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Chicago State University sends layoff notices to all employees amid Illinois budget battle

Republican Illinois Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner walks through the Illinois State Capitol in Dec. 2014, just before taking office. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
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Chicago State University sent layoff notices to all faculty, staff and administrators Friday, a drastic move as the school fights to remain open without funding from the state of Illinois.

The historically black school is among 57 public universities and colleges in Illinois that have not received funding in eight months as Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled general assembly fail to agree on a budget. Nearly a third of Chicago State’s funding, about $36 million a year, comes from state appropriations.

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The school declared a state of financial emergency earlier this month to make it easier to fire tenured faculty and eliminate academic programs. At the time, officials warned that the school might not be able to make payroll in coming months. The university by law must give employees two months’ notice of potential layoffs. And that’s exactly what happened Friday.

“The actions taken today are necessary to fulfill our legal obligation and to make necessary reductions so that we can continue running the University in the absence of state funds,” CSU President Thomas Calhoun Jr., said in a statement. “It is our sincere hope that the Governor and legislative leaders will do the right thing and provide funding for public universities before these layoffs would have to be executed.”

Despite the mass layoff notices to employees — including to the president — university spokesman Tom Wogan said that does not mean the 900 people working at Chicago State all will lose their jobs. He said the school is still trying to determine how many layoffs are needed to offset the loss of funding.

“In order to keep operating in the absence of state funding, we’re going to have to have significant reductions in both personnel and programs,” he said. “It means that every employee of the university, from the president on down, is susceptible to a layoff.”

Wogan said the university has no plans to close, but said it needs the flexibility to make staff reductions to remain open. The school canceled spring break earlier this week and moved up the end of the semester by several days to save money. During the past year, the university has reduced employee headcount by 15 percent, cut administrative costs by 22 percent, put a freeze on hiring and consolidated positions, Wogan said.

“We’ve gone through every cost-cutting measure that we could think of, but the fact of the matter is we simply cannot cut our way out of a third of our budget not being funded,” he said.

Catherine Kelly, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email that Rauner supports bipartisan legislation to provide emergency assistance to universities like Chicago State University.

“If the General Assembly sends that bill to his desk, he will sign it,” Kelly said.

The financial conditions at Chicago State prompted the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits Illinois’ public colleges and universities, to schedule an on-campus visit for early March. Universities can lose their accreditation, which could take years to get back, if they are unable to show that they have the resources needed to provide students a quality education.

Because of the budget impasse, the accreditor made a rare move of asking Illinois’ entire public university system to provide plans detailing what would happen to students if the stalemate forces them to close or suspend classes. Moody’s Investors Service, meanwhile, has held a negative outlook on all eight Illinois universities it rates since the fall because of their depleted cash flow. The ratings agency downgraded the credit rating of three of the state’s public universities late Wednesday, citing the protracted budget impasse.

Illinois lawmakers have been locked in negotiations for months. The governor has tied passage of the $36 billion budget to changes in collective bargaining rights for public employees and worker compensation, business-friendly moves he says will help turn around the state’s flagging economy. If the legislature refuses to sign on to his changes, Rauner wants lawmakers to let him make $3.5 billion in spending cuts in any way he chooses.

Smaller regional universities in Illinois are bearing the brunt of the state’s budget battle. Eastern Illinois has laid off nearly 200 civil service employees, while imposing up to 24 furlough days on faculty and staff through the end of June. Western Illinois University has alerted more than two dozen non-tenured faculty of possible layoffs and is considering cutting some of its programs in the fall.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Illinois Federation of Teachers President Daniel Montgomery on Friday issued statements assailing Rauner for not passing a budget, calling it “failed leadership.”

“Our country tells students how important college is, but Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner acts contrary to that value. Tonight, because of the governor’s actions, 900 workers at Chicago State University are going home with layoff notices, and 4,000 students are wondering whether they will be able to complete their education. In failing to fund the future of Illinois’ public universities and colleges, Rauner has turned his back on the hard-working people of Illinois, and his policies are taking a particular toll on low-income communities and communities of color,” said Weingarten. “This is failed leadership, plain and simple. We need leaders who will walk the walk, which starts with investing in our future—including public higher education—in Illinois and across the country. Rather than pulling the ladder of opportunity out of reach, we must work to extend it to those who need it most.”
“Today’s announcement of possible layoffs at Chicago State University is another result of Gov. Rauner’s refusal to pass a state budget or make any effort to fix the crisis he created,” said Montgomery. “It’s unconscionable that the governor would allow state universities to close before he would ask the very wealthy to pay a dime more. If Chicago State University closes, it will be devastating for its 4,000 students and the community it serves.”

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