March 31, 2015

Anti-bullying bill clears Iowa Senate on 43-7 vote

Rob Hogg

Rob Hogg

The Iowa Senate has passed a bill designed to give school officials more authority to respond to bullying that occurs outside of school hours as well as on-line through Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Senator Rob Hogg, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, said “off-campus” harassment has an impact on students inside the school building.

“On-going harassment and bullying can devastate children, endanger their mental and physical health, and leave scars that last into adulthood,” Hogg said.

Governor Branstad has supported expanding Iowa’s anti-bullying law for the past three years, but his fellow Republicans have objected to previous approaches, arguing parents have primary responsibility for their children outside of school hours. Anti-bullying bills passed the House and the Senate last year, but in slightly different forms.

The bill that passed the Senate late this morning on a 43-7 vote would require that parents be notified if their child is involved in a bullying incident, unless the school official believes that notice might “subject the student to harm.” Hogg said that “promotes more parental involvement.”

“We need safe schools so that all students, regardless of their background, can achieve their full potential,” Hogg said.

The bill also calls for more training to help educators intervene when a child is being bullied. Senator Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames, said after three years of trying, the bill that’s emerged is a good compromise.

“I think there have been some very delicate trade-offs that needed to be addressed,” Quirmbach said.

Governor Branstad issued a written statement “applauding” Senate passage of the bill. Branstad said he is “hopeful that the bill will receive support in the Iowa House” and reach his desk for final approval this year.

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.”

Senator Grassley begins campaign for 7th term

Senator Chuck Grassley. (file photo)

Senator Chuck Grassley. (file photo)

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley held his first fundraiser last night in West Des Moines to kick off his 2016 reelection campaign. Grassley, a Republican, is seeking a seventh term. One reason Grassley says he’d like to remain in Washington D.C. is the fact his party now has a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate.

“We anticipated that would happen,” Grassley says, “and being chairman of a committee, I’m in a position to show more leadership, not just through the Judiciary Committee but being fourth in seniority of 100 senators, I think, gives me some opportunity to push.” Grassley first took office in 1959 when he was elected to the Iowa House and has served in public office ever since. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1975 and was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980.

Grassley is now 81 years old and if elected to another term, he would be 89 when that term is up. He’s currently the second-oldest member of the Senate. I don’t have a right to serve a seventh term,” Grassley says. “I hold a public trust and from time to time, every six years, you have to renew that trust. If the people continue to have trust in me, I will serve a seventh term and if they don’t, then obviously, I’ll retire.”

Shortly after Senator Tom Harkin announced in 2013 that he would not run again, Grassley said he would seek reelection because he didn’t want to leave Iowa with two junior senators just two years apart. He says that remains as a primary reason he’s seeking reelection now. Grassley says, “Public service is an honorable thing and if I can be helpful to the people of Iowa, particularly in transition while Iowa has a new senator, then I think that’s helpful.”

Republican Joni Ernst of Red Oak was elected last year to fill the seat that had been held by Democrat Harkin. Grassley says Ernst has “really picked up the ball quickly,” adding, “she’s off to a very good start, but it still hasn’t changed my mind about running for reelection.”


Branstad rejecting Department of Labor advice about chief judge

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad is resisting the U.S. Department of Labor’s advisory about the job classification as well as the qualifications for a key state government employee.

“I think the responsibilities of that position have changed,” Branstad told reporters Monday.

According to the Labor Department, the chief in charge of Iowa administrative law judges who rule on disputed unemployment claims should be a merit employee, meaning someone hired based on their qualifications and who has the right to appeal his or her firing. Branstad has made the chief an “at will” political appointment, so the chief judge can hired and fired for any reason. Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo who asked for the Labor Department review, said making it a political appointment doesn’t make sense.

“The only reason I can see why you would fight so hard to have political appointees there — you’re really trying to influence this stuff,” Dotzler said.

Branstad said the chief no longer decides cases, but merely oversees the judges who do and makes case assignments.

“So it’s more an administrative position today,” Branstad said. “They’re not making decisions based on contested cases.”

But Senator Dotzler said the chief can certainly “boss” the judges to rule a certain way.

“That’s political influence,” Dotzler said. “…I would think that the governor would want to be one step removed from that so he doesn’t get accused of this being bought.”

The agency director who resigned abruptly in early January told The Des Moines Register she tried to heed the U.S. Department of Labor’s directive to change the chief administrative law judge to a merit employee, but was overruled by Branstad’s top aides. Branstad told reporters on Monday he doesn’t “micromanage” and won’t discuss this personnel decision.

Legislator recognizes 110th birthday of Carlisle woman

Julian Garrett

Julian Garrett

A woman in central Iowa is celebrating her 110th birthday today. State Senator Julian Garrett of Indianola offers some perspective on Tressa Bartholomew’s longevity. “When she was born Theodore Roosevelt was president of the United States,” Garrett says.

There were only 45 states in the union when Bartholomew was born in 1905. “She still lives in her own house in Carlisle and she’s fortunate she still has a lot of relatives that live in the area,” Garrett says. Bartholomew and her late husband had four children. “She now has 13 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren and 52 great-great-grandchildren,” Garrett says.

Garrett made mention of Bartholomew this afternoon during a special speech-making time in the Iowa Senate. “I just wanted to say, ‘Tressa, happy birthday and we hope you have a lot more of them,'” Garrett says. Now that she’s reached the age of 110, Bartholomew is classified as a “supercentenarian.” There are about 70 “supercentenarians” living in the U.S. today.

The oldest living American was born on July 4th, 1898, six years before Bartholomew. The Iowa Department on Aging does not keep an updated list of Iowa’s oldest residents.


Branstad defends tax incentives for HyVee

Hyvee-logoGovernor Terry Branstad says the Hy-Vee supermarket chain is a “good corporate citizen” and deserves the $7.5 million in state tax incentives it has been awarded for expansion of its corporate headquarters in West Des Moines.

“We’re very blessed to have a company of that magnitude,” Branstad says. “Hy-Vee is a great corporate citizen. They’re located all over the state of Iowa. They treat their employees very well.”

Hy-Vee plans a more than $74 million expansion project that will add 72,000 feet of office space to its corporate headquarters and double the size of its conference center, which Branstad used to kick-off his 2014 reelection campaign. The Iowa Economic Development Authority approved the package of $7.5 million in state tax credits for Hy-Vee’s expansion project on Friday.

Hy-Vee operates 235 stores in eight Midwest states. According to the company’s website, Hy-Vee records sales of more than $8.7 billion each year. Hy-Vee, which is employee-owned, ranks as the 17th largest food retailer in the country.

2015 Iowa STEM Summit features forums for remaking classroom experience

Jeff Weld, Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds and Governor Branstad. (L-R)

Jeff Weld, Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds and Governor Branstad. (L-R)

Nearly 600 people are in Des Moines today for a summit to talk about how to promote science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM courses.

“This is the future of Iowa that assembles in that room,” said Jeff Weld, executive director of the Iowa STEM Advisory Council and a main organizer of today’s conference. “These are the educators, the business leaders, government officials, non-profit heads who hold Iowa’s economic future in their hands. They have the children of Iowa in their classrooms, in their hallways, in their partnerships and in their clubs.”

Summit participants can get virtual tours of STEM classrooms in Sioux Center and Davenport West high schools and hear how to redesign courses as well as the classroom itself to get students more actively engaged in problem solving.

“STEM’s about expanding opportunities for all and I am seeing it every day. STEM’s changing lives,” said Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, co-chair of the Iowa STEM Advisory Council. “We only have to look at what’s happening throughout Iowa to see that that’s absolutely true.”

Reynolds pointed to this past weekend’s regional FIRST Tech Challenge in Des Moines, with teams from 14 states, including Iowa. Teams from schools in Marion, Denver, Oskaloosa and Davenport are headed to the FIRST Tech world competition in St. Louis.