State budget gridlock forces another Northeastern campus shutdown

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Northeastern Illinois University is temporarily shutting down and furloughing employees for the second time in four weeks, the latest sign of escalating havoc unfolding at college campuses through a 22-month-long state budget deadlock.

The Northwest Side campus will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday, and again May 1, interim President Richard Helldobler announced Friday afternoon. All services, including computer labs, the library and the writing center, will be unavailable. Only some police officers and engineers will work as needed.

All other employees and administrators are required to take unpaid days off when the campus is closed. In all, the shutdown affects about 10,000 students and 1,100 workers.

Northeastern officials previously announced that only classes would be canceled for those days, then expanded the closures to the entire campus and its satellites. Northeastern also halted operations March 20-24, the school’s Spring break, requiring staff furloughs for the entire week and keeping hundreds of student employees out of work.

Many state universities have had to make drastic cuts to save money in recent months.

Governors State University in the southwest suburbs is eliminating 22 of its 62 degree programs and increasing tuition by 15 percent this fall. Southern Illinois University in Carbondale plans to cut $30 million out of its budget by July, cuts that likely will involve layoffs, interim Chancellor Brad Colwell said this month. SIU trustees also were to consider a proposal this month allowing the Carbondale campus to borrow money from the Edwardsville campus, though a decision on that was postponed.

At Northeastern, the standstill has aggravated parents whose kids attend the school’s child care center, which also will be closed for the three shutdown days, forcing families to scramble to find other arrangements. Parents said Monday they did not feel the center should close during the furloughs because tuition covers the salaries of the employees.

Helldobler warned additional furloughs are likely if no state money arrives soon. Parents at the school’s child care center launched a petition asking Helldobler to exempt the center from any future work stoppages and campus closures.

“I’m a single mom, my parents are 700 miles away, so I can be up a creek really quickly,” said Amy Lund, whose 3-year-old daughter attends the center. “The kids are also really affected because they keep getting their schooling disrupted. They’re little; they need stability.”

Rosemary Lugo-Gross, of Jefferson Park, said she travels frequently for work so it is particularly difficult to improvise with child care. She said she considered canceling a business trip until another parent volunteered to help with her 3-year-old daughter.

“The parents, we need constant support and we need to know that that’s stable support,” Lugo-Gross said. “If not … we’ll have to go to places that aren’t going to be affected by these (closures).”

Helldobler was not available for an interview Monday but university spokesman Michael Hines said allowing the center to stay open when the rest of the campus is closed created a security risk, even though some parents said they felt the center could handle such issues on its own.

“Keeping the center open — during a time when minimal staffing of University Police and maintenance crews would leave it exposed to unnecessary health and safety risks — would be irresponsible,” Hines said.

Many of Illinois’ state public universities have sputtered along on limited funding from Springfield as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and a Democratic-majority state legislature sit deadlocked in a nearly two-year-long budget feud. No spending plan has been approved since July 2015.

Two stopgap budgets were approved last summer, providing most schools about 80 percent of a normal year of funding. Northeastern, for example, received about $30.2 million through the temporary funding, compared to about $37 million in 2015.

No other money has arrived from Springfield since, meaning schools have had to stretch less than one year’s worth of dollars over 22 months.

“This is a desperate situation that called for desperate measures,” Helldobler said in a statement. “The closures, furloughs and interruptions to student instructions have been excruciatingly painful to the Northeastern community and we don’t know how much longer we can survive this financial starvation. Our faculty, staff and students are on their knees.”

drhodes@chicagotribune.com

@rhodes_dawn

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April 10, 2017 at 10:03AM

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State budget gridlock forces another Northeastern campus shutdown

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