Illinois Public Media News
A monthly gauge of the Illinois economy has backtracked after four months of improvement.
The University of Illinois Flash Index uses state tax revenue figures each month to measure economic performance. For April, the index was set at 91, down .08 from the month before. The index was still far from the 100 level that separates economic growth from contraction. It's also fallen back to its lowest level since last November, though it's still above the September figure that marked the low point of the current recession.
The index's author, U of I economist Fred Giertz, says Illinois's unemployment rate still hasn't followed signs of a national economic recovery. But he also thinks the April index may have been affected by an abnormal drop in the state's corporate tax intake in March, saying that might be a result of timing rather than a true drop.
Champaign's CommUnity Matters program is preparing for a third year of activities for at-risk youth. The program brings private and public agencies together to offer afterschool programs and summer day camps for younger students... and career-building programs for high school students. The program has targeted the Garden Hills neighborhood but is set to expand this year.
Unit Four Assistant Superintendent Dr. Michael McFarland says he measures CommUnity Matter's success by the children involved in its program - such as the Operation Hope program for high school s students:
"If you look at the results, last year we had 18 seniors, and they all are currently still in college, doing well", says McFarland. "We have seven seniors this year. And we feel really positive about the fact that when kids leave our schools, they'll have more than a diploma. They'll have choices and opportunities."
Among the high schools students in Operation Hope is Champaign Central sophomore Tuyrin Griffin,
"Before I got into it", says Griffin, "my grades were real bad. And then when I got into it, it helped me out a lot, and I improved a lot. And it made me want to do better. And it's teaching me more about colleges and stuff, and it's letting me know about stuff that I didn't know before."
Griffin and other Operation Hope members addressed the Champaign City Council Tuesday night, as they reviewed plans for expanding CommUnity Matters. The city, the Champaign Park District, and the Unit Four school district work together on the program, along with local agencies such as the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club. Council member Deb Feinen says the willingness to collaborate is a key strength.
"Doing that probably isn't always easy", says Feinen. "It's probably easier to sort of just do it yourself, and nor share it out. But sharing it out is the piece that helps to make it so successful"
Two more partners will be joining CommUnity Matters...with the Parkland College for Kids program this summer and the Champaign County YMCA in 2011. The program also will be expanding into the northeast Champaign neighborhoods of Douglass Park, Beardsley Park, and Bristol Park.
Champaign City Council unanimously endorsed the expansion at its Tuesday night study session. A final council vote is expected in mid-June.
Illinois' top education official says schools should expect to receive all they state funding they've been promised for this year - but they shouldn't expect to get it before the end of the school year.
State school superintendent Christopher Koch says it would take a change in state law for the state to withhold funds permanently. But districts - and other state agencies and contractors -- have been waiting for the funding for months, and the statewide backlog has surpassed six billion dollars.
Koch says he can't tell schools when they can expect to see the money.
"You're not going to see it in this fiscal year", says Koch, "and even if the fiscal year's extended, we're not sure when money will be delivered. General state aid payments have been timely. Everything else has been delayed. Another large payment that school districts are awaiting are the reimbursements for transportation, special education costs. Those are in a category called Mandated Categoricals. Those are still pending --- one from December and one from April."
Koch says with the delays stretching back more than a year, it's getting increasingly tougher for school districts to plan their budgets several years down the line.
Koch was in Urbana Monday to salute eight Champaign County schools named to the Illinois Honor Roll - one of them, Urbana's Wiley School, has been discussed as a potential target for closing.
The Parkland College facility on Champaign's Mattis Avenue has been reopened after the Illinois Worknet Center inside the building received what Parkland called a "credible bomb threat."
The Mattis building had been evacuated after the threat, which a Parkland spokeswoman says was called in around 8:30 this morning. The University of Illinois' Emergency Ordinance Disposal team was called out to inspect the building but found nothing.. Parkland now says classes will resume at the Mattis building at 1:00 pm, with people now being allowed to return to their offices. The main Parkland College campus was not affected.
U of I students at a sometimes contentious town-hall-style meeting on the Urbana campus Monday night accused administrators of not doing enough to bring the school through the current financial crisis.
Students from the GEO --- the union representing grad students on campus --- and the Undergraduate Graduate Alliance told administrators at the meeting they weren't doing enough to lobby lawmakers to pass an income tax hike to fund higher education.
Administrators, including Associate Provost for Budget and Resource Planning Michael Andrechak, said the administration was fighting hard for the U of I's survival --- but the state's fiscal problems are a big challenge.
"The state's economic situation is absolutely catastrophic", said Andrechak. "A tax increase is needed. It's very unlikely that one will occur prior to the election."
GEO incoming co-president Stephanie Sewall says the university has to increase the pressure on lawmakers. She says an expected tuition hike will prevent more students from attending the U of I.
"I wasn't convinced that fundamentally, preserving accessibility to public education is reflected in the decisions that are being made", said Sewall. "And more work has to be done on that."
Students at the meeting talked about the likelihood of 10 to 20 percent tuition hikes. But U of I interim president Stanley Ikenberry said earlier this month he believes the next tuition increase will be under 10 percent.
Student organizers of Thursday's Earth Day rally on the U of I Urbana campus focused on 'no more coal'.
Parker Laubach heads the Beyond Coal campaign as part of the Students for Environmental Concern, which sponsored and organized the rally. He proposes stopping upgrades to the campus' Abbott Power Plant and beginning the phase-out of coal on the university's campus.
But, Champaign City Councilman and Deputy Mayor Michael LaDue is surprised that the focus isn't more on reducing campus car traffic.
"Automobiles don't burn coal, but coal is a significant issue, "says LaDue. "I won't dismiss it. But on the University of Illinois campus, I think the presence of gas-guzzling automobiles is the preeminent environmental problem"
Reducing coal use was one of three actions proposed by student speakers during the rally.
The rally also featured LaDue and Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing reading proclamations on their cities' commitment to promoting environmental education and fighting climate change. Interim Chancellor Robert Easter also spoke about the university's commitment to environmental policies.
Thursday marked the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day.
An Illinois Senate panel has rejected proposed legislation that would allow Illinois school districts to hold classes only four days a week.
Only two of the 11 members of the Senate Education Committee voted Tuesday in support of the plan to allow local districts to give students a full school year of three-day weekends.
Although the measure received widespread backing in the House, committee members expressed concern that a third day off school would cause problems for working parents.
The bill's sponsor, Democratic State Sen. Michael Frerichs of Champaign, said the measure would simply allow districts to move to four-day school weeks, not mandate them to do so.
A number of rural districts had lobbied for the option in hopes of saving money.
A new wish list of capital projects for state universities includes $50 million for the eventual renovation of the biggest libraries on the University of Illinois campus.
But the request for capital money forwarded to the Illinois Board of Higher Education would have to pass muster with state lawmakers who are already battling serious financial troubles, and the U of I still hasn't received some of the funds it was promised from the last capital plan, passed last year.
U of I leaders want to transform the main and undergraduate libraries to meet 21st century needs. The library's assistant dean for facilities, Jeff Schrader, says some minor projects are taking place with money the system has on hand.
"We have just gotten approval to start on a $5 million envelope project which will involve replacing windows and masonry pointing. And we have another $2 million project on the FY 2010 capital development budget for the exterior renovation of the main library also."
The overall library plan totals more than $300 million dollars over the next eight years - it would eventually add a first-floor to the undergrad library, which is currently totally underground. It would become a special-collections library while the main facility would also be expanded.
The Illinois attorney general's office is again investigating claims that a central Illinois elementary school board violated open meetings laws.
Former Pontiac Mayor Scott McCoy filed the complaint against Pontiac Elementary School District 429.
He alleges the board didn't fully explain why it went into closed session and discussed issues in executive session that should've been discussed publicly.
The complaint involves meetings on Feb. 1 and Feb. 18.
School district attorney Jeff Funk says the district acted properly.
This is the second time the school board has faced allegations.Residents filed a complaint in February 2009. The school district faced no penalties in that case.
The Urbana School Board wants to focus its priorities before moving forward with proposed improvements for King Elementary School.
At a special school board meeting Tuesday night, Board President John Dimit said he had sticker shock when he learned of the projected seven-point-five million dollar price tag for all of the requested improvements. He asked architects and a steering committee studying the issue to set some priorities.
"I'm just asking you to go back and take a look at it and really determine what's important", explained Dimit. "And now I want somebody to think about, 'Oh my God, this is eight million dollars.'"
The proposed improvements are based on district goals for all schools and specific criteria for King Elementary. Some of proposed improvements include air conditioning, a new multi-purpose room, and separate parent and bus drop-off sites.
The Steering Committee will bring back a revised plan at an upcoming meeting. Dimit says they need to move quickly in order to begin work on the King school improvements by this fall.
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