Illinois Public Media News
A report on civic engagement suggests Illinoisans need improvement in areas ranging from voting to simple acts of kindness.
The National Conference on Citizenship's report uses Census Bureau data to show a decline in the number of voters, particularly young voters, in 2008. Voter turnout fell 3-percent that year, despite the presidential campaign of native son Barack Obama. And Illinois ranked 46th in the past year among those 18 and up who did favors for neighbors, like babysitting.
Study Author Shawn Healy says the report should be viewed as a call to action, and one of those areas are schools - which at one time, weren't solely to prepare us for college or a career.
"They're certainly important objectives, but was to prepare people for their role in a democracy," Healy said. "So that's really critical. And there are some great things going on statewide in that respect. But in this tough environment with fiscal constraints, and top of it the standardized testing that's gripped our country, that's really narrowed the curriculum and really pushed civics aside in that central role for schools to play."
Healy also suggested that Illinois should make voter registration easier. While he says absentee voting has become more accessible in the state, he notes states like Minnesota and Wisconsin allow voter registration on Election Day.
He says simple day to day things, like reading a daily newspaper to get the news, or talking politics with a friend, rarely happen anymore. He says someone only needs to look as far as their local bowling alley.
"Bowling hasn't died. In fact, more people are bowling than ever before," he said. "But we bowl alone. And what used to happen when we were bowling on teams is we would interact with people that we might not otherwise see. We might talk about what's going on in the community - we might even discuss politics."
Healy uses Harvard Professor Robert Putnam's metaphor about the bowling alley to represent society, and the layer that stands between individuals and their government. The 2010 Illinois Civic Health Index was funded by the Chicago-based McCormick Foundation, and the Citizen Advocacy Center.
University of Illinois officials on the Urbana campus are moving forward with a series of revenue-generating measures after studying a Stewarding Excellence @ Illinois report released last spring.
The report proposes a host of options to improve the university's financial standing, including raising overall enrollment so that more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition can be admitted. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler noted that the U of I will tread carefully in its efforts to boost revenue by looking at how doing something accepting more students could affect the university's commitment to quality education.
"If you cannot maintain the quality, there's absolutely no reason to do something like that," she said. "Every decision we make about what to implement, what not to implement will have that consideration first."
The Stewarding Excellence report also suggested setting up a system in which every faculty member would be required to submit their teaching, research, and public engagement contributions in an annual report that would be factored into the evaluation of promotion and tenure.
"It just seems unwise to tie any kind of financial metrics based on instruction, or other revenue generating activities into the academic evaluation system," she said.
University of Illinois Interim Vice President and Chancellor Robert Easter said he encourages different departments on campus to find research areas where they can collaborate, and work to develop grant-funded research professorships.
Easter also said the U of I will create a faculty-led commission to explore other income-producing activities like professional development training programs and partnerships with academic institutions in other countries.
The search for a site in Champaign to house a new high school continued Tuesday night in the second public forum with members of the Champaign school board.
The Unit 4 School District is considering seven spots in the city to build the new school to accommodate a growing student population and expand educational resources. The potential sites includes four plots of land near the north end of Prospect Avenue. Two are west of First Street and south of Windsor Avenue, and one is west of I-57 in Northwest Champaign.
The project, which aims to replace Central High School, would be funded with more than three million dollars in facilities sales tax money coupled with a tax referendum of at least $50 million dollars that would have to be approved by voters.
Jamar Brown's 9-year-old son is poised to one day attend Central High. Brown said with an influx of students filling up the school's classrooms, he is worried about the quality of education.
"Yes, the classes should be mixed, but just when you have 30 students, it's very hard for the teacher to effectively teach all of them," Brown said.
Brown said he is considering sending his son to a private high school unless a larger public school is built in the district. School Board President Dave Tomlinson said the district does not intend to eliminate any of the seven prospective sites from its list just yet. He also said that if plans for a new school go forward, Central High will not be torn down.
"There's never even been a discussion about we're going to get rid of that as a Unit 4 building," Tomlinson said. "We're going to build a new high school, and we're going to re-use the Central High School facility as something else for the district."
Questions about the project can be e-mailed to CentralComments@ChampaignSchools.org.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
University of Illinois President Michael Hogan has tapped a physics professor to head up the search for new Urbana chancellor.
Doug Beck was also recommended by the campus Senate as part of an online campus poll. He will be working with eight other faculty members, three students, a dean and academic professional. The rest of the committee will be chosen next week. U of I leaders hope to wrap up the process of replacing interim Chancellor Robert Easter by May, well in advance of the next academic year. The interim Chancellor and vice president replaced Richard Herman, who stepped down in Oct. 2009 after an admissions scandal. Beck said whoever is named to the post needs to have a passion for everything the Urbana campus stands for.
"Champion all the great things that happen on this campus, from education to research, so that's the kind of person we're going to be looking for," Beck said. "My role as committee chair, of course, is to try to take the best advantage of the people that are going to be on the committee. We're really going to be looking for the involvement of all the stakeholders here - all the parts of our community on campus... the students, the staff, the academic professionals, faculty, and the administration."
Beck said he hopes to speak with President Hogan about the job description soon. Since the search committee is not yet finalized, and students have final exams next week, Beck says it is unlikely the committee will complete much of its work before the semester break.
Illinois' economy keeps creeping slowly toward recovery according to a monthly gauge of economic performance, but the economist who calculates the University of Illinois Flash Index says an amnesty program for late taxpayers in the state may have distorted the index in November.
Fred Giertz says he made an adjustment in the index, placing it at 94.2 for the month. That's still well below the 100-level that signifies economic growth, but it's slightly higher than October's index, marking the seven straight month of similar increases.
The Flash Index is based on state tax proceeds in a given month. Giertz says if he had not adjusted the index to account for the tax amnesty program, it would have been about five points higher.
Area educators have issued urgent appeals for the state to maintain funding in areas ranging from transportation to early childhood education.
Champaign was the site for the last of the State Board of Education's six public hearings on the Fiscal 2012 budget. Champaign Unit 4 Chief Financial Officer Gene Logas testified that cuts to the district's early childhood program have meant 40 less students, with a waiting list of 100. He pleaded with the state board and legislature to increase funding in that area. "And the only winner is the state prison system when we don't get our children off to the best start that's possible," said Logas. "It's just such a shame to waste scare resources building prisons when we could be using that money on our youngest children. This is a just a total waste, a total lack of priorities. We should all be ashamed of ourselves." Logas also says maintaining court-mandated special education remains a very expensive proposition for many districts.
Cris Vowels is the principal at Urbana's Washington Early Childhood School. She says every year, the amount of the school's grant is questionable, and how many staff members can be re-hired. She says 70-percent of them were given Reduction in Force notices last spring.
"And so come August when I found out that we were indeed going to be fully funded, I was calling people on Friday asking them to come back to work on Monday," said Vowels. "Of course, I lost key staff members. Most particularly, my bilingual staff members who are in high demand around the state." Vowels suggests the state support a multi-year grant program for early childhood programs.
Former Champaign School Board member Margie Skirvin says the uncertainty of state payments has been the biggest problem among all districts. Representing the Illinois PTA, she says the group is backing a House bill that would shift the burden of funding education from property taxes to income taxes. Deb Foertsch, Illinois Federation of Teachers Vice President and a teacher at Champaign's Carrie Busey Elementary, says an easing of tax cap restrictions in affected districts could help save programs like bilingual and gifted education. And Jessica Schad, a second year teacher at Urbana Middle School, says she wouldn't have survived in her job if it weren't for a grant-funded mentoring program at District 116.
James Bauman, chair of the ISBE's finance committee, says most funding remains committed to general state aid, with about a billion dollars left for grant funded programs, include early childhood education. He says comments at Tuesday's Champaign hearing reflect those of others held around the state, and will help guide the State Board when it recommends an education budget to lawmakers in January.
Airline passengers are putting up with a new and often unwelcome level of security screenings, but a University of Illinois professor who studies aviation security said those searches may not be useful.
Thanksgiving-weekend travelers at the nation's largest airports reported few slowdowns or other problems with "backscanner" machines that give screeners revealing images of passengers. Those who turned down the scans are subject to intensive pat-downs.
Professor Sheldon Jacobson said he believes federal officials pay too much attention to searching for banned items, and that the high-level searches should not be the first line of defense against terrorists.
"The question is, is this an effective use of a very powerful technology? In our own research, we don't believe it is," Jacobson said. "We believe that using it for secondary screening is far more appropriate and will actually facilitate a far more secure system, which is very counter-intuitive in some sense."
Jacobson says more effective security should focus on a passenger's intent. He said the Transportation Security Administration needs to further its research on ways of filtering out passengers based on background checks and looking for behavioral red flags at the airport.
An East Central Illinois lawmaker says he will seek to derail a University of Illinois plan to shut down a center for police training.
University officials announced earlier this week they intend to close the 55-year-old Police Training Institute as part of a broader plan to cut costs. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) has suggested a plan to help subsidize the institute through a surcharge on people convicted of crimes.
"It's a concept that I've utilized in the past," Rose said. "We did the same thing on drug crimes to subsidize drug addiction task forces, and they're a pretty popular concept to taxpayers. Because why should the taxpayers be paying a cost when we could have the criminals themselves foot the bill for law enforcement training?"
Interim Chancellor Robert Easter said he wants to talk to Rose about the idea. Rose explained that his idea was actually suggested some time ago, but no administrators have responded to it until now.
"Parkland College inquired about opportunities to perhaps take it over, again keeping that economic development local here in Champaign County," he said. "But they (U of I administrators) didn't call them back either. I just wonder - how many $200,000 executives does it take to return a phone call at the U of I?"
Rose said he is insisting on a December 7th meeting with not only U of I leaders, but Democratic State House member Naomi Jakobsson and Senator Mike Frerichs, as well as a member of Illinois' Law Enforcement Training and Standards board. Rose said the Police Training Institute fits well with the U of I's mission.
The University of Illinois' Board of Trustees unanimously approved changes to the U of I's administrative structure during its Thursday meeting in Chicago.
The Board of Trustees gave the university the green light to hire a new vice president who will oversee the health science departments at the Chicago and Urbana campuses as well as at training clinics in Chicago, Urbana, Rockford, and Peoria.
The board also voted to expand the role of the vice president for technology and economic development to include a $716 million research portfolio that includes research on the three campuses. The office will streamline research-related policies and processes, which according to the university will eliminate redundancies.
The third proposal that the board approved was a measure that adds the title of vice president to each of the campus chancellors, and specifies that the president of the university will be known as the president of each campus.
University spokesman Tom Hardy said the administrative changes will help the U of I cut costs by allowing University President Michael Hogan to "establish clear lines of authority to begin to consolidate operations."
"You need leadership at the top to drive that process," Hogan said. "Without it, reform doesn't get done or doesn't get done effectively."
Hogan added that a strong administration will ensure the three campuses work together, and advance research opportunities while maintaining distinctive qualities that make each campus unique.
The changes come more than two weeks after the Urbana Faculty Senate rejected the restructuring plan, citing the cost of hiring an additional vice president as one area of concern.
Joyce Tolliver, who chairs the senate's Executive Committee, said the faculty senate is still concerned about some of the administrative changes, but she said she is encouraged that before each meeting, the Board of Trustees will start holding conference calls with chairs of different faculty committees on each campus. This is a move that she said will create more transparency between the Board of Trustees and the rest of the U of I community.
"It's not that there's anything that we asked about before that we're not concerned about now," Tolliver said. "All the questions are still there, but what I am confident about is that they will be answered going forward."
The Board of Trustees targeted a 2012 goal of reducing the university's administrative costs by five-to-ten percent.
Some of the recommendations for consolidating 'back-office' administrative functions throughout the University were outlined in a June report by the Administrative Review and Restructuring (ARR) working group, which made 43 recommendations for potentially $58 million in cost savings.
Champaign officials broke ground Wednesday on a new YMCA center in southwest Champaign.
Construction is set to begin on the $16-million facility in the next couple of weeks. The Y will include an eight lane pool, a child play center, and a gymnasium with an in-door track. Mark Johnson, a former University of Illinois wrestling coach who is now the Y's chief executive officer in Champaign County, said the center will be an excellent addition to the community.
"This is going to be a place that the rest of us can use on a daily basis," Johnson said. "We have problems with childhood obesity. We have problems with diabetics. We have problems with senior citizens. We have a problem with disabilities. This is going to be a welcoming place to everybody."
Talk about the project has been going on for about a decade, and up until a couple of years ago it never really took shape because of a lack of funding. However, that changed after Horizon Hobby Chairman Rick Stephens pledged $5 million to the $16-million project. Stephens said his contribution encouraged other people to step up and start donating.
"The reason we did this was for the community," Stephens said. "There was such a need for a new Y in this community. It's been a dream for a lot of people for a long time."
The project has raised about $12 million. Johnson said he is confident that it will be able to raise an additional $4 million by the time the project completed in early 2012. The new facility will replace the current McKinley Family Center and the Fitness & Family Center in Champaign.
The 75,000-square foot center will be located at 2501 Fields South Drive, which is just west of I-57. It will replace two current Champaign fitness center: McKinley Family Center at 500 W. Church St. and Fitness & Family Center at 707 N. Country Fair Drive.
(Design courtesy of the Champaign County YMCA)
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