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Illinois Senate approves school funding overhaul

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Legislature on Tuesday approved a school funding overhaul that supporters hailed as "historic," saying it will increase aid to all of the state's more than 800 districts and eliminate large disparities between rich and poor schools.

The Senate voted 38-13 to send the measure to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has said he'll sign it quickly to get money to districts starting a new school year. The House passed the bill late Monday.

Democratic Sen. Andy Manar, the bill's sponsor, said the plan will fund schools fairly "for the first time in decades."


Illinois State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, watches the debate on the education funding bill from the floor of the Illinois House during a special session at the Illinois State Capitol, Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Springfield, Ill. The Illinois House approved the education funding plan Monday that will increase state money for all districts, reduce disparities between rich and poor schools and provide $75 million in tax credits for people who donated to private school scholarships. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

"There will not be another generation of students that are subjected to inequity — the worst in the country — after this bill becomes law," he said. "That's something worth saying today."

Lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully for years to replace the current system. This year's state budget required for the first time that the formula be changed, and provided an additional $350 million to help pay for it.

No money can go to districts, however, until a new plan is in place. Although school officials have said they will be able to open classrooms for the new school year, many districts have worried they would run out of money if a plan wasn't approved soon.

The legislation passed Tuesday also provides $75 million in tax credits for people who contributed to private school scholarships.

Teacher unions and some school officials oppose the credits, saying taxpayer money shouldn't be used to fund private schools. They fear the scholarships — which lawmakers say would benefit as many as 10,000 students — will reduce enrollment at public schools, some of which are struggling to maintain enough students to stay open.

"A parent has the right to choose a private education for their child," said Superintendent Andrea Evers from Cairo, a poor district which has lost population. "It should not be on the backs of taxpayers."

Still, others said having more cash was critical.

Edwin Shoemate runs a roughly 515-student district in Cobden, which relies on the state for much of its $4.3 million annual budget.

Shoemate anticipates receiving roughly $180,000 more, enough to pay for about three more teachers and to add back elementary school art.

The tax credit program will expire after five years if lawmakers don't extend it. The credits would be worth 75 percent of a taxpayer's annual contributions to a scholarship fund, with a maximum credit of $1 million annually. The money may be donated to a specific school but not a specific student.

Students receiving the scholarships must have a household income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,000 annually for a family of four.

Under Illinois' current school funding system, districts must rely heavily on property taxes to fund schools. That's created large differences in funding levels, with some wealthier districts spending four times more per student than districts with less property tax wealth.

Under the new plan, the state will determine how much money each district needs to adequately educate its students, taking into consideration the number who live in poverty, are English-language learners or need special education services. The state then looks at how much money the district is able to generate from property taxes, and directs aid first to districts that need it to reach the spending target.

The legislation also provides money to help Chicago Public Schools make payments to its teacher pension funds, as Illinois does for other districts, and gives districts relief from some state mandates, such as allowing them to offer fewer days of physical education each week.

— Tareen reported from Chicago.

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Du Quoin State Fair | Harness Racing
Du Quoin State Fair Harness Racing: Fancy Creek Jolene overcomes illness to win at Du Quoin

DU QUOIN — Sometimes a horse does not have to step on the racetrack to be a winner, and Fancy Creek Jolene, a three-year-old filly, is one of those horses.

Owner Frank Marcolini of Chicago Heights said his relationship with Fancy Creek Jolene really began with her mother, Joliet Jean. He loved the horse so much that he told her owner that if Joliet Jean ever had a filly, he would be interested in purchasing her.

“I used to race her mother, and she was a dream,” Marcolini said.

Ten or 12 years passed and Marcolini was no longer in the harness racing business. He stopped by the farm, and saw Fancy Creek Jolene. Of course, he bought the young filly.

Marcolini and trainer Kim Hamilton said she showed promise, but early in her career, she broke pace and could not finish a race. She stumbled into the rail and could not lift her head. Marcolini thought she had been injured and was lame, but that was not the case. The young filly had contracted Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis, or EPM.

EPM is a neurological disease caused by the apicomplexan parasite Sarcocystis neurona that affects the central nervous system of horses. Horses are infected by ingesting S. neurona sporocysts in contaminated feed or water. The sporocysts are commonly carried by opossums.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Trainer Kim Hamilton prepares Fancy Creek Jolene for her race at the Du Quoin State Fair on Tuesday afternoon. The three-year-old filly went on to win her race.

Marcolini said the veterinarian figured out what was wrong and they began treating her. He added that the disease can cause permanent neurological damage to horses. However, the medicine, which costs around $200 per month, seems to be working.

On Tuesday evening, Marcolini and Hamilton were cautiously confident.

“She's a very, very nice horse — definitely the best horse in the race,” Marcolini said.

“She does everything I ask her to do,” Hamilton said.

Fancy Creek Jolene ignored the praise and stared out the window toward the bright lights of the carnival, as if she might be trying to decide which ride to take next.

Then came race day. Fancy Creek Jolene ran in the eighth race, the Time Dancer, for 3-year-old fillies, and was driven by Tim Curtin. She faced stiff competition from Boogie on Down, owned by Lynn and Barbara Wilfong and Brett and Candice Wilfong of Indiana. Boogie On Down is trained by Brett Wilfong and driven by Kyle Wilfong.

What worried Marcolini and Hamilton is that Fancy Creek Jolene has a habit of breaking pace as she tries to take the lead in the final stretch. Curtin held her back in third or fourth for the first half of race. He gently eased her out and around first place Boogie on Down to take the lead in the final stretch. By the time she crossed the finish line, Fancy Creek Jolene had a good lead.

“She’s a very nice horse, and the driver did an excellent job,” Hamilton said.

“It was almost like a dream. He gently pulled her and she gently took the lead,” Marcolini said. “I raced her mother, and I never gave up on her.”

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Trainer Kim Hamilton prepares Fancy Creek Jolene for her race at the Du Quoin State Fair on Tuesday afternoon. The three-year-old filly went on to win her race.

Marcolini said friends and racing associates tried to get him to skip the races in Du Quoin, saying the weather is hot, it’s a long trip and the state is behind in paying.

He saw the Du Quoin races a little differently. He wanted to race on the track that hosted the Hambletonian for many years.

“It’s just a dream come true. I was afraid she would break stride,” Marcolini said.

The trip has been wonderful according to Marcolini, but not only because his horse won. He stayed at Francie’s Inn, a bed and breakfast in Du Quoin. He praised the accommodations, food and service.

“It’s been a perfect weekend here in Du Quoin,” Marcolini said.

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

SIU senior Abby Barrow bumps the ball during the first set against Arkansas State in SIU Arena Tuesday.

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In Cairo, some students fall through the cracks of HUD's bungled start to relocate public housing families

CAIRO — Years of mismanagement by past local housing authority managers and the gross oversight failure by federal housing officials have come home to roost in Cairo — and the consequences to at-risk children are varied and widespread.

Cairo Unit School District 1 faces long-term enrollment concerns with the planned demolition of Elmwood and McBride public housing developments, which Housing and Urban Development officials announced in April, and the relocation of about 400 residents, close to 200 of them children.

But there are immediate consequences as well for school-age children. For example, seven children have missed about two weeks of school because their parents did not enroll them on time. According to Superintendent Andrea Evers, the parents told the school they did not enroll their children because they are in the process of moving from Elmwood or McBride to a community outside of Cairo, and intended to enroll their children when they arrived in a new location.

But Evers said the concern is the moving process can take weeks, or months — and it doesn’t take a student long to fall behind, especially high school students. School started Aug. 11 in Cairo.

As of Monday, six of the seven children believed by district officials to still be living in Cairo but who had not enrolled did finally show up and do so, and are in class, she said. Evers said the school’s truancy officer, social worker and the HUD officials managing the Alexander County Housing Authority in administrative receivership worked closely with parents to educate them on the need to enroll their children in school regardless of whether or when they intend to move, she said.

Kids falling through the cracks 

HUD has yet to publicize a hard deadline as to when residents must be out of Elmwood and McBride, which has resulted in some confusion. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s office said the senator worked out an agreement with HUD Secretary Ben Carson to allow residents 330 days from the time a resident receives his or her Tenant Protection Voucher, which subsidizes rent paid to a private landlord.

Still, HUD spokesman Jerry Brown also recently said the agency is encouraging people to move out by winter because of concerns the housing authority may not have money to repair heating systems if the boilers and pipes fail at Elmwood and McBride. Repairs can cost into the thousands, and some boilers had to be repaired last year as well, he said.

Many residents use their gas ovens to heat their homes because of the inadequate heating system. They do this regardless of whether the boilers are performing, because the heating system should have been updated years ago and does not produce enough warmth on really cold days.

In the face of mixed messages that residents have received from various local and federal officials about the relocation effort, HUD is continuing to move forward with the plan it originally outlined, with federal housing officials characterizing it as the best of imperfect solutions. However, the early months of the transition have been marred by fits and starts.

This seems to have resulted in some children slipping through the cracks in terms of their ability to start the school year off on the right foot. Evers said one of the issues parents faced who are relocating is that they did not want to spend what little money they have on buying new school uniforms for their children. That’s understandable if they intend to move soon, she said. Cairo is one of the few regional school districts with a uniform requirement.

Evers said that others in the community have stepped in to help provide uniforms for some of the children whose families did not feel like they could afford them. “We try to remove those barriers whenever possible,” she said.

Because of the bungled start to the relocation process, and many other reasons, there’s no question that many at-risk children are paying the price for the misspending of federal dollars intended to provide adequate shelter for residents in one of the country’s poorest cities.

As well, they suffer the consequences of the longstanding bureaucratic inertia that resulted in Housing and Urban Development officials not taking adequate steps to correct these issues sooner, even though they knew about serious problems for years.

HUD provided the newspaper a Q&A in April as officials announced they would be moving people from Elmwood and McBride and not building new housing in Cairo. In it, the agency stated that housing specialists would prioritize working with families with children to allow them to finish up the school year in Cairo, and be settled in a new location by the start of the next school year.

But as of earlier this month, only 10 of about 185 families (that's the estimate HUD provided in April of the remaining families in the two complexes) had moved, though several others were close to moving and may have since that time.

Student enrollment down about 50 

Evers, the school superintendent, said that overall, the district’s K-12 student count is down by about 53 students compared to the close of the 2016-2017 school year in May. She said early enrollment figures put the student count at about 385 — give or take a few students. “We are definitely feeling it” she said. The enrollment loss is “100 percent related to the housing move.”

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth speaks at a public forum in the Cairo Jr/Sr High School Gymnasium on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. Pictured on Duckworth's right is Cairo Unit School District 1 Superintendent Andrea Evers. The forum was held concerning the housing crisis in Cairo.

That said, the education funding reform bill months in the making that heads to the governor’s desk with Tuesday’s Senate vote may buy the Cairo district some time — financially speaking. It holds all districts harmless this year compared to last, meaning no school district will receive fewer dollars this year compared to last. And school districts in high poverty areas will actually receive more. Gov. Bruce Rauner said he intends to sign the bill.

After speaking initially with the newspaper this past week about her concerns over the half a dozen students who were not in school, Evers said on Tuesday she was relieved to see them enroll on Friday and Monday.

“The school’s perspective is school started Aug. 11 and every child residing in Cairo boundaries needs to be enrolled,” she said. To not do so, Evers said, places children at an educational disadvantage whether they continue on at Cairo Junior/Senior High or enroll in another school district after relocating from Elmwood and McBride to a city outside of Cairo.

Evers said school officials communicated to parents in the process of moving, “Whether it’s three days, three weeks or three months, you don’t know how quickly the process is going to go. It can be a tedious, long, laborious process.” Evers said that with first quarter midterms approaching, the fact that there were children not enrolled in school was a serious and concerning issue.

A growing chronic truancy problem 

Evers said she's still working through whether the school district will be required to report the children who did not attend class for 10 days or so as truant in reporting school data to the Illinois State Board of Education. She said the children, not the data, are her primary concern at this time.  

The school district has for years struggled with chronic truancy, which is defined under Illinois law as missing 5 percent of school days — or 9 of 180 days — without a valid excuse.

In 2016, the Cairo district had a 60 percent truancy rate, according to the school’s Illinois Report Card, which is the state’s official source of information about schools across the state. The truancy rates were similar in 2014 and 2015, at 58 percent and 59 percent, respectively. Those numbers had spiked considerably from 2013, when they were at 22 percent.

Alexander County State’s Attorney Zach Gowin said that so far this school year, he’s only intervened in one truancy case, which spilled over from the previous school year. The child is on juvenile probation for an unrelated matter, and also was considered truant last year. He was supposed to be enrolled this fall, and Gowin said he intervened when he did not show up for classes at Cairo High. The issue has been resolved, he said. 

Gowin said the child was a resident of one of the public housing projects slated for demolition and has since moved with his parents — and has enrolled in the receiving school district.

Gowin said that the school district goes to great lengths to address issues outside the court of law whenever possible. But he said that he and district officials have a great working relationship, and try to approach the issue of school truancy with compassion, and with the students’ best interests in mind. Gowin has been the state's attorney since January 2015. 

Parents in Illinois who fail to enroll their children or provide alternative schooling, such as home schooling, can face misdemeanor charges for educational neglect. Illinois law also allows a county prosecutor to open a case of a minor requiring authoritative intervention in juvenile court, which is more appropriate in cases where an older child is refusing to follow the orders of his or her parents or guardians, he said. This is a civil and not a criminal matter, and Gowin said this is the only avenue he’s ever pursued to address chronic truancy cases.

Gowin said that in most cases, this is more effective because it allows court intervention to address the root cause of the truancy. There may be something going on with the child behaviorally, or going on in the home that needs to be addressed in a coordinated manner by multiple agencies, he said.

“As you know, some people want me to just lock up the parents or fine the parents,” Gowin said. “But I think the truancy is sometimes symptomatic of a greater problem, and if we just forced the kids to school without addressing the underlying problems they will be in school but it won’t provide them any benefit, anyway.”

Illinois Star Centre
Marion mall owners seek disqualification of city attorney in lawsuit against the city

MARION — The latest series of volleys in the ongoing dispute between the City of Marion and the owners of the Illinois Star Centre Mall were fired Aug. 23 by lawyers for the mall’s owners, Illinois Star Centre LLC.

Two separate documents recorded in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Southern District of Illinois seek to disqualify the city’s legal representation, and addresses the city’s Aug. 9 response to the Adversarial Complaint lodged July 10 by lawyers for the Illinois Star Centre LLC.

The first document comes in the form of a motion seeking to disqualify Marion's city attorney, Stephen R. Green, from representing the city in its defense against accusations of fraud leveled by at the city by Illinois Star Centre LLC.

The motion alleges a conflict of interest exists between Green and Illinois Star Centre LLC.

Court documents state that Green currently represents, and has represented in the past, Illinois Star Centre LLC, “on a number of legal matters that were substantially related to the current controversy.”

If this allegation is true, the documents say, it presumes that the client, Illinois Star Centre LLC, disclosed confidential information to the attorney, Green, during prior representation.

According to the motion for disqualification, this could potentially influence proceedings in the current adversarial complaint leveled against the City of Marion.

Additionally, the motion alleges irregularities in conduct by Green as a result of this conflict of interest.

According to court documents, relief sought by the motion to dismiss appears to be the request that “(The) Courts should conduct the three-part inquiry to determine if a conflict exists.”

Green said Monday that those allegations are totally false, and that he would soon be filing an affidavit in response.

A hearing for the motion to dismiss is scheduled for Sept. 19 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in East St. Louis.

The second document, a memorandum filed Aug. 23, comes in opposition to the City of Marion’s motion to dismiss the Star Centre LLC’s adversarial complaint, which sought an equitable accounting from the city as it related to the financing of the Illinois Star Centre Mall and the surrounding area in Marion.

In legal documents filed Aug. 9 by Green, the city made a motion to dismiss the adversarial complaint based on allegations that complaints made by Illinois Star Centre Mall LLC were insufficient and did not comply with federal rules of civil procedure.

Additionally, in the Aug. 9 motion to dismiss, the city said “requests by Illinois Star Centre Mall LLC for an accounting of the SSA#2 bonds and associated accounts, ordinances, and materials for the creation thereof,” should not be granted because Illinois Star Centre Mall LLC signed a waiver with the city.

The Aug. 23 opposition memorandum filed by lawyers for the mall owners argues that an adversarial complaint does not require allegations of fraud, nor does the waiver agreement prohibit Illinois Star Centre Mall LLC from making that complaint.

In the Aug 9. motion to dismiss, Green also argued for the city that Illinois Star Centre Mall LLC did not make a single Freedom of Information Act request to the city and had not stated that a FOIA request would be insufficient.

In the memorandum, court documents state that Illinois Star Centre Mall LLC has made requests of the city for documentation, but that the city has refused to comply.

The memorandum also alleges that documents that could be obtained by Illinois Star Centre Mall LLC do indicate fraud.

“(Illinois Star Centre Mall LLC) believes that the City has improperly and fraudulently used funds for purposes not authorized by Illinois’ Special Service Area Tax Law and for paying for public services and improvements outside of the geographical boundaries of the taxing districts established by the City,” the motion states.

Additionally, the memorandum states that Illinois Star Centre Mall LLC also believes that all debts owed by the mall owners related to bonds issued have been paid, and that the city owes the mall owners a refund for overpayments.

Historic challenges facing the Illinois Star Centre Mall owners include a bankruptcy petition filed May 4 by Illinois Star Centre LLC, a failed sealed-bid auction in November 2017, in which the buyer backed out of purchasing the property during the due-diligence period, and the 2015 conviction of some of the owners, or their relatives, for a bid-rigging scheme in Madison County.