Illinois Public Media News
A proposal to cut $2.2 million from next year's Champaign School District budget would eliminate jobs and reduce programs. But Unit Four officials say the cuts are necessary to keep the district's finances healthy.
The proposed spending reductions include the elimination of some teachers and teachers' aide positions, cuts in athletics, and the end of summertime Drivers Ed. The reductions would only cover part of a Unit Four budget deficit that has grown over the past three years to $3.9 million. But Chief Financial Officer Gene Logas told the Unit 4 School Board Monday night that there's just not much more they can cut.
"If there's anyone sitting there thinking tonight that there ought to be three or four million dollars of fat (in the budget), and it ought to be easy to present the Board of Education with that kind of a list, you're deceiving yourself", said Logas.
Logas says the rest of the funding gap would be covered by working cash bonds, a reduction in the district's fund balance, and a new fee for extra-curricular activities.
School Board President Dave Tomlinson says he was particularly concerned by a proposal to save $300,000 at the high school level by cutting six full-time positions.
"We all are concerned that we set our high schools up for success", says Tomlinson. "So, generally speaking, we're going to look at every cut in detail, and make sure we're doing it appropriately and with the least possible interruptions in the classroom."
Unit 4 School board members will review the cuts over the next six weeks before taking a final vote in March. They voiced misgivings about some of the proposals last night, but did not question the need to cut spending.
Several school districts in Champaign County now have a chance to save more money when issuing bonds for school construction projects. AM 580's Jim Meadows reports.
The chance came last week when the Champaign County Board formally designated the county as a "Recovery Zone", ---- an area experiencing economic distress under terms set by the federal Recovery Act. That clears the way for eligible school districts to issue some of their school construction bonds as Recovery Zone bonds --- with the federal government picking up 45 percent of the interest charge.
Cameron Moore of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission says he's gotten "strong Indications" from the Champaign, Urbana and Rantoul City school districts that they would probably use the Recovery Zone bonds, as they prepare to issue bonds for construction projects in the next couple of months.
Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd of the Champaign Unit Four school district says they plan to use about about $1,300,000 in Recovery Zone Bonds as part of their bond issue next month. She calls the opportunity an exciting one, "because it certainly lessens the amount of money that the taxpayers pay for interest, gives us the lowest interest rate available to governmental entitites right now, and gives us more money to good things for our students in the schools." Shepperd says the rest of Unit Four's bond issue will be issued as Build America bonds. She says they are also subsidized under the federal Recovery Act, but at 35%.
The RPC's Moore says the Fisher and Rantoul Township districts could also use the special bonds. But the bonds can only be issued during 2010. The federal government is making $2,349,000 in Recovery Zone bonds available in Champaign County.
With still no clear picture on funds coming from the state, University of Illinois Interim President Stanley Ikenberry suggests it will be at least June before officials know what tuition rates will be for next academic year. But Ikenberry told U of I Trustees in Chicago Thursday that it's hard to imagine even a best-case scenario where officials aren't looking at a high single-digit increase of around 9-percent - or about 3 to 3-point-5 percent hikes in each year over a four-year period:
"That would be a best-case scenario. We may not be dealing with a best-case environment," says Ikenberry. "So we may be faced to look at a number that will be considerably in excess of that. But it's premature, I think to walk into those waters now. But we will start that journey in March." The U of I is still owed more than 400-million dollars by the state. While tuition won't be known for a while, trustees yesterday raised the price of student housing by 4-point-6 percent on the Urbana campus. It will cost just over 9-thousand dollars starting this summer. Trustees also voted to increase undergraduate fees in Urbana by 2.8 percent to 28-hundred 42 dollars. The annual fees pay for student health services, career counseling facilities repair and other services.
Meanwhile, the co-chair of a budget task force assisting the U of I is recommending 10-percent cuts in three areas, including information technology. U of I foundation executive Craig Bazzani told U of I Trustees that information technology alone has five chief information officers. He's challenging them to find ways to streamline operations among the U of I's three campuses, and trim about 30-million dollars over the next year or two. Bazzani says information technology can't afford the 'army' of people it has, but he says the cuts will impact both people and equipment. "And so we've grown fairly significantly for good reason undoubtedly and we want to embrace the idea that more automation is good," says Bazzani. "The curves will continue to go up. There isn't any way that we're going to be able to shut off the faucet on the use of IT. We want to encourage it, but we have to have a better delivery mechanism in the future than what we have today."
The other areas Bazzani is targeting for 10% cuts are strategic procurement and energy task force recommendations. He says budget cutting moves like furlough days and hiring freezes are merely temporary ways of saving at the U of I.
Bazzazi expects to have his report before Interim President Ikenberry by May.
Officials at the University of Illinois say they're creating a Web site that will allow people to review the school's budget and give feedback.
University spokeswoman Robin Kaler says the idea is to make one place for students, staff and faculty to learn as much as they want about how financial decisions are made. It also allows people to get involved.
The site is called "Stewarding Excellence at Illinois'' and will launch later this month. The site will be linked to the university's home page. It includes an organizational chart of committees making budget decisions.
The new site comes as the university could face possible furloughs or other budget cuts.
A University of Illinois soybean research program may take a new turn after this week's Haitian earthquake.
The National Soybean Research Laboratory based at the U of I has been working with a school nutrition program at a girls' school near the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince. But the lab's associate director, Bridget Owen, says they've not been able to make phone or email contact with the school or its leaders since the quake on Tuesday.
Owen says he project's consultant, a native of Haiti, has also been hit by the tragedy - at least two of his family members have died.
"He lives in Chicago and also lives in Haiti, so he splits his time. He's a person we have worked with in Haiti for a number of years and is someone we consider a part of our family as well," Owen said.
Owen says the lab is working with its partners in the project to put together a response to the disaster.
It's still unclear whether coaches like Bruce Weber, Ron Zook and other athletic staff would have to take mandated furlough days announced by the University of Illinois last week.
Intercollegiate Athletics spokesman Kent Brown says Athletic Director Ron Guenther is working with the department's legal counsel to quickly find an answer. Coaches may be exempt since their contracted salaries aren't paid with state funds, relying instead on ticket sales, corporate sponsors, donations, and media rights. But Brown says Guenther and the coaches under him are ready to honor whatever's decided.
"Ron's understanding is we would follow along with the furlough program as it's stated," says Brown. "The only question so far has been how does that affect some of the guaranteed contracts that are a little differently written than the normal academic professional contract." Brown says time is of the essence for basketball coach Bruce Weber, who's either coaching or recruiting seven days a week right now. But Weber said after a recent game that he would participate in the furloughs. Football Coach Ron Zook has been out of town and hasn't commented on the policy.
If the coaches did have to take furlough days, Brown says the amount of money given back to the U of I would be based on their base salaries of around $400,000, not the promotional appearances and other events that allow them to earn around $1.5 million a year.
The annual district report card for the Champaign School District shows that Unit Four beat the statewide average in areas like the graduation rate and ACT scores. But the district failed to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.
The report card shows the district falling short mostly with reading scores for blacks, Hispanics, the economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities.
Deputy Superintendant Dorland Norris says teachers are increasing their efforts to help at-risk children.
"We're wrapping around those students," Norris said. "They're getting good classroom instruction, and then they're getting support from literacy specialists, coaches or interventionists, and whatever support we can pull in to wrap around all of the students that are struggling learners."
But Norris notes that federal standards for making Adequate Yearly Progress go up every year --- from 62.5% in 2008 to 70% in 2009 --- and with even higher levels in years to come. Last year, eight of Unit Four's 16 schools reported problems in making Adequate Yearly Progress. Norris says of that group, all but Booker T. Washington School is a first-timer. She says the other seven --- including both high schools --- were placed on the list for the first time, because of rising AYP standards.
Unit Four's annual report card is available online, at the school district's website, www.champaignschools.org. The district report card was formally presented to the school board Monday night.
Furlough days could be just the beginning of the changes ahead at the University of Illinois. Two top university leaders say the next few years could see a host of changes, as the U of I adjusts to diminishing state funding.
Interim Urbana campus chancellor Robert Easter says the state's budget crisis has forced U of I administrators to start looking at how they can maintain the integrity of the institution in the long-term, considering the financial problems they're facing. He says university officials are starting to hold conversations they haven't had for some time.
"Those conversations are around what are we really about, what are our key programs that we want to have as a part of our future. What do we want to look like in 20 years?" Easter said. "And how do we decide those things that we no longer do? They may have been important at some time in the past, they may still be important. But what are our priorities?"
Easter says he'll be meeting with deans and vice-chancellors on the Urbana campus this Friday to start work on designing the framework for those conversations. While their outcome is unknown, U of I interim president Stanley Ikenberry says he envisions a U of I five years from now with the same number of faculty or more, but with fewer non-teaching and administrative staff.
Ikenberry and Easter made their comments Monday night during a live interview on WILL Radio and TV.
It will be sometime next year before researchers can utilize the world's fastest supercomputer on University of Illinois Urbana campus -- but there's already a list of teams who will have first dibs when Blue Waters comes on line. And the U of I's National Center for Supercomputing Applications is seeking applications for more through mid-March.
Blue Waters is the result of a collaboration between the U of I and National Science Foundation, which is providing monetary awards to those researchers.
NCSA spokeswoman Trish Barker says it will take some time for research teams to adjust from a machine that does trillions of calculations each second to one that does a quadrillion every second. She says that will require an understanding of the huge computer's applications, or codes, in the same way we would use a common consumer program.
"They're written to run on supercomputers -- that means that things have been parallelized so that programs are sort of broken up and different pieces of them are being run on different parts of the supercomputer that are communicating with each other," Barker said. But those have to scale up now to take advantage of many many more processors than they're currently using. It's kind of like if you've tried to think about, I've used Microsoft Word on one computer -- what if I wanted to use it on five computers?
The first 18 teams learning Blue Waters' codes includes a group from the U of I's department of atmospheric sciences to build a tornado model. And another group on campus will study molecular dynamics.
Barker says the NSF awards are partially for travel... allowing teams to all meet on campus to begin researching the programming code for when Blue Waters comes on line. Some of the funding is also dedicated to getting the teams together to prepare their research.
While academic professionals at the University of Illinois are preparing to take unpaid furlough days, some of them believe they shouldn't have to. They're the 300 or so visiting academic professionals at the U of I's Urbana campus. Unlike other AP's, the VAP's have a collective bargaining agreement with the university.
Their chief negotiator --- Alan Bilansky of the Association of Academic Professionals --- says that agreement exempts them from mandatory furlough days, the same as with other union workers on campus.
"We want to make sure that the university really wants to do this, when we've made it very clear that they're covered by a collective bargaining agreement", says Bilansky. "And you can't just arbitrarily give them a pay cut. If they're moving forward with it, we're going to have to move forward with an unfair labor practice (complaint)."
But U of I spokesperson Robin Kaler says the directive for unpaid furlough days definitely covers visiting academic professionals, because -- unlike other union employees -- their agreement does not have any language forbidding furloughs..
"The VAP collective bargaining agreement covers people who are not civil service employees", says Kaler. "The 17 collective bargaining agreements we have with civil service employees say specifically that we must follow civil service rules, which do not allow for fuloughs."
Visiting academic professionals at the U of I do the same work as academic professionals, but they are hired and fired differently. Only the Urbana campus VAP's have a collective bargaining agreement with the university.
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