Views from across Iowa
Quad-City Times, Aug. 2
School boards should set calendar
If Iowa legislators actually listen to thousands of locally elected school board members across the state, its decision on school start dates should be easy.
The State Board of Education on Thursday wisely dismissed a Department of Education proposal to restrict the start of the public school year until after Sept. 1.
“This needs further discussion than the State Board of Education can give it,” state board member Diane Crookham-Johnson said after Wednesday’s meeting. “I think this is a legislative issue; I think this is something that the legislature needs to decide if they want to address.”
Last school year, 341 of Iowa’s 348 school boards requested and were granted such waivers. That means the locally elected members of 98 percent of Iowa school board concluded that starting a school year before Sept. 1 would benefit students in their districts. That’s not a poll. That’s actual voting by men and woman elected specifically to make decisions like this.
Balance that against Gov. Terry Branstad’s alliance with Iowa’s tourism industry that wants a few extra days to squeeze vacation dollars from Iowa families.
Branstad, who returned to the governor’s office on an education reform platform, has inexplicably sided with tourism businesses over Iowa school boards on this matter, an odd stance that conflicts with his party’s values for local control and education excellence and against central government regulation.
There’s zero evidence of any academic advantage to delaying the start of school. In fact, all of the Iowa Quad-City superintendents who met Wednesday with the Times Editorial Board spoke of the academic advantages to August starts. They’re working hard to squeeze as much education into a school calendar already limited by holidays, testing dates and weather.
“We have wrung out what we can wring out of the calendar in terms of what we can do to get the length of a semester,” Pleasant Valley superintendent Jim Spelhaug said.
Iowa’s valuable tourism industry has plenty of options to build business the old-fashioned way without asking the state legislature to restrict public education. We’re glad the State Board of Education so quickly and easily spotted the conflict and supported local control.
We expect the same of our state legislators if this issue persists next session.
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Telegraph Herald, Aug. 4
Personnel records law needs review
The state’s handling of “Troopergate” — the firing of a state law enforcement officer who reported the governor’s vehicle for speeding — raised a question about state law that bears review by the Iowa Legislature.
When an individual makes an abrupt departure from a job within a public institution, those in charge will usually avoid discussing the circumstances of the departure with one simple claim: “It’s a personnel issue. And personnel records can’t be released to the public.”
Only, that might not be quite accurate. The way Iowa Code chapter 22.7 is written, it can be interpreted to allow for the custodian of a record to use his or her discretion when it comes to the release of personnel information.
A case involving the Atlantic (Iowa) Community School District was heard by the Iowa Supreme Court on this very issue last year. Though the court ultimately sided with a lower court’s determination that the records in question remain confidential, a strongly worded dissent by Chief Justice Mark Cady laid out the case for discretion when it comes to what public records should be deemed confidential.
The recent case involving the firing of Division of Criminal Investigation Supervisor Larry Hedlund deserves such discretion. Hedlund claims his firing was brought about because he in April reported that a vehicle being driven by a state trooper and carrying the governor was traveling far in excess of the speed limit. Hedlund intends to file a wrongful-termination lawsuit, claiming the firing was in retaliation over bringing to light the governor’s speeding vehicle and not because of anything in his personnel file.
The state says that’s not the case. The firing, it insists, is based on job performance unrelated to the speeding report.
There’s the stalemate. In order to determine whether the state is acting appropriately, the files surrounding Hedlund’s case must be made public. Yet the state feels its hands are tied.
When the governor’s office is accused of getting someone fired without cause, the case has become a matter of public interest. Hedlund himself opened the door to review of his personnel records when he stated that his record showed no cause for his dismissal.
In his dissent in the Atlantic case, Chief Justice Cady said the legislative language pertaining to the exemptions is “not without ambiguity.” Over the past three decades, the courts have consistently applied a balancing test to determine whether a record qualifies as “confidential.”
Cady writes: “In general, our law recognizes a legitimate public concern over the discipline imposed for wrongdoing by a public employee. ...This concern is tied in with the needed public trust in all aspects of government.” Without the balancing test, courts wouldn’t be able to weigh legitimate public need for the information.
Certainly, in most cases, personnel records should remain confidential. But if you have an employee making claims about what the record contains, it should be fair game for public scrutiny.
The Hedlund case again brings to the surface this question about open-records law that can obviously be interpreted differently — even among Supreme Court justices. The Iowa Legislature should review this part of the open-records law and clarify the latitude government might have when considering the confidentiality of personnel records. Without that latitude, the goal of transparent governance is denied.
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Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Aug. 4
Ruud off to fast start at UNI
There is little argument that the competition for students at higher education institutions is heating up all across the nation.
After enrollment declines at the University of Northern Iowa, the administration knows it’s in a tough battle to recruit students and shore up the financial shortfalls that go with a declining enrollment.
The latest strategy being considered by UNI officials would be a tuition discount program for entire states or regions to help lure more out-of-state students to the Cedar Falls campus.
It’s a strategy that deserves serious discussion.
“Other states are already doing it, so I think it’s one of those ideas that you ask, ‘Does it make equal sense for us?’” said UNI President William Ruud.
For example, Eastern Michigan University offers in-state tuition to Ohio residents. That university also has created 130 agreements with community colleges, offering students a seamless transition to the university after the complete two years of courses.
Ruud wants to create degree programs with community colleges — like Des Moines Area Community College — and said UNI will create marketing strategies around the state to do so.
UNI depends on revenues from in-state tuition more than the other two state universities. That makes the drop in tuition revenue — $6.1 million less than initial fiscal year 2013 budget and $2.5 million less than the most recent estimates — all the more important.
About 92 percent of the students enrolled at UNI are from the state of Iowa. That compares to about 60 percent of students at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.
Iowa Board of Regents member Robert Downer of Iowa City said recruiting more students to UNI is crucial.
“In my opinion, the biggest fundamental challenge facing UNI is not funding, it’s enrollment,” he said. “Trying to find other ways to get added funding for UNI is sort of patching the holes.”
Ruud, almost immediately after taking the helm at UNI, began looking at strategies to address the enrollment situation.
That includes hiring a director of alumni relations to get more alumni across the country to recruit students.
We appreciate Ruud’s quick action on the enrollment situation and his assessment of the community.
“If you can get them to the campus of the University of Northern Iowa, get them to the Cedar Falls-Waterloo community, there’s a high opportunity for them to stick around, because then you start talking about Deere, the medical community, you start talking about living here,” Ruud said.
We could not agree more.
When former UNI President Ben Allen left the university, he said one of the unmet goals was growing the university and improving its national profile.
Ruud is off to a quick start in that respect. It’s a situation that will need ongoing attention. The competition for attracting students is likely to continue to intensify.
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Iowa City Press-Citizen, Aug. 3
State needs more regulation of payday loans
With so many Iowans still facing financial uncertainty, we’re glad a growing number of cities — including Iowa City, Des Moines, West Des Moines, Clive and Ames — are using their zoning authority to try and limit the number of payday loan businesses that can operate in their city limits.
Those municipal efforts, unfortunately, have only a small effect on the industry. Iowa City’s ordinance, for example, confines delayed deposit service businesses to community commercial zones and requires a minimum of 1,000 feet of separation from churches, parks, daycares, schools, a residence or any another payday lender. That effectively has stopped any new payday loan businesses from opening in the past year, but it doesn’t affect the businesses already in operation.
“It’s pretty obvious that the cities are responding to the lack of state progress on this issue,” Iowa Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, told the Press-Citizen. “The lack of progress at the Legislature has put this in the laps of city councils, who have shown terrific leadership.”
It’s time for the Iowa Legislature to address directly the potential and real abuses of this industry on a statewide level. Bolkcom and other lawmakers have introduced bills calling for further regulation of the industry, but such legislation never made it very far in the legislative process this year. We hope lawmakers are ready to debate those bills in more detail next year.
Lobbyists from the payday loan industry continue to defend their product as a means of “protecting consumer options.” Temporarily cash-starved people, they argue, should have the option to take out a short-term loan at a higher percent rate — especially when the interest paid would add up to less than the fee for a bounced check or a late payment.
Perhaps the defenders of this industry would be right in making such statements if the majority of payday loans actually were taken out by people who need only a temporary infusion of cash to get through an unexpectedly harsh economic period.
And the industry defenders are right when they say that a $15 fee on a two-week, $100 loan is less than the fee a bank may charge for a bounced check or a credit card company for a late payment.
But that’s only if the fee is paid right away, and the Iowa Division of Banking statistics show that about half the payday borrowers in Iowa take out 12 loans a year, or one per month. The Center for Responsible Lending likewise has reported that, nationally, the average payday loan borrower takes out 8.7 payday loans per year. The center further reports that about 60 percent of payday loans go to people with more than 12 transactions per year, and about 24 percent go to people with more than 21 transactions per year.
It would seem that the industry is designed not to help people get back on their feet but to ensure that people stay within a cycle of debt.
While the industry defenders would like to describe such a fee as being a mere 15 percent, it’s more accurate to say that it’s closer to a 390 percent annual percentage rate. If the borrower is unable to pay back the loan right away, then that interest rate begins to add up and to start transforming “the cash-strapped” into simply “the trapped.”
The industry defenders say that it’s unfair to talk about annual percentage rates at all. They point out that the much higher interest rates only occur if a borrower recklessly rolls a loan over more than two dozen times in a year. It is this irresponsible behavior, they say, that gets borrowers in trouble, not the loan option itself.
But, again, the studies suggest such “irresponsible behavior” is the norm, rather than the exception, in the industry.
That’s why, in addition to pushing for more regulation, critics of the payday loan industry need to keep working equally as hard to ensure that enough workable alternatives to payday loans — such as credit-union loans, small consumer loans, emergency-assistance programs and consumer-credit counseling — exist for struggling Iowans.