Illinois Public Media News
Illinois' top education official says schools should expect to receive all they state funding they've been promised for this year - but they shouldn't expect to get it before the end of the school year.
State school superintendent Christopher Koch says it would take a change in state law for the state to withhold funds permanently. But districts - and other state agencies and contractors -- have been waiting for the funding for months, and the statewide backlog has surpassed six billion dollars.
Koch says he can't tell schools when they can expect to see the money.
"You're not going to see it in this fiscal year", says Koch, "and even if the fiscal year's extended, we're not sure when money will be delivered. General state aid payments have been timely. Everything else has been delayed. Another large payment that school districts are awaiting are the reimbursements for transportation, special education costs. Those are in a category called Mandated Categoricals. Those are still pending --- one from December and one from April."
Koch says with the delays stretching back more than a year, it's getting increasingly tougher for school districts to plan their budgets several years down the line.
Koch was in Urbana Monday to salute eight Champaign County schools named to the Illinois Honor Roll - one of them, Urbana's Wiley School, has been discussed as a potential target for closing.
U of I students at a sometimes contentious town-hall-style meeting on the Urbana campus Monday night accused administrators of not doing enough to bring the school through the current financial crisis.
Students from the GEO --- the union representing grad students on campus --- and the Undergraduate Graduate Alliance told administrators at the meeting they weren't doing enough to lobby lawmakers to pass an income tax hike to fund higher education.
Administrators, including Associate Provost for Budget and Resource Planning Michael Andrechak, said the administration was fighting hard for the U of I's survival --- but the state's fiscal problems are a big challenge.
"The state's economic situation is absolutely catastrophic", said Andrechak. "A tax increase is needed. It's very unlikely that one will occur prior to the election."
GEO incoming co-president Stephanie Sewall says the university has to increase the pressure on lawmakers. She says an expected tuition hike will prevent more students from attending the U of I.
"I wasn't convinced that fundamentally, preserving accessibility to public education is reflected in the decisions that are being made", said Sewall. "And more work has to be done on that."
Students at the meeting talked about the likelihood of 10 to 20 percent tuition hikes. But U of I interim president Stanley Ikenberry said earlier this month he believes the next tuition increase will be under 10 percent.
Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias says no one from the Democratic Party has suggested he step aside following the failure last week of his family's bank.
Giannoulias said Monday at the Courier Cafe in Urbana the failure of Broadway Bank on Friday gives him a better understanding of the economic struggles of many Americans. Giannoulias says a lack of regulation in the commercial real estate market can partially be blamed on the poor economic policies of his opponent, Republican Congressman Mark Kirk. "I'm not saying that mistakes weren't made in the private sector, of course there were." said Giannoulias. "That being said, what's taken place with community banks, with the seven community banks that failed on Friday, the four more that got consent agreements with FDIC, when you have a real estate market that just plummets the way it did over the last two years, you're going to be dealing with huge challenges."
Giannoulias was in Urbana Monday. Giannoulias says he looks forward to debating his opponent, and offering voters a departure from policies that allowed the national debt to double in the last decade under President George W. Bush. The Treasurer also says he plans on being in Quincy on Wednesday, when President Obama gives a speech on Wall Street reform. And The White House on Friday ended speculation about whether Obama would campaign for Giannoulias, saying the president would help all Illinois Democrats. At the Urbana cafe, Giannoulias listened to University of Illinois students talk about their doubts they'll be able to find jobs when they graduate.
Mattoon Mayor Dave Cline has submitted his resignation, saying he has moved into a subdivision outside the city limits.
Cline submitted a letter of resignation Monday morning at Mattoon City Hall, saying his last full day as mayor will be Friday.
Cline said later he had chosen to move into his new residence, knowing that would end his term as mayor. Under Illinois law, elected municipal officials must live within city limits.
The resignation comes less than a week after three city commissioners refused to approve annexation resolutions for Cline's new residence.
Cline said the annexation was designed to bring more property into the city, but City Attorney Preston Owen said Cline had delayed the annexation for several months to avoid paying for a city building permit. Cline denied those accusations.
Federal money will give health officials in Vermilion County the chance to inspect old industrial sites for contaminated waste and discuss their future.
Half the $400,000 grant from the US EPA will go towards identifying hazardous substances... while the other $200,000 is to identify petroleum as part of the agency's Brownfields assessment program.
Doug Toole is an environmental health specialist with the county's health department. He's identified 32 potential sites for inspection and possible cleanup... including old factories, gas stations, salvage yards, and dry cleaners. The sites are in Danville and nearby cities like Hoopeston and Westville.
Toole says the funds will let the county bring in an environmental consultant to help coordinate public hearings. He says the first hearings wouldn't be about specific sites, but serve more as an orientation:
When people are complaining about junk houses in their community and dump sites and things like that --- stuff that we handle on a routine basis --- and that's good", says Toole. "We can get those things cleaned up. But I want to be sure the public's aware of what we're talking about with a brownfield. Just because there's an empty business in the area doesn't mean that that it necessarily has contaminants in the soil or asbestos or lead-based paint."
The $400,000 from the EPA can't be used for salaries at the financially struggling health department. Toole says a separate grant will be required for cleanup of the sites, and other hearings will be held to look at potential uses. Danville failed in its bid to receive the same EPA grant, but plans on re-applying.
The Vermilion County Health Department is owed half a million dollars from the state, and has laid off more than 40 employees this year. Toole says it's hard to say what would happen if the department was to fold, but he would expect that someone else in the county would take over the work.
The attorney representing Kiwane Carrington's family in their civil lawsuit against Champaign Police says Thursday's decision to suspend the police officer involved to 30 days' unpaid suspension doesn't necessarily make their case stronger.
But James Montgomery Junior says he plans to build the family's case on the testimony of the only other witness to the shooting other than the officers - the teenager who was with Carrington, Jeshaun Manning-Carter.
"While Officer Norbits claims he doesn't remember them (certain alleged facts in the case that Montgomery wouldn't disclose), this young man does, and (he) will shed clear light on the fact that Kiwane Carrington was wrongfully shot, and there was some conduct there that went beyond accidental firing of the weapon."
Montgomery calls Officer Daniel Norbits' 30 day suspension a good first step toward picking up the pieces from the shooting. Yet another investigation of the police shooting incident - this one by the Justice Department -- is still in progress.
A long-range plan to guide Champaign County regulation of rural land use won county board approval Thursday night with the support of all of the Democrats and half the Republicans.
The new Land Resource Management Plan covers a wide range of issues, with the goal of preserving Champaign County's prime farmland. But the focus of recent controversy had been limits on what development will be allowed on agricultural land "by right", that is, without county approval. As originally drafted, the plan limited building on farmland to one lot per 40 acres. But Barb Wysocki, the County Board's Democratic Land Use Committee Chair says that was modified during talks with Republicans over the last two weeks..
"Some were very adamant that the strict one-per-40, which is where we started, had virtually no support in the Republican caucus", said Wysocki, "which obviously was not going to work."
What apparently did work was a policy allowing two new lots per 40 acres of farmland by right, as long as no more than 3 acres of best prime farmland is developed. With that change added, six Republicans voted for the plan meant to guide county land use regulation for the next 20 years.
But Mahomet Republican John Jay doesn't feel the plan gets it right. While recent debate focused on how much farmland an owner could develop without seeking county permission, Jay says the problems with the plan go beyond that.
"Specifically property owner rights, obviously" said Jay. "But more importantly, it's overreached. And I'm not sure where we're going with this. You know, building codes and health and safety issues, and all the things that concern all of us, shouldn't be in a land use plan. A land use plan ought to be concise to land use."
Jay was one of the six Republicans voting against the Land Resource Management Plan.
Champaign County officials must now work out how to apply the plan to its ordinances and rules governing rural land use. They had struggled for years to find consensus for a comprehensive zoning review, before deciding to work out the Land Resource Management Plan as a guideline.
One of the six other Republicans who voted no, John Jay, says the Land Resource Management Plans' main problem is its overall scope --- one he says goes far beyond actual land use issues.
The Vermilion County Health Department is cutting four more programs that rely on state grants and 20 additional jobs with it. Department Administrator Steve Laker says the County's Board Of Health was forced into this move after the Vermilion County Board this week rejected a request for an additional loan of $400,000. The state now owes the health department $500,000 - an amount expected to grow to $700,000 by June.
As of May 21st, the department's staff will be nearly half what it was the first of this year, with 32 total job cuts. The four programs being eliminated are Family Case Management, Healthworks Illinois, Healthy Child Care, and the Case Coordination Unit. Laker says that unit's nursing home pre-screenings will be among those areas missed the most. "We're going to work with anybody we can so that hopefully these services get picked up by someone else locally and facilitate that transition, "said Laker. "But we don't have any assurance of that yet."
Laker says his goal now is holding onto the Women, Infants, and Children - or WIC program, and Family Planning, which are federal programs. WIC is exclusively federally funded, while Family Planning relies partially on county money. Laker says both have been running in Vermilion County for about 40 years. "So these are long-standing practices and well-accepted pratices," said Laker. "However, right now, these are times we've never experienced. So we're being squeezed, they're (Vermilion County) being squeezed, and unfortunately, what's on the potential chopping block is these services." Cutting those federal programs would reduce the health department to minimum certified status, reducing its staff by about two-thirds, to about 20 employees. Laker says he's considering other options, including mandatory furlough days for employees. If the department does have to cut WIC and Family Planning, he notes it would have an obligation to pay those staff members their accrued benefits, as well as their unemployment, which is funded by the county.
The officer who shot and killed a teenager during a scuffle behind a Champaign home last fall will be suspended without pay for 30 days.
Officer Daniel Norbits and Police Chief RT Finney had responded to a call on Vine Street last October 9th-in the ensuing confrontation with 15 year old Kiwane Carrington and another teen, Norbits' firearm went off, killing Carrington. The incident worsened already-tense relations between Champaign police and African-Americans in the city. 30 days unpaid suspension is the toughest discipline allowed short of termination under the city's union contact with police.
Retired McLean County judge John Freese was one of two outside experts asked to investigate the incident. Freese found that Officer Norbits violated police rules by not having enough control over his firearm with struggling with Carrington - namely, his trigger finger was improperly placed.
"While the officer was using his left hand to try to take Carrington to the ground, the weapon which was in his right hand had sufficient pressure placed on the trigger to discharge the weapon," Freese said. "And training would have expected the officer to have his finger indexed on the side of the weapon so it would be outside of the trigger guard."
City Manager Steve Carter also used an internal investigation to determine that Norbits failed to maintain control of the weapon. He believes the discipline fits the violation - it's the strongest punishment short of firing.
"The death of a person in Champaign-Urbana is a serious matter for sure," Carter said. "The public has some right to expect our police officers to handle their weapons in a way that doesn't endanger the public."
The other outside investigator in the case, retired Urbana police chief Eddie Adair, says the indexing technique is taught to all officers, but it should be reiterated every year to rookies and veterans alike.
"We see this as an opportunity to improve on how we administer our training," said Adair. "Because even if it is a tragic incident, it's still an opportunity for us to learn as human beings. That's what's most important here."
The union representing Champaign Police issued a prepared statement saying it's extremely disappointed by Norbits' suspension. The Fraternal Order of Police labor council says Carrington brought about the tragedy through his own resistance.
In December State's Attorney Julia Rietz decided not to file criminal charges against Norbits or Finney. Earlier this month, the state's attorney's office dropped a juvenile charge against the other boy involved in the incident.
While local agencies struggle to get by because of overdue state funding, Governor Pat Quinn says Illinois will meet all of its obligations for fiscal year 2010.
"We have adequate revenue to pay all the bills", Quinn said to reporters in Champaign on Wednesday. "It's been slow. The payments have been delayed, because we have a mountain of debt that I inherited when I became governor. I'm doing the very best I can to pay our debt down. I have to tell the truth about what we have to do to get that done."
Quinn says the most important thing for lawmakers to do is to pass the increase in the state income tax that he's proposed to help pay for education. But the governor avoided saying whether he thought House Speaker Mike Madigan would allow to vote to occur in his chamber.
"Mike Madigan, the Speaker, is a good friend of mine", said Quinn. "I talk to him every day, practically. But I don't agree with him every day, and he doesn't agree with me. And so we have discussions and dialog. And ultimately, I think the best thing for the people is to have a vote. That's what democracy is, and that's what legislatures are all about. And they should vote on something as revenue for education."
Quinn has proposed a list of what he calls "loopholes" in the tax code that he wants to close --- including a proposed tax on digital downloads and requiring banks to disclose the accounts of tax scofflaws. But he says the one percentage-point increase in the state income tax is his top priority.
The governor also proposes extending the deadline by which the state must pay bills from the previous fiscal year by another four months past the current September 1st date. Administration officials says that would help the state pay service providers first, and relieve the pressure on agencies that have struggling to stay open due to delays in state grant money. The deadline extension is part of a proposal that also includes additional budget cuts and borrowing to pay pensions.
The governor spoke to reporters outside downtown Champaign's Virginia Theater, during opening night of the 12th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival. Quinn introduced the long-time film critic at the festival, presenting him with a copy of a proclamation naming Wednesday "Ebertfest Day" in Illinois. Also during his stop in Champaign, the governor marked the oncoming celebration of Earth Day with a tour of a model solar-powered house designed by University of Illinois students. The "Gable Home" won second place in last year's biennial Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the U-S Department of Energy.
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