April 1, 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.”

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.

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.

Governor finds ‘no earlier than August 23′ acceptable school start date (AUDIO)

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad says there’s no reason to add an accommodations for year-round high schools in the bill that would resolve the controversy about when Iowa schools may start classes this fall.

“We don’t have any year-round high schools in Iowa, so there’s not something that we need to address,” Branstad says.

Both the Iowa House and Senate have approved bills that would let schools start “on or after August 23.” A December memo from the Branstad administration put schools on notice that it would no longer grant waivers and enforce existing law, which means schools would have to start during the week in which September 1 falls.

“I can live with the present law or this compromise is something that I would find also acceptable,” Branstad says.

The Democratic leader in the Iowa Senate has placed a hold on the compromise date of no earlier than August 23. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal has said since the bill grants a waiver to year-round elementary schools, it should include waviers for year-round high schools, in case districts want to move in that direction in the future. Branstad rejects that argument.

“I see no reason to address something that’s a non-issue when there are no year-round high schools,” Branstad says. “I can’t see what his problem could be.”

In addition to resolving the dilemma about when Iowa schools can start classes in the fall, lawmakers have also failed to decide how much state aid districts will get for 2015-2016 school year. Branstad told reporters this morning during his weekly news conference that he’s sticking with his bargaining position, which would provide about $100 million to schools. Democrats in the legislature are holding to their bargaining position, a four percent boost in per pupil spending that would amount to a roughly $200 million increase for public K-12 schools.

AUDIO of Branstad’s weekly news conference

Photo by John Pemble Iowa Public Radio

Another statehouse stalemate, this one over school start date

Herman Quirmbach

Herman Quirmbach

A bill that would have set “on or after August 23″ as the school start date in Iowa has been tabled in the Iowa Senate.

On the 10th of March, 32 of the 50 members of the senate voted in favor of letting school boards decide when school starts in the fall. This afternoon, Senator Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames, asked his senate colleagues to vote in favor of that “local control” approach.

“I don’t see that our positions necessarily have changed,” Quirmbach said.

But when it came time to vote, a majority of senators sided with the House approach to set “on or after August 23″ as the standard for a school start date. That prompted Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal to use a parliamentary maneuver which has tabled the bill. He’s not saying when it may be brought back up for a vote.

“I’m in no rush,” Gronstal said.

By an overwhelming vote on Tuesday, the House voted to set “on or after August 23″ as the school start date. At the least, Gronstal said the House-backed plan should be adjusted, since as currently written it would prevent any Iowa high school from moving to a year-round calendar.

“We think that’s pretty crazy,” Gronstal told reporters.

Gronstal suggested there was “confusion” as to how many Republicans would side with Democrats in favor of “local control” so school boards may decide when school starts. Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock said it’s time to get this issue resolved.

“We’ve seen the Democrats stall and delay with respect to K-12 education long enough,” Dix told reporters. “They deserve some certainty…so they can plan and that’s what we ought to be doing on school funding as well.”

In December, Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s administration put schools on notice: no more waivers would be granted for early school start dates. Unless legislators fashion some sort of compromise Branstad will accept, it means schools will have to follow current law which says schools are to start during the week in which September 1 falls. That means August 31 would be the earliest date for school starts in Iowa this year.

Governor Branstad, in past 50 months, has sent two ‘pocket reply’ emails

A campaign commercial shows Governor Branstad using an app on an iPad.

A campaign commercial shows Governor Branstad using an app on an iPad.

Governor Terry Branstad cast himself as a techno-savvy politician in 2010 with a campaign ad that featured Branstad touching various icons on the screen of an iPad.

“Want a brighter future? We’ve got an app for that,” the narrator of the ad says at the conclusion of the commercial.

During a deposition taken in November for a lawsuit alleging the governor discriminated against a gay state employee, Branstad testified that he does not use email or send texts, then Branstad later admitted he owns a Blackberry Bold, although he wasn’t sure whether it could be classified as a “smart” phone.

The governor uses his personal Blackberry to read a daily summary of media stories compiled by his staff. Branstad can access the list of news headlines by tapping the “Messenger” icon on the screen. Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers sends the lists to Branstad’s Blackberry via email.

“The governor doesn’t have any email account,” Centers said. “He doesn’t have an email account for state business. He doesn’t have an email account for private business or personal business.”

During the deposition in November, Branstad said he was advised by his legal counsel not to send or receive email while he served as governor. The governor’s lawyer warned Branstad might be sent a “derogatory or inflammatory” email and the governor said he doesn’t want something someone else wrote attributed to him.

In the roughly 50 months that he’s been governor, Centers said Branstad has had two “pocket reply” episodes with his Blackberry. One email was blank. The other was sent to a non-existent email address.

“At Des Moines University, he did use email, but as governor he chose not to use email,” Centers said. “He prefers to meet with Iowans in person.”

The use of private email has become a political issue after the revelation that Hillary Clinton used a private email account and her own email server while she was U.S. secretary of state. Some Democrats in the Iowa Senate are questioning the explanation about Branstad’s email use and may seek more information.