July 1, 2015

New director takes over at Iowa Department of Education

Ryan Wise

Ryan Wise

The deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education began the day by taking the deputy label off his name tag. Governor Terry Branstad appointed Ryan Wise as the new leader of the department beginning today.

“I sought out the position of director because I thought it was an opportunity to continue my work here at the department that I started three years ago when I came to Iowa to help build the teacher leadership and compensation system. And to continue to grow and help serve the schools and students of Iowa,” Wise says.

Wise is replacing Brad Buck, who is leaving to become the superintendent of the Cedar Rapids school district. The position has been in the spotlight the last several years with a variety of issues, including education reform. Wise says the attention didn’t deter him from seeking the job. “No, I think I enjoy this opportunity to be one of many leaders in Iowa working toward a brighter future for all of our students,” Wise says. “While this job certainly does draw attention — I think it is a statewide team collaborative effort.”

Wise says the Department of Education gets good support from the administration. “The governor and lieutenant governor have provided tremendous leadership here. And that is also one of the reasons that I am excited about this work. Because I think they’ve laid out a vision and path for excellent schools for all of Iowa,” Wise says.

He says completing the implementation of the teacher leadership program is one of the top tasks ahead. “This coming year we’ll have 76 new school districts joining the existing 39. Those districts serve over two-thirds of the students in Iowa,” Wise says. “Implementation during the first year went incredibly well and we are looking forward to this second group of districts coming in, and then all districts in Iowa coming in in year three.”

He says there are also other parts of education reform to work on. “Our early literacy initiative is going full-steam ahead — working on ensuring that all students are proficient readers by the end of third grade. We’ve developed a statewide early warning system to ensure that we’re helping districts spot reading challenges before they really become a problem,” according to Wise.

Wise is 39-years-old and a native of South Dakota. His appointment must be approved by the Iowa Senate in the next legislative session.

Clarinda and Mount Pleasant MHI’s now closed

Former employees at Mount Pleasant released luminaries after the facility closed.

Former employees at Mount Pleasant MHI released luminaries after the facility closed.

The state-run Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant were officially shut down last night as the fiscal year came to an end.

Governor Terry Branstad has led the charge to close the facilities and shift to community-based mental health services.

Former employees at the Mount Pleasant MHI released floating luminaries as the final employee clocked out just before midnight. Anna Short, a former drug abuse counselor at the facility, told KCRG-TV the event made the closing “real” both for her and her former co-workers.

“It’s done and it’s sad,” Short said. “It’s not just co-workers, it’s your family.” Workers moved the final patients out of the Mount Pleasant MHI late last week. All of the workers, in both Mount Pleasant and Clarinda, have been laid off. The state legislature approved a budget that would keep the MHIs open for up to another year, but the governor is expected to veto that part of the budget.

Monday is the final day for the governor to make decisions about funding bills legislators sent to his desk. Danny Homan, the head of the union that represents the largest share of state employees, has said he believes Governor Branstad’s actions are in violation of state law and the collective bargaining agreement. It’s anticipated that AFSCME Iowa Council 61 will be part of a lawsuit challenging the governor’s call to shutdown the two MHIs.

AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan issued the following statement about the shutdown of Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda Mental Health Institutes:

“Last night, at midnight, the Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda Mental Health Institutes closed their doors and the entire staff was laid off. This is a sad moment for the people of Iowa, especially those patients and families that need the services provided by these two facilities. The real losers here are the patients and the citizens of the state of Iowa. Residents of southern Iowa no longer have these two excellent facilities as an option for the care of their loved ones facing mental health challenges. Iowa’s mental health safety net has been made weaker by the choices the governor has made. To the employees of these facilities, who have provided excellent treatment to patients for many years, I’m very sorry the governor has decided to take this action. I believe not only has he violated the collective bargaining agreement by his actions of laying everyone off effective at the end of June, but I also believe he is in violation of a state law and we will take the appropriate action and attempt to fix this situation. The governor has chosen to ignore the advice of patients, their families, mental health professionals, legislators, employees, and community leaders. He should be ashamed of the decision he made to shut down these facilities.


Heavy rainfall impacting bacteria readings at state park beaches


Backbone Beach (DNR photo)

The weekly tests of the water near 10 state park beach areas showed high levels of bacteria last week — the most since the second week of testing when there were 13.

The DNR’s Mary Skopec says all the rainfall is the biggest factor. “We’ve had several pretty intense rainstorms come through the state, so it is typical for this early in the season to have a number of beach advisories,” Skopec says. “But I think as we move through into the drier part of the summer, hopefully some of those advisories will go away.”

The rain serves as a conduit for the bacteria to get into the lake. “It washes any bacteria that are on the beaches or surrounding the beaches, or in the area surrounding the lake, into the water where people swim. So we have seen for many years with heavy rains, the bacteria levels really jump up,” according to Skopec.

Skopec says sunshine is the cleanser that clears the bacteria out. “The increase in the bacteria really depends on the lake, but generally within one to two days the numbers come down. Especially if we gave sunny calm weather, the bacteria drop out and numbers get a lot better,” Skopec says. Many lake levels are up right now after the rains — which can also lead to an increase in bacteria.

“The high water levels can have an impact. We do know that the near beach areas, the beach sands can actually be a source of bacteria,” Skopec says. “Goose droppings on the beach for example, can be washed into the lake. And so when those lake levels are higher because of high levels of rainfall or flooding — we do get some of that — geese droppings moving into the lake area. So, it will be a problem for awhile.”

Beaches with high levels of bacteria have green signs posted on them.


Iowa State University hosts 4-H conference

4-H-Logo“Dare to Discover” is the theme of this year’s Iowa 4-H Conference underway this week on the Iowa State University campus. Conference coordinator Brenda Allen says the three-day event will attract 850 members from across the state.

“The conference is a leadership development conference and has lots of different components,” Allen says. “There are young people who will participate in educational workshops. We have three exciting motiviational keynote speakers. They’ll also be doing community service projects around Story and Boone counties.”

Allen says the conference helps young people in becoming more active in their communities. “We’re excited that they get a chance to build their leadership skills, improve their communication skills,” Allen says. “Through their workshops, they’ll also be studying different subjects they’re interested in and develop some mastery in those areas.” The conference opened Tuesday and runs through Thursday.

(Reporting by Pat Powers, KQWC, Webster City)


New state laws go into effect today

CapitolA number of new state laws go into effect today, addressing issues as diverse as sledding on city property and selling beer by the “growler.”

The governor has yet to take action on about a dozen budget bills passed by the 2015 legislature, but Governor Branstad has approved a host of policy-related bills over the past several months. One offers new liability protections to cities that allow sledding on city-owned property like golf courses and parks. Another new state law doubles the size of the privacy zone around military funerals, to keep protesters farther away.

Bars and convenience stores will now be able to sell customers with a vessel called a “growler” up to 72 ounces of carry-out beer. And schools may now keep “epi pens” on hand to treat students who suffer an allergy attack.

Huckabee: shield same-sex marriage opponents from ‘persecution or prosecution’

Mike Huckabee.

Mike Huckabee.

Republican candidate Mike Huckabee promises that on his first day as president he’d issue an executive order to provide new legal protections to businesses, schools and religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage.

“There will be no persecution or prosecution of those who wish to exercise the restraints and the deep felt convictions of their conscience and that this will be protected,” Huckabee said early this evening.

Huckabee has been a vocal critic of last Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision which legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Huckabee said, as president, he’d ask his attorney general to “vigorously protect the religious liberty” of Americans who oppose same-sex marriage.

“And not allow discrimination and bigotry to be applied toward those who have a conscience and who have convictions,” said Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who is also a former Baptist minister.

During a question-and-answer session with reporters, Huckabee was asked why his proposed executive orders weren’t similar to President Obama’s controversial executive orders which have tabled deportation of undocumented immigrants who were brought into the U.S. as a child.

“Creating something that isn’t in the Constitution or law is overreach,” Huckabee said. “Giving an executive order that mirrors the Constitution is the very purpose for which there is an executive order. Religious liberty is at the heart and soul of the Constitution and the First Amendment. Amnesty is not.”

Huckabee said the courts “simply don’t have the authority” to redefine marriage and he has suggested the U.S. Supreme Court’s chief justice “needs medication for schizophrenia” — a remark that drew criticism from the National Alliance on Mentally Illness. Huckabee briefly joked about the controversy tonight during remarks to a group of supporters gathered for the opening of his Iowa campaign headquarters in Urbandale.

“Sure, I’m going to be the one that will say the outrageous things that will get me in trouble and make you question your sanity for having signed up to help,” Huckabee joked.

Later, Huckabee told reporters it’s “easy to offend people” and he was simply trying to find a way to describe the divergent reasoning Justice Roberts offered in last week’s rulings on ObamaCare and same-sex marriage.

“I’ll be honest with you, if I were as bland and as colorless as some people would probably hope a candidate to be, you guys would have nothing to ever talk about,” Huckabee told the group of reporters, photographers and video camera operators surrounding him. “I mean I would give you nothing, so you’ve got to give me a little love here and realize that it is in the best interest of the public to have candidates who speak clearly and vividly and colorfully — not to offend, but to illustrate.”

Huckabee, who plans to campaign in each of Iowa’s 99 counties before the February 1st Iowa Caucuses, will hold town-hall meetings Wednesday in Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Cherokee. On Thursday he’ll hold meetings in Fort Dodge, Dubuque and Burlington.

(Photo by Asya Arca)

Supreme Court rules on searching items in a car

gavel-thumbnailThe Iowa Supreme Court issued a split ruling on what’s required in the search of items in a vehicle. A Davenport police officer searched a safe in Jesse Gaskins’ car after Gaskins admitted he had been smoking a joint when he was pulled over for an expired license plate.

Officers found a loaded handgun, pipes and marijuana in the safe. The court ruled the officers were not in danger and there were no concerns evidence in the safe would be destroyed — so searching the safe without a warrant was not justified. Dissenting justices say the rule will be a challenge for arresting officers to implement and goes against prior precedent.

The case was sent back to district court and the evidence found in the safe cannot be used.

 Here’s the full ruling: Gaskins ruling PDF