Illinois Public Media News
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden will follow through with plans to make a vacant storefront the early voting site for the University of Illinois campus.
Shelden said he will sign a lease Tuesday to use the property on South Gregory Street, instead of the Illini Union's Pine Lounge. County Board Democrats and the U of I Student Senate oppose the move, saying state law dictates that the location of the polling site should be in a high traffic location, like the Union.
A spokesman for Illinois Senate President John Cullerton also said public universities are legally obligated to provide the space, and that local elections officials will work with them.
However, Shelden said political activity in the Illini Union make it an unsuitable location for early voting, and he added the U of I cannot afford what state law mandates.
"Maybe if the state legislature properly funded the University or if Lincoln Hall wasn't in the middle of renovation, and had been completed like it should have been 4 or 5 years ago," he said. "I can give a variety of ways in which the university could have less problems with space if the state of Illinois had done what they were supposed to do."
Champaign Senator Mike Frerichs was a sponsor of a law ensuring that public universities will provide polling places. He said Shelden is trying to 'flout' state law by using the Gregory site for polling. Frerichs also said it 'smells' that the building is owned by JSM Development. One of that company's principals is former Champaign County Republican Chair Steve Hartman.
"This University did offer the space for free," said Frerichs. "He would rather pay money to a private developer than take the space for free, and that doesn't make sense."
Shelden said he did not base his decision decision on politics, but rather, finding a convenient location for voters at an affordable price. It will cost his $800 to lease the site.
A team assigned with looking at the best use of space on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus says classrooms need to be better set up with high-tech equipment.
U of I Physics chair Dale Van Harlingen led a team to examine Space Utilization, the last area to be reviewed this year as part of the 'Stewarding Excellence' initiative to trim expenses. Van Harlingen says space is handled well for the most part, and that unit administrators should have the greatest say over how classrooms are used. But he says it's bad for a campus of the U of I's stature to have classrooms that don't equal the facilities of where students learned previously. "The students have come to expect that," said Van Harlingen. "They come from high schools where large investments have been made in technology. And we should be matching that. We should be a model for that. We felt like there should be more space, more attention given to building buildings specifically for teaching - lecture halls, and classroom space instead of only responding to needs of donors."
Van Harlingen says a long-term problem of failing to invest in maintenance is partly to blame when being squeezed for space. Buildings like Lincoln Hall and a portion of the Natural History Building aren't being used now because of structural problems. "I think there's always going to be debate," said Van Harlingen. "I think everyone agreed you should renovate Lincoln Hall. But the question becomes - how far down that list do you go? Because for the same cost of renovating Lincoln Hall, you could build probably several, very good modern teaching facilities."
Van Harlingen also recommends that committees be formed to study space needs in more detail, and get out of all leased space in the Champaign-Urbana area.
NOTE: This story was updated at 12:30 PM on Thursday, September 16th.
Parents in the Danville school district who called a special hotline Thursday morning were greeted with good news --- class would be back in session.
The resumption of classes ended a three-day strike by teachers and support staff. District 118 superintendent Mark Denman said he was happy to announce that the two sides had reached agreement on a two-year contract, in a seven-hour bargaining session Wednesday night.
"We have come to a good compromise between both sides that will be mutually beneficial for the district," he said.
The Danville School Board is set to consider the agreement Monday night. Members of the Danville Education Association approved the new contract overwhelmingly at a meeting before classes began Thursday morning, according to Sean Burns of the Illinois Education Association.
Burns said he believes that while union members had to give up some of the things they sought, they gained in other areas that go beyond money.
"Oftentimes, these are really about the relationships, and about people feeling like they're being respected," said Burns. "And I think that the DEA members were standing up for something that they believed in, and for their own self-respect and dignity. And I think that has a lot to do with why they overwhelmingly ratified the contract.
Union Vice-President Corey Pullin, who has been with District 118 for 11 years, said this was Danville's first teachers' strike since 1977. He added that this strike was a sign of how serious his membership was about the contract.
"To my knowledge, we hadn't even taken an intent-to-strike vote since '87," said Pullin. "So just doing that, preparing for all this, was a big step for our members."
Neither side is releasing details about the new contract, until the Danville School Board considers it on Monday night. Pullin acknowledged there is agreement that the district will use federal stimulus money to bring back some laid off staff members between now and the next school year, but Denman has cautioned that while the money may provide some temporary relief to Danville's schools, it is not a permanent fix to Illinois' fiscal problems.
The Danville teacher's strike has prompted a couple of community organizations to help working parents.
The executive director of the Danville Family YMCA, John Alexander, said the facility's Days Off program has been extended and operating as if it were a holiday or other day that kids have off from school. He said staff from the YMCA's Before and After School programs have helped out, with child care available from 7 am to 6 pm. The center allowed 22 kids to stay there on Tuesday. With the strike lasting at least through Wednesday, Alexander said he expects that total to go up, but he said some parents still are not sure what to do.
"We're getting calls from parents - they're trying to look at their options," said Alexander. "Especially if they have maybe a relative that's willing to watch the kids a couple of days, they may bring their children in on those other days when a relative or friend may not be able to take care of them. So they're trying to judge just exactly how to take care and handle this situation."
Alexander said the Y's before and after school staff will be available as long as the District 118 strike goes on.
"Their hours are longer because of the fact that we're open from 7 to 6, but we're also not conducting those school responsibilities and what we call our Y-Kids program at each of those for schools," said Alexander. "So, it's a little bit of a trade off in that case. Longer hours, but we do have a rotation of staff to try and pick up the slack."
The YMCA charges $21 a day for the Days Off program. The Boys and Girls Club of Danville is also providing child care in the wake of the District 118 strike. The next negotiations for the teacher's union with the school board and a federal mediator are set for 6 pm Wednesday.
The first recommendations for budget cuts and savings are coming out for the University of Illinois' largest campus.
Interim Chancellor and Provost Robert Easter said the Stewarding Excellence@Illinois program yielded ideas from 17 areas of campus. On Tuesday, Easter revealed the next steps in three of those areas, including information technology services. He said efforts like streamlining communication services and consolidating server rooms will cost money in the short term but bring several million dollars in long-term savings.
"If you have a server room in a college or even in a department, someone has to tend to it and there have to be environmental controls like heating and air conditioning systems at work," Easter said. "And getting all that consolidated where it's appropriate...should result in some significant savings over time."
Two other reports involve re-integrating graduate college admissions into the registrar's office and having the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics absorb more of the cost of athletic scholarships. Currently the DIA relies on tuition waivers for full and partial scholarships - but starting next year, the University will provide 100-thousand dollars less in waivers each year over five years.
Easter said the U of I already contributes less than most schools to athletics, which are funded mainly through sports revenues and donations, and he said the DIA already shoulders most of the academic cost.
"They are already putting about $6 million in tuition money into the campus, so it's not as though this is something new," Easter said. "They've been making very substantial contributions through their donors and their ticket sales and other things to the cost of educating student athletes."
Easter says individual colleges are also being charged with reviewing and reducing their costs.
A University of Illinois administrator said he hopes state leaders can give the University of Illinois some advance notice on how much money it will be able to use in its operating budget.
Members of a U of I Board of Trustees committee learned Monday that the state will likely owe the university more than $500-million by the end of the calendar year, combining the prior fiscal year with the current one. Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Doug Beckman said fiscal 2012 looks worse, partly because the state will not be able to rely on any federal stimulus funds. Beckman said it would help if the U of I knew sooner how much it could expect.
"We'd love to have more lead time, but we understand it's a very, very difficult political issue," said Beckman. "There's got to be a combination of cuts and revenue, it would appear, to balance this budget. That is a difficult process. There's hard decisions to be made. I think we would trade a 10-percent cut for certainty right now, at least I would."
Beckman stated that the U of I has to operate under the assumption that some state funds will be cut, and he said the university will adjust to a pension reform plan signed by Governor Pat Quinn in April. Beckman said it is a step in the right direction in that it reduces the state's costs. The plan reduces benefits for those hired after January 1st of next year, raises the retirement age to 67, and caps maximum benefits at just under $107-thousand.
A University of Illinois administrator says leaders are close to reaching conclusions on some budget reviews on different Urbana campus units.
The 17 areas reviewed by the 'Stewarding Excellence' project teams have ranged from the Institute of Aviation, to campus utilities, to the Office of Vice Chancellor for Research. Teams started looking at them in February to find ways to cut costs. Interim Chancellor and Provost Robert Easter said some departments will require further review, extending well into the fall. However, he said even for those in which his office is ready to make some changes, only some can be done at the top, while others require faculty involvement.
"We would make a recommendation if we wanted to make a particular change, a recommendation to the Faculty Senate, and appropriate committees," said Easter. "They would then have to work through that, so there may be an expectation that we'll just announce a final decision. In some cases what we'll announce is a recommendation."
Easter said many of the recommended changes will have to be forwarded to the U of I's Board of Trustees. He said other areas could be up for review.
"The steering committee that has been more or less directing this over the last several months, and they've continued their activity through the summer, have identified about 10 other areas where they think it would be useful for us to do some reviews," said Easter. "And we've not made a decision to pursue those, but that's something else we're looking at at the moment."
Easter said those areas aren't being identified.
A University of Illinois administrator says freshman class numbers show Illinois' economy has not driven students away.
Freshman enrollment is down only slightly, just over 6,930 students compared to 6,990 in the fall of 2009. However, Urbana campus Interim Chancellor and Provost Robert Easter said the U of I should better prove than it can recruit students from all walks of life.
"Obviously we're interested in students who come from a diversity of backgrounds within our state," said Easter. "The different economic levels, different cultural backgrounds, we want to have a diverse campus that's reflective of the population of the state."
Easter said he is disappointed the number of African American freshmen is down from a year ago. That number decreased by more than 17-percent, but the number of Latinos went up by 11 percent.
Easter also said the U of I's 885 new transfer students shows there is an increased emphasis on working with community colleges to help students who cannot afford a four year education at a public university.
He noted it is also a good class academically, with an average ACT score of over 28. There are 31,252 undergraduate students enrolled at the Urbana campus this fall, up from 31,209 a year ago, an increase of less than 1 tenth of 1 percent. Fall enrollment is up by more than five percent at both the Chicago and Springfield campuses.
With contract negotiations and a possible strike on the horizon, Danville school officials are trying to restore teaching positions that were cut in a series of layoffs last spring.
The state currently owes Danville's schools about $3 million in unpaid bills. Legislation President Obama signed in August doles out about $2.5 million to support education. The money could allow District 118 to hire more teachers and issue pay raises, which is one of the demands by union officials.
Superintendent Mark Denman cautioned that while the money may provide some temporary relief to Danville's schools, he said it is not a permanent fix to Illinois' fiscal problems.
"If we hired a number of people back, and then next March the federal month is not coming any further in the next year and state funding isn't better," he said. "Then those jobs will have to be eliminated in all probability at that time."
Denman said the school district needs to submit proposals to the federal government outlining how it would spend the money. He said he hopes to go over possible spending options in a couple of weeks with the school board during its regular meeting.
In the meantime, the school board is scheduled to continue negotiations on Sunday with union members in an attempt to avert a possible strike.
The Champaign County Head Start program kicked off the new school year Thursday with 56 more children.
With the help of $810,000 in federal funding, the program has expanded its early childhood division to serve more infants and toddlers. Enrollment has been added to its existing center in Rantoul, and a new site in Urbana. Kathleen Liffick is the director of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission's Early Childhood Division. Liffick said the expansion only meets about 36 percent of the community's need for Early Head Start services.
"But it is a small step and we're glad to be able to do that," she said. "We will be certainly be looking for additional expansion opportunities should the federal government make those available."
Playground enhancements were also made with a $68,000 Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois grant at sites in Rantoul, Savoy, and Urbana.
The new Urbana center is located at 108 South Webber Street. For questions about enrollment or to complete an enrollment application, call 217-384-1252 to speak with a family advocate.
(Photo courtesy of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission)
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