as the car was pulling out of the family's driveway, and Eric was fatally wounded. He died later that evening at Sherman Hospital. Elgin police arrested Miguel Hernandez Jr., who has pleaded not guilty to the charge of first-degree murder and is being held without bail in Cook County jail.

Bias suit against U-46 resumes

The ongoing bias lawsuit against Elgin Area District U-46 students resumed in federal court in October with Federal Judge Robert Gettleman hearing testimony from witnesses, which included current and former district employees, as well as education experts. Former U-46 Superintendent Connie Neale took the stand to contradict the district's former director of English Language Learners, who said Neale gave a directive to remove students from the ELL program to a general classroom if they had been in ELL for more than three years, regardless of English proficiency. Plaintiffs in the case contend the district discriminated against Hispanic and black students by sending them to older and overcrowded schools, providing inadequate bilingual services and denying them access to gifted programs after boundary changes were approved in 2004.

Hospital wars finally reach a resolution

There will be no new hospitals in McHenry County -- at least not yet.

This year, the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board twice rejected Centegra Health System's and Mercy Health System's proposals for new hospitals in Huntley and Crystal Lake, respectively. The first "no" came over the summer and the second occurred in December. Centegra and Mercy initially proposed 128-bed facilities that opponents -- primarily from Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates -- said would oversaturate the market, cut into their physician pools and compete with them for patients.

After the first rejection, Mercy modified its plan and proposed a 70-bed facility, while Centegra stuck with the same 128-bed hospital.

Tevatron no more

After 28 years of revving up teeny-tiny subatomic particles for collisions that told us more about the structure and beginning of our universe, the legendary Tevatron accelerator at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory was unplugged for good. Its spot as the most powerful collider in the world was usurped by the Large Hadron Collider in Europe.

Drowning in Geneva

A fishing expedition on the Fox River turned tragic in August. Randy Suchy of Naperville drowned in the boil of the Geneva dam as he tried to rescue a boy with whom he was fishing who had fallen off a rock into the river. Passers-by on the nearby Fox River Trail were able to save the boy, after one of them, who nearly drowned in a boil himself as a youth, recognized what was happening.

Geneva's St. Peter Catholic Church centennial

Parishioners at St. Peter Catholic Church in Geneva celebrated the church's centennial with a variety of services and other events spread out over a year. One highlight was 28 parishioners holding Mass in front of St. Peter's tomb in Rome. The parish also held services in several Geneva cemeteries to honor those who came before the church was founded in Geneva in 1911.

B-17 bomber burns in field

The "Liberty Bell," one of just 14 restored B-17 Flying Fortresses from World War II in operation, made an emergency landing in an Oswego field in June after engine trouble and was a total loss after it burst into flames. The crew escaped with only one person sustaining minor injuries. The Liberty Foundation bomber was en route from the Aurora Municipal Airport to Indianapolis and had engine problems weeks before, forcing the cancellation of flights with World War II veterans and the media.

Grandmother fights for little girl

The beating of then 2-year-old Molly Koch in a St. Charles hotel room in 2010 became a legal fight on multiple fronts in 2011. Outside the courtroom, an increasingly public struggle by Molly's maternal grandmother, Carrie Johnson of Elgin, to gain custody of the severely injured toddler also continued. Johnson soon found herself struggling between a desire to bring to light the history of police involvement Molly's father has had and her need to actually see and be with Molly as soon as possible. Johnson will continue to try and strike that balance heading into 2012 while the court system determines the fates of Molly's mother and the person charged with beating Molly.

Police consolidation falls flat

A move to consolidate police forces in East Dundee, West Dundee and Sleepy Hollow went belly up this year. As part of the proposal, Sleepy Hollow and East Dundee would contract for police services and direct its officers and resources to West Dundee. Those services included police operations, facilities, administration and management. Each village would have still been responsible for paying its own officers. But Sleepy Hollow later withdrew from the deal, saying the cost savings of $134,800 a year and autonomy issues didn't justify its participation. That left East Dundee and West Dundee on their own to consolidate, but officials decided it didn't make sense to combine only two departments.

Cary Elementary District 26 approves contract

It took almost a year and dozens of meetings before the Cary Elementary District 26 school board and the teachers union agreed on a three-year contract. Teachers began the 2011-2012 school year under a contract imposed by the board. A federal mediator had been assigned and an impasse declared. The school board approved $3 million in budget cuts in lieu of wage and benefit concessions to the tune of $2.5 million from the union. The cuts included the closure of Prairie Hill School. But in early November, both sides ratified a contract that included 3 percent salary cuts for the current school year and pay freezes for the next two. It also eliminated longevity increases and tuition reimbursements.

Deficit triples on market declines

An unprecedented decline in property values in Elgin left city officials scrambling to find ways to fill a budget deficit that grew from a projected $4 million to between $10 million and $13 million. Official numbers from the Kane County Assessor's Office showed a drop of 20 percent in property values for Elgin homes, which would equate to a loss of about $12 million for the city. While a budget task force had been working on ways to increase revenue rather than introducing new taxes, the larger gap changed plans. The city council ultimately approved a balanced approach that included increased fees and taxes, as well as budget cuts.

• Daily Herald staff writers Lenore Adkins, Elena Ferrarin, Tara Garcia-Mathewson, James Fuller, Harry Hitzeman and Susan Sarkauskas contributed to this story.

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