Daily Egyptian

As Chicago State ends semester early and some funds OK’d, uncertainty looms

By Dawn Rhodes and Jodi S. Cohen, Chicago Tribune

Chicago State University ends its spring term this week with an 11th-hour infusion of cash but no clear road map for its financial future.

Like many state universities and community colleges, the far south side school has sputtered along this year with no state funding. Chicago State declared a financial crisis in February and warned hundreds of employees they were at risk of being laid off. Officials shortened this semester by two weeks to enable students to finish classes — and degrees — without interruption.

Then, on Friday, Illinois lawmakers who have been unable to agree on a state budget for 10 months set aside their differences long enough to release emergency funding for higher education. Chicago State’s share, $20.1 million, should arrive in its account any day, according to state officials.

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But university officials warn that the sudden cash infusion does not eliminate problems caused by going so long without state money. The appropriation is less than two-thirds of what the school expected for the year — essentially kicking the emergency down the road.

“Even though 60 percent of something is better than nothing, we also know there is no budget in place for 2016-17,” Chicago State senior Darren Martin said. “So it seems like are we preparing ourselves for another battle. We don’t know what the future will hold and what will happen next year.”

Lawmakers agreed Friday to spend $600 million to keep colleges operating through the summer. That includes $356 million for universities, $74 million for community colleges and $170 million for Monetary Award Program scholarships for low-income students. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the bill Monday.

Illinois Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger’s office began processing payments Monday. Universities send vouchers to the comptroller’s office, which cuts the checks, spokesman Rich Carter said.

Any claims sent to Munger’s office Monday will appear in university accounts by Wednesday, Carter said. Schools with the most immediate need are at the front of the line, including Chicago State, Eastern Illinois University, Western Illinois University, Northern Illinois University, Governors State University and Northeastern Illinois University.

The comptroller released $17.1 million to Chicago State on Tuesday, Carter said. The remaining $3 million will be sent when the comptroller receives those vouchers from the university.

“We’re turning those around immediately because we know they’ve been waiting a long time for that money,” Carter said.

Not all the money earmarked in the bill is available now, however.

The $600 million comes out of the state’s Education Assistance Fund, which is funded by state income tax. The fund has only $354 million now, according to Munger, but the comptroller’s office will make more payments as more money becomes available.

Chicago State officials said if funding arrives soon, the university will be able to continue operations and meet payroll through the end of the summer.

That would be a massive shift from just a few days ago, when the finances were so dire that Chicago State would not have been able to cut paychecks by May.

In an email to university employees in mid-April, Chicago State President Thomas Calhoun Jr. instructed administrators and civil employees not to return to work after April 30 unless specifically told otherwise. He told faculty members to work until May 15, the day their annual contracts end.

For the moment, those instructions stand, though they could change once emergency dollars arrive.

University officials said the school still will have to cut staff and costs. But Calhoun insisted that Chicago State will remain open.

“In spite of our current challenges, we will rededicate Chicago State University to our primary responsibility, which is to ensure that we continue providing a great education to our students,” Calhoun wrote in the email to staff. “Going forward, the university will give close examination to all aspects of our institution including academics, finances, personnel and operations.”

Calhoun said school officials “will continue to seek alternative” funding sources. “We intend to remain a vibrant part of our city, state and nation for generations to come,” he wrote.

Robert Bionaz, president of Chicago State’s faculty union, said “everyone is sort of waiting for the ax to fall.” As of Tuesday, Bionaz said faculty had received no further information about who will be laid off or when.

“It is obvious that they are going to [bring back] a number of people” after potential layoffs, Bionaz said. “The problem is that nobody seems to know or be willing to say how many people are not going to be recalled.”

He said the university depleted its cash reserves just to get through this year. So if no other money is forthcoming, the school will not have much of a safety net once the emergency money is gone.

“If we don’t get additional funding, we’re completely dependent on tuition revenue, which I expect to be reduced because enrollment will be reduced,” Bionaz said. “I think we’re going to be back in this position pretty quickly, at least by the end of August.”

Meanwhile, students and community members say it remains important to advocate for Chicago State.

Local organizers who have protested police violence in recent months also have popularized the Twitter hashtag #SaveCSU and rallied at City Hall last week to voice a broader message about discrimination against, and disenfranchisement of, black communities.

“The city of Chicago and the state of Illinois are proving that they do not value black lives,” said Joan Fadayiro, an organizer with Black Youth Project 100. “Police officers are enabled to kill black women with impunity while black community assets such as Chicago State University are divested from.”

Community members on the south side formed the Black Committee to Save Chicago State University and went ahead with a Tuesday rally planned before the funding bill was signed.

More than 50 people showed up to Haven of Rest Missionary Baptist Church for the rally.

“We are here tonight because we’re demanding justice, fairness and respect,” the Rev. Paul Jakes Jr. said. “We demand full funding for Chicago State University and all other educational institutions.”

Despite Friday’s unexpected handshake across the aisle, deep partisan rifts remain over the state budget. Some lawmakers have hinted this could be the only money universities can expect from the state for the 2015-16 school year.

Michael Weigand, a graduate student, said some students are holding out hope that a long-term funding plan must be forthcoming, even as they grapple with the reality of the school creeping perilously close to a disaster.

“There’s really nothing we can do. It’s the definition of being in limbo,” Weigand said. “I think everyone’s just trying to keep faith in the state politicians. Surely it cannot be so dysfunctional that an accredited state university is going to close simply because politicians … can’t cooperate to keep a state functioning.”

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(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune

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