Illinois Public Media News
The Champaign School Board continued Monday night talking about how to relieve overcrowding at Central High School.
Unlike past discussions, which have centered around building a new high school, this meeting focused on other options to reduce congestion at Central.
Among the proposals discussed, the board looked at having three high schools, fixing up the district's two existing schools, or merging Central and Centennial High Schools into one building that houses up to 3,000 students.
Champaign resident Mark Briggs has a son who is a junior at Centennial High School. He said merging Central and Centennial would open up more academic and extracurricular opportunities for students, like his son.
"He should have the same opportunities that everybody at Central has," Briggs said. "Everybody at Central should have the same opportunities that the students at Centennial have. They're two great schools. Bring them together, and it's going to be a fantastic school."
But Laurie Andrews, a parent of a 2nd grader at Westview Elementary, does not buy the merger idea. She taught at a large high school in Chicago for several years, and she said she found it difficult to regularly interact with many students and fellow teachers. Andrews said she worries having a single high school in the Champaign School District would make it difficult for teachers to connect with their students.
"I am totally against one high school," Andrews said. "I think it's very easy for students to slip through the cracks. It's hard for teachers to get to know students. It's hard for students to get to know each other. "
The school board voiced opposition to that plan, citing its roughly $160 million dollar price tag, the increased likeliness of gang activity, and the possibility some students would have trouble adjusting in a larger school.
"Some students just won't fair well at all in that type of environment because they need smaller one-on-one contact," school board member Jamar Brown said. "I don't know in this community if we can accomplish that in a large school."
Central High School Principal Joe Williams said he would like to stick with the status quo of two high schools, but added that Central should be in a new building. Williams said he is not sure the school district would want to staff a larger school to ensure "students don't fall through the cracks."
He also noted that moving to a larger school would likely force Champaign out of the Big 12 conference to compete against schools in the Chicagoland area.
"So, instead of traveling to Danville, Decatur, and Bloomington, Mattoon, and those areas," Williams explained. "We would actually be traveling north of Kankakee, even north of I-80."
Williams encouraged the school board to study student performance at other schools with varying enrollment sizes.
School board member Greg Novak agrees that having two high schools in Unit 4 has served the community well. He said building a third high school may not be the best idea because it could divert attention away from fixing up Central High School, which he acknowledged has some major problems.
"It doesn't matter how good wireless internet gets, it's still not going to go through the walls at Central very well," Novak said. "We're talking about trying to run a school for the 21st century in a school that was built in the mid-1920s."
If a new school is built, voters would have to approve a tax referendum of at least $50 million to begin construction.
Ideas for the Unit 4 restructuring plan can be e-mailed to CentralComments@ChampaignSchools.org
GE Capital plans to nearly double the number of its employees in Chicago to more than 2,000, in part because of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's economic plans for the city, the company announced Monday.
Officials with the financial services arm of General Electric joined Emanuel at a news conference, saying that 500 of those new jobs - skilled commercial, technical and regulatory positions - would be added within the next year. The other 500 jobs would come in the next few years.
The company also is looking for a new office in Chicago to accommodate the growing work force.
During his mayoral campaign, Emanuel touted his relationships with business and government leaders from his time as an Illinois congressman and when he was President Barack Obama's chief of staff. Monday's news conference served as a reminder of his national stature as well as a pep rally for Chicago.
Emanuel, who is trying to attract more businesses to the nation's third largest city to help overcome its budget shortfall, downplayed the effect his relationship with GE CEO Jeff Immelt may have had on the company's decision. However, the mayor mentioned that because he had Immelt's phone number and email address, he was able to set up a meeting in March.
"Having a personal relationship obviously didn't hurt," Emauel said. "It pushed it a little, tilted it a little."
But, he added: "If this didn't make economic sense to GE and their bottom line they wouldn't have done it. ... You're not going to do this as a favor."
Chicago's projected budget deficit for next year has been estimated at between $500 million and $700 million.
One GE executive said that Emanuel's "economic platform" helped prompt the company to bring more jobs to the city, saying Chicago was the right place to expand.
"There is a wealth of financial services and banking talent available to us in the city of Chicago at a very good value," said Daniel Henson, President and CEO of GE Capital, Americas.
The Connecticut-based GE currently has 4,000 employees across Illinois, according to a news release.
Some of Indiana's taxpayer-supported universities are planning tuition increases for the coming school year that exceed caps suggested by a state panel.
Indiana's higher education commission asked Indiana's seven public universities this month to raise their tuition for in-state students by no more than 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent.
Although the universities aren't required to follow the panel's tuition recommendations, commissioner Teresa Lubbers warns that higher increases threaten to "price people out of their opportunity for a middle-class life in Indiana.''
Since Lubbers' request, Indiana University has proposed tuition and fee increase for in-state students totaling be 5.5 percent in 2011-12 and 5.4 percent the following school year.
Ball State University has proposed raising tuition and fees by 3.9 percent next year and by an additional 4.9 percent in 2012-13.
The Champaign County Board voted Thursday night to raise the salaries of its members for the first time in more than 20 years.
The board approved a pay increase from $45 a meeting to $80, and then voted a second time to bring that $80 figure down to $60. Democratic board member Michael Richards said he thinks that is too low.
"We have had people who have either not run or retired because it wasn't paying the babysitting bill on a four-hour meeting," he said. "Fifteen dollars is something, but I don't know if that's going to be enough of an increase to entice the quality pool to be better."
Opponents of the pay increase, like Republican board member Alan Nudo, worry this sends the wrong message at a time when county employees are being forced to take cuts to their salaries.
"I just don't feel it's appropriate for us to take a raise," Nudo said.
But County Board Chair Pius Weibel, a Democrat, said the county has been able to avoid pay cuts this year, and has actually granted some "small raises" and hired new staff to fill some vacancies, as the county's tax revenue stream begins to improve.
The pay hike would apply to the Champaign County Board starting in 2012.
Rahm Emanuel has lobbied Illinois leaders about bringing a casino to Chicago, the new mayor said Wednesday.
As he did during the campaign, Emanuel said he would like the casino to be city-owned.
"We have a casino in Chicago," Emanuel told reporters Wednesday after chairing his first city council meeting. "It just happens to be in Hammond, Indiana. And we're losing that revenue."
Facing a budget deficit in the range of $500-700 million, Emanuel said the gaming revenue could certainly be helpful, if it's done right.
"I have spoken to the leaders of both chambers, both parties, and the governor about the essentialness for a Chicago-owned casino here, as a way of both economic activity and revenue source," Emanuel said.
The new mayor declined to offer a prediction on whether it can happen during the final weeks of this legislative session, noting that casino legislation in the past has fallen apart.
"One issue can be alive a minute, something else can happen," Emanuel said of the legislative process. "So if I say something today - even now - by the time I get upstairs, it can be a different note."
Spokespeople for Democratic leaders said Wednesday that the General Assembly is not focusing on any proposals for a Chicago casino.
"We'll see if there's a detailed proposal that emerges and then we'll see how people treat it," said Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Senate President John Cullerton "remains open to discussing a gaming proposal," wrote his spokeswoman, Rikeesha Phelon. "At this time, there is no pending legislation.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
The Illinois Statehouse was crowded with people Wednesday, speaking out against proposed budget cuts.
Union members in purple T-shirts are angry about possible cuts to home health care and pension benefits. Mayors in gray suits and power ties oppose any move to reduce their share of income tax money.
Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said his city has already cut 72 positions, and reduced its budget by millions, the proposed income tax reductions would mean an additional 11-to-18 jobs lost. He says that means across the board reductions in areas like public works, safety, and local development.
"Services that will impact the quality of life that our citizens currently enjoy," Eisenhauer said. "And more importantly, services that, by their reduction or cut, will really make it even more difficult for us to go and attract new business, new industry, or new families coming into our community."
Meanwhile. nursing home employees and residents delivered petitions to Governor Pat Quinn's office Wednesday. All those groups and more say their funds are too important to cut. But they're not offering any suggestions on how state officials could avoid cuts and still balance the budget. Three different Illinois budget plans are being considered. All of them would include service cuts, but the amounts vary.
Members of the Champaign City Council expect further discussion in the coming weeks on a proposed four percent tax on packaged liquor.
The suggestion has been raised as a way to avoid cutting three jobs at the city's police station, and closing the front desk during overnight hours. City Finance Director Richard Schnuer said the tax would raise about $700,000 a year. Council members tentatively backed the tax on a six-to-three vote in Tuesday night's study session. But one opposed to the idea, Deb Frank Feinen, said those favoring the tax haven't gauged the full impact on the local economy.
"We have local small business owners who have package liquor stores or sell alcohol," she said. "And I want to be very careful and cautious before imposing a tax that may impact their business because it's more important ultimately that we keep those businesses running."
Feinen said the tax could also change spending habits at liquor stores, or drive people to neighboring communities to purchase liquor. Council member Karen Foster brushes off those suggestions. She proposed the tax in last week's meeting. Foster said local bars and restaurants that serve alcohol are already subject to a food and beverage tax, and this would level the playing field.
"Any liquor drink is taxed already," she said. "And I've heard from campus bar owners and they feel that this is a fair tax to have the package liquor stores also have a tax."
Feinen suggests the city look at hiking the local hotel-motel tax, or consider making cuts elsewhere. But she said the council should also have a broader discussion about the police department, and consider a portion of the cuts there.
It's unclear when the council will conduct a final vote on the proposal, but a final budget approval is expected on June 21st.
State employees are starting to find out just how a proposed pension reform bill in Springfield would affect them.
People who are covered under the state's traditional pension plan would pay more into their pensions under the Republican-sponsored bill to start cutting into the deep state pension fund deficit. The State Universities Retirement System (SURS) is one of four systems facing scrutiny after years of state underpayments into their coffers.
Speaking on WILL's Focus program Tuesday morning, SURS director William Mabe said state pension benefits are not overly generous to begin with, especially since SURS members don't receive Social Security for their time working in state government.
He said the bill would let people choose a self-managed retirement plan that would let them avoid the increase.
"If they were to remain in the current plan, their contributions would increase, and they could increase significantly depending on how many people move out of the current plan into the new plan," Mabe said. "It's a very complex piece of legislation that's requiring a lot of analysis. We're having our actuaries look at it and our legal counselors heavily involved in reviewing it."
Mabe said SURS currently has pension liabilities of $30 billion but only $14 billion in assets. There are exceptions to the increased contributions for police and firefighters as well as judges - who may eventually have to rule on whether the bigger bite on employees' paychecks is constitutional.
Schools, college scholarships and health care for the poor would face sharp cuts under a budget approved Friday by the Illinois House in a rare show of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.
Meanwhile, partisan battles continued at full force in the Senate.
Democrats approved budget measures without giving Republicans a chance to review them. Republicans complained loudly and accused Democrats of spending more than Illinois can afford.
"What you offer is an increase in spending," said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine. "It guarantees that we will borrow yet again to pay our bills."
Although both the House and Senate passed new state budgets, there are major differences between the two versions. Gov. Pat Quinn has his own proposal, too.
Reaching a deal that can pass both legislative chambers and get the governor's signature could still prove challenging.
"I don't expect that this budget will be the final spending plan," Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said shortly after House members voted for painful cuts to state services. "We're not sending any ultimatums by the adoption of this budget today."
The House plan would spend about $25.2 billion from the state's general account for the budget year that begins July 1. That's about $600 million, or 2.4 percent, below the current budget.
It would achieve that reduction mostly by cutting education and human services.
State support for schools would fall by about $169 million, or 2.4 percent. The Monetary Award Program would lose $17 million for college scholarships, a 4.2 percent cut. In human services, Medicaid bills would be paid more slowly, many would be trimmed 1 percent and administrative spending would drop $181 million.
"There was a lot of hand-wringing and a lot of tears" in the appropriations committee that set those amounts, said Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago. "We can go home to our communities and say, 'We done our job, we cut the budget.'"
Some legislators felt the cuts went too far.
The House version of the budget is about $1 billion smaller than the version approved by the Senate on Friday and $2 billion below Quinn's proposal.
A key difference between the House and Senate plans is in revenue projections. Senate Democrats are counting on state government taking in about $1 billion more than the House estimates it will. That additional money allows the Senate to avoid deep human service cuts.
A company that closed a plant in Coles County two years ago is coming back.
Houston-based NCI Building Systems, Inc. operated a plant in Mattoon for about 20 years until it was forced to close in 2009 because of downturns in the economy.
The company manufactures insulated wall systems for large commercial and industrial developments.
Angela Griffin, the president of Coles Together, said the closure left a dent in the community by eliminating about 45-to-50 jobs. She said many of those workers have been able to find new jobs within the last couple of years.
"There may still be some that are on unemployment, and hopefully they can reach back to those people and get them," Griffin said.
She said the company's return is about a $20 million investment in the community, which she estimates will initially lead to about 25 new jobs.
Mattoon beat out four other sites outside of Illinois to host the plant.
"We thought we had lost them for good," she said. "Their industry had taken a big hit, and they had vacant buildings in other states. We thought it was a slim chance that they would bring production back to Central Illinois. So, we were very pleased.
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