Illinois Public Media News
December was another month of slow economic improvement for Illinois --- according to the University of Illinois Flash Index.
The Flash Index increased by a fifth of a point, to 91.2 in December, from November's 90.0. U of I Economist Fred Giertz says the Index has been gradually going up since hitting a low of 90 in September.
"There has been now three months of small increases", says Giertz. "So it's good news in a very limited sense --- good news in the sense that things aren't getting worse, but it doesn't necessarily mean there's a lot of improvement."
Giertz says he thinks slow economic growth will continue in Illinois, provided there are no unforeseen reversals, but says it will take a couple of years for the Flash Index to reach 100, which would indicate the start of actual economic growth.
"I think the evidence suggests that we are on the path to recovery", says Giertz. "But the recovery's going to be pretty slow. But there's not guarantee about that. There could be some unforeseen circumstance or some reversal. We've certainly seen that in the last couple of years."
Giertz says the best-case scenario would be a healthier financial sector combining with renewed public confidence in the economy to create a snowball effect. But he thinks gradual sluggish improvements are more likely.
The Flash Index is based on corporate, personal income and sales tax receipts in Illinois. Despite the recent improvement, all three categories are down from a year ago.
More than 200 grade school students in Champaign are learning their way around a new building.
Unit 4 bid farewell to Booker T. Washington Elementary school before the holidays. Its students, teachers, and staff will spend the next year and a half in the Columbia Center while the Washington building is demolished and replaced.
It's a time of mixed emotions for 3rd grade teacher Julie Peoples, who's in her 21st year with Washington Elementary. She's sad to see the building go, but she also serves on a committee that will oversee the new Washington's transition to a magnet school program. Peoples notes her current students will be first to graduate from that new school:
"They want to know when the wrecking ball is going to tear down the old school, and I keep saying, 'Drive by.' I don't even have a date yet," Peoples said. "People have even been calling me -- people in the community, ex-parents -- wanting to know how they can get a brick. I talked with the principal and she said we're going to start selling bricks and make some money for the school. So it's kind of exciting."
Peoples says she can't say enough about district staff that helped with the transition over the holiday break.
Unit 4's Columbia Center was built in 1903 and has seen five additions added since then, the most recent one built in 1965. It's been used as an elementary school, middle school, and most recently for alternative education.
A semi-trailer carrying nearly 200 hogs overturned on an interstate west of Champaign Monday, blocking traffic for several hours. The driver of the semi was unhurt. But an estimated 10 to 12 percent of the hogs were killed, including about a half-dozen who had to be euthanized at the scene, due to their injuries.
That work was done by veterinarians and students from the University Of Illinois College Of Veterinary Medicine, who were called to the scene by state police to help out.
Dr. Kris Clement of the U of I Vet-Med teaching hospital was one of those called to help with the injured hogs. She says that fortunately, traffic accidents involving livestock trucks happen rarely. But Clements says the accident gave her students valuable experience - including a lesson about when to step into an accident scene.
"Our role didn't start until the survivors got off the trailer because that's the biggest thing -- you've got to get the uninjured ones off the trailer so they can be taken away and you actually have the room to work with the injured ones," Clement said. "Our instinct is to want to help right away, but we can actually get in the way."
The semi overturned as it was turning off of westbound I-74 onto southbound I-57. All lanes and ramps were opened to traffic after the truck and the uninjured hogs were removed.
Gov. Mitch Daniels says Indiana will start cutting school funding starting in January.
Daniels previously announced the K-12 cuts of about $300 million. Schools will lose about 3.5 percent of current state funding in 2010, starting with their January payment. The Indiana State Board of Education had recommended that the cuts begin in January.
State Superintendent Tony Bennett says school districts can find 3 percent savings without laying off teachers.
Daniels says education is such a big part of the state budget in Indiana that cuts were unavoidable to ensure Indiana doesn't have a deficit when the budget ends in July 2011. The Republican governor has already ordered cuts at state agencies and universities.
Employee buyouts are being looked at as another option for the University of Illinois to cut costs next spring.
Campus units were told earlier this month to make contingency plans to reduce spending by 7, 10, and 15 percent. Those plans were to be submitted earlier this week. U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says this is just another possibility as state reimbursements to the university are behind by about $400 million. "For several months the university has been struggling with a mounting financial crisis," says Kaler. "We're working on several options and buyouts are one of those, but we don't have details yet on any of the options." Kaler says it's too early to speculate who may take advantage of a buyout plan.
The U of I is also considering implementing a furlough policy next spring that's already been put together. Kaler says administrators have other cost-cutting proposals on the table, but couldn't be more specific.
The sponsor of a bill to eliminate the 50 percent tuition waivers available for children of state university employees says it's a sacrifice the state needs to make.
Dave Winters of the Rockford area submitted the bill (HB4706) last week and acknowledges that he's received some unhappy phone calls from state-employed parents since he did so. But Republican state representative says public employees shouldn't be seen as having a special privilege not available to others.
"We have to realize that it's a fiscal crisis", says Winters. "The state can shut down the universities. If we go another year or two in the current spending habits without making some tough decisions, I think we're facing disaster this year with so many of our social service agencies on the verge of closing or having already closed."
Winters also says he'll probably amend the bill to allow students already using the tuition waivers to continue to do so. And he says he would add a controversial scholarship program for state lawmakers to the chopping block.
Winters also says universities could be given the option of continuing the tuition waivers, but he says they'd have to compete with many other programs and services for a shrinking pool of state funding. He expects more lawmakers to sign onto his bill when the legislature reconvenes next month.
An Illinois lawmaker has set his sights on a tuition waiver program for children of state university employees as a potential target for elimination.
A bill filed last week by Representative Dave Winters of the Rockford area would remove language that makes children of an employee eligible for a 50 percent waiver on undergraduate tuition at any state institution.
That prospect concerns Winters' fellow Republican representative Chapin Rose of Mahomet. But he also says he was under the impression that universities should make up their own minds on whether to offer the benefit.
"I guess the way I'd look at it is that's a choice that each university has just like any business in terms of their overall compensation package," Rose said. "If they want to give their faculty a raise rather than a 50 percent tuition waiver, that's their business. If they'd rather do a flat salary and a 50 percent tuition waiver, that's their business."
University of Illinois spokesman Tom Hardy says the U of I hasn't taken a stand on the bill yet, saying administrators will want to talk with Winters.
Rose says it would make more sense for the state to get rid of the program that lets General Assembly members offer scholarships to the students of their choice. Winters has not returned a call seeking comment.
A new committee assigned with creating a climate of equal opportunities for all Champaign school students held its inaugural meeting Wednesday.
The Education Equity Excellence committee was put together as part of the Unit 4 settlement of its Consent Decree for racial equity. The panel is made up of district administrators and community members --- including a bilingual teacher, the President of the local NAACP chapter and a former Unit 4 school board member, Nathaniel Banks.
Banks, who stepped down last spring, is the most recent African-American to serve on the school board. Speaking prior the meeting, Banks said the Triple-E Committee's first session would be largely about laying the groundwork for future work. He says the Champaign school district has already made strides towards greater equity in some areas, but that it's a work in progress.
"Unfortunately, it doesn't lend itself to the cycle of elections", said Banks. "So there are long-term issues that the Consent Decree was trying to address, and those issues are still there. Certainly, there's been progress, not only in closing the achievement gap, but also in looking at (programs for) Gifted and Talented (students) increasing the number of African-American students there."
Banks says the Champaign school district also needs to take a hard look at the number of minority students in special education, and discipline issues.
Triple-A Committee member and PTA Council President Nancy Hoetker says she'll be responsible for helping facilitate communications between the the committee and Unit Four's 16 campuses.
The Triple-E Committee is expected to meet at least twice per semester.
Illinois receiver Arrelious Benn will skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
The junior said at a news conference Wednesday he thinks he is ready for the National Football League and wants to take care of his family. But he says he won't forget the U of I.
"As I begin this adventure, I will always be proud to represent the University of Illinois", said Benn. "I will be a role model for inner-city kids and anyone who wonders if they really can realize their dreams. And one more thing, I will finish college --- and Ma, that's a promise".
"OK, I'll take you up on that", replied Benn's mother, Denise Benn, who joined him at the news conference.
"Rejus" Benn was a top prospect out of high school in Washington, D.C., and the Big Ten freshman of the year in 2007. The Illini went to the Rose Bowl that season. He struggled with the team the past two seasons. Illinois was 3-9 this season and Benn caught just 38 passes for 490 yards. But despite his disappointing junior season, Benn is considered a potential high-round pick. Draft expert and former NFL general manager Gil Brandt believes Benn will be a second-round pick.
(Additional reporting by Rob McColley for AM 580 News)
Adam Lentz is taking a week from his studies at the University of Illinois to go back to his home town in Europe. But it'll be a working break - his home is Copenhagen, where representatives from the world's countries have gathered to hammer out an agreement on climate change. Lentz is a Fulbright graduate student studying natural resources and environmental science. When he was an undergraduate at the University of Copenhagen, he was the president of the Union of Danish Natural Resource Students. He's going to the Copenhagen summit to monitor its progress, and he sat down with AM 580's Tom Rogers to talk about his expectations.
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