Illinois Public Media News
Some University of Illinois students are taking their demand for two administrators' resignations to another level.
Members of Students for Chief Illiniwek found email exchanges that they claim show administrators conspiring to stop a student-sponsored Chief performance at the Assembly Hall last fall. Members of the Urbana campus' student senate are looking over a resolution calling for an investigation of Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Renee Romano's involvement. And now the leader of a new group opposing Romano, Jerry Vachaparambil, says they may try to recruit help from state lawmakers.
"Because this is a public institution, they can admonish administrators for not acting in the best interest of the taxpayers or the students," Vachaparambil said.
Romano says the email exchanges were not meant to stifle students' right to free speech and assembly. She says they were a conversation between officials struggling with the on-campus performance in light of the U of I's decision to retire the Chief three years ago.
"Administrators often talk back and forth about, well, if we do this what's going to mean and how does that all work," Romano said. "But ultimately, they were able to have their event."
The Student Senate may vote next week on the resolution, which also targets Romano's associate vice chancellor Anna Gonzalez.
A Web site detailing Ilinois' financial outlook is now up and running. Governor Pat Quinn's office unveiled the site Wednesday.
The Website, budget.illinois.gov, opens with a video from the Governor's budget director ... David Vaught, who asks viewers, "Would you cut money from education and give more to health care? Or would reduce spending to both and spend more on road construction? Would you raise taxes? And by how much?"
Commenters can answer those questions ... or give other suggestions ... in a public comment section.
Vaught says within the first two hours ... about 250 people had done so. That's despite criticism that the graphs and figures don't make it easy enough for the average person to understand.
The site doesn't get into much detail about what the governor is planning. That will come March 10th, when Quinn gives his annual budget address.
But what it does include is telling. A reading of one table shows that the governor will suggest cutting more than two billion dollars in the next budget. Education ... from kindergarten to universities ... will have funding reduced, as well as public safety, economic development, and human services.
Vaught says it's dire, but realistic ... and says it still leaves Illinois with an 11 and a half billion dollars deficit.
Vaught says cuts will occur with or without a tax increase.
Illinois lawmakers are advancing a plan to do away with the Lieutenant Governor's office, which has been vacant for over a year.
While there have been calls to abolish the position before, there's now a powerful backer of the idea. Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan says the time has come. "Many over the years have spoken to the wisdom of eliminating the office," Madigan said. "I think this is an opportunity, and we should take advantage of the opportunity."
The often-ridiculed office has no official duties, only those assigned by the Governor. Madigan's plan would make the Attorney General the next in line in order of succession. The office of Lieutenant Governor has been under scrutiny since Scott Lee Cohen was forced to give up the Democratic nomination this month after allegations of violence against women surfaced.
Madigan's measure would take effect in 2015 and won't impact the upcoming election. A House committee has given approval over objections from Republicans concerned it could crowd out public initiatives on the fall ballot. The entire General Assembly must still pass it and 60 percent of voters would then need to agree for the change to occur.
Champaign school superintendent Arthur Culver is guaranteed to keep his job through 2014 after a school board vote.
But Culver has volunteered not to take a pay raise as Unit 4 fights budget problems like most other Illinois districts. Tuesday night, board members evaluated Culver's performance and voted 4-3 to extend his contract one additional year.
Board president Dave Tomlinson says as a rule he had voted against extensions before. But he says Culver's work in bringing a nine year federal consent decree to an end merited a second look.
"There's one way the board can acknowledge to the superintendent that he has led us through probably one of the most difficult times in Unit 4, and that is with a contract extension," Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson says Culver and other administrators turned down raises last year even though their salaries are tied to the current teachers' contract, which called for 4% raises.
The city of Champaign is looking for a new council member to represent a portion of southwest Champaign.
Dave Johnson says he will step down from his District 5 council seat after next week's council meeting - in a news release from the city, Johnson says he will be moving to Cleveland to accept a new job. Johnson was elected to his first term last April. Council members will discuss the succession process next Tuesday - whoever the full council chooses from applicants will have to have lived in Champaign for at least a year and be a District Five resident. That person would fill Johnson's seat until the next consolidated election in 2011.
The debate over extending Olympian Drive moved to the Champaign City Council chamber last (Tuesday) night. Council members gave their preliminary endorsement for an intergovernmental agreement with Urbana and Champaign County to complete the 27-millon dollar extension.
Council members also heard comments from landowners in the area of the extension who oppose the project. They say that the road --- and the development it would attract --- would destroy hundreds of acres of high-quality farmland. They found an ally in Councilwoman Marcy Dodds, who cast the lone "no" vote Tuesday night.
"Farmland is an amenity, not an obstacle," Dodds said before the vote. "It's sustainable economically, and it speaks to our quality of life. We need to stop looking at concrete like it's the last word in economics."
But John Dimit of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation told the council that the impact of development on farmers would not be as bad as they feared.
"We all know 1600 acres --- that's been the touted amount that this land --- would open up for urban development. That's not going to happen overnight," Dimit said. "It's not going to happen at all if the road's not developed. But it'll happen gradually if the road is out there. So, many of the farms out there, I think will be able to continue in agricultural interests.
Backers of the Olympian Drive extension say it would provide a needed route between I-57 on the west side of Champaign-Urbana, and US 45 to the east. The project depends on a mix of state, local and federal funding. The Champaign City Council will take a final vote on the intergovernmental agreement on March 16. Urbana and the Champaign County Board will also vote on the proposal this spring.
After mold and ventilation problems delayed the completion of the new Champaign County nursing home, the county board went after the nursing home's builders to collect damages. Now the last of those efforts is completed.
Arbitrators have ruled that Otto Baum Company, one of the prime contractors on the project, must pay Champaign County $405,000 for problems caused by mold found on wood during nursing home construction. After outstanding bills owed to Otto Baum are paid, the county will be ahead by nearly $150,000. Rantoul Township Republican Stan James serves on the county board's facilities committee. He says the settlement of the mold issue frees the county board up to focus on other concerns.
"That's one less thing on our plate, and now we can move on. We've got bigger budget issues to tackle and a host of issues due the economy that we need to be focusing on," James said.
While Champaign County is receiving some money in the binding decision, the arbitrators say the county also shares in the responsibility. The arbitrators' report say that the county, Otto Baum Company and construction manager PKD all should have known that unvented heaters were not adequate to keep mold away from wood used in nursing home construction.
Damages from Otto Baum, plus previous awards from other firms involved in nursing home construction are providing Champaign County with about $1.3 million in payments to help make up for extra costs and delays in nursing home construction. Facilities Committee Chairman Steve Beckett estimates that the payments fall $300,000 to $500,000 short of the county's expenses.
Danville State Representative Bill Black wants to know how quickly state leaders plan to help institutions like the University of Illinois with their overdue payments.
He says the arrival of more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds earmarked for Kindergarten-thru-12th grade education should free up general state aid dollars initially designed for grade and high schools. Black is one of 10 GOP lawmakers who have signed a letter to Governor Pat Quinn and Comptroller Dan Hynes, urging them to use some of those dollars for higher education. Black says he wants them to develop a priority list. "Do you simply direct all of it to unpaid bills?," says Black. "There's nothing particularly wrong with that. But, what bills? Are you just going to take them in the order that they're late, or should we get together and say look, universities are in trouble, community colleges are in trouble, some of that money needs to be set aside to pay bills in our higher education system." The letter was also signed by Representatives Chapin Rose of Mahomet and Dan Brady of Bloomington. It requests a meeting with Quinn and Hynes.
Rose says this letter in intended to compliment the efforts of University presidents, who recently wrote their own letter to the Governor seeking a timeline for payments. A minimum of $4 billion is expected to come into the state's coffers through next month. The funds not only include stimulus dollars, but the $840 million proceeds of a pension bond sale, $1.5 billion from March and April tax collections, and $400 million from Illinois' Family Care settlement lawsuit. Rose says this letter in intended to compliment the efforts of University presidents, who recently wrote their own letter to the Governor seeking a timeline for payments. He expects the meeting to take place.
"I've found Mr. Quinn to be very accessible and open, as I have Mr. Hynes," says Rose. "So I expect we'll have an audience and be able to talk about this. But again, my point is there's not much to talk about because there's $4-5 billion coming in the door here. So just tell us when they're going to get paid. It's as simply as that." Black suggests that could free up about $ 250 million for the U of I, more than half of what the state owes the university. He notes the MAP grants, or Monetary Awards Program scholarships, are still owed that much as well.
Urbana city officials ran into heavy criticism last fall when they proposed fining landlords who allow criminal behavior to continue unabated on their property. Now, the city is proposing a new version of the ordinance.
Mayor Laurel Prussing says the re-drafted ordinance is virtually identical to the one already on the books in neighboring Champaign. Landlords who fail or refuse to do anything to control criminal activities on their properities like drug trafficking or gang violence could face fines. But, at the Urbana City Council's Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday night, Prussing said landlords would have a clear process whereby they can work with the city to deal with the problems first.
"If (the process) doesn't work, and the landlord has tried", said Prussing. "they will not be punished. I mean, we're trying to work with people."
Most Urbana city council members voiced support for the new ordinance last night. But Republican Heather Stevenson said the new version of the ordinance was no better than the old one. And Democrat David Gehrig said that while the new ordinance was an improvement, but he still had doubts.
"There's still something sitting in my gut saying that this is an ordinance about A being punished for what B does", said Gehrig. "And I just haven't been able to get it to sit right yet."
Attorney Kip Pope told the city council that ordinance would penalize landlords unfairly for tenant behavior they can't control, especially since Urbana city code prevents them from turning down tenants with felony convictions.
The Urbana City Council is keeping the ordinance in committee for revisions, and to get public feedback.
A series of ad hoc committees have started the arduous task of identifying areas on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus that might find ways to make cuts or even raise some revenue.
'Stewarding Excellence at Illinois' is expected to last several months. One of the committees has already identified four areas for evaluation due to the higher education funding crisis. Graduate College Dean Deba Dutta chairs the Campus Steering Committee. He says his group is meeting twice a week, and expects to identify more areas over the next several months. "And we'll keep on doing this until we, as a campus, feel that we have looked everything that needs to be looked at," says Dutta. "I mean that's the general feeling. I can't say that there's going to be 15 projects, or 35 projects. But we have in this process, we have a lot of involvement of faculty, students, and staff."
The first four areas under review are the Institute of Aviation, Information Technology, The Office of Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement, and Allocation of undergraduate scholarships. Dutta says these areas are more administrative in nature, but he stresses that no cuts or other changes will be decided for some time. Faculty teams assigned to each of these projects will look at charge letters from U of I administrators. "We're not to limit them to think, ok, do this or do that," says Dutta. "Just trying to give an idea to consult with stakeholders, look at the value, how it aligns with the institution, and several other criteria that are spelled out on the web site.
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