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Alexander County Housing Authority rated worst in America by HUD

CAIRO — The Alexander County Housing Authority is the worst rated public housing authority in America, according to the latest assessment scores released by Housing and Urban Development last month. 

There are about 3,400 public housing authorities in the country.

Most housing authorities receive an annual score on a 100-point scale as part of HUD’s Public Housing Assessment System that is intended to identify brewing problems. (Some are exempt from the annual assessment based on their small size or participation in HUD privatization programs). 

In 2016, the latest year available, the ACHA received a score of 19, which was the lowest score among the housing authorities assessed by HUD in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Any housing authority with a score below 60 is designated as “troubled," and about 65 housing authorities received that designation. Such failing scores trigger enhanced oversight activities.

The score is assigned based on an assessment in four categories, each individually scored: management, finances, the physical condition of buildings, and capital fund performance.

HUD published the most recent set of publicly available Public Housing Assessment System scores in December. The latest available scores on HUD's website are from fiscal years 2016 and 2017 for most housing authorities, depending on where they fall in the assessment cycle.

A review of the 2016 and 2017 scores shows that there are five housing authorities in Illinois that have recently been designated as troubled. The only state with more in either 2016 or 2017 is Texas, at eight. There also were five housing authorities labeled troubled in Louisiana, as of the latest available data. There are about 65 overall. 

HUD placed the Alexander County Housing Authority under administrative receivership in February 2016, nearly two years ago. In April, HUD officials announced that they would begin issuing vouchers to about 185 families living at two failing housing complexes — Elmwood and McBride — and helping them relocate. So far, about half of the families have moved.

In heated meeting, HUD tells Cairo public housing residents they have to move

CAIRO — A gathering of Cairo residents erupted in anger Monday night as federal housing officials informed them that close to 200 families residing in two sprawling World War II-era family housing developments of the Alexander County Housing Authority will have to move out of their units in the coming months, and that there is no immediate plan to provide new government-assisted housing in Cairo to replace the developments they intend to demolish.

A decade ago, the Alexander County Housing Authority was considered a “high performer,” having received a score of 94 in 2007. The ACHA was first labeled as troubled in 2013. Its annual score has fallen consistently since then. The ACHA received a 52 in 2013 and 2014, a 29 in 2015, and the above-mentioned 19 in 2016, which is the latest score available on HUD’s website.

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown has said that the agency intends to return the housing authority to local control sometime this year. 

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Stalking Awareness Month
Increased awareness could mean increase in reporting of stalking incidents

CARBONDALE — Once awareness begins to increase about what stalking is, the number of reported incidents of the crime is likely to rise, one victim's advocate said Thursday.

This past week, victim's advocate Laura Van Abbema, of The Women's Center in Carbondale, and others were in Jonesboro hosting a news conference on stalking. January is Stalking Awareness Month and Union County prosecutor and law enforcement officials wanted to educate the public.

"We hope as the numbers go up and more people are aware of what stalking is, that the rate for prosecution will also go up," Van Abbema said.

While stalking is a crime in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, many victims and criminal justice professionals underestimate its seriousness and impact, Union County State's Attorney Tyler R. Edmonds said this past week.

In Illlinois, stalking is a Class 4 Felony.

Van Abbema talked about the various tools available for people who feel they are being harassed by stalking, such as the court-ordered Stalking No Contact Order and the Victims' Economic Security and Safety Act, which allows employees who are victims of domestic and sexual assault up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a given year to deal with those issues.

The Stalking No Contact Order — which is similar to a Personal Protection Order or restraining order — is a court order in which a judge orders that the person stalking you to stay away from you and your home or job or from contacting you via social media, the telephone or letters or even a third party, according to The Women's Center.

A SNCO can be had on an emergency basis, from 14 to 21 days, but the recipient can request one that could be granted for up to two years. There is no cost to request or receive a SNCO and a lawyer is not required to file one, according to The Women's Center.

On average, The Women's Center handles about two cases involving stalking each month, Van Abbema said.

The Women's Center is one of the places that investigators, like those in Union County, refer people to who have been affected by stalking and domestic violence and sexual assault.

Edmonds said his office handles a "handful" of cases each year.

Nationally, some 3.4 million victims are impacted in a year, Edmonds said in a recent news release.

The presenters noted that stalking is not a single, easily identifiable crime, but a series of acts — a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause that person fear. They advised those who feel they may be in such a situation to document, or log those instances and report them.

Stalking may take many forms, such as assaults; threats; vandalism; burglary; animal abuse; or unwanted cards, calls, gifts or visits. In some instances, stalkers track an individual's movements through the use of technology such as computers, GPS devices and hidden cameras.

Stalking knows no age, or other demographic boundary, Anna Police Chief Michael Hunter said.

Many might not recognize stalking for what it is, authorities said. They might feel bothered by unwanted gifts, phone calls and visits to work and home, but might not associate that with stalking behavior.

In fact, authorities say two or more of these types of behaviors could be a sign of stalking and those impacted by it should alert authorities, sooner than later.

One thing that Van Abbema said she was proud of was her work helping a client enact a piece of law that demands that employers give people dealing with domestic abuse and stalking issues time to deal with that concern, by keeping court appointments, for instance, she said.

Illinois is among a handful of state that supports the Victims' Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA); VESSA allows a person who is a victim of domestic or sexual violence, or whose family or household member who is impacted, to take unpaid leave for reasons related to those situations.

"She felt it was very empowering," Van Abbema said of the woman with whom she worked.

Illinois 200: As the home of Sears since the late 19th century, Illinois is the birthplace of modern retail

Editor’s note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at

As the home of Sears since the late 19th century, Illinois is the birthplace of modern retail.

Even today’s colossus, Amazon, can trace the roots of its business model to Sears’ original mail-order business that popularized the notion of buying products at home without first seeing and touching them in person.

“There were some small mail-order companies before, but Sears became the largest, the most successful, the giant,” said Libby Mahoney, senior curator of the Chicago History Museum.

Chicago History Museum 

Sears, Roebuck and Co. founder Richard Sears.

And if it seems strange that such a retailer could grow strong enough to make its headquarters the tallest building in the world as Sears did in Chicago in 1973, consider today’s intense competition among cities to house Amazon’s second headquarters, she said.

It was Chicago’s central position in the nation’s railroad and highway networks that made it a better place for Richard Sears to operate the mail-order watch company he’d started in Minneapolis the previous year, 1886.

In Chicago, Sears partnered with watchmaker Alvah C. Roebuck, leading to the longtime name of the firm being Sears, Roebuck and Co. Its first catalog featuring only watches and jewelry was published in 1888, while its first large catalog of general merchandise came along in 1896. Sears wooed customers with promises of savings gained by eliminating the middleman. It popularized the money-back guarantee to build trust with the consumer, Mahoney said.


A Columbia Gramophone Grand, pictured in a Sears Roebuck catalog from 1902, is shown in this photo. The exhibit model with a 42-inch amplifying horn was designed for large audiences and could be had for $69.95.

The gradual diversification of the company’s products seemed to know no bounds, perhaps best illustrated by the advent of Sears Modern Homes. Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold about 75,000 such homes around the country by mail-order. Many of the homes, which came in 447 different designs, exist today.

Such a company at that time was largely dependent on the U.S. Post Office for its success and reliability, Mahoney said.

Daily Herald File Photo 

A Sears Modern Home in Libertyville.

But eventually, Sears, Roebuck’s original mail-order business began to be threatened by the greater urbanization of the country after World War I. The solution — championed by then-vice president and future company President Robert E. Wood — was the introduction of brick-and-mortar stores in the 1920s.

Many other innovations followed under Wood’s guidance, including getting into the insurance business during the Great Depression with the creation of Allstate Insurance. Like several other Sears-created brands, Allstate eventually would be spun off as an independent company, but not until 1993.

Although Sears has never been a manufacturer, its brands such as Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances and DieHard batteries helped build the company’s reputation.

Even as the biggest of all, Sears didn’t take customer loyalty for granted, Mahoney said.

“They were really trying to improve the appearance of their products and make them stylish in the 1930s,” Mahoney said. “I think they were really savvy merchants.”

The nation’s economic recovery after World War II was what enabled such imitators as Kmart, Target and Kohl’s, but probably not until the 1970s or 1980s did they start to have a significant impact on Sears’ business, Mahoney said.

Even in the mail-order years, the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward was the country’s distant second-place retailer, despite having started earlier.

“Sears always seemed to have the upper hand,” Mahoney said. Nevertheless, Montgomery Ward’s successfully carved a niche for itself by deliberately selling different products than Sears did, she added.

For the past 25 years, Sears has made its home at the 780-acre Prairie Stone Business Park it created on the west side of Hoffman Estates. Though the now-vanished Poplar Creek Music Theater was probably the first name that put Hoffman Estates on the regional map, Sears was an even bigger one, Mayor Bill McLeod said.


Construction workers put finishing touches on the exterior of Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s new headquarters in Hoffman Estates on July 30, 1992.

“When it was announced, it was a really big deal,” McLeod said. “Sears was an iconic retailer. It obviously brought a lot of attention to the village. Sears made a big difference.”

Among the other developments that have located around it are the Sears Centre Arena — now home to the NBA G League’s Windy City Bulls — and the Chicago region’s 185,000-square-foot Cabela’s store.

The westward expansion of the village’s commercial presence was followed by equivalent residential growth.

“There was very little housing on the west side of the village before Sears came,” McLeod said.

Though headlines today often chronicle the company’s present struggles, reminders of Sears’ heyday are all around. These include the call letters of Chicago radio station WLS — which stands for “World’s Largest Store” for the four years Sears owned the station in the 1920s — and the name of Schaumburg’s massive Woodfield Mall, which honors both Robert Wood and iconic Chicago merchant Marshall Field.

But for a business based in the greater Chicago area for more than 130 years, Sears’ longevity and influence are historic, Mahoney said.

“They’ve hung on longer than the stockyards,” she laughed.

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School Funding
Recent Rauner veto complicates already tough process of filling teacher vacancies in West Frankfort

WEST FRANKFORT — Retirements in education are commonplace — each year vacancies are made in school district across the region as staff members step down, making room for fresh faces.

It gets complicated, though, when there are several leaving at once. It's even more complicated when a district’s financial picture isn’t complete.

Just ask Matt Donkin.

At the end of this school year, Donkin, superintendent for Frankfort Community Unit School District 168, will have four retirements in the high school alone, leaving five classes without instructors including art, Spanish, P.E., special education and English. And that doesn't even take into account retirements at the lower grade levels.

Donkin said over the month of January, he and his team will be looking at the positions and classes they need to fill and get a gameplan together. However, he said Gov. Bruce Rauner’s recent veto of a clean up bill that is attached to the recently-passed school funding formula throws a wrench in an already complicated process.

“We don’t yet have the final numbers on what we should receive this year,” Donkin said of the school’s budget. The vetoed bill aimed to cleanup the sweeping overhaul of the school funding formula passed last year. According to an AP report, Rauner vetoed the bill because it would prevent some Catholic and parochial schools from participating in a new scholarship program.

Schools across the state were waiting after the budget impasse was resolved last summer because while funding had been allocated for them, a formula for how to disperse the money had not been passed. This came in the fall, just as many schools were crying uncle from years of delayed or insufficient funding. However, a recent clean-up bill was proposed in Springfield designed to work out the kinks in the formula and its operation.

With the governor’s amendatory veto, Donkin said the date schools can expect to know what their funding level will be for this year — the one that is halfway finished — let alone next year’s is pushed back.

He said some still believe April is a viable target date, but he’s not sure.

Still, he has five classes that students will fill next year and he has to make sure there is an instructor there to teach them. The question is, how does he move forward?

Opportunities checked with responsibility

Mary Slider is a unique instructor — she not only handles all the Spanish language course work at Frankfort Community High School, including a dual credit course, but she is also the school’s art instructor.

On any given day, she could be helping students mat a photograph for a gallery show, and then cutting a cake for Día de Reyes for her Spanish students.

Slider is a twofer — for the price of one senior-level teacher, the district is able to check off two difficult-to-fill classes. However, after 19 years with the school, she is retiring this year.

Looking ahead, Slider said she certainly wants her legacy to be maintained, but said she thinks some changes are needed not just at Frankfort District, but across the board.

“We have to change and I think we have to provide doorways for these kids and not hallways to go down,” Slider said. “We really need to open some more doors for kids who need opportunities in different directions whether it be a trade or whether it be college prep.”

Her students would seem to agree.

Brianna Paris is a junior at Frankfort Community High School. She currently works and said some guidance from the school on how to handle that, especially going to a college class load in the future would be welcomed. She said she sees this problem with other students, as well.

“They don’t know quite what to do with a working job and their school at the same time,” she said.

Senior Niccolette Tindall said she would like to have seen more college-prep classes. She said she envies schools that were able to offer classes dedicated to applying for schools and scholarships.

Slider said with so many vacancies opening up at once at the school, this could be an ideal time to make some changes. She said there needs to be a more proactive approach to change within education both in Southern Illinois and beyond.

“I just feel like this after-the-fact-fixing isn’t doing any body any favors,” Slider said. “We need to look at a huge shake-up.”


Donkin agrees with Slider, but with a bit of checked enthusiasm. He said while he can see this as a time to make changes, he said there are a lot of factors that he also has to consider.

“You balance off the direction you want to take a school and the opportunity you have to tweak things going forward versus the fact that come August, you will have children in a classroom who need a teacher in front of them working with them,” he said.

Donkin explained that financial balance also has to be taken into account, which is why the recent veto and extended funding timeline are making this year tough. He said he has obligations to his current staff for establishing where and how they will be employed come next school year, but this isn’t easy when you aren’t sure how you will fill holes that will open up. He said it’s a gamble but they will just have to pull the trigger and hope for the best.

“At this point, we will probably push forward trying to find the applicants, but this is the dilemma we face … We want to and need to be fiscally responsible but this is the environment we continually find ourselves in,” Donkin said of the constant uncertainty of funding these last several years.

While he would hope to replace teachers leaving with new, young instructors, Donkin said this may not be as easy as it sounds. He said there are fewer people going through universities to become teachers and there are now more hoops for those who do go into teaching to jump through in order to get to the classroom — these same hoops affect Donkin's ability to shift personnel around within his district, too.

This more limited applicant pool is why he would prefer to start advertising as soon as possible — he doesn’t want to miss out on that perfect person. But still, he said these uncertainties and questions are affecting how he is thinking about his current staffing dilemma.

“It shouldn’t on the education-side but if you are thinking on the business-side it should,” Donkin said.

One option when trying to fill these holes Donkin said is to bring in retirees — two electives at the high school are taught by such instructors. This isn’t perfect either, though. He said they are limited in how many hours or days a year they can teach and Donkin said there is something to bringing in new life to the school. He said he likes to keep a good balance of new, mid-career and veteran staff in his roster.

“… Are you keeping a young, up-and-coming teacher from grabbing one of those spots and becoming part of the community,” Donkin said.

Slider said she knows she could get a phone call later this year.

“They might call me back because I am able to do that dual credit,” Slider said, adding that it wouldn’t be a sure thing she would answer.

“Will I come?" she said. "I don’t know."

Donkin said uncertainties or no, he has to do something, so he is doing the best with the information he has.

“We are kind of in a position of trying to look across the board at programs and our operations and asking the questions: What is it? Does it work? Is there a different or better way to do it,” Donkin said.

“We are supposed to be offering things like art, things like music at the secondary level so we need to figure out a way to do it, staff it and have somebody properly in there and to have the electives available."

— EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to properly name Frankfort CUSD 168.