Illinois Public Media News
Officials at the University of Illinois say they're creating a Web site that will allow people to review the school's budget and give feedback.
University spokeswoman Robin Kaler says the idea is to make one place for students, staff and faculty to learn as much as they want about how financial decisions are made. It also allows people to get involved.
The site is called "Stewarding Excellence at Illinois'' and will launch later this month. The site will be linked to the university's home page. It includes an organizational chart of committees making budget decisions.
The new site comes as the university could face possible furloughs or other budget cuts.
A University of Illinois soybean research program may take a new turn after this week's Haitian earthquake.
The National Soybean Research Laboratory based at the U of I has been working with a school nutrition program at a girls' school near the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince. But the lab's associate director, Bridget Owen, says they've not been able to make phone or email contact with the school or its leaders since the quake on Tuesday.
Owen says he project's consultant, a native of Haiti, has also been hit by the tragedy - at least two of his family members have died.
"He lives in Chicago and also lives in Haiti, so he splits his time. He's a person we have worked with in Haiti for a number of years and is someone we consider a part of our family as well," Owen said.
Owen says the lab is working with its partners in the project to put together a response to the disaster.
It's still unclear whether coaches like Bruce Weber, Ron Zook and other athletic staff would have to take mandated furlough days announced by the University of Illinois last week.
Intercollegiate Athletics spokesman Kent Brown says Athletic Director Ron Guenther is working with the department's legal counsel to quickly find an answer. Coaches may be exempt since their contracted salaries aren't paid with state funds, relying instead on ticket sales, corporate sponsors, donations, and media rights. But Brown says Guenther and the coaches under him are ready to honor whatever's decided.
"Ron's understanding is we would follow along with the furlough program as it's stated," says Brown. "The only question so far has been how does that affect some of the guaranteed contracts that are a little differently written than the normal academic professional contract." Brown says time is of the essence for basketball coach Bruce Weber, who's either coaching or recruiting seven days a week right now. But Weber said after a recent game that he would participate in the furloughs. Football Coach Ron Zook has been out of town and hasn't commented on the policy.
If the coaches did have to take furlough days, Brown says the amount of money given back to the U of I would be based on their base salaries of around $400,000, not the promotional appearances and other events that allow them to earn around $1.5 million a year.
The annual district report card for the Champaign School District shows that Unit Four beat the statewide average in areas like the graduation rate and ACT scores. But the district failed to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.
The report card shows the district falling short mostly with reading scores for blacks, Hispanics, the economically disadvantaged and students with disabilities.
Deputy Superintendant Dorland Norris says teachers are increasing their efforts to help at-risk children.
"We're wrapping around those students," Norris said. "They're getting good classroom instruction, and then they're getting support from literacy specialists, coaches or interventionists, and whatever support we can pull in to wrap around all of the students that are struggling learners."
But Norris notes that federal standards for making Adequate Yearly Progress go up every year --- from 62.5% in 2008 to 70% in 2009 --- and with even higher levels in years to come. Last year, eight of Unit Four's 16 schools reported problems in making Adequate Yearly Progress. Norris says of that group, all but Booker T. Washington School is a first-timer. She says the other seven --- including both high schools --- were placed on the list for the first time, because of rising AYP standards.
Unit Four's annual report card is available online, at the school district's website, www.champaignschools.org. The district report card was formally presented to the school board Monday night.
Furlough days could be just the beginning of the changes ahead at the University of Illinois. Two top university leaders say the next few years could see a host of changes, as the U of I adjusts to diminishing state funding.
Interim Urbana campus chancellor Robert Easter says the state's budget crisis has forced U of I administrators to start looking at how they can maintain the integrity of the institution in the long-term, considering the financial problems they're facing. He says university officials are starting to hold conversations they haven't had for some time.
"Those conversations are around what are we really about, what are our key programs that we want to have as a part of our future. What do we want to look like in 20 years?" Easter said. "And how do we decide those things that we no longer do? They may have been important at some time in the past, they may still be important. But what are our priorities?"
Easter says he'll be meeting with deans and vice-chancellors on the Urbana campus this Friday to start work on designing the framework for those conversations. While their outcome is unknown, U of I interim president Stanley Ikenberry says he envisions a U of I five years from now with the same number of faculty or more, but with fewer non-teaching and administrative staff.
Ikenberry and Easter made their comments Monday night during a live interview on WILL Radio and TV.
It will be sometime next year before researchers can utilize the world's fastest supercomputer on University of Illinois Urbana campus -- but there's already a list of teams who will have first dibs when Blue Waters comes on line. And the U of I's National Center for Supercomputing Applications is seeking applications for more through mid-March.
Blue Waters is the result of a collaboration between the U of I and National Science Foundation, which is providing monetary awards to those researchers.
NCSA spokeswoman Trish Barker says it will take some time for research teams to adjust from a machine that does trillions of calculations each second to one that does a quadrillion every second. She says that will require an understanding of the huge computer's applications, or codes, in the same way we would use a common consumer program.
"They're written to run on supercomputers -- that means that things have been parallelized so that programs are sort of broken up and different pieces of them are being run on different parts of the supercomputer that are communicating with each other," Barker said. But those have to scale up now to take advantage of many many more processors than they're currently using. It's kind of like if you've tried to think about, I've used Microsoft Word on one computer -- what if I wanted to use it on five computers?
The first 18 teams learning Blue Waters' codes includes a group from the U of I's department of atmospheric sciences to build a tornado model. And another group on campus will study molecular dynamics.
Barker says the NSF awards are partially for travel... allowing teams to all meet on campus to begin researching the programming code for when Blue Waters comes on line. Some of the funding is also dedicated to getting the teams together to prepare their research.
While academic professionals at the University of Illinois are preparing to take unpaid furlough days, some of them believe they shouldn't have to. They're the 300 or so visiting academic professionals at the U of I's Urbana campus. Unlike other AP's, the VAP's have a collective bargaining agreement with the university.
Their chief negotiator --- Alan Bilansky of the Association of Academic Professionals --- says that agreement exempts them from mandatory furlough days, the same as with other union workers on campus.
"We want to make sure that the university really wants to do this, when we've made it very clear that they're covered by a collective bargaining agreement", says Bilansky. "And you can't just arbitrarily give them a pay cut. If they're moving forward with it, we're going to have to move forward with an unfair labor practice (complaint)."
But U of I spokesperson Robin Kaler says the directive for unpaid furlough days definitely covers visiting academic professionals, because -- unlike other union employees -- their agreement does not have any language forbidding furloughs..
"The VAP collective bargaining agreement covers people who are not civil service employees", says Kaler. "The 17 collective bargaining agreements we have with civil service employees say specifically that we must follow civil service rules, which do not allow for fuloughs."
Visiting academic professionals at the U of I do the same work as academic professionals, but they are hired and fired differently. Only the Urbana campus VAP's have a collective bargaining agreement with the university.
About 11-thousand University of Illinois employees will have to take four unpaid days off work between now and the middle of May.
U of I administrators say furlough days have become unavoidable as the university faces a 440 million dollar shortfall in state funding. Administrators say the state has given the U of I only seven percent of the support it expected from this year's budget.
Interim president Stanley Ikenberry says no layoffs have been ordered, but departments are being asked to consider them because of a grim immediate future.
"Next year is not any more comforting," Ikenberry said. "So I think until we see the state leadership -- the governor, the leaders and members of the General Assembly, and frankly the citizens of the state -- rallying around a long term solution, I think we're going to be dealing with a mounting financial crisis."
Ikenberry believes the state will need to cut state spending and increase taxes to dig itself out of its budget deficit.
Chief financial officer Walter Knorr says the U of I has borrowed millions of dollars from its own funds - he says money from tuition, federal support and private giving have also kept the university going. "And indeed it's these other areas of the university that are giving us the liquidity that we require to be able to cope with the shortfall in funding from the state," Knorr said.
The four-day furloughs announced today do not affect civil service employees, but Knorr says their bargaining groups will be asked to put similar actions into their contracts. About 100 top administrators will take ten furlough days over the next five months.
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.
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