Illinois Public Media News
One immediate change following former Governor Rod Blagojevich's removal from office last year was the overhaul of four state pension boards. Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation last spring that not only changed the membership of those boards, but moved the chair of Illinois' Board of Higher Education into the same role with the State Universities Retirement System. Carrie Hightman has served in both capacities since July.
AM 580's Jeff Bossert spoke with her about the dual role, and the funding challenges faced by colleges and universities:
The city of Champaign has turned down 33-thousand dollars to help pay for enforcing underage drinking laws among college students for three years. It's part of a federal grant obtained by the Mental Health Center of Champaign County to study ways of fighting underage drinking in college towns. But the Champaign City County voted 5 to 4 Tuesday night to drop out of the program.
Councilwoman Deb Feinen said the grant - which she supported -- would have helped pay for law enforcement efforts to curb underage drinking that the city would likely do anyway.
But Councilman Tom Bruno argued that it would only contribute to efforts that drive student drinking to private apartments and away from bars, where he says there's at least some supervision. He said that drinking at private parties during events such as Unofficial St. Patrick's Day is "probably an even greater problem than if it occurs in a bar."
Bruno then challenged council members who had opposed other federal or state grants on principal to oppose this one, too, because he agreed with Bruno. "At this time", said Schweighart, "when money is very tight --- state's broke, cities are broke, federal government's broke, that we should be careful in accepting this grant in a small amount, or large grants in the amount of 30 million dollars that's coming down the pike".
Schweighart referred to the Big Broadband grant that's been sought for Champaign-Urbana, which he opposes. The mayor says he doesn't believe refusing the grant money will hurt Champaign's own efforts at controlling underage drinking.
After the meeting, Feinen defended her vote in favor of the grant.
"All of us have budget problems", said Feinen. "I recognize it's all tax dollars. But we had an opportunity to pay for something that we're going to be probably doing anyway, from another source."
The federal Juvenile Justice grant also involves the city of Urbana and the Univesity of Illinois. Champaign Police Sergeant Scott Friedlein says it will be up to the Mental Health Center of Champaign County, which oversaw the grant proposal, to decide if the program can continue without Champaign taking part.
A University of Illinois researcher back from Haiti says it was hard to separate his scientific work from the crisis surrounding him. Scott Olson is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He and a team of other geo-engineers examined if a process called liquefaction shook the Haitian soil so much that it could no longer support the structures on top of it - like the giant cranes at the capital's only port. The destruction blocked valuable aid from getting to victims. Olson sat down with AM 580's Tom Rogers to talk about the trip in both scientific and human terms.
Faculty unions and students say they're both opposed to the concept of furlough days as a way to cut costs at the University of Illinois.
A capacity crowd of around 100 attended at least a portion of Monday's 'teach-in' on the Urbana campus, in which faculty unions urged for more affordable and accessible education - without requiring furloughs, layoffs, and other cost-cutting measures. Students say lectures from groups like the Campus Faculty Association and Graduate Employees Organization were valuable, but a few were concerned their teachers took a common furlough day and cancelled classes in order to do it. Sophomore Eric Hessenberg says his history professor cancelled an 80-minute course in order to be at the teach-in, and he says that hurts instruction when it meets twice a week. "I guess my beef with this is that professors like to paint themselves as the good guys," says Hessenberg. "If they're so great in taking the high road, then why are they cancellling our classes? They've got all these research days, they could easy do this on that."
Leigh Ragsdale is an Officer-At-Large with the Graduate Employees Organization. None of her classes were cancelled, but the furloughs are creating a new problem for graduate workers because what their supervisors have asked of them. "And what's happening is they're asking us as grad students to cover their classes and their responsiblities which obviously presents a problem," says Ragsdale. "We already have our own job responsilibities and shouldn't be forced into doing the jobs of our professors during those furloughs."
U of I sophomore Rebecca Bauman says her English teacher will have to condense her lectures by cancelling one of two meeting times this week. But she was also asked to attend some of the lectures on higher education funding for a class on human rights. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler says furloughs should be taken in a way that doesn't hamper students' education. But she says it's good that that students and faculty spend some time discussing challenges at the U of I.
Sony's purchase of a Champaign-based medical technology company will allow it to use lasers for more than consumer electronics.
iCyt is located in the University of Illinois' Research Park. Its flow cytometry machines count, examine, and sort cells, doing research as well as testing for diseases like AIDS and various cancers. The machine uses a laser that shines onto cells, optics that collect the light from them, and computers that process the information. iCYT founder and CEO Gary Durack says that laser technology isn't far removed from what Sony does with a CD or DVD player. He says Sony plans on keeping ICyt in Champaign, adding that's important while so many seek help from Springfield or Washington, DC to solve our economic problems.
"We can help build businesses here, we can create jobs here, we can work to make the University of Illinois the greatest research institution in the United States, and recognized for that," says Durack. "We can get on board with all kinds of things in this community to get together to build it." ICyt has 44 full-time employees, but Durack expects that number to grow soon. Financial terms of Sony's purchase of the company weren't disclosed.
Leaders of Illinois' public universities are making a unified appeal for the money the state government owes them.
Illinois has been trying to deal with a deep budget deficit by putting off payments to creditors - including nearly three quarters of a billion dollars to higher education.
University of Illinois interim president Stan Ikenberry says his institution is 431 million dollars in debt because of the lack of payments, and leaders owe it to the people of Illinois to find a solution. He says that solution will include painful budget cuts.
"And it's going to require revenue increases. Very unpleasant, very difficult for any public leader lawmakers to think about," Ikenberry said. "But I think both cuts in expenditure and revenue increases will be essential before any solution can be brought about. The third essential element will be some strong leadership and bipartisan cooperation."
Ikenberry says the financial crisis is not a total surprise because the state's fiscal situation has been in decline for nearly eight years, but he's surprised that's it's gotten as bad as it has.
Several other university leaders joined Ikenberry at a Chicago press conference to call for the state money to be released.
The Champaign School Board looked at additional options Monday night, as it considered making $2.2 billion in budget cuts. But some of the proposals unveiled two weeks ago are already drawing fire.
Proposals to lay off two elementary school band and strings teachers --- and perhaps cut the 4th grade program entirely --- brought a group of music supporters to the meeting. They included Edison Middle School 7th grader William Smith, who says his school's band is as strong as it is, because many members started their band practice in elementary school.
"I'm a tuba player, and Band is one of the favorite things I do", Smith told the school board. "And I can guarantee you that I wouldn't be in it today, if it wasn't for the Fifth Grade (band) program."
School Board President Dave Tomlinson says he received 15-hundred emails defending the elementary school band and strings program, and he did not support making any cuts.
"Dave Tomlinson's not going to vote for a cut in Band and Strings", Tomlinson told reporters. "I will support a reorganization, because I think there's some areas to do that in."
In particular, Tomlinson pointed to some elementary schools in the district, where Band or Strings enrollment was in the low single digits. He said instruction for students at those schools might be combined together.
Unit Four Finance Director Gene Logas presented nearly $2-million in additional proposed budget cuts and revenue enhancements last night --- giving the school board more options to choose from, on top of the $2.2 billion proposed two weeks ago. The new proposals include additional administrative cuts, and the elimination next year of an annual professional conference for school board members.
A public meeting on the proposed Unit Four budget cuts is set for Thursday, February 18th at a site to be announced --- Tomlinson says it will probably be held at a school gymnasium, in order to accommodate a large crowd.. The Unit Four School Board's final vote on budget cuts is set for March 8th.
In other action, the school board approved a $228,000 restructuring plan for Centennial High School. The school will get a new principal, and enact several reforms in an effort to meet learning standards under No Child Left Behind. Board members initially rejected the plan on a 4 to 3 vote. It finally passed 5 to 2, after the cost of the program was capped at $200,000. Board members said it wasn't right to spend so much on the restructuring plan --- including money for new staff positions --- when money was being cut elsewhere due to a lack of funds.
The union that represents a small group of University of Illinois employees is filing an unfair labor practice complaint over the university's furlough policy.
The chief negotiator for the Visiting Academic Professionals accuses administrators of ignoring the contract with the 300 employees when they began requiring many workers to take four unpaid days off this semester.
Alan Bilansky says the union is asking the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board to force the U of I to reverse the change it made to employee appointments - that change allows the furloughs to take place. But Bilansky says the state board likely won't act on the complaint any time soon, so VAPs will likely have to take unpaid days off this spring.
"We have to tell people, 'yes, you have to take your furlough days if your manager tells you too'", says Bilansky. "But yes, we are hoping to make everyone whole, once this is all resolved."
Bilansky says negotiators for the VAP and the U of I discussed the possibility of furloughs in ongoing contract talks, but nothing was agreed to.
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says the university is able to require furloughs from VAPs because the current labor contract does not specifically address the issue.
The University of Illinois plans to send out emails to its Urbana campus employees on Tuesday, providing details about its voluntary separation incentive program. The U of I is offering incentives for faculty and staff who retire or resign --- but only if the conditions are right.
The cash-strapped U of I is looking to save money by shedding some of its faculty and staff --- and it will pay a half-year's salary up to 75 thousand dollars for faculty and staff who resign or retire. But university spokeswoman Robin Kaler says campus units will only offer the incentives in cases where the employee's departure would provide a real savings --- because that person would not be replaced, or would be replaced at a lower cost.
"So for example, if you had someone who made $70,000 a year and you determined maybe that you could not replace that person if they went, spending $35,000 to recoup another $35,000 could be a savings for the university," Kaler said.
The incentive programs target civil service and academic professional staff who agree to resign or retire before next fall semester --- and faculty eligible for retirement who agree to retire before fall semester 2011. A two-month application window begins on Wednesday. The incentive program only covers the U of I Urbana campus, not the Chicago or Springfield campuses, or university administration.
University of Illinois employees planning to retire this academic year don't have to worry about unpaid furlough days affecting their retirement benefits --- if they act in the next few days.
The university says that employees who sign a retirement agreement by Tuesday, February 2nd, don't have to take furlough days --- or a voluntary pay reduction.
U of I spokesperson Robin Kaler says the furlough waivers are being offered to employees considering retirement, who may be concerned by how furlough days will affect their final year's salary --- and consequently their pension levels.
"We did not want that furlough program to doubly hit people, just because of that window within which they those to retire", says Kaler.
The furlough waiver offer is for employees on all three U of I campuses who plan to retire by the start of the next fall semester. Employees on the Urbana campus may still be eligible for cash benefits to be offered in a voluntary separation and retirement program to be unveiled next week.
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