April 1, 2015

School start date dilemma resolved for Iowa districts

Mike Gronstal (file photo)

Mike Gronstal (file photo)

Iowa schools will be able to start fall classes as early as Monday, August 24 this year. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal this morning withdrew his hold on a bill that will set August 23 as the earliest date schools may start fall classes and the governor will sign the bill into law.

“While Governor Branstad created this problem last year, we think it’s been a significant distraction inside the legislature,” Gronstal said. “We’re going to focus now trying to get adequate funding for K-12 education.”

Last December Branstad’s administration told superintendents they would no longer get waivers to start school early — meaning schools would have to start fall classes during the week in which September 1 falls. A bill that sets “on or after August 23rd” as a compromise school start date passed both the House and Senate, but Gronstal objected to the bill’s failure to allow year-round high schools in the future.

Gronstal put a hold on the bill last week, but released it this morning shortly after the senate began its work day. “I’m going to let this bill go,” Gronstal told reporters. “I think there are a hot of things in it that are wrong, but that’s sometimes how it goes around here.”

This morning, shortly after Gronstal’s action, Governor Branstad said setting August 23 as the earliest date school may start in Iowa is a “reasonable compromise.”

“And I think it’s going to be of significant benefit to all concerned,” Branstad told reporters. “…This has been a contentious issue for decades and it’s an issue that I believe needed to be resolved in a way that’s going to give stability and predictability to when school starts.”

Branstad described the bill as a “balance” that resolves the issue “for the long term.”

“We had schools that were starting in early August and this was really hurting families and their vacations and hurting also the tourism economy of our state — the State Fair and Okoboji and many communities around the state,” Branstad said. “So I think this is a reasonable compromise.”

Last fall, 67 Iowa school districts started fall semester classes during the second week of August. Bettendorf and Danville started earliest — on August 11. Only 14 districts started after August 23 last fall. Senator Gronstal told reporters he’s “accepting the reality” that it was time to resolve the uncertainty about the starting date for school this fall and move on to the next problem.

“And we want to move forward on K-12 investments,” Gronstal said.

Iowa’s Republican governor said the state’s facing “some difficult financial circumstances” and cannot afford the four percent increase in general state school aid that Gronstal and his fellow Democrats propose. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, the top Republican in the legislature, said the one-and-a-quarter percent increase Republicans propose is a “learning forward position of what the state can afford.

The leader of the state teacher’s union said it has been a disappointing session so far for Iowa’s students and public schools.

“It is unfortunate that under the direction of our so-called education governor,  the calendar debate that has taken so much time and energy has very little to do with student success,” Iowa State Education Association president Tammy Wawro said in a written statement. “The Governor based his school start date proposal on Iowa’s tourism industry rather than on what is best for Iowa’s students, and he certainly has not considered education funding to be a priority with his 1.25 percent proposal.”

State unemployment rate drops again in February

Workforce-Development-signThe state’s unemployment rate continues on its downward trend with February dropping down to 4.1-percent from January’s rate of 4.2-percent.

Iowa Workforce Development spokesperson, Kerry Koonce, says it’s the fifth straight month with a drop. “We continue to see drops in the number of people who are unemployed. We are down 4,000 from a year ago for the number of people who are unemployed,” Koonce says. “And our number of people who are actually receiving unemployment insurance is down almost 12,000 from last month as well.”

The number of unemployed dropped, even though the state lost some jobs in the month, the first decline in jobs since September. “We dropped 400 jobs, which isn’t very big. Most of that being in the trade, transportation and utilities area. We saw a larger growth in that last month than really was expects, so I think that was just some leveling out,” according to Koonce.

Several areas did add jobs. “We saw nice growth in manufacturing, nice growth in education and health services — so those really helped the state as well,” Koonce says. Workforce Development figures show manufacturing added 1,200 jobs, the education and health care areas increased jobs fueled entirely by gains in private education of one-thousand jobs.

The number of unemployed Iowans dropped to 70,100 in February from 71,800 in January. Koonce says warmer weather should lead to more job gains. “Because you will have a lot of those people who are on temporary unemployment coming back to work. And we saw some gains in construction this month, the biggest gains are coming in industrial, which is good, because that shows overall growth,” Koonce says.

The national unemployment rate was 5.5-percent in February.


State population grows for 26th straight year

Census Bureau map of county populations.

Census Bureau map of county populations.

The U.S. Census Bureau released estimates Thursday showing Iowa’s population has increased by two percent since 2010. Gary Krob is the coordinator of the State Data Center program at the State Library.

“What we’re seeing in the state of Iowa is slow and steady growth, and the growth is continuing to be in the metropolitan and micropolitan counties versus some of the rural counties,” Krob says. While the population grew only by about 60,000 in those 4 years, Krob says it is growth and not loss in population.

“We have had slow growth since 1988, so 26 years of growth in our state,” Krob says. “Sometimes I think that gets overlooked when we start looking at some of the smaller communities and people moving out of some of the smaller counties. But the state as whole has actually been growing in population for 28 years.” The Census Bureau says it is Iowa’s longest period of sustained population growth since 1900. The state’s growth continues to be centered around the larger cities.

“We saw growth in 31 counties in Iowa, out of those 31 counties, only one county, Lyon county is not in or adjacent to a metropolitan or micropolitan area. So the growth we are seeing in Iowa is primarily in urban areas,” according to Krob.

Three Iowa metropolitan areas were among the nation’s 100 fastest growing metros between 2010 and 2014, according to the Census information. The Iowa City, Des Moines-West Des Moines, and Ames metropolitan areas ranked 31st, 32nd, and 82nd in growth respectively. A central Iowa county on the edge of Des Moines and its suburbs was again among the fastest growing in the state and nation.

“Dallas County was the 17th fastest growing county in the United States this year, it was actually 13th if you look at population in counties with at least 10-thousand people,” Krob explains. Dallas County grew by 17-percent since the 2010 census and added 11,263 residents for a total population of 77,400. More than 58 percent of Iowa residents now live in the state’s twenty-one metropolitan counties, up from over 53 percent after the 2000 census.

Krob says the numbers track the domestic migration, or people moving in from others states, and international migration, or people moving into Iowa from other countries. “We have a slight negative domestic migration — we lost about 4,000 people with domestic migration — but that number is a lot lower than we saw in the last decade,” Krob says. “We have very high international migration, so we see a lot of people moving into Iowa from other countries.”

Between 2010 and 2014 the numbers show Iowa gained 21,447 residents from other nations. Births, another factor in population growth, were slightly ahead of deaths in the state. Krob says

“State estimates were released last December…and we’re kind of in the middle of the pack when you look at the midwest as a whole. There were states that definitely grew at a faster rate than we did, but there were also states that didn’t grow as much ass we did since 2010,” Krob says.

You can see more on the new population estimates on the State Library’s State Data Center website at: www.iowadatacenter.org.


U-I study finds distracted driving among teens more serious than thought

Texting and is one of the biggest distractions for teen drivers.

Texting and is one of the biggest distractions for teen drivers.

A University of Iowa study of hundreds of dash-cam video recordings of teenage drivers who were involved in crashes finds they’re a lot more distracted than originally thought.

Gail Weinholzer , at AAA Iowa, says the comprehensive research found significant evidence that distracted driving is likely a much more serious problem than previously known.

“We found that six out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes involved distraction, which is four times more than has been reported on police records,” Weinholzer says. “Of course, the average person isn’t going to admit to law enforcement that they were horsing around with other teenagers or talking on their cell phone.”

Researchers at the U-of-I analyzed the six seconds leading up to a crash in nearly 1,700 videos of teen drivers taken from in-vehicle event recorders. “The #1 cause was interacting with one or more teen passengers, that was 15% of all crashes,” Weinholzer says. “Cell phone use, whether it be dialing the phone, talking on the phone, using it to text or something of that nature was 12% of all crashes, and daydreaming and looking around at what was going on outside of the car not relevant to the driving process was about ten percent.”

Other top distractions include: singing and moving to music, grooming and reaching for an object. An earlier federal study had estimated distraction is a factor in only 14-percent of all teen driver crashes.

This new report showed distraction was a factor in 58-percent of all crashes studied, including 89-percent of road-departure crashes and 76-percent of rear-end crashes. Parents play a critical role in preventing distracted driving, according to the motor club. “Parents need to model good behavior,” Weinholzer says. “If their teens are seeing them texting and driving or talking on the cell phone and driving, it’s no surprise that the teens are going to do that themselves. Second, parents need to limit the number of teens in the vehicle as well as the cell phone use that’s going on in the vehicle.”

Those things might be accomplished, she suggests, with parent-teen contracts and through stronger graduated drivers licensing laws. Researchers found that drivers who were using their cell phone had their eyes off the road for an average of 4.1 out of the final 6 seconds leading up to a crash. The researchers also measured reaction times in rear-end crashes and found that teen drivers using a cell phone failed to react more than half of the time before the impact, meaning, they crashed without braking or steering.


Two legislators recognized with ‘Uncommon Public Service’ award

Wally Horn

Wally Horn

The longest serving member of the Iowa legislature has won the Herbert Hoover “Uncommon Public Service” Award for 2015. Eighty-one-year-old Wally Horn of Cedar Rapids was first elected to the House in 1972. He’s been a senator since 1983.

“An award like this makes you very humble,” Horn said. “It really does.”

Horn, who is a native of Bloomfield, served in the U.S. Army and was a teacher and coach in the Cedar Rapids School District for over 30 years. During his 43-year career as a legislator, Horn served as majority leader for his fellow Democrats in the senate for four years in the early 1990s.

Horn told his senate colleagues this morning that he wouldn’t have won the Hoover award without their support. “I just hope you understand that probably one of the reasons is because you are the people that got me there,” Horn said.

No other legislator in Iowa history has a longer record of continuous service than Horn.

Each year a member of the Senate and a member of the House receive the Hoover Award, named for the Iowa native who served one term as president and is credited with saving millions of Europeans from starvation after World War I.

Helen Miller

Helen Miller

Representative Helen Miller of Fort Dodge is this year’s Hoover Award winner in the House. Miller was first elected to the House 13 years ago.

“I am kind of a woman of few words,” Miller said, “and to say that I am stunned this morning is truly an understatement.”

Miller, who is a Democrat, was inducted into the Iowa African American Hall of Fame in 2012 for her work in leading a non-profit group that promotes the arts as well as her work in the Iowa House.

“I think I work pretty hard and I love everybody in this building,” Miller said. “I don’t care if you are a D or an R — and I do genuinely try to show that.”

Miller, an attorney, is a native of Newark, New Jersey. She and her late husband, Dr. Edward Miller, settled in Fort Dodge in 1999 after her husband retired from a career in the military.

Ernst makes first speech on senate floor, touts her first bill

Senator Joni Ernst.

Senator Joni Ernst.

Republican Joni Ernst has introduced her first bill in the U.S. Senate — the “Prioritizing Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care Act.” The bill would make hiring more psychiatrists a higher priority for the Veterans Administration, plus Ernst proposes expanding coverage so veterans could seek mental health care elsewhere if they’d have a lengthy wait at a VA facility.

“These veterans fought for us and defended us tirelessly. They endured more than some of us can ever imagine,” Ernst said. “The invisible wounds of war can no longer go unnoticed.”

Ernst made her comments during a speech late this afternoon on the Senate floor. She spoke for more than 10 minutes, mentioning her own military service and the calls she’s gotten from veterans who are suicidal, but cannot get timely help from the VA.

“We have to do better,” Ernst said.

A veteran seeking mental health services from the VA has to wait an average of 36 days before they get an appointment and Ernst suggested that’s one reason why the suicide rate among veterans is so high.

“We hear this number from time to do, but think about it: 22 veterans suicides per days,” Ernst said.

Under current practice, veterans are not allowed coverage for mental health services if a V-A facility is within 40 miles of where they live — regardless of the wait time for an appointment at that facility.

Second arrest made in mystery Hot Lotto ticket case

Mystery Hot Lotto ticket.

Mystery Hot Lotto ticket.

A Texas man has been charged in the Hot Lotto mystery ticket case. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office charged Robert Clark Rhodes II of Sugar Land, Texas with two felony counts of fraud.

He was arrested in connection with a Hot Lotto ticket that was bought in Des Moines in 2010 and was worth more than 16 million dollars, but was never paid out as the true owner of the ticket could not be identified before the ticket expired.

Iowa officials says they received assistance from Texas Lottery Enforcement officials in the arrest of Rhodes in Texas last Friday night. Rhodes was being held on a $500,000 cash bond and is awaiting extradition back to Iowa.

Investigators arrested 51-year-old Eddie Tipton of Norwalk back in January, and charged him with two counts of fraud. Tipton is believed to have purchased the winning ticket, but worked for the Multi-state Lottery Association as the director of information security, and was not eligible to purchase tickets. The DCI says their investigation is on-going.