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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014 12:01 am

Faith Coalition presses Quinn for rail jobs

Linda Byrd (right) of Springfield asks Sen. Andy Manar (left), D-Bunker Hill, to continue pushing for reform of the state’s education funding formula, which leaves many high-poverty schools with inadequate resources.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

In an East St. Louis church, just 12 miles from Ferguson, Missouri, where people are protesting the killing of a young black man by police, another group gathers in the name of social justice. Mourning and anger dominate the gathering on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, while the Illinois side is celebratory and hopeful.

Both groups are looking to the future and demanding change, and their objectives are connected by the thread of institutional racism that taints their lives.

The Springfield-based Faith Coalition for the Common Good took four tour buses of people to East St. Louis on Aug. 14 for the Fire of Faith summit, a gathering of religious groups from around the state focused on the needs of minorities, women, poor people and other underrepresented groups.

Organized by Gamaliel of Illinois, a statewide faith-based advocacy group, the summit brought together members from Springfield, Chicago, the St. Louis area and the Quad Cities, along with public officials from state and local governments.

The gathering began with a moment of silence in honor of Michael Brown, the black teen killed by a police officer in Ferguson on Aug. 9. Brown’s killing highlighted the divide between the experiences of black and white citizens nationwide, and the Gamaliel meeting had similar undertones of fixing a system that black and Latino people feel is stacked against them. While the Ferguson protests are a reaction to the distrust between police and black citizens, the East. St. Louis meeting focused on big-picture issues like equality in employment, fair wages, infrastructure and fair funding of schools.

The Faith Coalition and its sister organizations elicited promises at the meeting from Gov. Pat Quinn and other elected officials on several upcoming projects around the state. Rev. T. Ray McJunkins, senior pastor at Union Baptist Church in Springfield and president of the Faith Coalition, introduced the governor and joked that “When I want to go backwards, I put it in R, but when I want to forward, I put it in D,” referring to Republicans and Democrats.

“I just want to make it clear, I’m a D,” said Quinn, who is seeking re-election against well-funded Republican challenger Bruce Rauner. “I don’t know anything about an R.”

Rauner was invited to the event but did not attend.

Irma Wallace of Springfield publicly asked Quinn to sign the coalition’s Rail Community Benefits Agreement, which addresses the proposed move of the Third Street rail tracks to the 10th Street rail corridor in Springfield. The agreement calls for training and jobs for minorities and low-income people, safety measures along the tracks and fair compensation for people whose properties would be purchased to make room for additional tracks. Quinn said he would sign the agreement.

Asked whether he would write to President Barack Obama urging revision of federal minority hiring guidelines, Quinn said he would even call the president. He called on voters to support a referendum to ban voter identification laws and a nonbinding referendum on raising the minimum wage when those questions and others are asked on the Nov. 4 election ballot.

Addressing the crowd, Quinn invoked the biblical prophet Amos, who preached about social justice.

“He didn’t bite his tongue,” Quinn said. “He said woe to those who afflict the poor. … We’re here tonight to lift up everyday people.”

The Faith Coalition also urged support of a bill in the Illinois General Assembly to reform the state’s school funding formula. Sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, the bill would make a school district’s ability to pay for education the primary factor in determining how much state aid that district receives.

Currently, property taxes are the primary source of funding for schools, and districts with strong property tax bases receive roughly the same amount of state aid per student as districts with much weaker property tax bases. That leads to wealthy districts with abundant resources – many in the Chicago suburbs – and poor districts that struggle to make ends meet. Manar’s bill would change the school funding formula to take into account property taxes, poverty levels and other factors that affect a district’s ability to pay.

“There’s an idea that poverty is somebody else’s problem,” Manar said. “There’s an idea today that if there’s a school that is failing in this state, as long as it isn’t mine, I don’t care about it. As long as poverty is over there, I don’t have to worry about it. I’m here to tell you, if there’s a school failing in this state, whether it’s in your back yard or not, it is all of our problem.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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