Illinois’ higher education board to send $17M to Chicago State, WIU, EIU

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Three of the state’s most financially vulnerable public universities are set to receive a combined $17 million in emergency funding to help support operations through the end of the year.

Members of the Illinois Board of Higher Education voted unanimously Wednesday morning to approve the last-minute cash for Western Illinois, Eastern Illinois and Chicago State universities. Under the agreement, Western would receive about $8.4 million, Eastern about $5.6 million and Chicago State just more than $3 million. The money can be used only to pay down costs incurred before Dec. 31.

The money is part of a pool of funding provided to the board through a second stopgap plan to keep schools open, which Gov. Bruce Rauner signed June 30. The Illinois Board of Higher Education received $20 million from the state’s general revenue fund and is able to distribute it to schools that showed they were in fiscal crisis.

The board plans to allocate the remaining $3 million to the Illinois Community College Board sometime in December.

“We are very happy there was a resolution because these funds allow the university to continue the rebuilding process and continue to provide quality education for our students,” Cecil B. Lucy, interim president of Chicago State, said after attending the video conference of the meeting in Chicago. “Anything more than a dollar that we didn’t have before helps. This helps with our cash flow. We will continue the operations of the university without interruption.”

Representatives from Western and Eastern were not immediately available for comment.

The fiscal emergencies at Illinois’ public universities are another consequence of the state’s ongoing budget impasse. None of the state’s nine higher education institutions have received a full year of operating funds from the state since the 2015 budget year.

State law required the schools to demonstrate their fiscal status was a “financial emergency” in order to receive any money from the board. Each school submitted detailed financial reports to the board staff, including cash flow statements showing evidence of depleting resources, cash management strategies, pending debt payments and analysis of possible use of restricted funds. The schools also had to demonstrate efforts to cut expenses, including reducing or reallocating staff and reducing programming.

Deputy director Kevin Schoeben said the board calculated the amount of money each school should receive according to three-month averages of staff payroll and fall 2016 enrollment numbers.

The total funding represents the equivalent of about one month of payroll for each school, Schoeben said.

Left unknown at this point, however, is how quickly any of the universities will see that money. Tom Cross, chair of the higher education board, said he had been in contact with Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger’s office to help prioritize these dispersals and wanted to try to seal the deal Wednesday, if possible.

“We hope to have all three vouchers signed by today,” Cross said. “They know that these vouchers are coming and we want to move it along as quickly as we can to help these schools.”

According to a spokesman for Munger’s office, they have a $10.7 billion backlog of unpaid bills and are five months behind in paying vouchers. So as of Wednesday, they are paying vouchers the office received June 17.

If it is determined that there is a financial emergency, the comptroller can expedite certain payments, as Munger’s office did for the first stopgap budget that freed up $356 million to the public universities in April.

Chicago Tribune’s Peter Matuszak contributed.

drhodes@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @rhodes_dawn

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Illinois’ higher education board to send $17M to Chicago State, WIU, EIU

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