Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View - BarbouRoskes changed how the world looks at Iowa

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 1, 2010

Our View - BarbouRoskes changed how the world looks at Iowa

If you're looking to bring about long-lasting social change, the court system is a necessary arena. But it's far easier — at least, far more instantly gratifying — to whip up support for a city or statewide referendum that has a specific date on which you'll know whether or not your cause has won.

And perhaps trusting the discernment of a judge — or a group of justices — is preferable to trusting a majority of lawmakers to make some beneficial legislative sausage out of your cause. But the process of working through the courts still takes much, much longer than any legislative session.

Jen and Dawn BarbouRoske have experienced these lessons firsthand over the past few years. In their efforts to have Iowa recognize their relationship and their family — to ensure that they can visit each other in the hospital; to ensure that their daughters, McKinley and Breanna, can take solace in how their parents are in a legally-binding, long-term relationship — they've learned that using the courts to fight for social change is a hurry up and wait process. They've seen how the process has moments of intensity followed by long stretches of tedium and uncertainty as judges and their clerks, read, write and decide.

But they also have learned that there are times when long awaited rulings — especially coming from the highest court in the state — fundamentally alter how the rest of the nation and the world look at Iowa and how Iowans look at themselves.

Iowa Supreme Court ruling

Such was the case on April 3 when the Iowa Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling written by the court's most conservative member, ordered that marriage licenses should be issued to otherwise qualifying gay and lesbian couples. Where previous legal and legislative battles over same-sex marriage had waged primarily on the east and west coasts, the April 3 decision showed that same-sex marriage was being recognized as a civil right in the heartland of America.

In other states, such a civil rights victory for a minority was at risk of being overturned by the tyranny of the majority. But the April 3 decision is set to stand for years to come — until a constitutional amendment can pass two different legislatures and then be approved by a majority of the voters statewide.

The ruling also meant that gay and lesbian couples in Iowa didn't have to rush out and make their relationships "official" in the eyes of the state. With civil marriage not under immediate threat in Iowa, the couples were free to schedule weddings for when it was convenient for them and for their friends and families. (The BarbouRoskes waited until July to hold their wedding.) And couples also were free to take the radical step of having their ceremonies be as traditional — or non-traditional — as any of their heterosexual brothers and sisters.

That change is so fundamentally important to our state and to our local area — Iowa City, after all, was one of the first cities in the nation to make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation — that it's hard to argue for any other specific impact in the past calendar year that rivals it.

And that's why the Press-Citizen is naming BarbouRoske family as its "Person of the Year" for 2009.

Becoming Exhibit A

Jen and Dawn were one of the six couples who traveled to Ames in late 2005 and early 2006 and had their request for a marriage license be denied by Polk County Recorder Timothy Brien. Working with the national organization Lambda Legal, the couples filed suit shortly after, and the joint case worked its way through the courts until it burst on the national scene with the April 3 decision.

Jen and Dawn initially listed only themselves as plaintiffs. But after the state made the argument that one of the purposes of the Iowa 1998 Defense of Marriage Act was to defend the children of heterosexual couples, they added their two daughters, McKinley and Breanna, to the list of plaintiffs as well. And 11-year-old McKinley especially has become an eloquent and passionate advocate for explaining how she, her sister and the thousands of other children of same-sex couples deserve the state's protection and recognition as well.

There are some economic benefits to the decision. The Iowa City/Coralville Conventional and Visitors Bureau, for example, has developed much more expertise in marketing the area to gay and lesbian couples around the country. But such a statewide bump in wedding tourism hopefully is only short term as more state courts, legislatures and voters learn to follow Iowa's example and decide that citizens' civil rights are not something that should be granted or taken away by mere legislative or popular fiat.

Looking to the future

Yet there are many in-state and out-of-state organizations who, because of the April 3 decision, are looking to reclaim our heartland state for what they view as more "traditional values." And with the right legislative and executive officials in place, they may one day succeed.

The BarbouRoskes' victory reminds us that recognition of broader civil rights has been never been automatic process in U.S. history. There always have been steps forward and steps backward. The 19th-century constitutional amendments ending slavery and extending the votes to black men were followed by Jim Crow laws. Sexism continues long after women were granted the right to vote in 1920. And on Nov. 4, Maine voters narrowly rejected a state law passed by their own legislature that would have allowed same-sex couples to wed.

That's why it's also important to stress that, while April 3 decision overturns a number of legal and social assumptions surrounding how Iowans understand the word "family," the decision is not a threat to the close-knit, familial relations treasured by Iowans across the spectrum of sexuality.

We're recognizing the BarbouRoske family as Person of the Year for the impact made by their patience and endurance during the past calendar year. We thank them for being willing to stand up and to step into the legal fray. And we thank them for continuing to demonstrate to their fellow citizens why Iowa needs to stay on the right side of history.

Our View - A challenge for Lane Plugge during his final six months

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 24, 2009

Our View - A challenge for Lane Plugge during his final six months

Now that Iowa City School Superintendent Lane Plugge has announced he will be leaving his job June 30, 2010, both his supporters and detractors are left wondering how he will finish out his decade-long tenure as the head of Iowa City area schools.

Just about everyone agrees that Plugge is a "nice guy." But supporters and detractors disagree on whether Plugge's aggressive congeniality has been a benefit or a detriment to his leadership over the past 10 years.

Plugge's supporters say his easygoing personality is an essential skill in his line of work. Without it, they say, Plugge never could have navigated through the prickly personalities and policies that pop up throughout the district. Although they may admit that Plugge has made some questionable decisions along the way, they point out that Iowa City area schools still are well "above average." And they say that the fact several of the schools are on the Schools in Need of Assistance List has more to do with the failure of No Child Left Behind than it does with any aspect Plugge's leadership.

Plugge's detractors -- the more tactful ones, anyway -- often admit that the outgoing superintendent has a lot of the skills required for succeeding in the job. Although they recognize that Plugge is very knowledgeable about what's happening in the district, they complain that he is constitutionally allergic to conflict and, thus, unwilling (or unable) to make the hard decisions that need to be made. They say the painful problems that have dogged Plugge for the past year -- from the backlash over the decision to close Roosevelt, to needing to trim millions from the budget to get under spending authority, to the recent flack over cutting busing to Regina -- are just the present-day consequences of Plugge's earlier administrative shortcomings.

We, however, don't think the time has yet come for anyone to properly evaluate how well Plugge has done for Iowa City schools. The Nebraska native still has six months to go -- and a lot of work to do -- before he can ride off into the western Iowa sunset.

Rather than praise or condemn Plugge's role as administrator, we think it's more important right now to challenge him to live up fully to his supporters' praise and to provide the strong leadership over the next six months that his detractors say has been lacking in the past 9½ years.

After all, the district is going to need such careful, thoughtful, decisive leadership to see it through its current redistricting process. That leadership and direction can't come from any paid consultants.

We know there are a lot of perks to being a superintendent in the Iowa City area. This district serves an amazingly over-educated population who readily opens up its wallet -- for bond issues and local option sales taxes -- to ensure that "all the children are above average." And we know that there are both wonderful headaches and painful benefits that come with overseeing a growing district.

But we only can imagine how hard it is for Iowa City superintendents to juggle all their responsibilities while standing under the never-ending critical gaze of a district stuffed full of self-appointed educational experts. And only very few people can know firsthand what it's like to receive such a constant barrage of advice from people who argue passionately and relentlessly for their personal view of what's best for their child, their school and "our" side of town.

To function in the job, Iowa City superintendents need to keep telling themselves -- despite all the evidence to the contrary -- that they are some of the few people actually able to envision what's best for the district as a whole. Yes, they need to be open and accessible to their employees. Yes, they need seek out and to listen to the families who will be affected by their decisions. But they also have to believe in themselves enough to make necessary decisions that are going to make no one happy -- not even them.

With the district going through the painful process of redrawing the boundaries around every school, we urge Plugge to be willing to make some very hard decisions over the next six months -- decisions that the School Board and the next superintendent can build on.

Our View - After Iowa City curfew goes into effect tonight

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 23, 2009

Our View - After Iowa City curfew goes into effect tonight

It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your 13-year-old is?

It's 11 p.m. Do you know where your 15-year-old is?

It's midnight. Do you know where your 17-year-old is?

You should.

Because tonight Iowa City's curfew goes into effect.

According to the city, unless your children are engaging in one of a number of exempted activities, that means those younger than 14 have to be off the streets by 10 p.m., 14- and 15-year-olds by 11 p.m. and 16- and 17-year-olds by midnight.

Both police and city officials are still working out some kinks in how the ordinance will be enforced. Right now it seems Iowa City police -- at least until March 1 --will be issuing only warnings, not citations, for curfew violations. (Although the police, as always, will be citing for other illegal activities that juveniles are engaged in after hours.)

The council, however, has required the police to keep records of all their curfew-based interactions. The idea is that the information will help the city determine whether the ordinance itself is discriminatory in that its enforcement shows a disparate impact on minority populations.

The ordinance gives police officers discretion as to whether to cite a teen for being out after hours or whether to let the teen off with a written warning. But it's unclear whether the record-keeping requirement would prohibit officers from pulling up alongside a group of teens, rolling down the window and giving an informal verbal warning like, "Hey, guys, it's after hours. Time to go home."

Because the ordinance requires officers to keep a record, they presumably would have to stop everyone and start writing down names. That increases the potential for what otherwise could be an informal warning to turn into a much uglier interaction.

And while the city and police figure out how best to implement the curfew, the Iowa City Council still has more to do to fully live up to its rhetoric of having this curfew be just one component of a larger vision for improving the quality of life in the city's southeast neighborhoods.

We hope city councilors continue to work with the Safe Neighborhood Coalition and other neighborhood groups to ensure that they are responding to the requests made by the people who live in the affected neighborhoods.

We hope the city and the police work together to develop more community-based crime prevention positions like that of Officer Jorie Bailey as well as to implement a youth officer.

And we also think the city might look into how it can help support the development of second- or third-shift child care programming located on the southeast side. That way, the parents affected by this ordinance might have more options for how to avoid leaving their young children home without adult supervision.

Our View - Assessing the moral character of bar owners

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 21, 2009

Our View - Assessing the moral character of bar owners

Back in February, the Iowa City Council voted to include the rate of Possession of Alcohol under the Legal Age charges as one of the criteria for evaluating liquor license renewal requests. Now, if a bar has an average of more than 1.0 PAULAs per police visit, then the police department automatically recommends the council deny the license renewal request.

Back in July, we agreed with the council's unanimous decision to deny the liquor license renewal request for The Field House and its 6-1 decision to deny the request of Etc. We fully expected the bars to appeal the decision to the state's Alcoholic Beverages Division -- especially since they are allowed to hold on to their license throughout the review process -- and we hoped state officials would back up the council's tougher restrictions.

It's too bad, however, that the council failed include a sentence in the ordinance specifying exactly what constitutes a police "visit." If the councilors had added an actual definition -- something like, "In calculating the PAULA rate, the police department shall include only visits to the premises for which the police dispatcher has assigned an activity code of 'bar check'" -- they might have had a better chance of persuading Administrative Law Judge Margaret LaMarche that the new policy was fully within the city's authority to recommend denying liquor license renewals based on the "good moral character" of the bar owner.

Instead, LaMarche ruled Dec. 15 that the council was wrong to rely solely on the PAULA rate when denying the license renewals to the downtown bars. Iowa City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said the city will request a review of the decision by the administrator of the state's Alcoholic Beverages Division, Lynn Walding, who must approve the administrative law judge's ruling.

While defining "visit" would have saved LaMarche from having to write several pages of her 18-page ruling, it's unclear whether that would have been enough to allow the city to win the first round of administrative review. LaMarche ruled that a bar's rate of PAULA citations "may constitute a pattern and practice of violations that will reflect poorly on the licensee's good moral character," but only if the city then goes on to present evidence that shows "the culpability of the licensee or the licensee's employees with respect to the citations." The raw numbers alone aren't enough.

Denying a license renewal because of PAULA rates, after all, is very different than denying a license renewal because of the number of alcohol sales to minors. The one is a sin of commission in which a bar employee is clearly violating the law. The other is a sin of omission in which bars may have done nothing wrong -- other than to provide a locale in which underage people can enter and get their older friends to buy alcohol for them.

Despite LaMarche's ruling to the contrary, we still think requiring bars to have a less than 1.0 PAULA rate is a reasonable minimum standard. After all, the lion's share of bars in Iowa City seem to be able to abide by it without difficulty. But regardless of who wins the next round of review, the only thing that's certain is that the city isn't going to be able to enforce that standard anytime soon.

We think the city is right to appeal the ruling. But we think the council would be better off exercising some of its clearly recognized authority and declaring 21 to be the minimum age to enter -- let alone to drink in -- an Iowa City bar.

Our View - Taking time off from teaching to focus on research

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 18, 2009

Our View - Taking time off from teaching to focus on research

The Iowa state Board of Regents is considering whether approving 111 faculty "sabbaticals" would send the wrong message at a time when:

• Other state employees face layoffs and mandatory unpaid time off and

• Students will be charged extra next semester to offset budget cuts.

The regents agreed to let board president David Miles make the final call after more scrutiny, and Miles expects to make a decision this month.

We can understand why some people are worried about these "sabbaticals." After all, enrollment is remaining steady at the three universities while hiring has slowed on the campuses. That means that fewer professors and teaching assistants are around to share the same teaching burden.

But we're not sure whether these "sabbaticals" are being singled out as a budgetary rallying cry because critics misunderstand the practice or because critics are willfully misrepresenting it to hurt the university's image at a time of budget crunch.

In truth, we shouldn't even be using the word "sabbatical" at all when discussing the 111 requests from professors at Iowa's three regents universities (56 from UI). After all, the word "sabbatical" usually conjures up images of some kind of imaginary job perk in which stuffy professors get to take every seventh year off to read books and to play around before they have to come back to cushy teaching jobs.

And even if there ever was once a time when Iowa professors enjoyed such automatic time off, that practice has long been out of use. Because professors at public universities will be lucky if they can hang on to tenure for another generation, the idea of regular leisurely sabbaticals is a mere fantasy.

These 111 professors aren't asking for a chance to get out of doing their work altogether; they are asking for a temporary reprieve from their teaching responsibilities -- and in some cases their service responsibilities -- so that they can focus on their research responsibilities. They're asking for the time necessary to improve their grant applications, to make big discoveries, to write books and even to re-immerse themselves in the language and cultures that they are teaching about back in Iowa.

The regents universities don't even call these requests "sabbaticals" any more. They are "professional development assignments" or "career development awards."

This year, because of the budget crisis, the deans and provosts at UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa are under internal and external pressure to ensure that none of these requests are going to be embarrassing. Each university long ago implemented plans for evaluating professors' proposals and then for documenting afterward how well the professors delivered on everything they promised to do. (UNI goes as far as to avoid all replacement costs by ensuring that all teaching responsibilities either are covered by other faculty or the classes are left untaught.)

We think it's fine for Miles to go through the proposals and to weed out any that might come across as less important (or comprehensible) when read by state legislators and their non-academic constituents. But we agree with the university that deferring all of these research requests would be damaging to the professors' research careers and, eventually, to the quality of research and teaching offered at our public institutions.
Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 17, 2009

Our View - Tax credits need more openness, caps and sunsets

If there is any good that can come from this year's film tax credit scandal, it's that the state government now is paying much closer attention to the dozens of tax credits offered in Iowa -- tax credit programs that too often have been run under minimal financial oversight at best. And given the extensive mishandling of the film tax credit program, we weren't surprised to learn that a report from the governor's office, released Monday, found no clear documentation that the state gets any return on its investment for more than half of 32 active tax credit programs.

The lack of evidence of any return is especially problematic at a time when the state faces falling revenues and massive budget cuts. If legislators and other state leaders are serious about recovering some lost state revenue, they need to the report carefully -- especially the parts that explain:

• How there is no clear proof of economic benefit to the state for at least 18 of the programs -- including the credits for young farmers, biodiesel-blended fuel, retail dealers of E85 gas and research by Iowa companies.

• How a $45 million training program for new jobs, which is very popular with employers and Iowa's community colleges, has provided very little evidence that it is a benefit to the state despite costing more than $10,000 per job.

• How some programs have never gathered the appropriate data to demonstrate what kind of bang the state gets for its buck.

And as a newspaper, we are particularly disturbed with the report's documentation of:

• How state law often keeps much of the information about the credits from being public -- making it difficult, if not impossible, for the public to know who is applying for the credits and how much gets paid out.

The report did note benefits for some of the tax credit programs. But those modest benefits seem nothing like the grand promises being offered by the industries-- from film makers to research and development companies -- that receive millions diverted from the state coffers.

Spokesman for those industries were out in force Tuesday in Cedar Rapids and Wednesday in Urbandale as a Tax Credit Review Panel held hearings.

We can only hope that state lawmakers pay more attention to the report than they do to the people who stand to loose money if the state start to staunch the bleeding of tax credit money from its coffers.

We agree with state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, that the state needs to switch off its current "automatic pilot" oversight of many of these credits and, at the very least:

• Create a comprehensive database of all incentive recipients to compare all the incentives received.

• Create a permanent joint appropriations subcommittee to regularly review them like other expenditures.

• Add regular sunsets for all incentives tied to job creation and development.

• And add caps so that the credits' impact on the state budget never again gets out of control.

Our View - Shelter overflow finally has a fixed location

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 15, 2009

Our View - Shelter overflow finally has a fixed location

Anyone involved with Shelter House's Interim Overflow Project -- which is overseen by the Consultation of Religious Communities and requires about 450 volunteers to operate -- has to be somewhere on the spectrum between a realistic optimist and an optimistic realist.

Begun in 2004 after the plans to relocate and expand Shelter House were stymied through lawsuits by the neighboring property owners, the program has organized dozens of churches and hundreds of volunteers to provide thousands of nights of shelter during the coldest months of the year.

Last year, the optimistic realists held out hope that it really might be the last year for this "interim" program. With the Iowa Supreme Court having ruled in the Shelter House's favor against the neighboring property owners, supporters wanted to see their long deferred relocation and expansion finally come to fruition. The staff and board worked to use as much of the 2004 plans as possible and to figure out how to reignite a capital campaign during the worst economic downturn in recent history.

The realistic optimists knew it was a long shot, but they too were hoping Shelter House would defy the odds, raise the necessary cash, begin construction and have enough of a new shelter completed at 429 Southgate Ave. that it could serve as this year's overflow for the North Gilbert Street facility.

Supporters -- including us -- hoped local religious communities would finally be let off the hook for providing shelter in facilities not expressly built for such uses. That they would be allowed to focus on other issues of social justice and economic need.

Although the timeline for opening the new Shelter House has been pushed back until October 2010, we're glad to hear that this year's overflow project is going to offer a little more consistency than in the past. For the first time since the program began, there is going to be a dedicated site for all those extra beds.

This season, as temperatures dip and wind chills plummet, volunteers will be shuttling people to and from the old St. Patrick's Parish Hall at 421 S. Linn St. With the congregation having moved into its new building on the far east end of town, the Iowa City government purchased the property from the church and is leasing it to the shelter for the winter season.

So while this winter's overflow is not quite what more optimistic organizers had in mind for this year, the use of the old parish hall marks a significant step forward -- one that hopefully will encourage Shelter House supporters to maintain both their realism and their optimism about what will be available next year.

To make sure that the new Shelter House facility actually opens in 2010, the community needs to continue to support the program. Every study and anecdotal account confirms that Johnson County needs far more general shelter space than the few dozen slots available at the North Gilbert Street facility. And the situation becomes a matter of life and death for anyone turned away by Shelter House during the worst of winter weather.

Our community needs to continue to step up and to ensure not only that Shelter House has enough money to meet its construction needs, but also that it is has enough money and volunteers to expand its programming needs as well.

Our View - Celebrating our City of Lit's used book shops

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 14, 2009

Our View - Celebrating our City of Lit's used book shops

In the past year, we've printed many columns and letters celebrating how UNESCO designated Iowa City as an International City of Literature. The city gained the honor largely because of the presence of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. But one of the hitherto uncelebrated features of Iowa City's creative economy has been the long, proud history of its local used booksellers.

Joe Michaud, former owner of The Bookery, has decided to correct that oversight with his long-titled book, "Booking in Iowa: The Book Trade In and Around Iowa City, A Look Back," recently published by the Iowa City-based Camp Pope Bookshop.

In his introduction, Michaud explains how his 25 years as a bookseller was a "period of boom and bust for the used, out-of-print and rare bookseller." The boon came with a local infusion of large numbers of antiquarian books as people emptied out their attics, basements, barns and garages. The bust side, unfortunately, came for a variety of reasons, including falling prices for collectibles, rising rents and, of course, the Internet.

As Michaud writes, "What became a boon to the book buyer sounded the death knell for thousands of big city and small town used book shops."

Michaud divides the book into a 75-page account of his own history as a book scout and bookstore owner and an almost equally long annotated list of past and present bookshops. Having arrived in Iowa City in the early 1970s -- when stores like Epstein's were housed in the temporary structures set up during the city's urban renewal phase -- Michaud didn't get into the book business directly for another decade. One late spring Saturday afternoon in 1983, he and his son were shopping at a multi-family garage sale when the sale organizer suggested, "Look, how about taking all those books off my hands? There must be 20 boxes there." Paying $10 -- 50 cents a box -- Michaud suddenly found himself in the business "that would nourish us physically and spiritually for the next 20-plus years."

Michaud provides a nostalgic romp through this earlier age of bookselling -- providing an insightful guide to how he moved from merely scouting for good books, to renting space in the Antique Mall, to expanding to a storefront at 116 S. Linn St., to buying and filling a house at 523 Iowa Ave., to moving to an Internet-only business. (Since writing the book, Michaud has sold his remaining inventory to Nialle Sylvan, owner of The Haunted Bookshop at 203 N. Linn St.)

Although an insightful would-be entrepreneur might be able to pull lessons from Michaud's late 20th-century experiences and reapply them to an early 21st-century economy, the primary value of "Booking in Iowa" comes in how it documents the many different stories of the booksellers who have thrived right here in Literature City. It's a full account of the shop owners who were in business for only a few years -- including Charles Drum (C. Drum Bookseller) and Jim Mulac (Jim's Used Books and Records) -- as well as those who continue to provide a space for literary treasure hunting and bookish conversation -- including Sylvan, William Ingles (The Book Shop, 608 S. Dubuque St.) and Jane Murphy and Mark Brookfield (Murphy-Brookfield Books, 219 N. Gilbert St.).

We're grateful to Michaud for reminding us just how much our present City of Literature depends on these local business owners to keep us connected to the rare and out-of-print world of the past.

Our View - Still room for district, Regina to work together

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 12, 2009

Our View - Still room for district, Regina to work together

Iowa City School District and Regina officials agree on very little when it comes to how much the district should pay to transport students to Regina Catholic Education Center. But both sides agree that it seems unlikely the Iowa City School Board is going to change its mind after Thursday's 6-1 decision to discontinue busing to Regina at the end of the current school year.

"The Regina community has a history of coming together and figuring out solutions," said Regina President Carol Trueg. "We're continuing to explore options and to figure out what's the best way to serve our families."

That's good because continued cooperation between the district and Regina remains essential. Part of the motion approved Thursday includes a provision for Iowa City Superintendent Lane Plugge to work with Trueg and other Regina officials to figure the best way to pass along the transportation reimbursement that the state allows for accredited, non-public schools.

If both sides agree, the district and Regina could contract for a 28E agreement that would allow the reimbursements for bus-eligible Regina students to flow directly from the state, through the district to the school itself. Otherwise, individual families who attend the 855-student school would have to apply for the state reimbursement individually -- as is the case with the families who attend the 55-student Willowwind.

Unfortunately, both sides have some animosity to overcome if the district and Regina are going to continue to work together as effectively has they have for decades.

• The district estimates that it is losing nearly $260,000 this year in the difference between how much it actually pays for the 11 buses for Regina students and how the state reimburses the district for the expense.

But Regina officials say the shortfall is actually much lower -- as little as $140,000 -- because three of the routes designated for Regina also ferry public school students who have opted out of their Schools in Need of Assistance and are now enrolled in Hoover Elementary.

District officials say if they didn't use the Regina buses for the SINA students -- whose transportation is paid for out of Title 1 money rather than out the general fund -- they would make use of other existing routes. So they are standing by the $260,000 figure.

We think the specific dollar amount matters less than the fact that the Regina decision is just one of many difficult, budget-cutting decisions that the school board will have to make soon because of plummeting state revenues and funding levels.

• Regina officials say the district has shot down all of their ideas for further improving bus service. They also say that last week's negotiations, while congenial, were basically done in bad faith on the district's part.

"We realize transporting directly from a student's home to Regina is the Cadillac of service," Trueg said. "We're open to transfers and sharing buses."

But district officials say that they are wary of the complications that would come with bus transfers. And they say many of Regina's proposed changes would have extended route times beyond the 60- or 75-minute limit and would have required other practices that school districts aren't allowed to do under state law.

If Regina and the district were to contract under a 28E agreement, however, then district officials say the state-accredited, non-public school would be free to be as creative as it would like to be when it comes to combining routes, implementing centralized pick-up points or otherwise trimming its busing costs.

Plugge said he is still open to suggestions from Regina on how they can work together to find a solution that is "revenue neutral" for the district, but he doesn't think such a solution is likely.

Trueg said that, even under the best case scenario for trimming transportation costs, there still is going to be a shortfall between what the state reimburses and what Regina will actually pay.

We agree with the district that any shortfall is Regina's responsibility to pay. But we hope the district and Regina can continue to work together to make that shortfall as short as possible for the area's largest state-accredited, non-public school.

Our View - Iowa needs more families willing to open homes

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 10, 2009

Our View - Iowa needs more families willing to open homes

The story of Steve Harland and his former foster parents -- the Bevelheimers -- is definitely a heart-warming holiday tale. After all, it was Christmas Day 1959 when a 14-year-old Harland came into Lee and Ellen Bevelheimer's home in Henry County, Ill., and became one of the 180 temporary foster children cared for by the couple. And it's almost 40 years to the day after that yuletide introduction that Harland and Lee Bevelheimer, now 93 and of North Liberty, left the Johnson County Courthouse as father and son.

But this inspiring story also is a timely reminder that foster care parents are needed just as much today -- if not more -- as they were 40 years ago.

"Will Iowa ever have enough foster and adoptive families?"

That's one of the questions appearing on the Frequently Asked Questions page at the Web site for Iowa KidsNet, the Department of Human Services subcontractor who now handles many of the administrative functions of the foster care program in Iowa (

The answer is a resounding "no."

"Unfortunately, the need in Iowa is ongoing throughout the state," the Web site reads. "Children continue to enter the foster care system and foster and adoptive families leave the system."

Iowa KidsNet also reports that there is no such thing as a typical foster family. The Bevelheimers had opened up their home after being seriously injured in a car accident in 1961. Because of their disabilities after the crash, they preferred young children as opposed to school-aged children.

But the families involved in today's foster care programs include:

• Single-parent families.

• Families with children still at home.

• Families with older parents who already have raised their own children.

• Homeowners.

• Renters.

• Families that represent all races, ethic groups and religious backgrounds.

Some families care for a wide variety of children, others -- such as the Bevelheimers did four decades ago -- prefer specializing with one age group, with one sex or with specific special needs children. And although 21 is the minimum age to become a foster parent in Iowa, there is no maximum age -- it all depends on the foster parents' ability to care for a specific child.

Only a small percentage of foster care relationships end in adoptions. The primary goal of the program, of course, is the eventual reunification of children with their birth families. But -- as was the case with Harland, whose mother had died when he was 4 years old and who ran away a decade later -- some children simply cannot return home.

Although Harland never left the Bevelheimer family, he never became an official member. Ellen Bevelheimer died in 1989. Over the years, Harland moved to Missouri, where he works on a farm; and Lee Bevelheimer moved to Country View Retirement Home in North Liberty. About two months ago, Harland got a phone call saying that Lee Bevelheimer wanted to finally adopt him.

On Monday morning, Bevelheimer and Harland made it official when they appeared before a judge and completed the adoption.

"It feels good," Harland said.

If you'd like help extending that good feeling by opening your family to children who need foster care, call Iowa KidsNet at 800-243-0756 or the Iowa Foster & Adoptive Parent Association at 800-277-8145.

Our View - UI must keep making progress on sex assaults

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 8, 2009

Our View - UI must keep making progress on sex assaults

It doesn't give us much comfort to know that the University of Iowa's official response to an alleged sexual assault in 2007 really wasn't that far off the mark for what seems to be a "culture of secrecy" at work at university campuses across the nation. That's what a Washington-based investigative journalism organization, the Center for Public Integrity, found to be case in a report it issued last week.

The Center for Public Integrity showed that nearly half of the 33 female students it interviewed in the past year about being raped were unsuccessful in pursuing criminal charges. While that clearly wasn't the case in regards to the 2007 incident in which a UI student accused two Hawkeye football players of assaulting her in a UI dorm, the center found that the one recourse for the students who were unsuccessful in pursing criminal charges were their campus judiciary systems.

Kristen Lombardi, lead reporter on the nine-month investigation, said those victims faced "proceedings that are shrouded in secrecy, where they encounter mysterious disciplinary proceedings, where they themselves are shut out of the hearing process,"

Lombardi also said that nearly a third of the 33 victims reported school administrators discouraged them from pursuing complaints, and about a dozen experienced confidentiality requirements "sometimes followed by threats of punishment if they were to disclose any information about the case."

The good news is that UI already has begun the process of addressing the same criticisms identified in the report. The 2007 allegations have led to an overhaul of the policies and procedures of the entire public university system in Iowa -- but only after two separate investigations and the firing of two senior UI officials for their roles in handling the case.

The bad news is that current economic concerns seem to have moved efforts to update additional polices to the back burner. UI officials still have a ways to go to address all the concerns raised by the 2007 incident.

"One of the things we've been working on at UI has been to send a message from the very top down that sexual assault won't be tolerated and back it up with not only having good policies and implementation of those policies," said Karla Miller, director of the UI-based Rape Victim Advocacy Program. "There are many good things going on, but there is still more work to be done."

The worst news, of course, is that the 33 students interviewed for the public integrity study represent only a small fraction of the sexual assault cases at campuses nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education's office of post-secondary education said there were 2,532 forcible sex offenses in campuses in 2007.

A 2005 study by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Justice Department, found that one in five women on a college campus will be the victim of rape or attempted rape by the time she graduates.

While UI officials understandably are focused on economic concerns at this time, we hope the center's report helps push the next stages of the policy reviews and other responses back onto the front burner. After all, poor economic conditions surely aren't helping to decrease the incidents of sexual assault on campus. Data from the RVAP Web site shows that, between July 1 and Sept. 30, 11 people connected to UI reported being raped.

Our View - Update Iowa's inheritance law for 21st century

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 7, 2009

Our View - Update Iowa's inheritance law for 21st century

A federal judge recently ruled that 6-year-old Brynn Beeler of West Branch is entitled to her father's Social Security benefits even though her father died two years before she was born.

That's long overdue good news for the Beeler family, but it also highlights how the Iowa Legislature needs to update the state's inheritance laws for the 21st century.

"We're the first in Iowa, but we won't be the last," said Patti Beeler, Brynn's mother. "You either deal with it now, or a year or 10 years later when there are more cases."

When Brynn was born six years ago, Patti knew that Brynn's father would not be a daily presence in the child's life. But she also knew the father wanted to have children -- and wanted to have children with her. (Patti's husband, Bruce Beeler, had died of leukemia on May 4, 2001 -- nearly two years before Brynn was born.)

The couple had been planning to marry on Memorial Day weekend in 2001. And when Bruce discovered he would have to undergo chemotherapy, he banked sperm before beginning his treatments so that he and Patti could have children after he recovered.

After Bruce's condition grew worse rather than better -- and after doctors determined that his leukemia would require a bone marrow transplant -- the couple bumped up their wedding date to December 2000. Because the procedure came with only a 50 percent chance of survival, Bruce began making funeral arrangements and signed a number of forms granting Patti the legal right to use his sperm to conceive children in the event of his death.

After Bruce died, Patti underwent intrauterine insemination in July 2002. It was a decision supported by Bruce's parents, Ken and Mildred Beeler, who now live next door to Patti and her daughter in West Branch. Patti became pregnant on the first try, and nine months later Brynn was born.

Now Brynn is one of a small number of cases of posthumously conceived children who are applying for survivor benefits from Social Security.

"You can probably count the cases on both hands," University of Iowa law professor Sheldon Kurtz said earlier this year. "The concern is that over time we are going to start seeing more and more of these cases. It would be a good thing, before we get too far along, if we have laws to address this specific issue."

Kurtz is one of three Iowans on the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, a group working to have states update and harmonize their laws concerning probate and inheritance when it comes to children conceived through artificial means. Making those laws more uniform is important because Social Security, although a federal program, defers to state law when determining whether a child can be considered an heir.

Most state laws were written long before posthumous conception was a possibility. And few states that have updated their laws vary widely in terms of the limitations they place on when and whether such children can be considered heirs.

Iowa's laws on the matter, for example, are basically as old as the state. Because those laws don't provide any language on the specifics in a case such as the Beeler's, good empathetic judges can come to completely different conclusions about how the 19th-century legal language and 20th-century precedents apply to 21st-century reproductive technology.

In Brynn's case, Social Security determined that she could not be considered an heir under Iowa law and thus her claim was denied. The recent ruling stands to set legal precedent in the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which covers Iowa, Arkansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Social Security Administration has until Jan. 11, 2010, to appeal.

We think the Iowa Legislature should consider the model legislation proposed by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws as a starting point for updating the state laws. On the question of posthumous conception, Kurtz said, the conference suggests a compromise that would allow a child be considered an heir if the father gave his consent to the process before he died -- as Bruce Beeler did.

But however people come down on when and whether children like Brynn should be able to be considered heirs, all the stakeholders agree that the state laws must be clarified before more and more grieving families get caught up within this bureaucratic and legal confusion.

Our View - When do layoffs start to count as layoffs?

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 6, 2009

Our View - When do layoffs start to count as layoffs?

If we didn't know that the statement simply wasn't true, we would've been ecstatic to hear University of Iowa President Sally Mason tell a group of students Wednesday that UI has been able to weather the massive state budget cuts without any layoffs.

"To date, we haven't had to lay off anyone," the UI president said, after explaining how the flood of 2008 helped prepare the university to weather the budget storms of 2009.

But we know UI announced last month that it was closing the medical instrument shop in the Carver College of Medicine and that eight employees in the shop received layoff notices. And the same day that Mason was participating in the student forum, the Press-Citizen was working on a story about how the university was laying off 11 people in its College of Pharmacy manufacturing department, UI Pharmaceuticals.

That's why Mason later had to clarify her statement and explain that whenever UI officials say there have been "no layoffs," they're actually talking about how there have been no layoffs directly connected to the state budget cuts. The state budget supports the general education fund, or the academic component of UI. The pharmaceutical department and the instrument shop, on the other hand, are in self-funded units. Therefore, even though there are layoffs in those areas, they're not the kind of "layoffs" that can stop UI officials from saying that no one has been laid off.

UI spokesman Tom Moore said that the pharmacy college layoffs weren't due directly to the state budget cuts but to a "decline in the demand for their service caused by the general economic climate." Yet the pharmacy layoffs still need to be approved by the Iowa state Board of Regents. (And, as of Thursday, it was unclear when the regents would consider it.)

When asked if there will be more layoffs, Moore responded, "UI leaders continue to work very hard to preserve jobs to the greatest extent possible. Additional layoffs could be possible."

UI officials said in the spring that they expected layoffs, but an influx of $35.5 million in federal stimulus funds staved off job cuts. In June, faced with a $10.8 million shortfall, Mason said a worse-case scenario was 130 layoffs that could be announced in December or January. However, because of better-than-expected results from cost cutting measures, Mason said in October that there would be few -- up to 20 -- if any layoffs. University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, which has a separate budget, laid off about 150 workers in June, according to human resources data.

We certainly hope that university administrators and regents can figure how to avoid losing any more employees -- who administrators in the past have called their "most precious" assets. And we commend UI officials for their relatively successful efforts to keep that number as low as possible.

But there is a thin line between decisions directly and indirectly affected by the state budget cuts and the current economic climate. And UI officials do themselves no favors by seeming to discount (or under-count) the jobs that have been lost throughout the university this year.

Our View - UI Center for Human Rights looking for funds

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 5, 2009

Our View - UI Center for Human Rights looking for funds

Last month, the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights celebrated its 10th anniversary with a series of lectures, films, panel discussions and performances. But the celebration was made somewhat bittersweet when University of Iowa officials announced the center will lose most of its funding -- including all the money for its small staff -- at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2010.

The announcement basically means that the center wouldn't be able to fully celebrate an 11th anniversary unless it raises its $110,301 budget -- which covers salaries of three non-faculty staff members, or 1.75 full-time equivalent positions -- from other sources. And it wouldn't get to see a 15th or 20th anniversary unless it secures either a large enough endowment (about $2 million) or finds sufficient additional streams of independent revenue.

Happily, since the announcement of the budget cuts, center officials say they have raised more than $57,000 in donations for next year's budget. The center also recently received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for continuing its work with immigration rights. And center officials are finalizing plans for developing a Human Rights Certificate Program through the UI Division of Continuing Education -- a program that would include Web-based courses that could provide the center with an independent stream of revenue.

Gregory Hamot, a College of Education professor and the center's director, said he is optimistic about the center's short-term and long-term prospects.

"I wouldn't invest the time in it if I didn't think there were people in our community and our university that want to see it continue," Hamot said. "I am committed to maintaining the center."

We would hate to see the center have to cut back on the work it has done to coordinate a human rights focus throughout UI and other universities. Throughout its 10-year history, the center has earned an impressive national reputation. An earlier Justice Department grant help the center establish itself as a leader in child labor scholarship and advocacy. And in the past few years, it has begun to build a similar reputation in immigration rights.

And the center's influence has been felt throughout the university and the surrounding community. There are human rights-focused classes being offered in departments across the campus. Some of that convergence has been the direct result of organized efforts by the center's staff and affiliated faculty. But much of it has been the indirect result of the many classes, conferences and community connections that the center has helped to bring about.

But we also understand that, during a period of state budget cuts, the university needs programs and academic endeavors like the Center for Human Rights to become self-sufficient. Some of the current plans have been in the works for years, but the untimely death of UI History Professor and Center Director Ken Cmiel in 2006 -- and the succession of short-term directors trying to fill in -- delayed their implementation.

That's why we hope the recent donations and long-term plans show UI administrators that there is a spark of life in this center, one worth keeping alive until more independent funding comes in the next few years.

And we praise the center staff for deciding not to waste time on trying to press UI administrators to change their minds about the funding cut and for deciding instead to begin an aggressive campaign to go after its own funding.

We wish them luck.

Our View - Approve curfew and look for other solutions

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 4, 2009

Our View - Approve curfew and look for other solutions

Back in September, we added ourselves to the list of reluctant converts to a citywide curfew. And we're pleased that the list now seems to include a slim majority of the Iowa City Council -- even if one of the council members said it was one of the toughest decisions he's had to make as an elected official.

On Tuesday -- after hearing from organizers of the Safe Neighborhoods of Iowa City coalition as well as from a number of southeast-side residents -- the council voted 4-3 to approve the curfew's second reading. The third reading, the final hurdle for the ordinance to clear before being passed into law, will be put on the agenda for Dec. 14, the current council's final meeting of the year before gaining two new members.

"As a standalone tool, a curfew is pointless," said Councilor Mike Wright, who voted in favor of the curfew. "As part of a package, it may have something to offer to Iowa City."

That "package" needs to build on the hard work being done by the Safe Neighborhoods coalition. Volunteers from the relatively new organization have spent the past few weeks knocking on more than 1,000 doors on the southeast side and completing about 350 surveys in which residents explain what they would like to see done to improve the neighborhoods. The results of those surveys still are being tabulated and analyzed.

The curfew alone, of course, won't address the root causes behind many of the high-profile incidents this year -- such as a nearly 60-person brawl on Hollywood Boulevard on Mother's Day, reports of shots fired on Lakeside Drive and Regal Lane on Aug. 5, and a homicide investigation of a landlord found dead at Broadway Condominiums. Many of the worst incidents took place during daylight or early evening hours, and many of the teens involved already were under curfew restrictions through the juvenile courts.

Yet the curfew seems a tempered and appropriate response to residents' concerns. Police officials say that it could be a "helpful tool" in responding to the neighborhood problems identified by southeast residents. And some parents report that it could give them more leverage over their children's behavior.

Besides, the restrictions are hardly draconian. Kids younger than 14 have to be off the streets by 10 p.m.; 14- and 15-year-olds by 11 p.m.; 16- and 17-year-olds by midnight. The ordinance is full of justifiable exemptions, and police say they plan to issue citations only as a last resort -- after verbal warnings and other strategies have been used.

We urge the existing council -- at its last meeting of the year -- to give its final approval to the curfew. Then, after Councilors-elect Susan Mims and Terry Dickens are seated in January, the new council can continue looking at more long-term solutions.

Our View -- Another local cemetery tale gets unearthed

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 3, 2009

Our View -- Another local cemetery tale gets unearthed

Two years ago, local historian Timothy C. Parrott did Iowa City a great service by authoritatively demystifying the lingering legends surrounding the life of Theresa Feldwert and the statue she commissioned.

In his pamphlet, "The Enigma of Theresa Dolezal Feldwert and the Black Angel," Parrott did away with the stories of the statue being hit by lightning or falling off the boat on the way from Europe. Yet he managed to tell a story even more interesting than the many spooky theories about how the statue lost some of its fingers. He managed to flesh out the life of one of Iowa City's amazing citizens: Theresa Karasek Dolezal Picha Feldwert (1836-1924).

Last year, Parrott published a second "Enigma" pamphlet telling the story of another grave marker in Oakland Cemetery -- the one that simply reads, "Harriet Deuell / Died April 10, 1881 / Aged 51 years." Instead of pulling back layers of legend, "The Enigma of Harriet Z. Deuell and Her 46-Day Death Fast" tells a long-forgotten, once nationally known story of a middle-aged Iowa City woman who committed suicide by starving herself to death.

Where Parrott presented Czech-immigrant and multiple widow Feldwert as the ultimate survivor, he now presents the never married Deuell (1829-1881) as an invalid woman who eventually decided that her only control over her life came in her decision to stop speaking (about two years before her death) and then to stop eating (46 days before her death).

Now Parrott has added a third "Enigma" pamphlet to his growing library, "The Enigma of Wesley Monroe Sauer and His Quixotic Descent into Madness." It deals with the life of Iowa City's "mad poet," who enjoyed national attention for a very brief period in the 1930s -- before Iowa City had gained its international reputation as a City of Literature.

Because Sauer's grave remains unmarked, it's more difficult to find his resting place (Lot 55 of Block 6 in Oakland Cemetery) than to find those of Feldwert and Deuell. But some of Iowa City's older residents -- especially those with connections to the northside -- may remember the stories surrounding Sauer's troubled childhood, his two books of poetry, his belief in fairies, his preoccupation with Don Quixote, his isolation in a small acreage north of town and his eventual suicide by hanging on Oct. 30, 1953.

As Sauer "moved ever closer to the outermost fringes of society," Parrott writes, "he ungrudgingly clung to the innocence of children. Rather than face the cruel adult world that engulfed him, he created for himself a magical world. ... Although limited by an eighth-grade education, he sought to commit this fantasy world to paper in the form of the 48 published poems he left as his legacy."

Where Parrott used Deuell's story to explore how the roots of today's raging debates over medical ethics stretch back much further than accounted for in living memory, he now uses a story from living memory to explore mental illness issues as well as Iowa City's emergent literary scene.

Parrott's pamphlets reminds us that there never was a golden age for our community. They also remind us, as William Faulkner observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Our View - Still room for negotiations on school busing

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 1, 2009

Our View - Still room for negotiations on school busing

In their efforts to trim millions of dollars from their budget -- and in preparation for even worse economic times ahead -- Iowa City School District officials have been talking about eliminating the district's long-standing practice of providing bus service for Regina Catholic Education Center. Instead, they are considering having the district serve as an intermediary through which transportation reimbursements directly pass to Regina parents.

That seems like a fair idea to us. After all, the district is losing about $260,000 this year because of the bus service. District officials say that they contract out service to Durham Student Services for an average of slightly more than $39,300 per bus. With 11 buses going to Regina, the district shells out more than $432,000, for which it receives only about $173,000 in state reimbursements -- leaving the district to pull from its general fund to cover the extra transportation costs.

But a better idea is for the district to start working with Regina to set up a plan by which the private school -- over a series of one, two or three years -- eventually begins paying all the difference between the state's reimbursement and how much the bus service costs.

The district does have a legal obligation to assist in the transportation of resident students to state-accredited, non-public schools like Regina. That law has been on the books at least since the early 1970s. But that responsibility shouldn't become a financial hardship for any public school district -- which is why state law also allows for districts to offer reimbursements directly to students' families. And given the pessimistic forecasts for next year's state revenues, it's highly unlikely that the state will be increasing the reimbursement rate any time soon.

The district already offers reimbursements to the only other state-accredited, non-public school in the Iowa City area: Willowwind. That situation is quite a bit different, however, because Willowwind only has less than five dozen K-6 students (compared to Regina's 855 K-12 students) and because Willowwind officials haven't asked for any designated bus routes. (Officials from North Liberty-based Heritage Christian School, which is accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International, say they have no immediate plans to seek the additional state accreditation that would be necessary for their 150 students to qualify for transportation reimbursement.)

Regina officials say that the $260,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to the many other areas in which the district could trim its budget. They argue that, if the district's transportation decision leads to many families deciding to pull their students out of Regina and to enroll them in public school, then the district would have to deal with the costs of more students with no additional local property taxes to supplement state funding. They also point out that while reimbursement is a legal option for the district, the practice represents the minimum standard allowable by law.

"Minimum service isn't a hallmark of Iowa City education," Regina President Carol Trueg said.

We agree that the situation isn't just an either-or choice between the public school district cutting the busing service and the district eating the $260,000 in extra costs. There is still room for negotiations between the two school systems.

So we urge both sides to work together to find a solution that allows the public school district to meet its obligations to non-public students -- beyond the minimum legal standard -- but that also stops Regina from receiving what amounts to a free bus ride at public expense.

Our View - Helping to keep us abreast of global issues

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 30, 2009

Our View - Helping to keep us abreast of global issues

For hundreds and hundreds of luncheons in the past 25 years, the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council has featured speakers who have provided local residents with a view of the wider world.

Back in the early 1980s, University of Iowa President James O. Friedman worked to find funding, office space and university support for a "town and gown" international program. Drawing from the many guests and scholars attracted by the university's international reputation -- as well as from the presidential candidates drawn to the Iowa caucuses -- the new council began providing a downtown forum in which these experts would share their experiences with a broad swath of the community as a whole. Working with UI International Programs and with other programs like UI history professor David Schoenbaum's Foreign Policy Chautauqua, the council has been making our town into a much more internationally minded city.

As council board member Alan Nagel observed in a guest opinion a few months ago, the council's luncheons have included famous (even infamous) speakers as well as many names (and issues) that were relatively unknown at the time but that have gone on to become much more widely recognized:

• Twenty-one years ago, Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, warned about a coming crisis in energy efficiency.

• Thirteen years ago, U.S. diplomat Paul Warnke told of the risks in arms control agreements following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

• After 9/11, Navy Admiral and CIA Director Stansfield Turner gave his view of fighting terrorism.

• Jim Leach, early in his Congressional career, came to review of national foreign policy, and then came back toward the end of the Bush administration to explain the new challenges facing American leadership.

• And back in 2007, an upstart U.S. senator from Illinois -- one who had the audacity to run for president before finishing a single term -- proposed new directions for U.S. foreign policy that he is now, as president, trying to implement.

We're thankful that council for working so hard for the past 25 years to keep local residents aware of the challenges and opportunities facing people across the globe. And just the council's influence has stretched from the waning of the Cold War, to the post-Soviet Union period, to 9/11, to the global War on Terrorism, to the new policies being shaped by the Obama administration, we hope it continues to keep challenging Iowans to think about America's changing role on the global stage.

The council's next luncheon will be at noon Tuesday at the Congregational Church, 30 N. Clinton St. in Iowa City. Scott Snyder, adjunct senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, will speak on "North Korea and the 6-Party Talks." Reservations are due by noon today. For more information, visit or call 335-0351.

Our View - Scores don't tell full story about teaching

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 28, 2009

Our View - Scores don't tell full story about teaching

At first glance, there seems to be a lot of value to the idea of tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. The most pressing value right now, in fact, is how such a policy would place the state in a better position to claim the $175 million it could be eligible for under the federal "Race to the Top" program. (To qualify, states must vote to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, adopt tougher standards, turn around troubled schools, build long-term student tracking systems and lift legal limits on charter schools.)

That would seem to be a key reason why Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, a former teacher himself, is bucking the counsel of the teachers' unions and pushing for a more direct correlation between student test scores and helping to identify a teacher's effectiveness.

Some state education leaders like the clear criteria and objective analysis that the test scores allow.

"There's a whole bunch of us in administration who won't mind seeing that be part of the equation," Carlisle Superintendent Tom Lane told The Des Moines Register. "When I get evaluated, my board looks at what we are doing with student achievement."

But standardize tests scores, on their own, can't tell the full story about the quality of education being offered and received. Many other criteria need to be factored into that equation to determine a teachers' effectiveness.

Take Iowa City for example. The "Schools in Need of Assistance" within the district tend to have very high mobility rates among their students. That means, in some schools and in some classrooms, teachers have more than half of their students leave or enter the class over the course of the school year. If teachers' individual performance is based on standardized tests, then they will be held accountable for the performance of students who they might not have had in class for very long.

That's not to imply that there aren't, in fact, bad teachers out there teachers who are incompetent, disorganized, emotionally unstable or simply burned out. As Iowa City Education Association Co-President Tom Yates observed in his Friday guest opinion: "Who cannot claim to have passed through school, public or private, having lived through a year with a 'bad' teacher?"

But test scores do not provide a full picture on whether teachers are "bad." Nor do they offer the best course of action for dealing with "bad" teachers.

Baker earns readers' trust with 'A Good Man'

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 19, 2009

Baker earns readers' trust with 'A Good Man'

By Jeff Charis-Carlson

Iowa Cityscapes

Last year, former Iowa City Councilor Larry Baker confided in me that he was working on a novel that he feared might be "too crazy" -- too much of a wild romp through American religious, political and literary themes.

Having been blown away by Baker's first novel, "Flamingo Rising" -- and having appreciated the many insights into Iowa City politics he provided in his second novel, "Athens, America" -- I asked if I could sneak a peek at the manuscript for this new novel.

After a few weeks -- and after being sworn to secrecy -- Baker finally agreed to e-mail me a draft of "A Good Man." He said he was hesitant because he wasn't sure if the novel was brilliant (an effective political and social satire of America between 2000 and 2008) or just self-indulgent prose by an English major. (Lucky for him -- and for me -- the novel was a lot of the former and had only bits of the latter.)

When reading "A Good Man," it gradually becomes obvious that Baker expects a lot from his readers. The main character, Harry Ducharme, is a late-night radio host in Florida who, in response to the tragedy of 9/11, begins preaching on the air. But it's a preaching that takes all of American literature -- rather than any specific religious book -- as its sacred text. It's a preaching that attracts the attention of Nora, the reclusive and enigmatic cooking show host who finally invites Harry into her inner social circle. And it's a preaching that begins to resonate with a new religious movement about to burst on the national scene.

Baker does a fine job telling Harry's story, showing how this middle-aged, functioning alcoholic tries to come to terms with his inner demons and eventually rebuilds his career and personal life. But Baker also interrupts Harry's fictional story with snippets from actual newspapers, magazines and blogs -- articles and columns that explore America's fascination with its home-grown religious movements. He also throws in historic vignettes that range from the Stonewall riots of 1969, to 9/11, to the 2008 presidential election.

And if all that wasn't enough for readers to keep in mind, Baker also offers "A Good Man" as a sequel to "Flamingo Rising." While it's not necessary to have read the earlier novel to appreciate "A Good Man," the new novel does answer many of the questions about what happened to those earlier characters after their chaotic summer spent in the biggest drive-in theater in Florida.

After reading the earlier draft, I told Baker that the novel was brilliant and exciting to read, but I agreed that it probably was all but unpublishable in today's literary marketplace.

Luckily, Steve Semken at Ice Cube Press disagreed with my assessment and decided to accept the publishing challenge. Baker then began to focus on showing how Harry's story ties together his many disparate themes.

In short, the final version of "A Good Man" comes across as the product of a tragic-comic imagination as religiously haunted as Flannery O'Connor's and as "this world"-oriented as a Harry Chapin song.

That's why it's important to know know that Baker lifted his main character straight out of an O'Connor short story that features its own blend of dysfunctional families, religious tent meetings and untimely death.

"If you want to see who Harry really is, read O'Connor's 'The River,'" Baker told me. "He was created by her, killed off and resurrected by me. Trust me, I think, it all makes sense."

Baker not only earns his readers' and his publisher's trust, but he also has attracted attention from filmmakers interested in documenting the process by which this book was written, published, marketed and received. Anyone who attends his Prairie Lights reading at 7 p.m. today should be prepared to ask a lot of questions and to smile for the cameras.

Our View - 21-only still an option for bars with PAULAs

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 19, 2009

Our View - 21-only still an option for bars with PAULAs

Last year, we editorialized in favor of reopening a national discussion on just how beneficial it is to keep trying to keep people from drinking until they turn 21. And we still think our nation and state would benefit from discussing the degree to which the drinking age might be contributing to the broader drinking problems it originally was supposed to help solve.

Until that discussion leads to changes in state laws, however, the minimum age to drink in a bar in Iowa is 21. And the law is the law is the law.

Bars that actively serve alcohol to 19- and 20-year-olds are breaking that law. And we think bars that turn a blind eye when of-age patrons pass on drinks to underage friends likewise should be held accountable for the law-breaking allowed to go on in their establishments.

We know that the Iowa City Council isn't likely to bite the bullet and declare all bars to be 21-only. But we're glad councilors at least have taken steps to tighten the standards by which bars are evaluated when their liquor license comes up for renewal.

That's exactly what the council did in February when it voted to include the rate of Possession of Alcohol Under the Legal Age charges as one of the criteria for evaluating liquor license renewal requests. Now, if a bar has an average of more than 1.0 PAULAs per police visit, then the police department automatically recommends the council deny the license renewal request.

This summer, when the council denied license renewal requests from Etc. and the Fieldhouse, we saw a glimmer of hope that the council's action might have altered the local economic environment just enough that bar owners would be looking to negotiate with the council to go 21-only voluntarily.

"For me it would be easier to just be a 21 bar, not deal with 19- and 20-year-olds, not have to worry about PAULAs," said George Etre, owner of Etc., during the July 28 council meeting.

Oh, if only that were true. Instead, both bars have appealed the denial to the state's Alcoholic Beverages Division. And if they don't like the answer there, the bars are likely to appeal the decision through the courts. (It could take years to reach a final conclusion -- years in which the bar gets to keep its license and keep operating.)

Now the council has denied a third renewal request. The Summit, owned by Mike Porter, has a PAULA ratio of 1.92, nearly double the maximum allowed under the council's new standard. Porter not only is appealing the ruling, but he also has filed suit against the city, claiming that the PAULA standard is unfair and unconstitutional. His 21-page lawsuit also argues that standard is illegal because:

• The city has overstepped its authority in determining what constitutes the definition of "good moral character."

• The standard doesn't require a PAULA conviction, only a citation.

• The standard punishes plaintiffs retroactively by considering PAULA citations before the resolution's adoption.

• And the city is intentionally targeting certain establishments.

We disagree with Porter's interpretation of the city's policy and intent, and we're glad to see the city standing its ground by enforcing this very reasonable standard. This summer, Iowa City police reported that only six of the 110 liquor licenses in Iowa City were in jeopardy of having a rate of more than 1.0 PAULAs per police visit for the previous 12 months. Although many of those licenses belong to restaurants, it's clear that the majority of bars in Iowa City have far fewer than 1.0 PAULAs per police visit.

But we do agree with Porter that other bars are likely to appeal the city's decision to the state and through the courts -- especially because they can continue to serve liquor through the process.

But that just seems to be another reason why the city council should exercise its clearly recognized authority and declare 21 to be the minimum age to enter -- let alone to drink in -- an Iowa City bar.

Our View - Petition shows that the system is working

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 17, 2009

Our View - Petition shows that the system is working

The system works.

After the untimely death of one of the members of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, the county made the understandable decision to fill out the remainder of the term by appointment rather than hold a special election. Enough county residents have signed a petition disagreeing with that decision that now the county is forced to hold a special election.

Because of the estimated costs of a general election -- as well as the likelihood of low voter turnout -- we agreed with the county's decision to appoint someone to fill out the remainder of the late Larry Meyers' term. We likewise called upon the committee -- made up of Auditor Tom Slockett, Recorder Kim Painter and Treasurer Tom Kris -- to put aside ideological and personal concerns and to appoint a clearly qualified candidate.

We do think the committee picked a qualified appointee when it voted 2-1 for Janelle Rettig. But an asterisk gets left next to the name of anyone who rises to elected office through any process other than election. And the past political connections among Rettig and her supporters on the committee -- Painter and Slockett -- have made that asterisk bolder still.

Because the number of signatures required to force a special election (7,299) was based on the record-setting turnout in the 2008 presidential election, the petition organizers had to clear an extremely high bar. And although there are still a few days in which some of the signatures might be challenged, the organizers are to be commended for the commitment and energy needed to collect so many signatures in the few weeks since the initial decision to appoint.

Because of the winter holidays and the university's calendar, the county has set Jan. 19 as the first practical day for the election. That's enough time for the parties to re-constitute their county conventions, for independent candidates to collect signatures and for voters to petition for early satellite voting sites.

But we also think the county auditor should make sure to conduct this election as cost effectively as possible -- especially after his $75,000 estimate has been bandied about so frequently as the primary reason why the county decided to appoint rather than to hold a special election. Early voting, of course, needs to be available at the auditor's office, and state law does require the auditor to hold satellite voting in accessible locations after receiving a petition signed by at least 100 residents. But many other election expenses -- specifically, the number of un-petitioned satellite voting locations -- are at the auditor's discretion.

We're glad to see nearly 8,000 residents express their desire to participate in the choice of who serves on the county board of supervisors. If that number of valid signatures holds, we hope a large number of them actually will come out to the polls on Jan. 19 and do just that.
Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 13, 2009

Our View - Starting to grow Iowa's Ciudad de al Literatura

Iowa City has well earned its prominent role in the history of American literature. And the city also has served well as a special gathering point where writers from around the globe can inspire one another as they learn more about America in the classrooms and coffeehouses of one over-educated, Midwestern college town.

But Iowa City also has begun to establish itself as a prominent location in la historia de la literatura estadounidense. Alongside the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the International Writing Program, a growing number of Spanish-speaking writers and poets have been coming to town and staying for much longer than a three-month residency.

Whether they are here to teach, to study -- or even for some non-academic purpose -- writers like Ana Merino, Santiago Vaquera-Vasquez and Roberto Ampuero are putting down roots in the community and are helping to establish Iowa City as a more dual-lingual City of Literature.

Local residents can experience a small sampling of this movement at 6 p.m. today when the professors and students in the University of Iowa undergraduate Spanish creative writing classes read from their work at Prairie Lights Books. The classes have been taken and taught by ex-patriots from Spain and Latin America, by American citizens who learned Spanish as their mother tongue as well as by Anglophones who are interested in a more personal and less academic relationship with the language.

"They say the best way to learn a language is to fall in love," said Merino, a UI associate professor of Spanish who moved to Iowa City just a few months ago. "Creative writing is like falling in love. It's a way to develop your skills for the emotional side of the language."

It's not surprising that the work produced by the students is a mezcla of the already fertile mixing of Spanish and English -- moving back and forth from Spanglish, to Espangl├ęs, to more formally precise literary Castilian, to the modismos spoken in Chile, the U.S./Mexican borderlands and other places throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

Tonight's reading also is being advertised as an event "to celebrate the development of a future MFA in Spanish Creative Writing." But given the recent budget crisis in the state, the usually long process of a establishing a new graduate-level program has become even longer. It probably will be quite a while before Hispanophones come to Iowa specifically to earn an MFA in Spanish-language fiction, poetry or nonfiction. But the writers and scholars who are creating the groundswell support for such a program say they aren't going anywhere any time soon.

Instead, they'll be working hard to enhance their small but growing part of our very international -- and yet very Iowan -- Ciudad de la Literatura.

Our View - Lessons to learn before redrawing school boundaries

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 12, 2009

Our View - Lessons to learn before redrawing school boundaries

On Monday, the Editorial Board met with the school board president and key administrators to talk about changing school boundaries in the Iowa City School District. During that discussion, it was very clear that school officials are trying not to repeat the mistakes made during the six-month discussion about the future of Roosevelt Elementary.

We hope some of the more important lessons learned by district officials and the broader community include:

• Don't offer a specific plan as a starting point for discussion. In fact, don't even have anything resembling a final plan until soliciting and collecting "input, input, input" from a variety of sources in the district.

Throughout the Roosevelt debate, Superintendent Lane Plugge and board members repeatedly said that the scenarios outlined in the district's facility plan were just options -- proposals, recommendations -- and not anything close to done deals. But those statements consistently fell on skeptical ears.

And when the board members finally did vote to close Roosevelt as a K-6 school before the 2011-12 school year, their critics felt justified in viewing the original proposal as a fait accompli.

This time, the board will rely on a consultant group to ensure that the redistricting proposals come out of dialogue with the public and the 30-member committee.

• Set clear parameters and metrics on how public input will be qualified, evaluated and presented.

During the Roosevelt debate, some of the members of the Facilities Advisory Committee complained about the method by which committee members were asked to evaluate the different options for the school. They went through a "forced choice exercise" in which their preferences were tallied and the resulting ranking was used to endorse a course of action (closing the school) that a majority of the committee members would have voted against.

Although people may disagree with the final result, they need to agree that the result is an accurate reflection of the consensus of the group.

On Monday, Plugge said that he hopes the clear criteria and standards set by the board will make the evaluation process more clear from the outset and thus avoid some of those problems. And on Tuesday, the board charged the boundary committee with developing two to three scenarios while keeping in mind demographics, finances, keeping neighborhood schools and neighborhoods intact and projected enrollments and building uses.

• While the criteria need to be clear from the outset, all options need to be on the table when considering initial proposals.

In this case, the list of possibilities include:

• Year-round schools.

• Magnet school programs.

• Re-designating some K-6 schools to become K-3 and 4-6 schools.

• Building new schools and (though no one likes to hear it) closing existing schools.

The final decision, in fact, may include some new use for the Roosevelt building.

• As important as it is to establish a transparent process that provides opportunities for productive public input, it's equally important to push the process forward to reach a decision.

At some time long before the board's official vote on June 9, the Roosevelt debate reached a point when it was clear that a majority of the board had reached its decision and that the further public forums were only dragging out the process. Unnecessarily prolonging the discussion by weeks (if not months), gave false hope to people working "to save Roosevelt" and basically added insult to injury.

During the redistricting discussion, it will be impossible, of course, for the consultants and the committee to present the board with a proposal that will please every group. Yet we think it is very important that everyone keep moving along in the process so that the consultants and the committee can present the board with two or three workable, affordable and equitable proposals by March.

• It's better for the public to get involved earlier than later in these decision-making processes.

Now, as the proposals are still being shaped, is the best time for local residents to share their thoughts, concerns and personal stories. The district has a page on its Web site devoted to the redistricting process ( And anyone at any time can submit their thoughts via e-mail at

Plouffe's 'Audacity' a wish-fulfillment fantasy

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 12, 2009

Plouffe's 'Audacity' a wish-fulfillment fantasy

By Jeff Charis-Carlson

Iowa Cityscapes

No one expected David Plouffe to write a warts-and-all account of the presidential campaign that he so successfully managed in 2007 and 2008. Yet "The Audacity to Win" -- Plouffe's nearly 400-page memoir -- is more wish-fulfillment fantasy than a day-by-day account of the two-year campaign.

If "Dreams from My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope" represent the gospel according to Barack Obama, then Plouffe's "The Audacity to Win" is the equivalent of the New Testament's "Acts of the Apostles." The book tells the near-miraculous story of the "come-from-behind" win of one of the biggest upsets in American political history. And in doing so, Plouffe explains how the early disciples of this political messiah divined the one scenario out of a million by which their Obama would defeat first Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and then John McCain to claim the White House:

• Woo Iowans like they have never been wooed before.

• Use the Internet to raise more money than had ever been raised before.

• And use the lessons learned in Iowa to build effective organizations in states all but ignored by Obama's rivals.

Indeed, the "Barack Obama" presented in "The Audacity to Win" is everything that Plouffe and his former partner, David Axelrod, had worked so hard to brand candidate Obama as:

• Unflappable: While the Clintons were known for their melodrama, Plouffe's Obama always keeps his cool, deals with setbacks in stride and never reacts personally to bad news.

• The embodiment of change: Plouffe's Obama initially dismisses "Change We Can Believe In" as a vacuous statement. But the candidate also intuitively trusts Plouffe and Axelrod. So, he agrees to use the slogan that, as luck would have it, just happens to become the defining theme of the campaign.

• The high-road candidate: Plouffe's Obama is always the first to criticize when the campaign goes off tone -- especially when attacking Clinton or Sarah Palin. And Plouffe explains away even Obama's weak spots as further evidence of the candidate's high-mindedness. If his Obama performs badly in a debate, well, it's only because the candidate realizes the ridiculousness of trying to reduce complex issues down to 30-, 60- and 90-second answers.

• Audacious: Plouffe's Obama does have an ego, but he also is the smartest person in the room. In fact, Plouffe's Obama is so smart that he knows when to listen to Plouffe and Axelrod and when to ignore their advice and do something "authentic."

Because Plouffe is one of the original creators of the Obama brand, it's impossible to say where his Obama differs from the "flesh and blood" Obama who was on the campaign trail. And because Plouffe didn't go directly into the new administration -- like Axelrod did -- it's even harder to know how far Plouffe's Obama differs from the Obama now nearing the end of his first year as president.

But if you'd like to hear in person what Plouffe thinks about "President Obama," you can see the former campaign manager at 7 p.m. today at The Englert Theatre. Two tickets for the event are free with every purchase of the book at Prairie Lights.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or

Visiting nonfiction writers

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 11, 2009

Visiting nonfiction writers

By Jeff Charis-Carlson

Iowa Cityscapes

Tonight the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program will host its final visiting writer for the fall semester: Gretel Ehrlich, the author of 13 books and the recipient of this year's PEN/Thoreau Award for "innovative environmental writing."

John D'Agata, UI associate professor of nonfiction, described Ehrlich as "a nature writer, but it's a nature writing that isn't sanctimonious. It's deeply felt, and even highly spiritual, yet it's also grounded in science and the diamond-sharp scrutiny of a naturalist."

Ehrlich will be the latest in a series of visiting writers the program is bringing in to help assure its students -- as well as to persuade the City of Literature at large -- that nonfiction writing is a creative process on par with fiction writing and poetry. Beholden neither to a journalist's commitment to veracity nor to the strictures of academic argument, the creative nonfiction writer is free to produce essays that allow readers to experience the world -- essays that can bridge the spiritual, the natural and the scientific.

As with visiting writer John McPhee earlier this year, Erlich offers local residents a chance to hear from a nonfiction writer who has helped to shape how the genre has evolved. Her first book, "The Solace of Open Spaces," especially has been hailed as a modern classic of nonfiction writing.

Erlich will read at 7 p.m. today in 101 Becker Communication Studies Building. In addition to the Nonfiction Writing Program, her reading is being sponsored by UI's English Department, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Provost's Office.

Our View - Time to cancel UIHC's trip to Disney Institute

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Nov. 7, 2009

Our View - Time to cancel UIHC's trip to Disney Institute

When Republican state legislators began complaining Thursday about the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics' plan to spend $130,000 to send hospital officials for a training session at Walt Disney World Resort, the only response from UI officials should have been: "You're right. That doesn't pass the common sense test. At a time when the state is slashing budgets and the hospital is facing budget cuts, this absolutely is the wrong time to implement this program."

Instead, UI officials actually have been trying to defend the decision as a necessary "small investment" that will reap big rewards in improving the hospital's low scores in patient satisfaction. In an e-mail sent throughout the UI community, the top hospital brass tried to spin the $130,000 as a good deal for the hospital. (After all, they argued, bringing hospital staff to the Disney Institute would cost a lot less than bringing the Disney Institute consultants to Iowa.)

To make the case for why UIHC needs to be Disneyfied, the e-mail linked to three PR testimonials on how the Disney Institute has "partnered" with other hospitals on their "journey to excellence."

• Back in 2001, the Arkansas Children's Hospital was struggling with the recruitment of critical staff, and its series of short-term fixes weren't correcting the problem. After the hospital took its senior management team for the Disney Institute's "Excellence in Healthcare Leadership" program -- which included visiting Disney sites and spending a short time as Disney "Cast Members" -- the management team was able to brainstorm ways to improve their retention efforts. (

• Back in 1992, the University of Chicago Hospitals was experiencing similar problems with employee turnover and patient satisfaction. They too sent a team to the Disney Institute to "learn how to keep a balance between providing customer service excellence and having fun on the job." And the results were so positive that, in 1998, Disney Institute reciprocated by presenting University of Chicago Hospitals with its "coveted Mousker Award" for delivering outstanding service to patients and customers (

• Back in 1995, National Rehabilitation Hospital was going through a period of restructuring and downsizing, which triggered more patient complaints and staff distrust. Its senior management went to a 3½-day course at the Disney Institute and -- full of happy thoughts and a little pixie dust -- were able to implement a "cultural change" at the hospital. They learned how to hire the right people, to train and empower their employees, how to "inform and inspire," how to "define and reinforce a positive culture," yada, yada, yada (

But this isn't the 1990s when money was much more flush and hiring a consultant was the hip thing to do. This isn't even the start of the 21st century. This is the end of the first decade of the 21st century, when people are losing jobs left and right, and the so-called "small investment" of $130,000 represents nearly three times the annual salary of the average Iowa family.

We're all for UIHC changing its culture to improve patient care. But right now we can see only one benefit to UIHC officials visiting the happiest place while on Iowa is on budget-slashing roller-coaster ride: It will help bring together two normally at-odds groups, union leaders and Republican legislators, as they find common ground in how understandably appalled they are over this decision.