‘We have to unite’: Students, local leaders call for state budget resolution

Bianka Rios
Bianka Rios

How is the state budget impasse, now in its eighth month, hurting DeKalb County?

Bianka Rios has an answer.

Rios, who’s pursuing a degree in human resources from Kishwaukee College with a minor in accounting, plans to transfer to NIU. A wife, and the mother of a 3-year-old son, Rios already juggles two jobs, one of which is in the financial aid office at Kish.

Without access to a MAP grant, she made the difficult and “stressful” decision to take out student loans that are “hard to pay back” while struggling to make ends meet.

“I am not alone,” Rios said Thursday morning during a Unity Rally at NIU to urge state lawmakers to come to a resolution. “At Kishwaukee College, the lack of MAP funding has affected roughly 385 students. It’s hard to tell them, ‘No, there’s nothing available to help you.’ ”

Eleven others who understand the impact of Springfield gridlock added their voices during the rally, speaking of the partnerships and collaboration that strengthen a community’s fabric – and the impasse that threatens the state’s vitality and future. They also announced a hashtag – #RallyforIL – to keep the movement going.

Speakers included Huskies Briana Smith, a MAP recipient who is seven courses away from graduation and whose single-parent mother earns less than $10,000 a year; and Dillon Domke, speaker of the Student Association.

NIU President Doug Baker, Kishwaukee College President Laurie Borowicz and Greg Long, president of the NIU Faculty Senate, provided an administrative perspective. NIU Alumni Association President Jack Patronski, who graduated in 1973, spoke of how his alma mater has transformed so many other lives.

DeKalb Mayor John Rey, local business owners Cohen Barnes and Michelle Baker McElroy, Kishwaukee United Way Executive Director Dawn Littlefield and the Rev. Joseph Mitchell, pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, represented the community.

“The people gathered on this stage represent very different sectors of our community. We come from education, from government, from the social services, from faith communities and from the ranks of students,” Baker said.

“However, we all share one thing in common – a conviction that our state government needs to find a sustainable compromise that will allow us to continue providing our critical services for Illinois, he added. “After eight months of stalemate, we have come together to call for a resolution because we firmly believe that when we speak as a community we speak with a stronger voice.”

Illinois not provided funding for the 125,000 MAP grant-eligible students across the state, Baker said. Some schools, like NIU, have been able to credit that cost for students, he added, “and our belief is that we will be reimbursed when a budget is passed.”

But others schools have been unable to credit MAP accounts, the NIU president said, and many students have been forced to drop out of college as a result.

Laurie Borowicz
Laurie Borowicz

Of Kishwaukee’s 6,268 students, 80 percent receive some type of financial aid.

Three hundred and eighty-three of them would have received $246,422 in MAP funding this year, said Borowicz, who began her job only five weeks ago amid unprecedented fiscal times

Meanwhile, she said, the Kishwaukee College Board of Trustees reviewed a plan Tuesday to reduce the college’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget by $3.8 million, including a reduction in the workforce that would impact 49 positions. Twenty-two percent of the college’s budget is funded by the state.

Cuts like these create a ripple effect, Borowicz said.

“The college has 248 full-time employees who live, work and pay taxes in the local areas,” she said. “Sixty percent of last year’s graduates work in the Kishwaukee College district. Ninety-five percent of our graduates live, work and pay taxes in Illinois. Seventy percent of our graduates who transfer to a four-year will go to NIU.”

Domke also broke down his argument to numbers, as did Smith, who compared her various sources of funding, including federal grants, state grants, student loans and family support, to a puzzle – a puzzle now incomplete.

“Over 5,700 students at NIU receive MAP funding. These grants help deserving students pay for books, tuition and other educational expenses. They are important because, currently, Illinois schools have the fifth-highest, in-state tuition rate in the country and, over the last decade, tuition is up over 57 percent,” Domke said.

“We the students of the State of Illinois deserve MAP funding, and let me tell you why,” he added. “We are students who are achieving 4.0s, being active in our civic duties, we are the presidents of organizations and clubs and we are providing a service to the community in which we live that cannot be matched.”

Volunteerism like that could disappear if students cannot afford their higher education, he said.

“Not having a budget severely impacts the services universities offer for students and their success,” Domke said. “We will see cuts to student services that will slow graduation rates. We will see cuts that will hamper campus life activities, which will take the fun out of school and drive even more out of state – even though we already drive plenty out of state, and they never return.”

NIU President Doug Baker
NIU President Doug Baker

Barnes said he needs those hire those students when they graduate to keep his business, SundogIT, thriving.

“I hire NIU and Kishwaukee College graduates,” Barnes said. “I need a university that is strong and attractive. I need these people to be successful.”

The impasse in Springfield also has forced some of his clients to scale back their business with SundogIT, he said, as they wait for money the state owes them. Those missing dollars are crucial to helping those businesses grow, he said, and are now pinching his ledger book.

“I’ve been in business for 25 years,” he said, “and for 25 years, the State of Illinois has never impacted my local business.”

Local service agencies and other public organizations are hurting, Mayor Rey said.

His list included the DeKalb Public Library, which he said is not receiving $4 million of state funds and is borrowing money to finish its expansion project. Daycare centers for children and older adults are closing or cutting back, he added, and a mental health court program is delayed.

Patronski, executive vice president for industry development at GES/Global Experience Specialists in Hodgkins, Ill., told the audience that he “cannot imagine” what his life and career would have been like without NIU.

“Higher education transforms lives, generates research and ideas, and provides the state with graduates ready to enter the workforce and is an economic driver of this region and the state,” Patronski said.

“During my years in school, the country was unsettled with the Vietnam War and its impact on tens of thousands of lives,” he added. “I too had my concerns during this time, but I can honestly say I never worried about my professors being around for the next semester or whether my higher education accreditation would be in jeopardy.”

Michelle Baker Mcelroy, owner of Once Upon a Time Child Care in Sycamore
Michelle Baker Mcelroy, NIU and Kishwaukee College alumna
and owner of Once Upon a Time Child Care in Sycamore

Pastor Mitchell, the morning’s final speaker, ended the rally on a higher note.

The time is now “to engage in action and dialogue to ensure the most vulnerable in our state have access to the resources they need,” he said, “to ensure our colleges, daycares, homeless shelters, abuse centers and so many other institutions have the funding they need to assist the residents of this state.”

“We gathered here today not as Democratic or Republicans but as humanity – as human beings who all have basic needs, as unique individuals who are better because of the collective ‘we,’ ” Mitchell said.

“We have to unite in this moment to create a movement, a movement that pushes our legislators to put their political egos aside and be public servants, to humble themselves and compromise for the people they have sworn to serve.”

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