Illinois Public Media News
The federal economic stimulus contains millions of dollars in research funding - money the University of Illinois is competing for, against dozens of other research institutions.
That's putting an unprecedented burden on the office that handles grant applications, which has already seen a big increase in grants over the past five years. The director of the Office of Sponsored Programs and Research Administration, Kathy Young, says they're still getting a handle on the crush of activity.
"We can't staff for what we don't know about yet," said Young. "It's going to be a concerted effort of the existing staff to shoulder the burden and do what we can. My management team and I are looking at what tasks we can parse off to keep the subject-matter experts working on the really critical issues."
Young says temporary staff may be able to handle the rest of the workload. The U of I says the federal government itself is also undergoing a flood of requests for grants from the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy and other agencies that have gotten billions of dollars in research money. Federal officials expect a 60 percent increase in grant activity over the next six months.
The Champaign School Board is taking applications until the end of the month for people to serve on a new oversight committee to make sure they keep their promises.
During Monday night's Unit Four School Board meeting, Board President Dave Tomlinson said the "Promises Made, Promises Kept" Committee will oversee how the district uses money from the school facilities sales tax approved by Champaign County voters last week. "The oversight committee's going to keep us accountable," he explained.
Topping Unit Four's list for spending the sales tax revenue is construction of new classrooms for Champaign's north side. They're required by the Consent Decree. The new classrooms will be added on to Garden Hills School, and be part of a completely new Booker T. Washington school building. The district plans to follow that with construction of a new grade school in Savoy.
In addition, Unit Four plans to use sales tax revenue to pay off the district's existing bond debt --- allowing property taxes to be cut. Tomlinson says the tax savings will amount to about 32-dollars a year on a 150-thousand dollar home.
The new school facilities sales tax takes effect in 2010.
It was a long shot, but veterinarians at the University of Illinois were not able to save a rare whooping crane that had broken a leg. A spokeswoman for the College of Veterinary Medicine says the endangered bird died Wednesday night of complications not directly related to the injury. The college's wildlife clinic had scheduled surgery on the injured leg for Thursday. The crane was found in McLean County, where its flock had stopped on its migration from Florida.
The voters of Champaign County approved a one percent sales tax for school facilities on Tuesday. But the tax proposal faces one more vote before it takes effect. That's a vote by the Champaign County Board. The Board cannot reject the sales tax --- but it could lower it to a half-cent or quarter-cent on the dollar.
But County Board Chairman Pius Weibel says he will vote for the tax rate that the voters approved. "The voters voted on it," he says. "I think it would be a disservice not to do that (vote for the full one percent rate), or if we do it, we'd have to have a very good reason."
And Weibel says if the new sales tax rate was reduced, he thinks it would take away the ability of school districts to offer the property tax relief that they promised.
Weibel says the school facilities sales tax will go before the county board's Policy Committee. Its chairman, Tom Betz, opposed the sales tax personally, and says it won't provide meaningful savings for the average homeowner. But Betz says the voters passed a one-percent tax, so that's what he'll vote for, too.
There are fewer than 500 whooping cranes in the world. And on Thursday afternoon, a veterinary surgeon at the University of Illinois Urbana campus will operate on one of them.
The young crane was found earlier this month in a field near the central Illinois town of Gridley, with a badly broken leg. It's part of a carefully monitored whooping crane flock based in Wisconsin. Dr. Avery Bennett of the U of I Veterinary Teaching Hospital says the bird's lower left leg bones are broken in "countless" places. But he says chances for recovery are good.
Bennett says he plans to stabilize the broken leg bones with carbonized rods. He says they'll be attached on the outside of the leg with pins connecting to the ends of the broken bones. Bennett says while the bones are mending, the bird's weight will actually be carried by the external rods, allowing it walk around until the broken bones knit.
Such devices are called external skeleton fixation devices. And Bennett says they're essential, because the whooping crane must get on its feet as soon as possible to survive.
The crane's broken leg bones could be healed in about a month. During that time, Bennett says they face another challenge --- how to keep the whooping crane from getting too used to human contact. He says if the crane loses its healthy fear of humans, it may spend the rest of its life in a zoo.
Members of Governor Pat Quinn's s commission on reform found support for change --- but not agreement on all the details --- at a town hall meeting that drew about 45 people to the law school at the University of Illinois Urbana campus on Monday.
The 15-member Reform Commission last week called for capping campaign contributions at 5 to 50-thousand dollars for political organizations, corporations and unions ... and 24-hundred dollars for individuals. Donations from lobbyists and trusts would be banned outright.
At the town hall meeting, U of I law student Mike Wilson had doubts. He thinks campaign contribution limits would favor candidates who already have money. "Don't contribution limits encourage the rich to run for and dominate elections", he asked, "especially elections for state legislatures, where individuals have a limited number of contributors, due to a small amount of people in a given district?" He likened the result to a "millionaire's club".
Reform Commission Chairman --- and former federal prosecutor --- Patrick Collins said Wilson made a good point. He suggested that the ultimate solution may lie with another commission proposal --- public financing of campaigns.. "The only way to counter balance the millionaire's club," said Collins, "is to give folks a public stipend, where they're owned by the people in five-dollar chunks, rather than owned by the 25-thousand-dollar-a-year givers."
In its preliminary proposals last week, the Reform Commission suggested trying campaign financing on a trial basis for judicial candidates only.
In addition to Collins, members of the Reform Commission at the town hall meeting included City of Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman and the Reverend Scott Willis. The Baptist minister who moved from Illinois to Tennessee in 2004 feels the impact of Illinois' corruption scandals in a searingly personal way. In 1994, the gas tank on his van exploded when it was struck by a mudflap bracket that fell off a truck on I-94 in northern Illinois. The expolosion killed six of Willis' children. A federal investigation into corruption in the office of then-Secretary of State George Ryan found that the driver of the truck paid a bribe to obtain his license.
When asked about the political factors underlying his personal tragedy, the Reverend Willis paused for several seconds. Finally, he said it came down to money, and the willingness of some in state government to hand out favors --- such as an undeserved truck driver's license --- for campaign contributions. Illinois state employees now take annual ethics training, but not until they've been on the job six months. Willis says by then it's often too late. "By that time, the ethics test doesn't really mean anything", he says, "because they've already learned the ropes of how things have been going on before. And money's a big part of that --- fund raising within the different departments and so on. So if anything, it's the love of money --- I'm a preacher --- it's the love of money, and the need of money to be able to get power."
The first round of recommendations from the Illinois Reform Commission calls for training state workers on ethics in their first month of employment, instead of the sixth.
Chairman Collins says their recommendations will need public support to win approval from lawmakers. Legislative leaders have set up their own joint committee to study reform, and Collins says his commission has been invited to address the legislative panel.
A University of Illinois economist doesn't see a bottom yet in the latest economic slowdown.
The monthly U of I Flash Index authored by Fred Giertz fell for a seventh straight month in March. It now stands at 95.6 - with any number below 100 showing economic contraction. It's been five months since the index showed growth in the Illinois economy. The Flash Index takes the state's economic pulse by examining state tax receipts for the previous month. Giertz expects further declines ahead for the index. It still hasn't reached the level seem in the last two slowdowns, in 1990 and 2001 - and Giertz believes this latest recession is deeper.
Voters in Champaign County will have the future of education funding in their hands when they hit the polls next Tuesday. At issue is a referendum to raise the county sales tax by a penny per dollar. The money would fund school building projects, pare down debt and potentially lower property taxes. As AM 580's Tom Rogers reports, after one failed attempt, the referendum's supporters are taking nothing for granted.
The Champaign School Board approved layoff notices for 80 teachers and other certified employees and 22 support staff Monday night. It's an annual practice that school officials say they dislike intensely, but are required to do.
Unit Four officials say most of the employees receiving Reduction-In-Force --- or RIF notices --- will be rehired for next year. But until they find out, they're in professional limbo. The high number of RIF notices results from the requirement to inform school employees of layoffs 60 days in advance ---- before their job status for next year has been finalized.
Champaign School Board President Dave Tomlinson cast the lone vote against the RIF notices.
"I voted no, because I hate RIF's, frankly, and this is part of the job I don't want to do", Tomlinson said.
But Tomlinson says he doesn't see a realistic alternative to the RIF notices. RIFed employees likely to be rehired are those who work parttime, are paid with grant money, were hired at the last minute, or have to comply with new certification rules.
The number of RIF notices sent out by Unit Four is roughly the same as last year, with just a handful of them representing jobs that have been definitely eliminated. Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd says that number could go up for next year, when school officials may have to cut additional jobs to deal with a projected decline in property tax revenue.
In Urbana, the District 116 school board sent out RIF notices to 52 teachers last week, and will vote on about five more next week.
CORRECTION: WILL broadcast reports on this story had incorrectly described the 80 certified employees receiving RIF notices as being all teachers, and put the number of support staff getting RIF notices at 23.
A $12 million bequest from a 1944 University of Illinois graduate will serve as a boost to areas in agriculture and liberal arts.
The gift comes from Arlys Streitmatter Conrad, who died in 2007. She lived in Speer, a small town near Peoria. She was the daughter of a farmer and teacher and wanted to honor both of her parents. So the money will be split between the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, or ACES.
Former ACES Associate Dean and U of I fundraiser Lynette Marshall also grew up in Speer, Illinois, where she says their families were connected. She and Conrad worked for more than 20 years to help establish a scholarship in Conrad's name, aimed at a junior and senior who planned careers in farming. Marshall also helped set up the financial donation. She says Conrad was happiest when talking with scholarship winners.
"In particular, young people who were hoping to go back to the farm and engage in production agriculture in her agricultural scholarships, or students that she met in the Department of English, when she felt like they really understood her goals for recognizing her mother in that way," says Marshall.
Marshall, who's now with the University of Iowa Foundation, calls Conrad a 'life-long learner' with an unending devotion to the U of I. Conrad attended the university on a 4-year scholarship, and her career included work with the U of I Airport and Alumni Association, and S and C Electric Company in Chicago, where she met her future husband, John Conrad. The 12-million dollar bequest will be part of the University of Illinois Foundation's $2.25 billion 'Brilliant Futures' campaign.
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