Come March, budget battle to leave Chicago State broke
CHICAGO -- Like all of Illinois' nine public universities, Chicago State University is waiting for long-overdue state funding. Come March, though, the predominantly black school on Chicago's South Side says it won't have the money to pay its employees.
The problem at Chicago State is shaping up as a wider higher-education funding crisis due to the six-month budget standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly. All of Illinois' public universities have cut spending while they plead with the state to get the money flowing before they have to further - and drastically - cut programs.
Already, the state has stopped the flow of Monetary Award Program grants that many low-income students rely on. Universities so far have been covering grant costs but say they can't do that indefinitely. And Chicago State, a former teacher's college that caters to many low-income students, lacks outside resources like a pool of well-off donors that schools such as the University of Illinois can fall back on.
"A lot of our students are parents," said Paris Griffin, the student government president. "We really don't have anywhere else to go."
No one knows what will happen if Chicago State's situation doesn't change before March - whether classes come to a halt, employees go without pay or students scheduled to graduate in May have to wait.
"Our mission, our challenge right now, is to make sure that doesn't happen," university spokesman Tom Wogan said. "I can't sit here today and tell you exactly how we're going to do that."
Illinois' public universities are all dependent - to varying degrees - on state money that was due to arrive with a new state budget in July. At Chicago State, it's about 30 percent of the operating budget - more than most other state schools. As it is, the school has about $9 million on hand. By mid-March, it won't be able to meet its $5 million monthly payroll, Wogan said.
"We are exploring the possibility of borrowing," he said. The school has learned a lesson, too, he said: It is looking hard for long-term outside funding because it does not believe it can rely on the state.
Chicago State has a history of financial mismanagement, including state audits in recent years that found the school to be a financial wreck. A state audit in December, though, found relatively few problems.
Illinois is a financial wreck itself, staring down a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall and no end in sight to the deadlock between the governor and lawmakers. Rauner wants them to approve a series of measures he says will help the state's economy and cut costs, while Democrats insisted that the budget needs to be fixed first, which they say will require bringing more money into the state's coffers.
Rep. Kelly Burke, a Democrat from the Chicago suburbs, chairs the state House's higher education committee and says lawmakers should consider short-term solutions such as granting public universities the authority to borrow to cover expenses. But the real solution, she said, is both parties agreeing to pass a budget.
Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly blamed Democrats for the stalemate - "The best way to help higher education in Illinois is for Democrats to enact a balanced budget, but they still have not done so" - and last week, a memo from the governor's office to General Assembly members criticized what it called "waste," ''cronyism" and lavish administrator perks in public universities.
Rauner's characterizations of the state's universities do not fit 148-year-old Chicago State, Wogan said.
"We don't have private jets, our president doesn't have a country club membership," he said. "Real people are going to get hurt if nothing is done."
About 80 percent of Chicago State's students are black and most have low incomes. Many are at the school because they lack the means to go farther from home or come to Chicago State after faltering elsewhere, Griffin said.
She left Southern Illinois University three years ago when her daughter, Brooklyn, was born, and moved back home to Englewood on Chicago's South Side. She depends on scholarship money only available to students at predominantly black schools, she said.
"The things that I have been able to accomplish here I would not have been able to do elsewhere," Griffin said.
Associate philosophy professor Emmett Bradbury, who earns $88,000 a year, doesn't believe the state will allow Chicago State to run out of money. And if it does?
"I'm not going to abandon the students," he said, acknowledging he'd eventually have to seek other employment. "As long as the doors are open, I'll come and I'll do what I have to do through the semester."
Mercer reported from Champaign.