Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 22, 2011

Stage Collapse Lawsuits Could Challenge Ind. Same-Sex Marriage Rules

The first lawsuits filed over the Indiana State Fair stage collapse could challenge the state's rules on same sex marriage.

Attorney Kenneth Allen said his clients were recently married in Hawaii, a state that allows same sex civil unions. Beth Urschel was injured in the stage collapse. Her spouse, Tammy VanDam, died from the incident.

Allen said the lawsuits address a legal gray area in Indiana.

"Tammy was her wife and Beth is entitled to be treated as any spouse should be treated: fairly, equitably and justly under the law," he said Monday. "That's something we intend to challenge because as it stands now, Indiana law does not recognize her as a spouse and we expect to change that.

Allen said the court is the best place to address the issue because the state legislature hasn't taken action. Allen is seeking more than $50 million in damages on behalf of Urschel and the estate of VanDam.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 22, 2011

Victim of Ind. State Fair Stage Collapse to be Organ Donor

The family of a cheerleading coach from Ohio who suffered brain injuries when a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair says they've decided to "allow her to be at peace."

The family of 24-year-old Meagan Toothman says it became apparent Sunday night "that our Meagan was no longer with us." The family writes in an online journal posting that an organ donation surgery is planned for later Monday.

Marchele Hall of the Marion County coroner's office says Toothman is on life support at Methodist Hospital. Authorities earlier announced she had been pronounced dead.

Six others have died from injuries suffered when powerful winds toppled the stage onto fans waiting for the country act Sugarland to perform Aug. 13.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 22, 2011

Champaign Unit 4 Opens New Magnet Schools

One the two magnet schools starting up in Champaign Monday will immediately expose its students to other cultures and languages.

For the expanded and renovated Garden Hills Elementary, it's taken on an international baccalaureate program. Principal Cheryl O'Leary says students and visitors will right away notice the international hallway, representing the heritage of students from overseas.

She says each grade level will partner with a school from another country, and each student will learn Mandarin Chinese. And O'Leary says international baccalaureate schools are also required to focus on 10 learner profiles - words like inquiry, open-minded, and principled.

"We have those written above throughout the hallways in the building in five different languages for the children as they go through the halls " she said. "They'll have to know what it's like to be an inquirer and what it's like to be curious. So those are some of things that we'll be instilling in them pretty young during inquiry-based learning, and hoping that it continues on in their middle and high school years."

O'Leary says planning at Champaign Unit 4's district level should allow younger students, particularly those in kindergarten, to continue similar lessons once they reach middle school.

Just over 400 students attended Garden Hills last year. An April lottery was held for additional students wanting to attend the district's two magnet schools. That will boost Garden Hills' attendance to more than 520 this fall, near capacity for the building.

Unit 4's other magnet school opening Monday, the new Booker T. Washington Elementary, carries the STEM theme, or focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math.

School principal Asia Fuller-Hamilton says it's her hope that the students develop a love for science, have an appreciation for it as they grow older, and perhaps seek out a career in it. The program will allow the school to collaborate with the U of I's I-STEM initiative.

Fuller-Hamilton says lessons integrating the subjects will literally be all around the students.

"We want to be able to answer the question, 'Why do I need to do this math problem? Why do I need to learn this about these people, or about this in science?' We try to show them how it all goes together," she said. "And actually, the way that the building is built, it allows them to do that. The gym has geometric shapes as well as area and diameter math concepts on the flooring."

The school itself includes laptops for students, conference rooms at every grade level, art and music rooms, and a reservoir for rain water in order for students to maintain a garden. Prairie grass will be planted outside, keeping students from having to travel to a park to connect with those lessons.

About 300 students will attend the new Booker T. Washington school this fall.

A tour of Champaign's Booker T. Washington Elementary School from Illinois Public Media on Vimeo.

 

Categories: Education, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 19, 2011

Champaign Police Chief Stepping Down

The city of Champaign will start looking for a new police chief to take over when current chief R.T. Finney retires.

Finney has announced his decision to step down Jan. 20, 2012. In a press release, Finney said he is leaving with joy and trepidation after more than 30 years in the law enforcement profession. He became chief of police in Carbondale in 1999 and took the top post in Champaign four years later.

"I entered into law enforcement over 30 years ago as a civilian employee and since that time I have enjoyed working in every facet and position that law enforcement has to offer," Finney said in a statement.

Champaign city manager Steve Carter said Finney managed to help the police department earn its first accreditation and boost police community relations.

"We probably are doing a lot more as a police department in terms of trying to reach out to the community now than we ever have," Carter said. "R.T. has been very supportive of expanding those outreach efforts in the community."

Finney was one of the first two officers to respond to the incident that led to the 2009 police-shooting death of teenager Kiwane Carrington. Carter said efforts to improve citizens' image of police continue.

Carter noted that a search for Finney's successor will begin immediately, though a new chief might not be in place by the time Finney retires.

(Photo by Jim Meadows/WILL)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 19, 2011

Regional School Chiefs Sue to Get Paid by State

Illinois' 44 regional school superintendents have gone to court to get paid by Gov. Pat Quinn.

The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools filed a lawsuit in Sangamon County Friday seeking paychecks the Democratic governor cut off in July.

Bob Daiber is president of the superintendents' association. He says Quinn's action is "totally unfair.'' He says the chiefs didn't want to file a lawsuit but have "exhausted all options'' in trying to resolve the issue with Quinn.

The elected school chiefs inspect local public schools, do employee background checks, certify teachers, operate area alternative schools and more. But Quinn calls them unnecessary bureaucrats and halted more than $10 million to operate their offices for the budget year that began July 1.

The superintendents have worked without pay since.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 19, 2011

Champaign County Nursing Home Looking at Single Rooms as Revenue Source

The manager of the Champaign County Nursing Home says it's exploring the idea of offering more private-pay rooms for single patients to boost revenue.

Mike Scavatto told the Champaign County Board Thursday night that a drop in Medicare revenue has dealt what he calls a 'significant blow.' And he says nursing homes everywhere are seeing a delay in state Medicaid reimbursements. Republican and Nursing Home Board of Directors member Alan Nudo says he suggested the single room idea as a revenue stream.

"I think the board kind of said 'let's just go forward with it,' he said. "We don't have to have a flat-screen TV in there or cable hook-up at this stage. Let's just try to put in single rooms. And that still gives us plenty of room for Medicare and Medicaid beds."

Nudo suggests setting up just over 20 private rooms could bring in an extra $100-to 200-thousand. Scavatto says more amenities could be added when the nursing home can afford them.

As another long-term upgrade, the county nursing home wants to add renal dialysis equipment. Scavatto says not many homes offer it, and that could serve as a census builder, allowing residents to receive care in the home instead of forcing them to ride a bus to a medical center.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 19, 2011

Champaign County Board Backs High-Speed Rail Measure

The Champaign County Board has gone on record backing high-speed rail in the Midwest.

The board supported the non-binding resolution on a 15-to-8 vote Thursday night. Republicans Jonathan Schroder and Brad Jones joined all the board's Democrats in supporting the concept. Most Republicans argued that the U.S. is hardly in a financial position to pay for the rail system, saying what funds we do have should be used to keep up current infrastructure.

Aaron Esry said the state and the U.S. don't have any money for such a project, and won't for some time.

"I don't see how we can sit here and ask potentially more taxpayer money to be spent on another program at this point and time," he said. "Get our fiscal houses -- both the state and federal -- in shape, and we can look at this. At this point and time, I'm not going to vote for it."

But Democrat Tom Betz said this country should take the lead seen in places overseas, where high-speed rail networks present a real economic advantage.

"I personally don't expect to see it happen in my lifetime in this country, and in this area," he said. "I think there are places on the East Coast where it might be more effective. But the idea of abandoning this idea strikes me as not a very open, progressive thing to do."

Meanwhile, Democrat Michael Richards cited a feasibility study underway at the University of Illinois, and the ability for private investors to help support high-speed rail. The U of I is heading up the $1.2 million study to study financing options. The results are expected by the end of 2012.

The Champaign County Board's vote came a few hours after the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association spoke in Champaign, discussing the potential for a high-speed line to Chicago. Rick Harnish said the 220-mile an hour trains would mean reaching downtown in 45 minutes, and O'Hare International Airport in just over an hour, connecting the University of Illinois to the international world.

"It becomes easier to attract the kind of staff that really keeps the U of I on the map," he said in an afternoon press conference. "It becomes easier to keep the young people that are coming here to the university - to keep them here, so that when they come up with a great idea at U of I, they can stay here and develop that."

Harnish's group calls for the 'bullet' trains, along with modernized 90-mile an hour Amtrak trains linking areas in the Midwest.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 18, 2011

Secretary of State Questions Exemptions for Amish on ID Law

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White says lawmakers may want to reconsider a new law that paves the way to exempt the Amish from having pictures on identification cards.

White tells the Lee Springfield Bureau he doesn't understand how the cards can be used as identification if there are no pictures. White's office issues state identification cards and drivers' licenses.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law this week. It gives the Illinois Secretary of State the option to make rules to implement no photographs on IDs.

State Rep. Adam Brown supported the legislation. The Decatur Republican says Amish leaders requested the exemption, citing religious beliefs about having their pictures taken. Brown has suggested other methods to verify identities, such as an internal state system or using fingerprints.

Categories: Government, Politics, Religion

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 18, 2011

Illinois Politicians Praise New Deportation Policy

Illinois Democrats who've been fighting for federal immigration reform are praising the Obama administration's decision to allow many illegal immigrants facing deportation the chance to stay.

Homeland Security officials announced Thursday that authorities will review the cases of about 300,000 illegal immigrants facing possible deportation. Those without criminal records get to stay indefinitely and a chance to apply for a work permit.

Sen. Dick Durbin has supported DREAM Act legislation for illegal immigrant students for years. He says the policy is fair to young people who were brought into the country illegally by their parents.

Congressman Luis Gutierrez says it's the type of policy that immigrant rights advocates have been wanting from Obama.

Not all support it. Texas GOP Congressman Michael McCaul says Obama is implementing reforms against Congress' will.

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 18, 2011

Ind. Self-Policing Raises Questions on Fair Probe

Indiana's decision to essentially police itself as it investigates a fatal stage collapse at the state fair is raising questions about how objective the probe will be.

Workplace safety agencies, state police and fair officials are looking into Saturday's collapse that killed five people and injured dozens more. All are under the jurisdiction of the state, which also put on the fair. The lone outside agency brought in so far is an engineering firm hired by the Indiana State Fair Commission, raising questions about its independence.

Other states in similar positions have formed special commissions with outside experts to handle investigations, including of a bonfire collapse at Texas A&M University and the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels so far hasn't mentioned the idea, and instead has repeatedly referred to the wind gust that toppled the stage but spared other nearby structures as a freak occurrence that couldn't have been anticipated.

"The fair has an interest in protecting itself," attorney Jerry Miniard of Erlanger, Ky., who is representing an injured girl, said Thursday. "Why in the world would you let someone who may be responsible investigate themselves?"

Miniard said he is a friend of the father of 10-year-old Jade Walcott, whose skull was crushed by the falling stage. He questioned how thorough the probe will be given that it's nearly all being done in-house.

"The state of Indiana is basically investigating itself," he said.

Judy Nadler, a former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., who is a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said that could be a mistake.

"There's this sort of automatic default to say, we have people here internally who can take a look at this ... but for something so closely affiliated with the state, it would be wise to call upon someone who doesn't have any even perceived conflict of interest," Nadler said. She suggested bringing in someone from outside the state, perhaps even an outside regulator.

"I think it really is such a significant event ... it requires a level of independence to fully discern the facts and to fully convey to the public that this was a fair and thorough and impartial and nonpolitical look at what happened," she said.

State fair officials did announce this week that they had hired New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti Inc. to review the stage's design and construction, but Miniard questioned how far-ranging that probe might be since the state will determine the scope of the investigation.

"The state of Indiana is in complete control over the investigation," Miniard said. "And the state's interests are possibly different than those people who were injured or killed."

Fair spokesman Andy Klotz said the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies conducting their own investigations will all report to the fair commission. "I am quite sure that everybody is going to be satisfied with the thoroughness of this investigation," he said. "And nobody wants the answers more than us."

Attention also has centered on how fair officials reacted to worsening weather conditions, telling the audience minutes before a 60 to 70 mph wind gust brought the stage down onto the crowd that the show would likely go on - without mentioning that the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning. But it isn't clear which, if any, agency was investigating that aspect of the crisis.

"I don't know who that falls under, but absolutely, that's going to be part of it," said Klotz.

In other states and even in Indiana, officials sometimes have avoided any appearance of conflict of interest by bringing in outside investigators. After a 1999 bonfire collapse that killed 12 people at Texas A&M University, school officials appointed a five-person commission whose members had no direct ties to the university to investigate the tragedy. The University of Notre Dame conducted its own investigation into the death of a student killed last year when the hydraulic lift he was on fell over in high winds as he filmed football practice. But it hired Peter Likins, an engineer and the former president of the University of Arizona, to provide an independent review of its investigation.

Others have gone even further. After an explosion killed 29 men last year in the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, W.Va., the state's governor asked a former top federal mine regulator to investigate the accident. And Colorado's governor appointed an independent commission to investigate the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.

A spokeswoman for Daniels didn't immediately return phone calls about whether he had considered such an option.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said there was ultimately no way to avoid outside investigations of an accident like the state fair stage collapse because there were bound to be lawsuits by victims and their families.

"In a sense, the lawsuit is the outside investigation," Stern said.

Miniard said he was sending a letter to Daniels asking him to issue an executive order securing the stage so that the victims can conduct their own investigations into the accident, though he said it was too early to gauge the likelihood of a lawsuit without a better understanding of what happened.

In other cases, he said, families have had to seek restraining orders to compel officials to preserve evidence. Miniard said he had called and written to state police, the state fire marshal and fair officials with his request and received no response.

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)


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