Sterigenics, a medical supply sterilization company linked to increased cancer risk in the DuPage County area, said Monday, Sept. 30, it plans to “exit its ethylene oxide sterilization operations in Willowbrook.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, chronic exposure to ethylene oxide, used in some medical supply sterilization and manufacturing processes, can cause increased cancer risks, negative reproductive effects and other major medical problems.

Since February, Sterigenics was prohibited from using the gas by a seal order from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which effectively forced its closure. A consent agreement between the state, DuPage County and Sterigenics approved earlier this month gave the company clearance to install the necessary equipment for its facility to reopen, however.

Sterigenics said in a news release Monday it could “not reach an agreement to renew the lease on its Quincy Street facility in Willowbrook in the present environment,” and blamed the “unstable legislative and regulatory landscape in Illinois” for its decision not to reopen.  

There are two bills — House Bill 3885 and House Bill 3888 —currently moving through the Legislature that would, respectively, give home rule municipalities greater authority to ban emissions of the gas and phase out its use over a period of years. They are expected to be on the table for discussion when the General Assembly returns for fall veto session on Oct. 28.

Both measures would build upon Senate Bills 1852 and 1854, which were signed into law earlier this year creating what both sides agreed were the strictest regulations on ethylene oxide in the nation.

State Sen. John Curran, a Downers Grove Republican who was among the first public officials to speak out against the company, was the Senate sponsor of one of those regulatory bills. He also opposed any avenue for Sterigenics to reopen.

“This is tremendous news for the people of Willowbrook and the surrounding communities,” Curran said in a statement. “The risks involved with this facility reopening were simply too great to the public health. This announcement from Sterigenics is the direct result of the tireless advocacy of Stop Sterigenics and other community organizations who have proven once again that when we all work together, we will not be stopped. Now it is our job to remain vigilant in continuing to protect the health of those we serve.”

Court system agenda

A panel of Illinois judiciary members and stakeholders developed a three-year plan, announced Wednesday, Oct. 2, during an event in Chicago, designed to “improve the delivery of justice and better serve the public.”

In what Supreme Court Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier called the “most significant step forward” his branch of government has undergone since the amendment creating a unified court system in the state, the guide outlines a mission statement, vision edict and five core values meant to be its “blueprint for the future.”

“If the courts are to continue to make good on the promise of equal justice under law in this new and challenging environment, we must be proactive. Waiting for problems to develop and then responding will no longer do,” Karmeier wrote in the document. “Rather, it is critical that we anticipate the difficulties ahead and prepare for them in a reasoned and coordinated way, drawing on the insights and experience of every part, every level and every region of the Judicial Branch.”

Issues affecting the judiciary include the appropriation and use of “limited resources,” changing technology and data collection, Marcia Meis, director of the courts’ administrative office, said.

The Judicial Conference crafted the Strategic Agenda’s five goals to address those difficulties, holding in mind the vision statement it created as well: “To be trusted and open to all by being fair, innovative, diverse, and responsive to changing needs.”

The panel of 29 conference members — 15 judges from varying levels and geographic areas and 14 non-judicial members — “did not reinvent the wheel,” retired judge S. Gene Schwarm said. Instead, they focused on five states similar to Illinois that have a comparable plan in place.

Goals include “accessible justice and equal protection under the law;” “procedural fairness, timeliness, and operational efficiency;” “professionalism and accountability throughout the judicial branch;” “understanding of and confidence in the judicial branch;” and “sufficient funding and effective use of judicial branch resources.”

“Having identified those goals, it falls to us to see them through,” Karmeier said.

Sandoval Update

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday, Oct. 2, called on Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago) to step down as chairman of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee in the wake of an FBI investigation into possible corruption and bribery involving public contracts.

“While Senator Sandoval is under investigation, it’s in the best interests of our state that he no longer serve as chairman of the Transportation Committee,” Pritzker told reporters shortly after an unrelated event in Oak Lawn. “If he doesn’t step aside, he should be removed.”

A spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton, however, said the Senate president was not yet ready to make any moves.

Those comments came a day after Cullerton’s office, responding to open records requests, released heavily-redacted copies of the search warrant that was issued Monday, Sept. 23, for Sandoval’s Statehouse office.

That warrant was executed the following day when federal agents were seen carrying out computers, boxes and brown paper bags marked “EVIDENCE.”

Although the names of specific individuals and companies were blacked out, the documents indicate agents were looking for information and communication related to several businesses, at least two lobbyists, one or more municipalities, five Illinois Department of Transportation officials and items “related to any official action taken in exchange for a benefit.”

Sandoval, a Democrat, was instrumental in pushing through a $45 billion capital infrastructure bill this year that will fund repairs and improvements to state highways, bridges, university campuses and other public facilities.

Sandoval has not been charged with wrongdoing. He has not issued any statements regarding the searches.

Education funding

Education officials in Illinois say the state is making solid progress under its new evidence-based funding program in narrowing the wealth-based disparities among school districts, but an analysis of the first year of that program shows just how far the state still has to go.

During the 2017-2018 academic year, new data from the Illinois State Board of Education shows, school districts with large amounts of property wealth were better funded than their property-poor counterparts, enabling them to spend more money per-pupil. That in turn translated into higher student test scores in math and English language arts.

Meanwhile, residents of property-poor school districts generally paid higher property tax rates than people in wealthy districts, while their school districts continued to be underfunded and fewer students in those districts were able to meet state expectations on standardized tests.

Those are the conclusions of an analysis by Capitol News Illinois that examined financial information from 850 public school districts, combined with school performance data from the Illinois Report Card during the 2017-2018 academic year, the most recent year for which all data is available. 

“None of that surprises me,” state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said in an interview. “None of what the state board released is shocking to me because the compromise at the end was an incremental step.” He is the chief architect of the evidence-based funding system.

The evidence-based funding system went into effect in the 2017-2018 school year, and final numbers for that year from the Illinois State Board of Education were just released in August.

Those numbers show that total funding for 850 school districts — including local, state and federal funds — ranged from 47 percent of adequacy in the J.S. Morton High School District in Cook County to 288 percent of adequacy in the Rondout School District, an elementary district in Lake County.

All told, 652 districts received less than 90 percent of their adequacy target, including 144 that received less than 60 percent of their adequacy. The average across all districts was 79.5 percent of adequacy.

Property wealth was the single biggest determinant of how adequately funded a district is.

Taxable property value during the 2017-2018 year ranged from a low of $19,332.45 per-pupil in the DePue district to a high of more than $2.5 million per-pupil in the Rondout district. The average among the 850 districts was $252,070.55.

According to ISBE data, there was a clear correlation between property wealth and funding adequacy: Poorer districts tended to be the least adequately funded, while wealthier districts enjoyed the greatest funding.

The data also shows a clear relationship between funding levels and student performance on standardized tests. Students in the best-funded school districts routinely scored higher on tests of English language arts and math.

Collegiate athletes

An Illinois lawmaker is sponsoring a bill to allow college student athletes to sign endorsement deals, hire agents and benefit financially from the use of their likeness after California became the first state in the nation to pass such a law earlier this week.

“First and foremost, it’s about fairness and equity, and athletes being able to profit off their own names and their own likeness,” said Democratic Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, of Hillside.

Welch said universities make millions off student athletes each year, and the NCAA — the governing body that oversees college athletics — generates tens of billions of dollars each year. The association’s rules, however, prohibit endorsement deals and prevent student athletes from cashing in on the popularity of collegiate sports which they helped create, he said.

Welch’s measure, House Bill 3904, duplicates the California law and states any association, including the NCAA, “may not prevent a student athlete … from earning compensation as a result of the use of the student’s name, image, or likeness.” The bill also prohibits the NCAA from barring a university from competition if its athletes are compensated in such a manner, and prohibits universities from upholding any rules that ban endorsements. The bill would apply to both public and private universities.

While it allows student athletes to hire agents, it does not pave the way for them to seek salaries or payment, outside of scholarships, from their college or university, Welch said.

“The salary issue is completely separate and apart from an athlete being able to sign an endorsement deal to profit from their own name and their own likeness,” Welch said. “I have no concerns about this threatening the purity of the sport and amateur sports. …This is a very tightly-written bill that I think takes that concern into consideration and eliminates it.”

Welch said the bill does prohibit a student athlete from receiving an endorsement from a direct competitor to a partner organization of their university.

“For instance, if the university has a contract with Under Armour, players can’t sign a deal with Nike,” he said.

ISBE budget hearings

The Illinois State Board of Education has scheduled four hearings in different parts of the state to gather input in the coming weeks for its budget request that will be sent to the governor and General Assembly in January.

In a news release announcing the hearings, Illinois Education Superintendent Carmen Ayala touted the state’s evidence-based funding formula, which was passed in August 2017.

“Illinois has made historic investments in Evidence-Based Funding and early childhood education that have transformed entire communities,” Ayala said in a statement. “The voices of educators and community partners must be front and center as we advocate for the adequate and equitable resources our students need to continue to grow.”

That formula separates school districts into four tiers based on how far they are from adequate funding. Each district receives an adequacy target determined by a number of factors impacting student performance, such as class size, number of low-income students, English language learners and students with special education needs.

The upcoming hearings will be facilitated by ISBE Finance and Audit Committee Chair Jane Quinlan.

The hearings will take place:

–Immediately following the board’s regular meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 16, at East St. Louis Public Schools Administration Building, 1005 State St., East St. Louis

–From 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, at the Bloomington High School Senior Cafeteria, 1202 E. Locust St., Bloomington

–From 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, at the Dr. Nick Osborne Primary Center CORE Classroom, 401 N. 30th St., Mount Vernon

–From 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21, at the James R. Thompson Center Room 16-503, 100 W. Randolph St., Chicago

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.