Illinois Public Media News
Danville State Representative Bill Black wants to know how quickly state leaders plan to help institutions like the University of Illinois with their overdue payments.
He says the arrival of more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds earmarked for Kindergarten-thru-12th grade education should free up general state aid dollars initially designed for grade and high schools. Black is one of 10 GOP lawmakers who have signed a letter to Governor Pat Quinn and Comptroller Dan Hynes, urging them to use some of those dollars for higher education. Black says he wants them to develop a priority list. "Do you simply direct all of it to unpaid bills?," says Black. "There's nothing particularly wrong with that. But, what bills? Are you just going to take them in the order that they're late, or should we get together and say look, universities are in trouble, community colleges are in trouble, some of that money needs to be set aside to pay bills in our higher education system." The letter was also signed by Representatives Chapin Rose of Mahomet and Dan Brady of Bloomington. It requests a meeting with Quinn and Hynes.
Rose says this letter in intended to compliment the efforts of University presidents, who recently wrote their own letter to the Governor seeking a timeline for payments. A minimum of $4 billion is expected to come into the state's coffers through next month. The funds not only include stimulus dollars, but the $840 million proceeds of a pension bond sale, $1.5 billion from March and April tax collections, and $400 million from Illinois' Family Care settlement lawsuit. Rose says this letter in intended to compliment the efforts of University presidents, who recently wrote their own letter to the Governor seeking a timeline for payments. He expects the meeting to take place.
"I've found Mr. Quinn to be very accessible and open, as I have Mr. Hynes," says Rose. "So I expect we'll have an audience and be able to talk about this. But again, my point is there's not much to talk about because there's $4-5 billion coming in the door here. So just tell us when they're going to get paid. It's as simply as that." Black suggests that could free up about $ 250 million for the U of I, more than half of what the state owes the university. He notes the MAP grants, or Monetary Awards Program scholarships, are still owed that much as well.
A series of ad hoc committees have started the arduous task of identifying areas on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus that might find ways to make cuts or even raise some revenue.
'Stewarding Excellence at Illinois' is expected to last several months. One of the committees has already identified four areas for evaluation due to the higher education funding crisis. Graduate College Dean Deba Dutta chairs the Campus Steering Committee. He says his group is meeting twice a week, and expects to identify more areas over the next several months. "And we'll keep on doing this until we, as a campus, feel that we have looked everything that needs to be looked at," says Dutta. "I mean that's the general feeling. I can't say that there's going to be 15 projects, or 35 projects. But we have in this process, we have a lot of involvement of faculty, students, and staff."
The first four areas under review are the Institute of Aviation, Information Technology, The Office of Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement, and Allocation of undergraduate scholarships. Dutta says these areas are more administrative in nature, but he stresses that no cuts or other changes will be decided for some time. Faculty teams assigned to each of these projects will look at charge letters from U of I administrators. "We're not to limit them to think, ok, do this or do that," says Dutta. "Just trying to give an idea to consult with stakeholders, look at the value, how it aligns with the institution, and several other criteria that are spelled out on the web site.
Environmental experts are looking for a little creativity this week when it comes to diverting tons of old TVs, computers or cell phones from the landfill - or worse.
Electronic waste can create pollutants as well as lots of solid plastic or metal waste, and much of it will come from machines that are still in working order. A two-day symposium on the University of Illinois campus begins Tuesday to address the large-scale problem.
Tim Lindsey is with the U of I's Sustainable Technology Center. He says everyone involved in the process - from manufacturers to retailers to recyclers - are getting together to talk about reducing the waste stream, and new reuse methods can play a huge role.
"You can take a ten-year old Pentium 3 computer, you could refurbish it, load it with Windows 7, and for most applications it will perform as well as a brand new computerwith respect to word processing, surfing the internet, spreadsheets and so forth. It would do just as well," Lindsey said.
Lindsey says one future answer may be to rethink how we buy electronics. He says consumers might warm up to the concept of buying a shell computer or cell phone and occasionally improving its performance with the newest technology.
One immediate change following former Governor Rod Blagojevich's removal from office last year was the overhaul of four state pension boards. Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation last spring that not only changed the membership of those boards, but moved the chair of Illinois' Board of Higher Education into the same role with the State Universities Retirement System. Carrie Hightman has served in both capacities since July.
AM 580's Jeff Bossert spoke with her about the dual role, and the funding challenges faced by colleges and universities:
The city of Champaign has turned down 33-thousand dollars to help pay for enforcing underage drinking laws among college students for three years. It's part of a federal grant obtained by the Mental Health Center of Champaign County to study ways of fighting underage drinking in college towns. But the Champaign City County voted 5 to 4 Tuesday night to drop out of the program.
Councilwoman Deb Feinen said the grant - which she supported -- would have helped pay for law enforcement efforts to curb underage drinking that the city would likely do anyway.
But Councilman Tom Bruno argued that it would only contribute to efforts that drive student drinking to private apartments and away from bars, where he says there's at least some supervision. He said that drinking at private parties during events such as Unofficial St. Patrick's Day is "probably an even greater problem than if it occurs in a bar."
Bruno then challenged council members who had opposed other federal or state grants on principal to oppose this one, too, because he agreed with Bruno. "At this time", said Schweighart, "when money is very tight --- state's broke, cities are broke, federal government's broke, that we should be careful in accepting this grant in a small amount, or large grants in the amount of 30 million dollars that's coming down the pike".
Schweighart referred to the Big Broadband grant that's been sought for Champaign-Urbana, which he opposes. The mayor says he doesn't believe refusing the grant money will hurt Champaign's own efforts at controlling underage drinking.
After the meeting, Feinen defended her vote in favor of the grant.
"All of us have budget problems", said Feinen. "I recognize it's all tax dollars. But we had an opportunity to pay for something that we're going to be probably doing anyway, from another source."
The federal Juvenile Justice grant also involves the city of Urbana and the Univesity of Illinois. Champaign Police Sergeant Scott Friedlein says it will be up to the Mental Health Center of Champaign County, which oversaw the grant proposal, to decide if the program can continue without Champaign taking part.
A University of Illinois researcher back from Haiti says it was hard to separate his scientific work from the crisis surrounding him. Scott Olson is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He and a team of other geo-engineers examined if a process called liquefaction shook the Haitian soil so much that it could no longer support the structures on top of it - like the giant cranes at the capital's only port. The destruction blocked valuable aid from getting to victims. Olson sat down with AM 580's Tom Rogers to talk about the trip in both scientific and human terms.
Faculty unions and students say they're both opposed to the concept of furlough days as a way to cut costs at the University of Illinois.
A capacity crowd of around 100 attended at least a portion of Monday's 'teach-in' on the Urbana campus, in which faculty unions urged for more affordable and accessible education - without requiring furloughs, layoffs, and other cost-cutting measures. Students say lectures from groups like the Campus Faculty Association and Graduate Employees Organization were valuable, but a few were concerned their teachers took a common furlough day and cancelled classes in order to do it. Sophomore Eric Hessenberg says his history professor cancelled an 80-minute course in order to be at the teach-in, and he says that hurts instruction when it meets twice a week. "I guess my beef with this is that professors like to paint themselves as the good guys," says Hessenberg. "If they're so great in taking the high road, then why are they cancellling our classes? They've got all these research days, they could easy do this on that."
Leigh Ragsdale is an Officer-At-Large with the Graduate Employees Organization. None of her classes were cancelled, but the furloughs are creating a new problem for graduate workers because what their supervisors have asked of them. "And what's happening is they're asking us as grad students to cover their classes and their responsiblities which obviously presents a problem," says Ragsdale. "We already have our own job responsilibities and shouldn't be forced into doing the jobs of our professors during those furloughs."
U of I sophomore Rebecca Bauman says her English teacher will have to condense her lectures by cancelling one of two meeting times this week. But she was also asked to attend some of the lectures on higher education funding for a class on human rights. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler says furloughs should be taken in a way that doesn't hamper students' education. But she says it's good that that students and faculty spend some time discussing challenges at the U of I.
Sony's purchase of a Champaign-based medical technology company will allow it to use lasers for more than consumer electronics.
iCyt is located in the University of Illinois' Research Park. Its flow cytometry machines count, examine, and sort cells, doing research as well as testing for diseases like AIDS and various cancers. The machine uses a laser that shines onto cells, optics that collect the light from them, and computers that process the information. iCYT founder and CEO Gary Durack says that laser technology isn't far removed from what Sony does with a CD or DVD player. He says Sony plans on keeping ICyt in Champaign, adding that's important while so many seek help from Springfield or Washington, DC to solve our economic problems.
"We can help build businesses here, we can create jobs here, we can work to make the University of Illinois the greatest research institution in the United States, and recognized for that," says Durack. "We can get on board with all kinds of things in this community to get together to build it." ICyt has 44 full-time employees, but Durack expects that number to grow soon. Financial terms of Sony's purchase of the company weren't disclosed.
Leaders of Illinois' public universities are making a unified appeal for the money the state government owes them.
Illinois has been trying to deal with a deep budget deficit by putting off payments to creditors - including nearly three quarters of a billion dollars to higher education.
University of Illinois interim president Stan Ikenberry says his institution is 431 million dollars in debt because of the lack of payments, and leaders owe it to the people of Illinois to find a solution. He says that solution will include painful budget cuts.
"And it's going to require revenue increases. Very unpleasant, very difficult for any public leader lawmakers to think about," Ikenberry said. "But I think both cuts in expenditure and revenue increases will be essential before any solution can be brought about. The third essential element will be some strong leadership and bipartisan cooperation."
Ikenberry says the financial crisis is not a total surprise because the state's fiscal situation has been in decline for nearly eight years, but he's surprised that's it's gotten as bad as it has.
Several other university leaders joined Ikenberry at a Chicago press conference to call for the state money to be released.
The Champaign School Board looked at additional options Monday night, as it considered making $2.2 billion in budget cuts. But some of the proposals unveiled two weeks ago are already drawing fire.
Proposals to lay off two elementary school band and strings teachers --- and perhaps cut the 4th grade program entirely --- brought a group of music supporters to the meeting. They included Edison Middle School 7th grader William Smith, who says his school's band is as strong as it is, because many members started their band practice in elementary school.
"I'm a tuba player, and Band is one of the favorite things I do", Smith told the school board. "And I can guarantee you that I wouldn't be in it today, if it wasn't for the Fifth Grade (band) program."
School Board President Dave Tomlinson says he received 15-hundred emails defending the elementary school band and strings program, and he did not support making any cuts.
"Dave Tomlinson's not going to vote for a cut in Band and Strings", Tomlinson told reporters. "I will support a reorganization, because I think there's some areas to do that in."
In particular, Tomlinson pointed to some elementary schools in the district, where Band or Strings enrollment was in the low single digits. He said instruction for students at those schools might be combined together.
Unit Four Finance Director Gene Logas presented nearly $2-million in additional proposed budget cuts and revenue enhancements last night --- giving the school board more options to choose from, on top of the $2.2 billion proposed two weeks ago. The new proposals include additional administrative cuts, and the elimination next year of an annual professional conference for school board members.
A public meeting on the proposed Unit Four budget cuts is set for Thursday, February 18th at a site to be announced --- Tomlinson says it will probably be held at a school gymnasium, in order to accommodate a large crowd.. The Unit Four School Board's final vote on budget cuts is set for March 8th.
In other action, the school board approved a $228,000 restructuring plan for Centennial High School. The school will get a new principal, and enact several reforms in an effort to meet learning standards under No Child Left Behind. Board members initially rejected the plan on a 4 to 3 vote. It finally passed 5 to 2, after the cost of the program was capped at $200,000. Board members said it wasn't right to spend so much on the restructuring plan --- including money for new staff positions --- when money was being cut elsewhere due to a lack of funds.
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