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U of I Extension Program short on funding

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Money for everything from health and education programs to 4H clubs is in short supply.

That's because the University of Illinois Extension Program faces budget cuts. The agency is not getting promised funds from the state.

Layoff notices went out Tuesday to a range of staff around the state that administer a host of programs through the U of I's extension service. The programs are widespread and count literally thousands of Illinoisans as clients. And if lawmakers can't find a way to fulfill funding promises already passed in this year's budget, a lot of activities will be dropped and people will lose their jobs.

The science bus is a half-million dollar program that has retrofitted a 38-foot Winnebago into a science lab on wheels

John Irvine on this day is explaining the magic of science to high schoolers at Jacquie Vaughn occupational, a school for special education students that is strapped for enriching experiences to make school more meaningful to kids with disabilities. The principal is already dealing with the loss of funding for teaching kids from low-income homes, and losing this contribution from the extension program is devastating.

"They are generalizing their ability to work hands on in science and learn so it is an assessment tool as well as an enrichment tool for the students," said Rusty Burnette, Principal, Vaughn Occupational HS.

U of I's extension work started when the school was founded and has deep roots in community programs for science and technology, urban environment and natural resources, urban community health and community education for adults and youth. On Tuesday, the funding crisis caused the cancellation of Cook County's 4H program. Administrators are reeling.

"We can go into a community and say not only do you need help in your schools but we are going to be there in your comm gardens and we are going to be there with your old folks and there are just no other programs that can do that," said Amy Sue Mertens, University of Illinois Extension.

The Blagojevich administration blames a slowing economy for a $750 million revenue shortfall this fiscal year and that's why it is withholding promised funds for the extension. Some legislators have called that blackmail related to a fight for control of special funds the governor might use to help the extension out in tough times like these.

"We are hopeful that our leaders will make the right decision, approve the funding for the program so we can make those payments sooner rather than later before much more damage is done," said Abby Ottenhoff, governor's spokesperson.

Last week, the state senate passed a bill that would make $530 million available to the governor to meet current obligations like the extension program, which costs $18 million, $5 million of which is for Cook County. The house is expected to debate the bill next week when it returns to session.

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