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Stories that shaped Fox Valley in 2012

A New Lenox cornfield shows effects lack rathis spring.   |  Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media

A New Lenox cornfield shows the effects of the lack of rain this spring. | Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 1, 2013 6:08AM

Controversies in the East and West Aurora school districts, sacrifices made by local soldiers, a downtown Aurora makeover and a drought that struck here and across the nation were among the top stories in the Fox Valley this year.

The top local news stories for 2012, as compiled by The Beacon-News editorial staff, were:

1. East Aurora troubles

Headlines that dominated 2012 focused on a range of controversies plaguing the East Aurora School District.

Following a School Board and Beacon-News probe into the district’s bills, Superintendent Jerome Roberts said in September that the district did not have “about half” of the receipts that showed what administrators purchased on district credit cards.

Roberts froze the cards, and bills that had topped out at $40,718 in one month were reduced to $900.

Before more of the district’s financial skeletons hit the press, East Aurora finance chief Jay Augustine retired immediately in September.

The district’s financial unraveling included 800 trips in seven months to a hardware store by the district’s maintenance department and a “large hit” in utility late fees. Major insurance discrepancies prompted the district to fire the district’s benefits coordinator, who had not deducted insurance premiums from her own paychecks for five years, according to district officials.

In short, the district’s finances were a mess.

At the time, School Board President Annette Johnson said she “lost trust” for some of the district’s administrators. In December, she said the district needed a “tougher” superintendent.

On a Monday in October, the School Board voted to approve a controversial policy regarding transgender students, making national headlines. By the following Friday, the board voted to rescind the policy.

The district then appointed a committee to look at the policy. But the committee was disbanded in December, with the board saying that a broad anti-bullying policy already in place was just fine.

Tensions then led to a blow-out fight in a public committee meeting between Johnson and board member Ray Hull, where the two traded insults such as “slumlord” and “loser.”

In April, five of the seven board members are up for re-election.

2. Drought hits Fox Valley

The Drought of 2012 will go down as the worst since the 1950s across the country, and as bad as anyone can remember in the Fox Valley.

Farmers in Kane and Kendall counties had corn yields between 20 and 25 percent less than in usual years, and in some locations it was as much as 50 percent less.

Soybeans did a little better, losing only about 10 percent. The drought covered about 80 percent of the country.

By year’s end, farmers have been hoping for snow to soak the ground. But some farmers are estimating it could take two years to recover the moisture lost during the Drought of 2012.

3. West band director guilty of sexual abuse

In March, former West Aurora band director Steve Orland pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison for sexual contact with two underage students. Orland read a lengthy statement at his sentencing but did not apologize to his victims or take responsibility for his actions.

A few months later, the debate over how the district handled complaints about Orland reignited.

Former West Aurora custodian Leon Smith went public with his allegation that he’d told school officials that he’d spotted Orland and a student acting strangely in a band room 10 months before Orland was charged. Illinois Department of Children and Family Services officials said the school district acted improperly.

A civil suit was filed against the district, and the Kane County state’s attorney began an investigation, but no charges have been filed.

4. Oswego father gets life for murdering family

It took a Will County jury less than an hour to convict Oswego father Christopher Vaughn of shooting his wife and three young children to death on June 14, 2007, on a frontage road in Will County. Kimberly Vaughn was 34. Abigayle was 12. Cassandra was 11. Blake was 8.

Following a five-week-long trial — one that included strippers, accusations of mental illness, and Canadian wilderness escapades — Vaughn was sentenced to four life sentences.

Police say Vaughn wanted to escape his idyllic suburban lifestyle to live off the land in Canada with a man he met on the Internet. Prosecutors presented forensic evidence, lengthy police interviews, and emails the former family man sent in the year leading up to his family’s death.

5. Aurora’s bird man

Auroran Dave Skeberdis, 57, made national news in October when crews removed 325 live birds and 120 dead birds from his townhome on the city’s Far East Side.

During the bird rescue operation, a crew contracted by the city entered the home in hazmat suits to wade through debris as much as 3 feet deep.

A bird rescue group volunteered to care for the birds and rented a Villa Park storefront where the birds were quarantined. The birds recently were given a clean bill of health and cleared for adoption.

In December, Skeberdis pleaded not guilty to animal hoarding charges.

6. Look of elections

Redistricting shifted the political landscape, but that was only the beginning of massive political changes in the Fox Valley. When the ballots cleared in November, well-known faces ended up in entirely different places.

Longtime state Sen. Chris Lauzen is the new Kane County Board chairman, while former Chairman Karen McConnaughay is headed to Springfield as a state senator. Aurora Alderman Stephanie Kifowit is also headed to the Statehouse in Springfield, where she will join longtime candidate Jim Oberweis, who was elected to the state Senate.

Aurora former Fox Valley Congressman Bill Foster, a Naperville Democrat, is returning to Congress after handing U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert her first election loss in 20 years.

7. One soldier killed, another recovering

Marine Cpl. Kyle Moser of Oswego spent 2012 undergoing dozens of surgeries and fighting off a series of infections at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Bethesda, Md. The Purple Heart recipient was 19 when he lost both his legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan in November 2011.

Meanwhile, friends and family of Army Spc. Christopher Patterson spent the year dealing with the emotional wounds left by his death. Patterson, of North Aurora, was killed in January, along with three other members of his National Guard unit, also by an IED explosion, just two months after their arrival in Afghanistan. The 2009 graduate of West Aurora High School was 20 years old.

8. Downer bridges
replaced in Aurora

It affected traffic and business downtown all year, but by the end of 2012, there were two new bridges on Downer Place, on both sides of Stolp Island.

Work began in February with fireworks and a flash mob to commemorate the demolition of the historical Downer Place bridges.

Throughout most of the year, Downer Place was torn up, forcing traffic to detour along other streets downtown.

In early December, the $7.8 million project finished on time, and the new bridges retained a fascia similar to the original ones but with an eco-friendly streetscape of rain gardens. A one-way street for decades, Downer Place reopened to two-way traffic. The new bridges are missing one thing the old ones had — parking meters.

9. Deferred Action

Young immigrants from across the Fox Valley got the chance to come out of the shadows and apply for work authorization, Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses and a stay of deportation proceedings after a change in federal policy. Called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the new policy could allow an estimated 1.7 million young people under the age of 31 who came the United States illegally as children to live and work in the U.S. for up to two years.

Students in particular have benefited — the new policy allows them to apply for student loans, and to commit to colleges and universities.

10. Local Olympians

Three Fox Valley residents found themselves fighting for the gold this year at the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, bringing a great sense of pride to their families and hometowns.

Oswego father of three Joe Berenyi, a Paralympic cyclist, brought home that gold medal, along with a silver and bronze for his Paralympic feats. At 43, it was Berenyi’s first time competing at the Paralympics.

Anna Li, a 2006 Waubonsie Valley High School graduate, defied odds by being the oldest member of the women’s gymnastics team. At 23, Li made the team as an alternate. She had specialized in the uneven bars until an injury sidetracked her Olympic dream.

A fellow Waubonsie Valley High School student, sophomore Alyssa Gialamas, qualified in three Paralympic swimming events. She finished fifth — the top American — in the women’s 200 meter freestyle after breaking the U.S. record by 2 seconds to qualify for finals.

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