Illinois Public Media News
A circuit judge has upheld Gov. Pat Quinn's authority to eliminate salaries for regional school superintendents across Illinois.
Sangamon County Judge John Schmidt says the governor has "broad power'' to control state spending. He ruled Friday that it would be wrong to thrust the court into the appropriations process. Quinn vetoed about $10 million in salaries for 44 superintendents and about 40 assistants.
"This is a very important issue," Quinn said after the ruling. "It's about $10 or $11 million that we want to use in the classroom, and I think that's more important to put the education money of Illinois to teach students in the classroom than to have bureaucracy."
The superintendents have been working without pay since July 1. They perform a list of duties -- many required by the state --including certifying teachers, doing background checks and running truancy programs. He said if local officials want to keep them those employees on the payroll, then they should come up with local money to pay them.
The president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents, Bob Daiber, said he is disappointed by the ruling. He said three superintendents have stepped down since the salary dispute began and more could make that choice.
"I think this is a ridiculous expectation," Daiber said. "There is no one that is expected in America to work without compensation. I think that the Governor has acted poorly on this issue."
Gov. Quinn said he expects superintendents can continue working without pay for another two months.
"It'll be resolved when the General Assembly comes back into session in late October," Quinn said. "This is just a very important issue, it's about (money) we wanted to use in the classroom."
Daiber said superintendents are asking legislators to return to Springfield early for a vote to restore the funding, but he said he predicts that's unlikely.
"Clearly, we must focus now on encouraging legislators to again stand with us and provide relief for this incredibly difficult situation as soon as possible," Daiber said.
Indiana's top education official proposed Thursday that the state assume control of four troubled high schools and a middle school in what would be the state's first takeover of underperforming public schools under a 1999 law.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said he had mixed emotions in asking the State Board of Education to approve the takeover of a Gary high school and three Indianapolis high schools and a middle school. But he said the step is necessary for the students' sake. The schools have been on academic probation for five years due to poor test scores.
The State Board of Education is scheduled to vote Monday on Bennett's proposals.
Bennett's first stop was in Gary, Indiana, to announce a proposed takeover of Roosevelt Career and Technical Academy, a high school with about 1,600 students.
"It's a difficult decision. But I can be very sad and forlorn; you can be very sad and forlorn or we can look at this as how I can begin the conversation," Bennett said. "My interest is a new beginning for this school."
Bennett said he just wants to make the schools better. Closing them, as the law allows, isn't something he wanted to do.
"This is not about blame, this is about the future," Bennett said. "Our intent is to use everything we have in this state to restore these schools to what they should be for the students in these communities."
Bennett said he's proposing Roosevelt be operated by a private firm from New York City called Edison Learning. The company operates schools on the East Coast and in Chicago.
Gary schools superintendent Myrtle Campbell expressed shock and sadness over the takeover, especially in light of ongoing changes at Roosevelt. At a special meeting of the Gary School Board on Thursday evening, Campbell wondered if Edison Learning can do a better job with Roosevelt than the district.
"We are doing our research to see where they are located. We know of some places, Chicago, and we know they have not always been successful," Campbell said. "So, there has to be some guarantee from that company that they can actually bring about the change that we would like to see in the district."
Dr. Eugene G. White, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, has threatened to sue the state if it moves to take over schools in his district. He urged the corporation's commissioners in an email Wednesday to begin legal action against the Department of Education.
"It is truly time to stand up for our children," White said in the email. The commissioners are scheduled to meet Friday night.
Under Bennett's proposal, the four Indianapolis schools and the Gary school would be run by school management firms that will evaluate each school's performance for the remainder of the current academic year. Starting in the 2012-2013 academic year, those companies would take over full operation of each school and receive the state's per-pupil aid for each school. Bennett said that if the Board of Education agrees, the companies would receive a one-year "transitional" contract followed by a four-year operations contract to run each school, with benchmarks to chart school improvement still to be determined.
Charter Schools USA and EdPower are the two school-management companies Bennett wants to run the four Indianapolis schools. He recommended that school management company Edison Learning operate the Gary school.
Indiana's schools are placed on probation based on the percentage of students who pass statewide tests. A 1999 law allows the state to intervene if a school has not improved its test scores after five years on probation. Bennett said Thursday he considers that five-year time frame too long and that lawmakers need to put more pressure on underperforming schools to improve.
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said he supports Bennett's recommendations for the six IPS schools, calling them a "bold step."
"These schools have been failing for many years," Ballard said in a statement.
Jim Larson, the Department of Education's director of school turnaround and improvement, said the five schools that would be taken over by the state would undergo a careful year-long review by their chosen operators.
"This is much more than just 'Go in there collect some data, write a report, tell us what you're going to do better,'" Larson said. "All these schools are at different places.
Plans for a wind farm in Champaign County drew mostly spectators in the first of what could be several hearings before the county's Zoning Board of Appeals.
About 60 people came to hear from Chicago-based developer Invenergy discuss its project. Champaign County's portion of the large farm would mean 30 turbines north of Royal, producing 48 megawatts of power. More than 100 turbines will be located in Vermilion County, where a building permit was approved last spring.
The majority of those who spoke supported Invenergy's plans to erect 30 wind turbines in the northeast part of the county, north of Royal. But some had concerns about the wind farm's impact on property values. And others had questions about the road agreements that Invenergy has yet to reach with township governments. Deanne Simms of Penfield called the prospect of being surrounded by turbines 'disturbing,' and she questioned the impact on property values, and Invenergy's road agreement at the end of the wind farm's life span.
"So my question is whatever standard they come down to when they leave, who's going to pay to fix the roads?" she said. "Whose taxes are going up to pay for that?"
But Philo resident Michael Herbert said Invenergy has been an economic boon for his electrical workers' union, providing jobs with more than 350 turbines in the counties served by its members.
"This project and Invenergy, having worked with them before, they built quality projects," he said. "And having driven out on on the roads after these projects are done, the roads are as good or better when completed."
The company's business development manager, Greg Leutchman, said the first hearing presented a chance for area residents to form their own opinion. But before the project can move forward, he said the road agreement must be finalized, as well as ones for decommissioning the turbines, and land reclamation.
"With those agreements, we just want to make sure that we're taking the right information into account, that we're talking to the right people," Leutchman said. "Getting the agreements done to make sure they work for the county and the townships as well as creating a successful project."
Four more ZBA wind farm hearings are scheduled through next month. But County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said it is better the meetings stretch into October than disturb what he calls a 'delicate negotiation' that's gone on over two years, with still nothing in writing with landowners. Invenergy still has to settle road agreements, as well as decommissioning and reclamation plans.
The next SBA hearing on the wind farm proposal is set for Sept. 1.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is trying to throw another wrench into a key immigration-enforcement program of President Obama's administration, saying it ensnares too many people and erodes trust in local police.
An Aug. 18 letter from the governor's office to John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, hints about a possible legal challenge and asks the federal agency to contact all 26 Illinois counties that have agreed to participate in the program, called Secure Communities, to confirm they still want to take part.
"This is the least that ICE can do," wrote John Schomberg, Quinn's general counsel. "These counties signed up, along with the state, for a Secure Communities that is far different from the program that was . . . originally presented by ICE."
Launched in 2008, Secure Communities enables ICE to use fingerprints that local police agencies send to the FBI for criminal background checks. The fingerprints help ICE identify jail inmates who lack permission to be in the United States.
The Obama administration says the program helps focus immigration enforcement on dangerous criminals, such as murderers and kidnappers, and on repeat immigration violators. ICE reports that Secure Communities has led to the deportation of more than 86,000 convicted criminals.
ICE data show that about half of those immigrants were convicted of misdemeanors, not felonies. The program has led to the deportation of another 34,000 people not convicted of any crime.
Quinn withdrew Illinois from Secure Communities in May. New York and Massachusetts followed with similar steps.
But an August 5 letter from Morton to governors says states no longer have any choice and that Secure Communities will extend to all local law-enforcement jurisdictions in the United States by 2013. An addendum to the letter describes changes in the program. Those include elimination of a state role in conveying data to help track the fingerprints.
Mark Fleming, an attorney with the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, said ICE could end up in court if Secure Communities lacks the consent of the local jurisdictions.
"The governor's office may be laying the groundwork for a legal challenge," Fleming said.
Fleming points to U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the 1990s that said the Constitution's 10th Amendment bars Congress from compelling state and local governments to administer federal regulations.
Asked whether Illinois officials are cooking up a lawsuit, a Quinn spokeswoman points to Schomberg's letter, which says the governor's office "will continue to monitor and evaluate" Secure Communities and "consider all of the state's options."
ICE representatives did not respond to requests by Chicago Public Radio for comment about whether Secure Communities is constitutional.
The Obama administration lately has played down agreements through which it first brought state and local governments into the federal initiative. "We wanted to work with the locals and let them know about the program," said Jon Gurule, an ICE official who helped set up Secure Communities. "But, from the operational side, it's federal information sharing between two federal agencies and it's congressionally mandated."
If ICE sought consent from the Illinois counties, as Quinn is requesting, some might opt out. A handful of Chicago-area sheriffs have publicly criticized Secure Communities.
"If they honor the governor's request, I would not want to partake in it," said Patrick Perez, sheriff of west suburban Kane County, part of Secure Communities since 2009.
"The program has not turned out to be what it was supposed to be," Perez said, pointing to the deportation of non-criminals. "People in the Hispanic community have become very reticent to contact police if they're victims of crime because they're fearful that if they contact us to report a crime that they will be deported."
The program also has its defenders.
"My life has been destroyed by all of this cheap, foreign scab labor," said a 56-year-old network engineer in Chicago who blames immigrants for his unemployment and asks that his name not be published because he's job hunting. "Whether it's illegal aliens or foreign legal workers, they're hurting American citizens. Secure Communities removes the criminals and that's a start.
The head of Illinois' child welfare agency is leaving after five years in that role.
Having served as Director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services since 2006, Erwin McEwen released a statement saying he's ready for the next challenge.
It has been a tumultuous summer for the agency. DCFS has been involved in a high profile court fight with Catholic Charities after that group refused to recognize couples in civil unions when it comes to adoptions and foster care placements. However, DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said that case had nothing to do with the Director's decision to leave.
"His decision is completely unrelated to the civil unions controversy or any other recent events," Marlowe said.
Marlowe said among McEwen's accomplishments include an increased capacity to serve more families on a voluntary basis, rather than waiting for the legal system to intervene.
DCFS now serves more families on a voluntary basis than on a court ordered one.
McEwen has not announced what he will be doing next. His resignation is effective Sept.30.
The oppressive heat that's blanketed parts of the region has prompted city officials in Decatur to ask residents to conserve their water use.
People living in the area have been advised to fix leaky faucets, wash only full loads of dishes and laundry and take shorter showers.
Lake Decatur is roughly 1.5 feet below its normal level and falling at a rate of half an inch a day. Residents make up less than a quarter of the lake's water consumption.
Water management director Keith Alexander said the city has started using water from a pit near the Lake Decatur dam, and he says it's possible it may have to also dip into the De Witt County well field. He said if that happens, customers would notice an increase in their utility bill.
"If we notice that these drought expenses are starting to inch up - if the drought continued - then we'd have to pass those costs onto our customers," Alexander said.
But Alexander said he is confident that a steady flow of rain will return, preventing any sort of dramatic change to the city's water supply.
"But we always have to plan for the worst case scenario when we enter these dry spells," he said. "So, at this point in time, we're asking for voluntary conversation. The next dramatic steps would be the potential for mandatory conservation."
The last time Decatur residents were required to conserve water was during a 2007 drought. For this year's heat-wave, Alexander cautions boaters using Lake Decatur to be careful of shallow areas, especially around docks and hoists.
A utility watchdog group believes it can gather enough opposition to turn Ameren's request for a rate hike into a rate cut.
The Citizens Utility Board is urging the public to submit comments against the utility's call for a 90-million dollar increase in delivery charges. Next week, the Illinois Commerce Commission conducts its only hearing on the request. It's scheduled for Tuesday in Springfield.
In Champaign Thursday, CUB Executive Director David Kolata noted that Ameren earned 650-million dollars in profits last year, and that they're up over 60-percent in Illinois alone.
"I think they have a hard time justifying a rate increase when our experts the Illinois Attorney General's office hired looked at this, they found that they couldn't justify it." he said. "Ameren has very clear that they're going to come in every year for five, six, seven, years in a row and try to raise rates. That's their business strategy."
Regulators reduced Ameren's original rate hike request from $111-million to $90-million.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris contends the rate hike request is needed for safe, reliable power delivery, and for higher operating costs. And he says delivery costs have skyrocketed, and that's solely what this rate hike is for.
"It's designed to allow us to recover our cost of providing safe and reliable service.." said Morris, "...and to earn a reasonable rate of return, which is necessary for any for-profit company, which Ameren is."
Morris says Illinois' corporate income tax increase has cost Ameren an additional $41-million dollars. Both CUB and the ICC are taking comments on the proposed rate hike.
CUB also used the Champaign news conference to oppose a measure that passed the legislature last spring that would allow for 'smart grid' investments for utilities. But Kolata says it would also make it easier for utilities to pass off rate increases. Speaking in Chicago Thursday, Governor Pat Quinn vowed to veto that measure, and for legislators make improvements to the bill this fall.
Two downstate state Senators are calling on Gov. Pat Quinn to improve staffing levels at state prisons.
Senators Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) and John O. Jones (R-Mount Vernon) say staff-to-inmate levels are at disturbing levels. For instance, they say the first shift inmate-to-guard ratio at the medium security Decatur state prison is around 12 to 1.
Jones said that might be acceptable, but not the 18-to-1 First Shift ratios at the Big Muddy River state prison. The figures come from the state Department of Corrections through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Senator Cultra said matters will only get worse, as nearly a thousand guards become eligible for retirement next year --- with no plans announced for new cadet training. The Onarga Republican said that is why they are trying to put pressure on Governor Quinn.
"Maybe it will move the administration to take some action," Cultra said. "We would like to work with the administration to help alleviate this. And we think by making it aware publically, that maybe it might push (him) into some action."
Cultra said he is worried about a high number of prison guards nearing retirement age --- when there might not be enough new guards to take their place.
"There's no cadet classes scheduled," he said. "This fiscal year, they have a potential of having 1,000 guards retire. There's nobody to replace these people. So the numbers that you're looking at now are terrible --- it's going to be much worse when these retirements come about."
Cultra and Jones say the state could afford more prison guards if they make cuts in less essential state programs, and sell off non-essential state properties. They also suggest the state institute reforms in the Department of Corrections, like time-keeping hardware.
But the Department of Corrections said the numbers cited by the two senators are inaccurate. According to the department, around 800 newly trained guards have been hired over the past fiscal year --- and that plans are in the works to hold more guard training sessions in the current fiscal year.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
A Sangamon County judge says he will announce his decision on Friday in the salary dispute between Gov. Pat Quinn and regional school superintendents who aren't getting paid.
The state's 44 regional superintendents kept working this summer, even after Gov. Quinn vetoed their salaries out of the state budget. Quinn has said the state can't afford to continue paying them, but the superintendents are suing to force the state to pay up.
"We don't dispute that the constitution gives the governor the authority to engage in item vetoes, but we're saying its without consequence in this case," said Charles Schmadeke, the superintendents' attorney.
Schmadeke argues Quinn's budget veto isn't the end all be all it normally would be, because there is a state law explicitly creating superintendent's positions and their salaries.
"The General Assembly has the ability to create offices and it also has the ability to eliminate offices," Schmadeke said. "Our point of view is that is a legislative function, not one of the executive. And especially when the General Assembly has been so specifically clear about what people should do and how they should be paid."
The state contends the salaries cannot be paid without an appropriation in the budget.
Sangamon County Judge John Schmidt said he is "aghast" at the state's position the veto isn't creating hardship. But he nonetheless is wary of how far the judiciary can interfere with the executive branch.
Regional superintendents perform a variety of duties, from inspecting school buildings to running GED programs.
A proposed wind farm for Champaign and Vermilion Counties goes before the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals tonight.
The ZBA's 7 PM meeting at the Brookens Center in Urbana is the first of four scheduled meetings on the proposal from Chicago-based Invenergy Wind. County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said he hopes the zoning board can reach a conclusion on the proposal by its Sept. 29 meeting --- so the county board can act in October. But he said if there's enough public interest, more meetings may be scheduled.
"This could go beyond Sept. 29, if necessary," Hall said. "We absolutely have to listen to what people want to say, provided it's no redundant, and it's relevant to the application. And if that literally takes longer than Sept. 29, that's what we'll have to do."
The Champaign County Board could vote on the application as early as Oct. 20.
Invenergy's proposed California Ridge wind farm would place 30 wind turbines in northeast Champaign County, north of Royal, and 104 turbines in western Vermilion County.
The Vermilion County Board approved a building permit for the project in July.
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