Illinois Public Media News
The Mahomet-Seymour school district's teacher union is a step closer to going on strike after filing an intent-to-strike notice on Thursday. The teacher's union is working with the school board to re-negotiate teacher contracts. Joan Jordan is co-president of the teacher's union.
"I've taught all these years, and I do not want my last year to go out with a strike," said Jordan, who plans on retiring after nearly 35 years as a teacher in the school district. "There has to be a point of respect of what you do."
Jordan said she hopes a revamped contract for teachers includes a pay increase. A strike could take place by the time students return to class next month if the two sides fail to reach an agreement.
Terry Greene, president of the Mahomet-Seymour School Board, said he has met with the teacher's union a couple of times, and he hopes to negotiate a fair contract. Greene said given the state's financial crisis, the board is going to "take a very dim view of spending" to avoid future cuts to programs and staff. The union's contract expires August 17th.
Bobby Seale co-founded the controversial Black Panther Party in 1966. The Panthers preached a doctrine of militant black empowerment to end to all forms of oppression against black people. The Black Panther Party was dismantled after 20 years, and Seale and others have taken on non-violent activism. Seale stopped in Champaign to talk to local teachers. He spoke to Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers about the Party's legacy and how changes in the world have shaped his activism.
Illinois, along with 18 other states, is still in the running for a competitive federal grant program that promises more than three billion dollars for educational improvements.
The Illinois State Board of Education said the funds will help raise student success and train qualified teachers. The state failed to win enough support from school districts to compete for the first round of "Race to the Top" funding earlier this year - instead, that money went to schools in Tennessee and Maryland. Beth Sheppard is an assistant superintendent in Champaign Unit 4, which is backing Illinois' bid for the money.
"We felt that there was no good reason not to seek the additional funding in these economic times," said Sheppard. "If the focus is on closing the achievement gap, that is a high priority in this school district."
Teachers' unions have also lined up behind the application. State schools Superintendent Christopher Koch said the state has worked harder to get cooperation from local school districts and teachers' unions during this phase of the competition. Koch said Illinois will emphasize its plans to better prepare school leaders for reform when officials visit Washington in August to make their pitch for a grant.
Four communities in East Central Illinois saw slight increases in the jobless rate between May and June.
The state's Department of Employment Security says Champaign-Urbana, Danville, Bloomington-Normal, and Decatur all saw that figure go up more than a percentage point. Danville and Decatur's unemployment rates were among the highest last month - at 12.3 and 12.2%. Champaign-Urbana's unemployment rate went from 7.8 to 9.5%, while Bloomington Normal's from 6.9 to 8.0%. Those rates in all four metropolitan areas are also higher than they were in June of 2009.
But the agency says overall, rates appear to be going down, citing a drop in rates in and around Chicago over last year. Director Maureen O'Donnell says a trend of smaller increases are encouraging, noting specific movement must occur before jobless rates drop consistently across the state. "Any economic rebound following the most profound recession in decades will include slight up-and-down movements in the unemployment rate as well as the number of jobs created,' said O'Donnell. "That is why long-term trends continue to offer the best guidance on our national and state economy."
Elsewhere in Central Illinois, Peoria's unemployment rate for June was 10.3%, holding steady from the previous month, and Springfield's was 8.2%, up from 7.3%
Governor Pat Quinn has responded to outrage over raises he gave to high-level advisers by cutting their pay, but many other state employees will see their paychecks reduced as well.
The Governor used extra powers given to him to get Illinois through the budget crisis by ordering a pay cut he says amounts to 9.2 percent. Quinn says he'll set the example -- he and anyone working directly for him must take 24 unpaid days off.
"I am a diligent hard-working governor," said Quinn. "I understand that we're in difficult circumstances. So I'm cutting my own pay."
State workers who aren't in a union, such as agency heads, managers, and policy staff, must also take 24 furlough days.
Quinn's action comes after revelations that he doled out salary hikes averaging about 11% to 35 members of his staff, including a raise for his budget director. Republicans called on Quinn to roll back the pay increases.
While making his announcement, Quinn also challenged state legislators to double the 12 furlough days they're supposed to take. He also wants the state's largest public employees union, AFSCME, to agree to furloughs.
An AFSCME spokesman says the union will hear what Quinn has to say, but adds that employees are already overworked even as the economy has increased demand for state services. AFSCME and Quinn are currently working under a deal that encourages voluntary furloughs. It also saves the state money by deferring a portion of the pay increases members were scheduled to receive through a contract that was negotiated by former Governor Rod Blagojevich's administration.
The University of Illinois still has about six weeks to act on a plan to borrow funds in order to make payroll and fund other areas where it's lacking in money owed by the state.
U of I Trustees have already granted administrators the authority to take advantage of a bill signed by Governor Pat Quinn that enables public universities to borrow up to 75-percent of what's owed by the state for up to a year. For the U of I, that's around $210-million. But administrators expect to wait until just before the August 31st deadline to decide whether to act on the measure. Ed McMillan chairs the Board of Trustees' Audit, Budget, Finance, and Facilities committee. He says the U of I will continually assess its cash flow before making that decision.
But McMillan says all public universities, particularly those in Illinois, need to keep looking for new funding sources. "As you look at us over the next... let's say three years, you're going to find us working very hard at finding a revenue model that relies upon a different mix of revenue sources," said McMillan. "What that's going to be I don't know. I think you can look around the United States and see several different models that are being tried and successfully being pursued. I don't think any of us have any any predetermination as to what model should be."
U of I Associate Vice President of Planning and Budgeting Randy Kangas says the school could soon seek out a line of credit with a bank if it utilizes the borrowing measure. He notes the state intends to pay its overdue bills by the end of the calendar year... and that short-term interest rates are very favorable. And with Fiscal 2011 just underway, some leaders at the U of I are already thinking of the following fiscal year. Kangas says U of I Trustees plan to seek out about $67-million in state funds for fiscal 2012 by their September meeting. That's in addition to seeking the normal state appropriation of $697-million. Kangas says prior years have brought requests for additional funds of more than $100-million, seeking out help for areas like campus diversity and initiatives to improve graduation rates. He says there hasn't been a change in aspirations, but U of I leaders recognize the reality of Illinois' financial crisis. Kangas says the focus will be to see that top salaries are funded.
"Obviously, the state is in a crisis," said Kangas. "Probably, the nation is still in a crisis in the throws of an economic downturn. However, we have to tell people what our top priorities are. We have to tell the legislature by not fulfilling these requests what we're going to lose when we lost top faculty and staff. So is there a great chance of this being funded? Probably not a great chance." Kangas says there are other 'unavoidables' that are part of that funding request... including utility costs and worker's compensation.
A long-troubled resort inside Shelby County's Eagle Creek State Park is now in the hands of a new manager which promises an extensive makeover.
The state-owned hotel, conference center and golf course were closed last summer after years of declining business - mold had crept into the hotel, making it a significant challenge for the next manager. But the winner of the contract, Mike Ballinger of Decatur-based BMDD Resorts, says his firm will invest in Eagle Creek and try to make it profitable.
"It's going to be a 3.8 million dollar project," Ballinger said. "It's going to be more obviously if something unforeseen pops up. There's a mold remediation. The roof needs to be repaired. Drywall needs to be removed in some areas. Major cleaning."
Ballinger says it will take about a year to reopen the conference center, but the golf course could be open as soon as next month.
Ballinger's firm won the contract over four other bidders last winter - one of the losing bidders, nearby marina owner Dennis Fayhee, unsuccessfully challenged the state's decision claiming BMDD had a conflict of interest. Fayhee and his attorney have not been available to say whether they plan to further challenge the contract.
Shirley Hicks recently took over as the Public Health Administrator at the Vermilion County Health Department. Hicks has been with the health department for 25 years, and comes into her new role amid massive program and staff cuts. In the first six months of this year, the department cut more than half of its staff and eliminated eight programs. The state still owes the health department $600,000, which Hicks says could be paid back by December. She estimates that it could be at least a couple of years until her department can start thinking about adding to its services. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers spoke to her at the department's office in Danville.
A referendum on township property taxes in Champaign will go on the ballot this fall --- nine months later than intended.
The Champaign City Council voted Tuesday night to place the advisory referendum on the November ballot. It asks Champaign voters if they want to increase their township property tax to provide more General Assistance for the poor.
Voters at last year's annual town meeting approved the referendum for placement on this year's primary ballot, but it was omitted by mistake.
City of Champaign Township Supervisor Pam Borowski was running for the office she now holds when the referendum was proposed. Borowski said the law requires that the measure get on the ballot this November, even though she said hopes it fails. "There's not a need for additional tax revenues at this point in time, and until there is, I'm going to keep saying that we don't need more new property taxes," she said.
The imitative would raise the township tax rate to match General Assistance funding levels in Urbana and other comparable cities. Champaign voters approved a similar advisory referendum in 2008, but rejected a binding referendum for a township tax hike later that same year.
Officials in schools, universities and social service agencies around the state spent Friday parsing a new state budget signed by Gov. Pat Quinn that cuts $1.4 billion in spending.
Education will lose $241 million. But Illinois Association of School Boards lobbyist Ben Schwarm says schools are relieved general state aid will remain flat. That money makes up most of what public schools have to spend. Steep cuts were feared.
The budget cuts nearly $263 million from state grants for, among other things, programs for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.
And many schools and others note they're still waiting on money the state can't afford to pay from the last fiscal year.
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