Illinois Public Media News
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.
The State of Illinois plans to start its early release of inmates Tuesday. It's part of an effort to save money in the prison system. The move comes about four months after the state first announced the plan. As many as one thousand prisoners could eventually be let go before their sentences are complete.
Sixty two prisoners will be freed in this first group. Corrections spokeswoman Januari Smith says most of them currently live at the department's adult transition centers, "basically meaning that these are people who are already living and working in the community."
Smith says inmates housed in transition centers work or go to school in the day, but must return to the dorm-like facility at night.
Illinois has eight of them ... one each in Carbondale, Decatur and Peoria. The rest are in and around Chicago. Smith couldn't say from which of these the inmates will be released, but she expects it will be spread out over several locations.
Nor could Smith say where the newly-freed prisoners will go to. But she says local authorities have been notified.
Smith says the Department of Corrections is continuing evaluations to choose other eligible inmates. The department must deem them non-violent and low-level offenders, and they must have less than a year of their sentence left to serve.
Former Iroquois County Clerk Mark Henrichs has been sentenced to 60 days' jail time and 30 months probation for what's been described as a trailer swap scheme. Henrichs was removed from the clerk's post in September, upon his conviction on two counts of theft, two counts of forgery, and four counts of official misconduct for defrauding Iroquois County taxpayers out of $17,500. He also has to pay that amount in restitution. Investigators say the 53-year old Henrichs sold a trailer to the county for use as a polling place without disclosing that he owned it, and then used that money to buy a newer trailer for his family - while also paying off credit card debt.
A $123,454,993 county budget plan for the fiscal year starting December 1st passed through the Champaign County Board's Finance Committee Thursday night --- and comes up for a full county board vote November 19th.
The budget cuts spending from the county's General Corporate Fund by 7-point-2 percent from original 2009 budget plan. Unlike the 4-point-5 percent cuts made partway through FY 2009, these new cuts are targeted and permanent. County Adminstrator Deb Busey says they initially planned for cuts of 6 percent --- but had to go back and cut more as sales and income tax revenue continued to decline.
"We had to cut everything we could from Commodities, Services and Capital at that point", says Busey. "So we went back and focused on recently added positions, or offices where staffing levels are high than in offices in comparable counties. And we added additional personnel cuts to achieve the total 7.2% cut in General Corporate."
Busey says the cuts assume that county tax revenue has bottomed out, and won't fall any further in 2010. Meanwhile, the new budget plan raises spending by nearly ten million dollars at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, which handles everything from long-range urban planning to Head Start programs. Busey says the increase is due to new federal grants --- much of it courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. "The growth in the entire budget is almost entirely attributable to the Regional Planning Commission", says Busey.
The Finance Committee also approved a county property tax levy of $26,601,528 --- an increase of roughly 600-thousand dollars from the year before. Busey says that levy will produce an estimated property tax rate of 73.64 cents per $100 assessed valuation, down from the previous tax rate of 74.26 cents.
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