August 3, 2015

Branstad favors more ‘specific, strategic’ earmarks in education spending (AUDIO)

Gov. Terry Branstad at his news conference today.

Governor Terry Branstad at his news conference this morning.

Governor Terry Branstad says he’d like to earmark more state funding for schools rather than give districts a lump sum to spend as local officials see fit.

“Instead of the old way that we used to do things, we gave all this across-the-board money with no accountability and Iowa kind of stagnated while other states put focus on things that increased their standards and improved their student achievement,” Branstad says.

Branstad’s comments run counter to what many Republican presidential candidates are saying about allowing parents and local school boards to make decisions about curriculum.

“We used to buy the idea: ‘We don’t need to have state standards. This can be done at the local level,'” the Republican governor says.

Branstad says that’s why he has earmarked money for a teacher improvement plan and specified that schools are to spend a certain amount of money on reading programs in the early grades and classes for older students that focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

“It’s not just give us the money, no accountability any more,” Branstad says.

Branstad’s been getting criticism from local school administrators for vetoing nearly 56 million dollars that many schools had planned to use to buy new textbooks and computers. Branstad suggests he might have approved that level of one-time spending if it had been targeted.

“We want to become best in America again and I think that’s going to take specific and strategic investments in education that focus on things that really make a difference,” Branstad says.

Branstad cites the $10 million he had suggested for programs to help minority students do better in school. Legislators did not earmark the money for that initiative. Branstad says it’s time for state policymakers “to move forward” and work together on “proven” programs, like the focus on science, technology, engineering and math courses.

Branstad made his comments this morning during his weekly news conference.

AUDIO of Branstad’s news conference, 31:00

(Photo by Asya Akca)

Petition drive for remaining MHIs in Cherokee, Independence

A half dozen people delivered more than 5,000 petition signatures to the governor’s office Thursday afternoon, urging Governor Terry Branstad to keep the two remaining state-run Mental Health Institutes open. Branstad closed the Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant this year and Aubreeanna Dolan of West Des Moines organized the online petition drive.

“The resources are not out there for these individuals that are in these homes,” she says.

Legislators passed a bipartisan compromise that would have temporarily restored services at the Clarinda Mental Health Institute for frail elderly patients who are mentally ill. The plan also called for reopening the Mount Pleasant facility for treatment of patients with the dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance abuse. Branstad vetoed those proposals and has not ruled out closing the remaining two Mental Health Institutes. Dolan says the mental health care system cannot stand the loss.

“I know several individuals that have gotten services from these institutions and it’s saved their lives,” Dolan says.

Dolan points to a recent Pew Charitable Trust report which ranked Iowa 47th among the states for the percentage of the state budget spent on mental health services. The state president of the AFSCME union and 20 state legislators have filed a lawsuit challenging Governor Branstad’s closure of the Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant. Fewer than 200 mentally ill patients are cared for in the state hospitals in Cherokee and Independence.

Democrats urge Iowans to pressure Republicans for special session

Pam Jochum

Pam Jochum

Democratic leaders say they’re “tired of the excuses” from Republican Governor Terry Branstad and his fellow Republicans in the legislature and they are calling for a special legislative session to “support local schools.”

Senate President Pam Jochum, a Democrat from Dubuque, blasted the Republican governor during a speech this weekend at an Iowa Democratic Party fundraiser.

“We worked overtime this session to make sure Iowa’s children have a quality education,” Jochum said. “…That, my friends, was vetoed by Governor Branstad, the man who claims to be the education governor. The emperor has no clothes.”

Given the partisan make-up of the Iowa legislature, however, convening the House and Senate this summer is impossible without the support of Republicans — and Governor Branstad and the top Republican in the Iowa House both say Republicans don’t want one. Jochum, the second-ranking Democrat in the Iowa Senate, was inducted into the Iowa Democratic Party’s “Hall of Fame” at its annual banquet Friday night in Cedar Rapids.

“You know, Democrats, it’s time to take the gloves off,” Jochum said. “You know elections matter and you know every vote counts. One vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate stopped the House Republicans and Terry Branstad from abolishing early childhood education.”

Democrats hold a 26-to-24 majority in the Iowa Senate. Jochum, Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal and House Democratic Leader Mark Smith published an opinion piece in The Des Moines Register this weekend, urging Iowans to ask their local senators and representatives “to support their local schools by joining the call for a special session to restore critical funding for Iowa schools.”

Photo from Hall of Fame Dinner courtesy of Iowa Democratic Party.


Audit: up to $2 million misspent in Corrections’ 6th Judicial District

State-auditor-signThe State Auditor has released a follow-up report indicating up to $2 million was misspent in Iowa’s 6th Judicial District over a six-year period.

Employees in the 6th Judicial District handle parole, probation and work release cases in six eastern Iowa counties. The district, which is part of the Iowa Department of Corrections, has offices and facilities in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and six other communities.

A report released in January of last year concluded about three-quarters-of-a-million dollars was misspent because some district employees were being paid for work at the non-profit Community Corrections Improvement Association and they took more vacation time each year than other state employees. The non-profit ran programs for children who had parents in prison and adults on parole who needed rent assistance or substance abuse counseling.

The auditor’s updated report expanded the review period by two more years. The new report has identified nearly $1.2 million more in improper payments in the district .

After the release of last year’s report, district managers reduced vacation time and severed ties with the non-profit group. The non-profit is closing at the end of the year.

A state audit released earlier this month concluded employees in three of the state’s eight judicial districts were claiming up to a week more vacation time each year than they should. The auditor is asking legislators to clarify state law, as the workers argue they are not technically state employees.

AFSCME, 20 legislators file lawsuit over closing of Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda MHI’s

Danny Homan

Danny Homan

The union that represents a majority of state workers and 20 Democrat state legislators have filed a lawsuit against Governor Terry Branstad and the director of the Department of Human Services over the closing of the state-run Mental Health Institutes in Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda. The governor made the decision to close the two institutions and look for other options to provide mental health services.

Danny Homan is president of AFSCME Council 61, the union which is suing. “We are filing the lawsuit because the governor of this state violated state law by closing two facilities which I do not believe he has the ability to close,” Homan says. The two facilities closed on July first as the start of the new budget year and the governor vetoed a compromise approved by the Iowa Legislature that would have kept Mt. Pleasant open this year and sought a private entity to run Clarinda.

Homan says they hope to see action that will reopen the facilities as soon as possible. “We have asked for an expedited hearing. We would like to get this into the court and heard as soon as possible,” Homan says. “That’s probably gonna depend on whether or not the governor cooperates, or fights this getting into the courts.”

Governor Branstad’s communications director, Jimmy Centers, issued a statement on the lawsuit saying “Mr. Homan’s top priority is protecting union jobs, but Governor Branstad’s top priority is ensuring Iowa’s mental health patients have access to modern mental health care delivered in accredited facilities. More Iowans have access to quality health care than ever before including mental health care and substance abuse treatment. Doctors, advocates and mental health professionals all believe that modern mental health care is best delivered locally, in-home or in community-based settings. Mr. Homan and AFSCME may be resistant to change that improves Iowans’ health and eager to sue on behalf of their members to protect the status quo, but Governor Branstad will continue putting patients first and working to improve care, increase access and modernize our state’s delivery of services.”

Homan responds that there is already evidence that closing the facilities was the wrong thing to do. “There have already been two former clients of the Clarinda Mental Health Institute that when moved out of the institute have passed away. One of those families has publicly said that they felt the reason their family member passed on was because he was moved from the Clarinda MHI,” Homan says. He says the lawsuit is not about preserving union jobs.

“This is about the citizens, about the people who need mental health services in southwest Iowa and southeast Iowa who now do not have a safety net. Do not have the ability to find acute mental health treatment,” Homan says. “This law is there for a reason. The governor took an oath to uphold the law, and he has chosen not to do so.”

The legislators taking part in the suit are Senator Rich Taylor, Representative Jerry Kearns, Representative Mark Smith, Senator Thomas Courtney, Senator Janet Petersen, Representative Bruce Hunter, Representative Curt Hanson, Senator Tony Bisignano, Senator Herman Quirmbach, Senator Dick Dearden, Representative Art Staed, Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, Representative Jo Oldson, Representative Ruth Ann Gaines, Representative Sharon Steckman, Representative Todd Taylor, Representative Mary Gaskill, Representative Kirsten Running-Marquardt, Representative Timi Brown-Powers, and Representative Dave Jacoby.


Branstad: Iowa school administrators should ‘economize’ (AUDIO)

Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.

Governor Terry Branstad says school administrators who’re complaining about the level of state support for schools should not resort to raising local property taxes, but should make the kind of budget choices he’s made.

“We in state government have cut the number of state employeed by 1500 and are using our resources in a more efficient manner,” Branstad said this morning during his weekly news conference.

Branstad told reporters he’s not calling for teachers to be laid off, however.

“We’re just saying that they need to look at ways they can be more efficient,” Branstad said. “…I would also point out the cost of fuel has gone down, so they need to look at everything that helps economize and make that be more efficient in delivering services.”

(AUDIO of the governor’s weekly news conference may be found here.)

Branstad took final action on the state budget plan earlier this month, approving a roughly four percent increase in state spending overall. Iowa’s K-12 public schools are getting a one-and-a-quarter percent increase in general state aid. Branstad said schools are also getting 100-million dollars for a teacher leadership plan that will pay some teachers more to be mentors and give schools money to hire more teachers in targeted areas.

“It’s not like the old days, you just throw money at it and that didn’t get us the results we wanted,” Branstad said. “Now we’re trying to specifically target our resources.”

The state’s education community has been complaining about Branstad’s early July veto of nearly $56 million in additional state support that legislators had approved for schools. Lawmakers specified the extra money was to be used for one-time expenses and many school administrators say they had planned to buy next textbooks, but Branstad says that would have been a misuse of any bonus money.

“Textbooks and materials have to be used every year, so they’re an ongoing expense,” Branstad said this morning. “And what I don’t want schools to do it to make committments based on a false promise that’s not going to be sustained.”

Branstad warns the state may be heading into a recession due to “substantial losses” in farm income and state tax revenues may fall. Branstad says that “economic reality” is the main reason he vetoed the extra $56 million for schools. Republican and Democratic lawmakers say the budget plan they sent Branstad was already pared down below the spending level Branstad had recommended.

‘Quit whining,’ senator tells teacher who emailed about state funding for schools

A high school science teacher in Waterloo sent an email to Republicans in the Iowa Senate, outlining his concerns about state funding for public schools and he was told to “quit whining” by one of them.

Vaughn Gross had just ordered supplies for the coming school year when he found out Governor Branstad vetoed nearly $56 million funding for public schools. Gross then sent a mass email to 23 Republican senators, asking them to support a special session to boost school finances.

Senator David Johnson, a Republican from Ocheyedan, replied, saying Gross lacked the courage to reveal where he was from and he told the teacher to “quit whining.” Gross posted the exchange on his Facebook page.

“I was suprised by kind of the tone. I didn’t think it was actually him and then…gave him a chance to reply and he said it was him and wasn’t really apologetic about it,” Gross says. “That was pretty shocking.”

Senator Johnson says he gets a lot of unsigned email and he stands by his “quit whining” message. He calls it a “test” to see if the email was genuine.

“Sometimes, in order to have a constructive conversation — especially about education, you have to put your foot down and I did,” Johnson says.

Johnson and Gross had an email exchange on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. It was “much more civil” according to the teacher.

“Had a decent exchange of some ideas,” Gross says. “I mean obviously we have some areas of disagreement, but it was straight-forward and kind of what I expected the first time.”

The senator says the two had a “constructive” conversation, but Johnson says he’s getting plenty of inappropriate messages from others.

“I’ve been called so many vulgarities,” Johnson says. “I did not engage in vulgar, obscene language.”

Some of those came via emai and, while Johnson isn’t on Facebook, Johnson says he’s been told what’s been posted there.

Johnson has been a member of the legislature since 1999.