Illinois Public Media News
Rallies were held on all three University of Illinois campuses Thursday as talks of a strike loomed among graduate workers in Urbana. Some of the chanting was aimed at administrators as more than 300 members and supporters of the Graduate Employees Organization made their way across the campus quad. The rally was held a few hours after two busloads of union members rallied in Springfield, where U of I Trustees were meeting, while 50 with the GEO rallied in Chicago.
Its membership approved a strike authorization vote last week over a living wage and guaranteed tuition waivers. The union says the U of I has agreed to a new negotiating session slated for Saturday afternoon. Co-President Caroline Nappo says it's the result of the membership meeting a week ago when more than 90% of voting members favored a strike. "When we put serious pressure on the university related to a possible work action they are more responsive," says Nappo. "We've been negotiating for almost seven months now and from April until just a few weeks ago, the university hadn't made any kind of offer that gave us anything." Nappo says there's been some movement on the areas of health care coverage and parental leave, and the administration agreed to drop some language about discrimination-based grievances.
GEO spokesman Peter Campbell says adding the Saturday session is encouraging, but its strike committee has been meeting regularly and can call for a work stoppage at any time. U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says she's hopeful the best possible contract can be reached within the university's financial constraints.
Former University of Illinois Urbana campus Chancellor Richard Herman has taken himself out of the running for another university leadership position.
Not long after his last day as chancellor, it was revealed Herman was one of five finalists for the president's job at New Mexico State University. But a press release Wednesday from the school says Herman has taken his name out of consideration, saying he has other obligations that prevent him from continuing as a candidate.
Herman resigned as chancellor last month as part of the fallout from the U of I's admissions controversy. Records showed he had weighed on admissions officials to accept prospective students endorsed by powerful political figures or trustees.
Once again, the Champaign City Council chamber was filled to capacity Tuesday night, with people concerned about police practices in the wake of the shooting death of Kiwane Carrington. This time, the topic was the department's new Use of Force policy, which took effect just before the 15 year old Carrington was shot in a police confrontation.
In his first public comments since his involvement in the confrontation in which Carrington was shot, Police Chief R-T Finney defended the policy, which he says was revised as part of his efforts to earn professional accreditation for the police department. He argued against remarks from police critics, who said that African-Americans were subject to more use of force by Champaign Police than white residents.
"The use of force is based on reasonableness," said Finney. "It's based on the actions that are presented to the officer. We review each one of them for that. It has nothing to do with race."
In contrast to two previous council meetings, police officers and supporters turned out in large numbers at Tuesday night's study session. Many wore buttons that said "Support Our Police". Albert Lo defended the Use of Force policy against critics who said it needed to be more specific.
"The Use of Force policy probably should be ambiguous," said Lo, "giving officers the opportunity to use their best judgment. That's why we hired them."
In contrast, 1st District Councilman Will Kyles said he thought the revised Use of Force policy might be too vague. For instance, he called for more specific guidelines on when officers can draw their gun.
Champaign Police officials say the revised policy allows deadly force only in cases where great bodily harm has or may occur. And they say the guidelines for Tasers are for when the department may call in another law enforce agency that uses Tasers --- Champaign does not. Chief Finney has talked about reviving the idea, but would not comment on the idea last night.
C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice was among those arguing Tuesday night for more specific language in the Use of Force policy, and against any language on Tasers. They also want any changes in police policy that directly affects affecting the community to come before the Champaign City Council. The group plans a noon-hour youth rally on Wednesday, Veterans Day, at the downtown Urbana Veterans Memorial, in memory of Kiwane Carrington.
A Douglas County Judge has ruled that an autistic 1st grader can continue bringing his service dog to school. Judge Michael Freese sided Tuesday with the family of 6-year old Kaleb Drew, saying 'Chewey' clearly functions as a service animal, keeping him calm and focused in class. Kaleb's mother, Nichelle Drew, says before the family got the Labrador retriever, her son often slept 2 to 3 hours at night, ran away from home, and they weren't able to take him to places like grocery stores and restaurants.
"We were seeing such improvement with Kaleb and such growth with Kaleb and Chewey as a team that we didn't want anything to hinder that," says Drew. "We wanted it to be able to continue and for Kaleb just to be able to continue to experience life to the fullest. And I think that's what every parent wants for their child. As parent of a child with autism, it's something that I don't get to experience very often."
Attorneys for the Villa Grove school district argued the dog wasn't helping the child's development, and can be disruptive to other students and staff. Based on the testimony from school staff, Judge Freese noted problems in dealing with the dog at times. But he says the real problems were with a state statute that doesn't clearly define Chewey's role while accompanying Kaleb at school. Villa Grove schools attorney Brandon Wright says its legal team is still weighing its options, and could appeal the district's decision. He says a big problem lies with a state law that allows service animals in schools, but doesn't provide much guidance.
"When you have a student who is young and incapable of being the handler of a dog, what does that mean for the school in terms of its responsibility?," says Wright. "And this statute is silent on that and the judge recognized that conundrum for the school district." This case and a separate lawsuit involving an autistic boy in southwestern Illinois are the first challenges to the state's law allowing service animals in schools. Authorities in both school districts have said that the boys' needs must be balanced against those of other children who have allergies or fear the animals.
A new dispute has erupted among a utility, environmental officials and neighbors near a Champaign site that decades ago hosted a manufactured gas plant.
Ameren has been treating soil and groundwater on the site but maintains that contamination from the residue buried in the soil has not leached out into the surrounding area. The Champaign County Health Care Consumers disputes that, and today they say a nearby water main replacement project is digging up some of that questionable soil.
The group's director, Claudia Lenhoff, says Illinois American Water, Ameren and the city left neighbors in the dark over the safety of the water main project.
"This corridor here should be tested in order to remove any doubt to whether it's safe or not to be digging this soil and into the groundwater," Lennhoff said. "Just a few feet that way (toward the site itself) is contaminated."
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris says the water company cleared the project with them. "We were aware of what they're doing. They are aware of what we're doing," Morris said. "They know what the extent of the contamination is. And there is no contamination that they would need to be concerned about.'
But one neighbor, Magnolia Cook, distrusts whatever Ameren is saying about the site's safety. "Ameren has never told us the truth about anything, so why would we believe what Ameren is saying as far as this site is concerned, "Cook said. "How come the Illinois EPA is not out here to see what's underneath this dirt while they're digging?"
Neighbors have questioned why the Illinois EPA issued a permit for the project using Ameren's test results. However, Randy West, local field operations superintendent with Illinois American Water, says they commissioned their own soil testing along the water main site, and found no evidence of any contamination from the old gas plant.
As the union that represents graduate student employees threatens a strike, University of Illinois administrators are laying out some ground rules for all employees.
Members of the Graduate Employees Organization say they could call a walkout within the next week if it doesn't see progress in contract talks with Urbana campus negotiators.
U of I Spokeswoman Robin Kaler says the union has a right to strike, but grad students who teach classes for undergraduates have an obligation to make appropriate plans.
"If an instructor is planning to change a course time or course location or something like that, that instructor is expected to let students know in advance about any of those changes or any arrangements that might be made," Kaler said.
Kaler also says U of I employees who aren't part of the GEO but don't want to cross picket lines to work will have to use vacation days to do so. Both sides in the contract dispute expect to begin another negotiating session next week, but GEO spokesman Peter Campbell warned that a strike could be called before then.
New boundary lines to relieve overcrowding at Champaign Centennial High School won approval from the Unit Four School Board Monday night. The change will move some households from one high school to another starting next fall --- but current high school students don't have to move if they want to.
Some Champaign Central territory will go to Centennial and vice versa in the plan, which aims to make enrollment at the two high schools nearly equal, while also maintaining racial, ethnic and socio-economic balance. But Unit Four school board president Dave Tomlinson says current high school students can arrange to stay in their current school if they want to.
"And I'll make it clear", says Tomlinson, "because there was a faulty report in the media a few weeks ago, no current students --- unless they want to move --- are going to be moved. If you're in high school, you can stay in your high school".
In addition, those students' younger brothers and sisters will also be admitted to the same high school, if their high school years would overlap with their older siblings'.
Tomlinson actually voted against the new redistricting plan. He disagrees with the plan's assumption on where and when a new Champaign Central High School building will eventually go up. But he says plan that passed on a 6 to 1 vote last night is adequate to rebalance high school enrollment.
In other action, the Unit Four school board approved the initial layout plans for a new Booker T. Washington Elementary School. The north side school will be rebuilt as a science and technology magnet school. Plans to expand Garden Hills School to become an arts and performance magnet school will be voted on later this month.
The interim president designate of the University of Illinois wants to see changes to how trustees are chosen.
Stanley Ikenberry says he's confident the current U of I board will restore integrity to the system after an admissions scandal. An investigation found political influence helped some less qualified applicants gain admission.
All but two trustees have been replaced in the past few months. While the Governor has authority to make appointments... Ikenberry says some of the power should be shared.
"There are a number of good models out there", says Ikenberry, "but we need to put this on our agenda to make sure we have the appropriate process that will give us the very best board of trustees."
Ikenberry says he favors letting Governors select 3 trustees... with the University's Alumni Association selecting the remainder.
"Fortunately we have a superb board, perhaps the strongest board in our history", say Ikenberry. "But we need to make sure that continues in the long term future for the unversity. it's very important."
Others want the public to elect U of I board members. That's how the process worked until 1996, when all state university boards were revamped under then-Governor Jim Edgar.
The former head of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District has been indicted on theft and official misconduct charges.
A Champaign County jury returned the seven-count felony indictment against 53-year-old Vito Palazzolo last week. A warrant has been issued for his arrest. It wasn't immediately clear whether he's been taken into custody.
Palazzolo is accused of using a health district credit card for personal use, including to buy a pickup truck and big-screen TVs.
The indictment includes charges of theft of governmental property, official misconduct and misapplication of funds. He was with the health district for 17 months until he was fired in August 2007.
No published telephone listing for Palazzolo could be located on Saturday.
Members of the union representing graduate employees at the University of Illinois Urbana campus have overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization vote. The Graduate Employees Organization says 92 percent of members voting last week approved the question.
Graduate Employees Organization spokesman Peter Campbell says a strike committee held its first meeting Sunday, and is making plans for a potential walkout by graduate and teaching assistants. However, Campbell says they want to get back to the bargaining table quickly. While the next tentative date for a meeting between GEO and university negotiators is November 17th. Campbell says the union is asking the administration to meet with them as often as possible before then, in the hopes of making progress towards a new contract before any walkout is held.
"The GEO continues to remain committed to negotiating in good faith in the bargaining room", says Campbell. "But GEO members have authorized and are ready to call a strike at any moment.
Grad student employees have been working at the U of I Urbana campus without a contract all this semester. Campbell says their two top concerns in current contract talks are a living wage for all union members and protection for tuition waivers.
University spokesperson Robin Kaler said Sunday night that while the administration recognizes the union's right to strike, it does not feel a strike would be in the union's or the university's best interests.
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