Illinois Public Media News
The U-S Commerce Department has awarded $22.5 million for Champaign-Urbana's Big Broadband project. Now, the Champaign and Urbana city councils and the university of Illinois have 30 days to decide if they'll commit matching funds to the project --- a combined total of $1.3 million.
Champaign City Councilman Will Kyles says he's looking forward to a March 16 council meeting with the consultant the two cities hired to review the Big Broadband proposal. Kyles says he wants to ask Doug Dawson about his concerns with the long-term financial viability of the Big Broadband plan.
"I think it's more the sustainability piece that we're concerned about, as in his report he's projected that we would eventually start losing money. And he also talked about how technology is always changing. So I'd definitely want to talk to him," said Kyles
The federal stimulus money announced Tuesday would fund two major components of the Big Broadband project --- the installation of underground fiber-optic rings making up the backbone of service, and fiber-to-the-home installation of the service in areas considered underserved by broadband providers.
Two other components did not win federal funding. They're both aimed at expanding computer access for underserved populations. Big Broadband proponent Mike Smeltzer says efforts are already underway to re-enter those components in the 2nd round of federal funding.
The bid has been awarded, and the long-awaited transformation of one of the University of Illinois' most-used buildings should be underway by the end of the month.
On Tuesday the state awarded the largest bid for the $66 million project to a Peoria contractor. That clears the way for work to begin on Lincoln Hall, which has been empty for more than a year because of deteriorating conditions.
Joe Vitosky is with the U of I's Office of Capital Programs and Real Estate Services. He says when Lincoln Hall is finished in the summer of 2012, it will be a completely upgraded facility.
"Classrooms on the first and second floors, with offices on the third and fourth floors," Vitosky said, listing the changes. "The closed backstage area of the theatre will be converted to a new classroom. We'll have office space on all four floors, we'll replace the floor, ceiling and wall finishes, abate asbestos materials, and we'll be purchasing movable equipment."
But Vitosky says the theater and lecture hall which hosted thousands of U of I students over its 100-year history will still be there.
The U of I unsuccessfully tried to get the classroom facility updated for more than a decade until state lawmakers funded it last year as part of a capital construction program. Vitosky says despite remaining questions over how the state will fund the capital bill, the money is in hand.
The University of Illinois will lose another leader. The head of the Springfield campus, Chancellor Richard Ringeisen, announced his retirement Monday.
Ringeisen says his decision to leave UIS after nearly a decade has everything to do with wanting more time with his grandchildren, and nothing to do with the university's financial troubles. Delays in state payments have led to furloughs and layoffs. Further cuts -- possibly as high as 15% -- are expected.
Ringeisen says he will stay on until the end of October, then he and his wife will move to South Carolina. "It will be difficult to leave a job I love. An institution I love. And a city that has become a wonderful home to Carolyn and me," Ringheisen said.
Ringeisen says since he became chancellor he's proud of overseeing a nationally recognized online degree program ... expanding athletics ... developing a fine arts program ... and transitioning a two-year school into a more traditional four-year one. "The kind of small public arts university that Illinois did not have," Ringheisen said. "Well, it has one now."
Ringeisen says the search for a successor will begin soon, but that one won't be in place by the time he leaves. He says the provost could take over in the interim with a new chancellor on board early in 2011. Ringeisen says he'll stay on even then as a special advisor to the university president.
Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for the concept of "microfinance". Now a local businessman wants to bring the concept to Champaign-Urbana.
Developer Peter Fox says he's in talks with Yunus to open a branch of Grameen America bank in Champaign-Urbana. He and his wife are pledging $100, 000 toward the project.
"This will be a donation to capitalize the bank", says Fox. "Then after that, we'd raise additional money. Obviously, we would do it on behalf of Grameen and they would set the ground rules. So we're just trying to be the catalyst to get it started --- then they would operate the venture."
Yunus explained the principles of microfinance during a talk Monday nigh at the University of Illinois. It involves the loaning of small amounts of money to people too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans, so they can start or improve their own businesses.
"We run a banking program in New York City right now, in Jackson Hieghts, called Grameen America, exactly the same as we do in Bangladesh, and with the same result", says Yunus. "We have over 2,000 borrowers have there -- all women. Average loan about $1500. Repayment is near 0."
From its start in Bangladesh in the 1980s, Grameen and other organizations offering "microcredit" have spread around the world, including to the U-S. Fox says he's very impressed with Grameen America bank, which currently runs operations in New York, San Francisco and Omaha. He says he'll need to raise another $700,000 to $800,000 for Grameen America to come to Champaign-Urbana.
Yunus' talk at the Univesity of Illinois received a standing ovation from a near-capacity crowd at Foellinger Auditorium on the U of I campus. Afterwards, university Interim President Stanley Ikenberry presented Yunus with the university's Presidential Award and Medallion.
It may be a long, difficult path to recovery for the Illinois economy according to one indicator.
Each month the University of Illinois Flash Index measures tax revenue to give a snapshot of the state's economic performance. Author Fred Giertz says in February the index inched up to 91.5 after two months at 91.2. The reading is well below the dividing line between growth and contraction, and it's been there for the last year and a half.
Giertz says corporate tax receipts in Illinois are showing signs that the recession is breaking, but that hasn't started translating into more employment.
"The stock market has gone up a lot in the last year because of expectations, and businesses are actually starting to do better," Giertz said. "But the problem is that they're not doing as much hiring now because more efficient during the downturn and they don't need as many people to produce the goods (and services) as they did in the past."
Giertz says many observers predict a very slow decline in unemployment rates over the next year, even as the economy improves.
Class sizes will be larger in Danville - and the preschool program would be drastically cut - if proposed budget cuts go into effect.
Administrators propose eliminating 26 teaching positions as well as five teaching assistants and three administrators in the high school and middle schools. The cuts would save close to $2 million. The cuts would also include supplies, textbooks and some extracurricular activities with low participation.
Superintendent Mark Denman says the biggest hit will be in Danville's preschool program, which is not mandatory for districts to offer except for special education.
"I do think the state will come through and provide some level of funding for preschool," Denman said. "But unfortunately, with the laws set by the state with budgeting and notice to staff, we have to make our decisions in March. If we don't, then we're obligated to provide the programs whether the state gives the money or not."
Demnan says 42 teaching and other positions would also be lost until the district is sure the grants that pay for those positions will be continued. He says the state owes District 118 nearly two-and-a-half million dollars in backlogged payments.
The Prairie Meadows subdivision in Savoy is among the areas that could be annexed into the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District later this year.
Managing Director Bill Volk says the CU-MTD Board has directed his staff to prepare annexation and legal notices for five areas. Public hearings will be held before the board takes a vote on annexation.
Prairie Meadows is the first major residential area of Savoy to be considered for CU-MTD annexation since the village and the transit district signed an agreement two years ago. Volk says that agreement protects some parts of Savoy from MTD annexation --- but not new residential areas.
"There are sections in Savoy that we cannot annex for 23 years, but other areas of Savoy, as they become annexable we are allowed per the agreement to annex that territory," Volk said.
The Stone Creek subdivision in southeast Urbana is also on the CU-MTD annexation list. Non-residential areas up for annexation include the Clearview commercial development site in northwest Champaign, some industrial tracts near the Apollo Industrial Park in north Champaign, and Willard Airport.
Volk says the CU-MTD Board will not vote on annexing the territories until after the next fiscal year begins July 1. If annexation is approved, property owners would not pay taxes to the MTD until the summer of 2012.
Some University of Illinois students are taking their demand for two administrators' resignations to another level.
Members of Students for Chief Illiniwek found email exchanges that they claim show administrators conspiring to stop a student-sponsored Chief performance at the Assembly Hall last fall. Members of the Urbana campus' student senate are looking over a resolution calling for an investigation of Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Renee Romano's involvement. And now the leader of a new group opposing Romano, Jerry Vachaparambil, says they may try to recruit help from state lawmakers.
"Because this is a public institution, they can admonish administrators for not acting in the best interest of the taxpayers or the students," Vachaparambil said.
Romano says the email exchanges were not meant to stifle students' right to free speech and assembly. She says they were a conversation between officials struggling with the on-campus performance in light of the U of I's decision to retire the Chief three years ago.
"Administrators often talk back and forth about, well, if we do this what's going to mean and how does that all work," Romano said. "But ultimately, they were able to have their event."
The Student Senate may vote next week on the resolution, which also targets Romano's associate vice chancellor Anna Gonzalez.
Champaign school superintendent Arthur Culver is guaranteed to keep his job through 2014 after a school board vote.
But Culver has volunteered not to take a pay raise as Unit 4 fights budget problems like most other Illinois districts. Tuesday night, board members evaluated Culver's performance and voted 4-3 to extend his contract one additional year.
Board president Dave Tomlinson says as a rule he had voted against extensions before. But he says Culver's work in bringing a nine year federal consent decree to an end merited a second look.
"There's one way the board can acknowledge to the superintendent that he has led us through probably one of the most difficult times in Unit 4, and that is with a contract extension," Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson says Culver and other administrators turned down raises last year even though their salaries are tied to the current teachers' contract, which called for 4% raises.
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.
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