Illinois Public Media News
A University of Illinois administrator said he hopes state leaders can give the University of Illinois some advance notice on how much money it will be able to use in its operating budget.
Members of a U of I Board of Trustees committee learned Monday that the state will likely owe the university more than $500-million by the end of the calendar year, combining the prior fiscal year with the current one. Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Doug Beckman said fiscal 2012 looks worse, partly because the state will not be able to rely on any federal stimulus funds. Beckman said it would help if the U of I knew sooner how much it could expect.
"We'd love to have more lead time, but we understand it's a very, very difficult political issue," said Beckman. "There's got to be a combination of cuts and revenue, it would appear, to balance this budget. That is a difficult process. There's hard decisions to be made. I think we would trade a 10-percent cut for certainty right now, at least I would."
Beckman stated that the U of I has to operate under the assumption that some state funds will be cut, and he said the university will adjust to a pension reform plan signed by Governor Pat Quinn in April. Beckman said it is a step in the right direction in that it reduces the state's costs. The plan reduces benefits for those hired after January 1st of next year, raises the retirement age to 67, and caps maximum benefits at just under $107-thousand.
Danville teachers and support staff went on strike Monday morning, after 14 hours of negotiations with a federal mediator failed to produce an agreement.
Danville Education Association President Robin Twidwell says the union was countering the district's proposal of a freeze on salaries with a freeze on salary schedules --- that is, the times and amounts set for automatic salary increases. Twidwell argued that District 118 has the money for salary increases, because it is due for millions in federal funding from a recently passed stimulus bill.
"In light of the fact that the district just got confirmation that they're receiving $2.5 million from the federal government, we thought that offering a salary schedule freeze for two years was more than reasonable," said Twidwell.
But Danville School Superintendent Mark Denman said the grant money is meant to be used to hire new teachers and rehire laid-off ones. He said some of the money could be used for salary raises, but that the money would not last long.
"If we use this one-time money --- a large amount of it --- for salary increases, when the money is gone in one year, how do you sustain that," asked Denman.
Denman said the district had other offers on the table, including a proposal for 2 percent pay raises, coupled with higher employee payments for health insurance.
For now, classes and nearly all extracurricular activities are canceled in Danville School District 118. The exceptions are practice sessions --- but no games --- for Danville High School's football, boys' soccer and girls' tennis teams, using volunteer coaches. And the girls' softball team from North Ridge Middle School can continue its competition in a state tournament.
No new contract talks are scheduled at this time, but Denman said they are trying schedule another bargaining session with the federal mediator. Meanwhile, the Danville School Board has scheduled a special meeting this evening to discuss the strike in closed session. Additional meetings have been scheduled for every night this week, if needed.
A University of Illinois administrator says leaders are close to reaching conclusions on some budget reviews on different Urbana campus units.
The 17 areas reviewed by the 'Stewarding Excellence' project teams have ranged from the Institute of Aviation, to campus utilities, to the Office of Vice Chancellor for Research. Teams started looking at them in February to find ways to cut costs. Interim Chancellor and Provost Robert Easter said some departments will require further review, extending well into the fall. However, he said even for those in which his office is ready to make some changes, only some can be done at the top, while others require faculty involvement.
"We would make a recommendation if we wanted to make a particular change, a recommendation to the Faculty Senate, and appropriate committees," said Easter. "They would then have to work through that, so there may be an expectation that we'll just announce a final decision. In some cases what we'll announce is a recommendation."
Easter said many of the recommended changes will have to be forwarded to the U of I's Board of Trustees. He said other areas could be up for review.
"The steering committee that has been more or less directing this over the last several months, and they've continued their activity through the summer, have identified about 10 other areas where they think it would be useful for us to do some reviews," said Easter. "And we've not made a decision to pursue those, but that's something else we're looking at at the moment."
Easter said those areas aren't being identified.
A University of Illinois administrator says freshman class numbers show Illinois' economy has not driven students away.
Freshman enrollment is down only slightly, just over 6,930 students compared to 6,990 in the fall of 2009. However, Urbana campus Interim Chancellor and Provost Robert Easter said the U of I should better prove than it can recruit students from all walks of life.
"Obviously we're interested in students who come from a diversity of backgrounds within our state," said Easter. "The different economic levels, different cultural backgrounds, we want to have a diverse campus that's reflective of the population of the state."
Easter said he is disappointed the number of African American freshmen is down from a year ago. That number decreased by more than 17-percent, but the number of Latinos went up by 11 percent.
Easter also said the U of I's 885 new transfer students shows there is an increased emphasis on working with community colleges to help students who cannot afford a four year education at a public university.
He noted it is also a good class academically, with an average ACT score of over 28. There are 31,252 undergraduate students enrolled at the Urbana campus this fall, up from 31,209 a year ago, an increase of less than 1 tenth of 1 percent. Fall enrollment is up by more than five percent at both the Chicago and Springfield campuses.
With contract negotiations and a possible strike on the horizon, Danville school officials are trying to restore teaching positions that were cut in a series of layoffs last spring.
The state currently owes Danville's schools about $3 million in unpaid bills. Legislation President Obama signed in August doles out about $2.5 million to support education. The money could allow District 118 to hire more teachers and issue pay raises, which is one of the demands by union officials.
Superintendent Mark Denman cautioned that while the money may provide some temporary relief to Danville's schools, he said it is not a permanent fix to Illinois' fiscal problems.
"If we hired a number of people back, and then next March the federal month is not coming any further in the next year and state funding isn't better," he said. "Then those jobs will have to be eliminated in all probability at that time."
Denman said the school district needs to submit proposals to the federal government outlining how it would spend the money. He said he hopes to go over possible spending options in a couple of weeks with the school board during its regular meeting.
In the meantime, the school board is scheduled to continue negotiations on Sunday with union members in an attempt to avert a possible strike.
The Champaign County Head Start program kicked off the new school year Thursday with 56 more children.
With the help of $810,000 in federal funding, the program has expanded its early childhood division to serve more infants and toddlers. Enrollment has been added to its existing center in Rantoul, and a new site in Urbana. Kathleen Liffick is the director of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission's Early Childhood Division. Liffick said the expansion only meets about 36 percent of the community's need for Early Head Start services.
"But it is a small step and we're glad to be able to do that," she said. "We will be certainly be looking for additional expansion opportunities should the federal government make those available."
Playground enhancements were also made with a $68,000 Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois grant at sites in Rantoul, Savoy, and Urbana.
The new Urbana center is located at 108 South Webber Street. For questions about enrollment or to complete an enrollment application, call 217-384-1252 to speak with a family advocate.
(Photo courtesy of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission)
A negotiating session Sunday is all that will keep Danville teachers and support staff from walking off the job.
Union President Robin Twidwell said a vote to strike got overwhelming support in a membership meeting Wednesday night, almost exactly the same numbers as when the Danville Education Association backed an intent-to-strike vote two weeks ago. A strike is set to start Monday, but Twidwell said there is a chance Sunday's negotiations can avert that.
"We still remain hopeful that we will be able to get this contract settled on Sunday and resume our normal duties on Monday," said Twidwell.
After the votes were cast by union members, the school board held a two-hour closed session meeting to discuss the ripple affect a strike could have on the school district. School board president Bill Dobbles said a strike would essentially shut down schools in the area, bringing a halt to extracurricular activities and most sporting events.
"The only exception is that I think there's some like middle school state tournaments going on," he said. "If a tournament started before the strike, then those teams can continue to play."
Dobbles also said health insurance covered through the district would for now remain intact, but he said depending how long a strike lasts, that could eventually fall into the hands of union members.
The school board will continue discussing its response to a possible strike on Friday afternoon. Dobbles said he remains hopeful that the two sides can reach common ground by Sunday's negotiating session at 2pm with a federal mediator. This will be the fourth meeting in which the two sides have sought mediation.
District 118 Superintendent Mark Denman said progress was made in a 4-hour session Tuesday night, but Twidwell said she would characterize it as 'having dialogue' on some issues.
The union is asking for salary increases, ways to balance the larger class sizes caused by last spring's staff reductions, and improved retirement incentives.
Tuesday night's bargaining session between the Danville School District and its teachers union apparently went well enough for another meeting with a federal mediator to be scheduled for this Sunday afternoon.
In a joint statement, the school district and the union said the four hour bargaining session produced a "frank discussion".
Superintendent Mark Denman said he thinks some progress was made.
"I would say there was some positive progress made," he said. "Maybe not on any particular issues, but in a spirit of keeping the talks going. So we'll meet again on Sunday afternoon. Hopefully we can reach an agreement at that point."
Meanwhile, the two sides are scheduled to meet separately on Wednesday. Members of the Danville Education Association will meet at 5 PM at Danville High School. Union Vice-President Corey Pullin says his group will take another strike vote at that meeting, which could pave the way for a teachers strike on Monday --- if Sunday's bargaining session does not go well.
Meanwhile, the Danville School Board's agenda for its Wednesday night meeting includes a closed-door session for discussing what measures District 118 will take if the strike takes place.
A proposal that will be introduced later this fall in the Illinois House of Representatives seeks to put an immigration law similar to the one passed in Arizona on the books.
State representative Bill Mitchell (R-Forsyth) is co-sponsoring the measure with Republican Randy Ramey (R-Carol Stream). Mitchell said a centerpiece to the measure would cut Medicaid services to people who are not U.S. citizens by modifying the Illinois All Kids program, which provides health coverage for children regardless of immigration status.
"We're spending millions of dollars on health care for illegals," said Mitchell. "It's time to say enough is enough."
Illinois is just one of nine states that offers Medicaid to undocumented immigrants. According to the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, 1.6 million children are covered under the All Kids program, and a little more than three percent of those covered are undocumented.
"If you're going to do something in which you specifically target children, and make it so that they're not eligible for certain services and accesses, that's not only cruel and heartless, it's just absolutely mind-boggling," said Linus Chan, a staff attorney at the Asylum & Immigration Law Clinic at DePaul University. "That's not going to solve the problem of undocumented immigration."
Mitchell said with a $13 billion budget deficit, Illinois is in no shape to be offering health care services to people living in the country illegally. He said an influx of undocumented immigrants coming to the state are weighing down on the number of available jobs, and contributing to higher taxes going to support education and health care services.
He added that the legislation will also create more stringent regulations for employers who hire undocumented workers, and include language allowing law enforcement officials to ask for someone's paperwork when a "reasonable suspicion exists that a person is here illegally." Mitchell noted that the color of a person's skin would not qualify as a "reasonable suspicion."
Chan said he is worried pushing people out of the state could have dire consequences on Illinois' economy. He took note of a 2006 study released by the Texas comptroller's office, which indicates that eliminating illegal immigration could reduce that state's workforce, personal income, and gross state product.
Mitchell said the legislation will be introduced in November. Since Arizona passed its controversial law in April, other states have considered similar proposals, including Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas.
(Photo courtesy of mk30/flickr)
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin said he believes far too much of a college student's debt after four years comes from textbooks.
Durbin said the average student now spends nearly $900 a year on textbooks. Durbin said legislation that passed in July will make a few simple changes to let the student and professor know what that cost will be. In a stop at the University of Illinois Wednesday, Illinois' Senior Senator promoted the College Textbook Affordability Act. He says it's shocking that many professors actually don't know the retail price of a book. The measure requires publishers to provide that price in writing, and for faculty to keep students apprised of those costs. Durbin says another goal of the legislation is to create a market economy for students. "The good news is, for students, textbooks are more affordable," said Durbin, speaking in front of the Illini Union Bookstore. "The textbook publishers.. their prices have to be more competitive. For professors, be sensitive to the cost of textbooks for students and give these a chance to go shopping on line to find a bargain."
Graduate Student Josh Sulkin co-founded Illini Book Exchange, a free web site that allows students to exchange books without having to go through any book stores.
"The great thing this bill provides is information," said Sulkin. "Some of the other bookstores actually hide the ISBN numbers from you, so you can't know ahead of time unless you see the book physically what book you really need for the class. So you might buy a book on line based on the title, but it's the wrong book for the class and then you can't return it because it's on line, and then you just wasted even more money."
Durbin said a third part of the legislation will keep students from having to buy CD-ROM's and other supplemental equipment - those materials will now be bundled separately. Durbin said he introduced a second bill that will allow students to use 'open textbooks' on line.
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