Thursday, September 30, 2010

Our View -- Boundaries are now dynamic, no longer static

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 30, 2010.

Whatever recommendations the 38-member redistricting committee makes next month -- and however the Iowa City School Board decides to redraw school boundaries -- one thing is certain: The Iowa City School District is at the beginning of a cultural shift in how it determines and updates school attendance areas.

Last year, "several members" of the High School Enrollment Task Force called on the district to fundamentally change the way it thinks about boundaries. Rather than consider attendance areas as static entities that should largely be left alone except for an occasional tweaking, the district should start thinking about "boundaries as fluid and change them periodically, perhaps as often as every five years."

And the current redistricting debate is a perfect example of why district officials need to listen to the recommendation of those "several members."

For decades, the only times that district officials would even dream of redrawing school boundaries was when they decided to open a new school. With the opening of Weber, Wickham and Van Allen elementaries and North Central Junior High (and with the scheduled openings of Garner Elementary and the elementary on Camp Cardinal Road), attendance areas were shifted as a means of addressing growth in the north and west sections of the district.

Those focused changes allowed administrators and board members to avoid an all-out, dragged-out fight over changing boundaries districtwide. Although there were pointed comments and raised emotions in the boundary-setting meetings over those new schools, the heated discussions took place in a relatively small sections of the district.

Because eastside families haven't seen widespread changes in more than a generation, many long-term district families have come to view school boundaries as somehow written in stone. They've come to consider the elementary and secondary schools their family attends (or attended) as a legacy that they have a right to pass on to future family members.

With enrollment projections showing that eastside elementaries are soon facing capacity issues, however, that sense of stability was bound to come to end -- even if the decision to close Roosevelt hadn't triggered a passionate call for redrawing school boundaries districtwide. And by avoiding boundary changes except for new schools, past administrators and board members have all but ensured the current redistricting effort will be more difficult than it ever needed to be.

We understand that, in practical terms, changing boundaries districtwide every five years may introduce too much chaos into the mix. But the current redistricting debate shows why the district needs to begin reconsidering boundaries on a more regular basis. That way, district officials can respond more directly to population shifts and to inequities among facilities.

In the meantime, we encourage all district families to follow the process on the district and the Press-Citizen redistricting Web pages ( and and to attend the public forums at 7 p.m. Thursday in Parkview Church, 15 Foster Road., and 7 p.m. Friday in the Amos Dean Ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel, 210 S. Dubuque St.

And maybe if district officials can start thinking about school boundaries in such fluid terms, they also can start thinking about school curricula in more fluid terms. Then they could begin addressing underperforming schools, not only through improving poverty rates and other demographic considerations but also by developing magnet programs and other innovations.

Our View: Iowa City Free Medical Clinic still essential

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 29, 2010.

With Washington politicians uncertain about the future of health care reform, we think it's a good time to remind our readers that the Iowa City Free Medical Clinic/Dick Parrott Free Dental Clinic is having a benefit Scrabble tournament from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday, at Old Brick, 26 E. Market St. (Interested players and donors can pre-register online at

Since 1971, the clinic has provided high quality medical care for a seemingly ever growing number of Eastern Iowans without medical insurance. Back in the 1970s, the bulk of the patient population was younger, lived in walking distance of downtown and would come in primarily for sporadic illnesses -- a cold, a urinary infection, a minor injury, etc. Today, the patient base has expanded to include a wide range of Eastern Iowans who view the clinic as "my doctor."

In recent years, the services provided by the clinic -- and the facility that houses it -- have become more in keeping with those of any internal medicine practice. And in 2006, the clinic moved out of downtown Iowa City and into a more professional facility at 2440 Towncrest, one with a three-room dental clinic, a dark room and lab, six exam rooms, a larger reception and waiting area as well as two offices for medical and administrative staff.

We hope that change in location has driven home to the Iowa City area that, while the free clinic does serve a large number of homeless and other people on the fringes of society, most of the clinic's patients are members of the working poor -- people in low-wage jobs for which they receive little or no benefits.

In an ideal society, of course, there would be no need for such a clinic. And if President Obama and the U.S. Congress live up to the challenge and pass significant health care reform, perhaps fewer Eastern Iowans will have to rely solely on such services.

But as the politicians blather on, someone has to take care of those who fall through the societal cracks.

We're happy to see that the uninsured and under-insured residents of Johnson and the surrounding counties have been so well treated by the volunteers of our medical community for the past 39 years. And we urge our readers to support this important organization.

Our View: A primer for discussing how to redraw boundaries in the Iowa City School District

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 27, 2010.

As the redistricting process continues for the Iowa City School District, we thought our readers would benefit from some quick definitions of the terms being thrown around by district officials and committee members.

Capacity issues

Capacity is simply the number of students that can be served within a single facility. What constitutes a "capacity issue," however, depends on whom you're talking with. Everyone agrees that overcrowding is an issue, but under-use of available space also seems, at best, a waste of resources and, at worst, an excuse to cut back the number of programs and educational services available.


The district has pulled together a 38-member committee to deal with redistricting issues. (Some people, amazingly, wanted the committee to be even larger.)

The committee is charged with coming up with two or three recommendations for changing boundaries among elementary and secondary schools. The committee members are scheduled to present their recommendations to the board Feb. 23.


In the November and December meetings with the redistricting committee, the district's consultants introduced a number of "concept" maps to gauge the committee members' gut-level reactions. These concepts have been described as "views from 50,000 feet" rather than attempts to draw lines where the new boundaries will be.

In order to be open about the process, the district has opted to make the concept maps available on its redistricting Web page ( But those early concepts are not to be confused with the "scenario" maps that the committee is beginning to discuss and eventually will be presented in public forums on Feb. 4 and 5.


The school board hired Kansas-based consultants RSP and Associates to help it through the redistricting process. The school board members say the consultants are well-experienced in working on redistricting issues and are necessary facilitators for this local discussion. Some critics worry that the consultants are pushing for a pre-arranged final scenario. Still others wonder whether the consultants are "snake-oil salesmen" hawking a process only they understand.

But as Executive Editor Jim Lewers writes today, "There are so many moving parts -- or possibly moving parts -- involved that this process could be overwhelming without the consultants."


The board determined that the 38-member committee would discuss redrawing boundaries based on the following criteria: demographic considerations, finances, keeping neighborhoods intact and projected enrollments. The board hopes that, by delegating to the committee at this stage of the process, it is providing an effective means for community input. Critics accuse the board of abdicating its ultimate responsibility for developing a redistricting plan.


Too many local residents seem to be in a state of denial as to whether redistricting is actually going to happen. It is. And most likely, it is going to affect every family in the district in some way.

Hopefully, by the time the public forums roll around on Feb. 4 and 5, more residents will have moved out of denial and into the next stages: bargaining, anger and acceptance.

Free and reduced lunch

Free and reduced lunch rates -- as the main indicators of poverty -- are the most important "demographic consideration" to be considered by the redistricting committee. Much of groundswell behind the call for redistricting came because the district's elementary schools have such widely divergent rates -- from 2 percent at Lincoln to 62 percent at Wood. School board members stress that they are working to improve the balance of rates among the elementary schools. They are not trying to achieve a perfect balance among the schools, they say, because that would require too much busing.


"Isolated" is the euphemism the state Department of Education uses to describe lopsided statistics for race, ethnicity and poverty among schools. It's a label the state used when describing Roosevelt Elementary -- isolated both racially and socioeconomically -- which was one of many reasons why the board chose to close Roosevelt and redraw boundaries among several west-side elementaries. That discussion led directly to the current redistricting discussions.

Magnet schools

Schools that highlight specific types of curriculum -- music and art, math and science, foreign language immersion, etc. -- often attract students from beyond their local geographic area. In the early discussions of redistricting, there was some talk of addressing lower-achieving schools by transforming them into such magnet schools. And Superintendent Lane Plugge has said the planned third comprehensive high school would exert some magnetic attraction to students throughout the district who may prefer attending a smaller school.

Throughout recent history, however, the district has been committed to the idea of providing equal opportunities for comprehensive learning in each and every school. Talk about developing magnet programs has not moved much beyond mere talk.

Neighborhood schools

Geographic proximity and keeping neighborhoods in tact are among the criteria for the redistricting committee to consider when recommending how to redraw boundaries. The problem is that those criteria are at odds with the committee's emphasis on improving the balance of demographic factors.

The problem is made worse because no one can agree on a definition for "neighborhood school." The common sense definition of the phrase would be "schools located in and serving specific city neighborhoods."

Even if the redistricting committee comes up with a plan that corrects past injustices and makes some school boundaries more contiguous or coherent, people still will react emotionally to being assigned to a different "neighborhood school" -- even if their previous school was located nowhere near their neighborhood.


District officials stress that numbers used in planning documents are only "projections" and not crystal-ball predictions. As such, the numbers are subject to change and reevaluation. Since the early 1980s, the board has relied on the projections offered by University of Iowa geography professor Gerard Rushton and his graduate students. During the redistricting discussions, those projections are supplemented with data from the district's consultants, RSP and Associates.

Public forums

On Feb. 4 and 5, the redistricting committee will hold a public forum in which it will explain the different scenarios under consideration and give the public a chance to weigh in. The committee then has a few weeks to process the public input and make changes to the proposals before bringing two or three recommendations to the board.


The redistricting committee discussed its first possible "scenario" during its Jan. 21 meeting. Prior to that, the maps and data presented to the committee were mere "concepts" for provoking discussion and for helping the consultants begin developing scenarios.


District officials are unsure how provisions of the No Child Left Behind law will affect their final decisions on redrawing boundaries. Schools that have been labeled "Schools In Need of Assistance" will continue to bear that label for at least a year, if not longer, depending on future test scores.

Under the law, the district is required to provide transportation to any students who want to opt out of the SINA schools they've been assigned to. But the district can limit which non-SINA schools the students will be transferred to. And with so many schools having capacity issues, there might be a very limited number of options for schools accepting such SINA escapees.


In order to better gauge public input, the district contracted out a random phone survey of hundreds of district residents, offered an online survey to which nearly 2,400 community members and more than 700 staff members responded and had more than 2,600 high school students fill out their own surveys. The overwhelming consensus is that the board needs to make sure the process is fair to everyone. The many other preferences identified in the surveys, unfortunately, offer the committee and board somewhat contradictory advice.

Third high school

For years now, we've been advocating for the district to move toward building a third comprehensive high school somewhere in the northwest growth area. And during last year's public forums and task force meetings, the overwhelming sentiment seemed to be: It's not a question of "if" the district will build a third comprehensive high school; it's a question of "when."

Although current economic conditions may have pushed back the "when" by a year or two, we agree with the school board that any discussion of redistricting must start with viewing the third high school as a "given" and not as a mere possibility up for discussion.

With so many other factors already in motion, the redistricting committee shouldn't waste time coming up with scenarios and recommendations that don't include a third high school.

Tim Johnston joining Iowa City literary history

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 27, 2010.

By Jeff Charis-Carlson, Iowa Cityscapes

After reading Tim Johnston's short-story collection, "Irish Girl," I spent some time watching my 3-year-old daughter sleep, imagining the teenager and woman she would later become. Johnston's stories are filled with similarly quiet moments in which characters remember what was and imagine what might have been.

But Johnson, an Iowa City native, always seems to catch his families at some moment after their relationships have become irreparable -- after the door has been kicked down, after a body has been dug up, after the charges have been filed, after the shots have been fired.

"To predict where objects in space are going you need to know where they've been," Johnston's narrator, Richard Gorseman, writes in "Lucky Gorseman." "All I knew at twelve was that a young man could show up one day and start shooting people in the head, and that that was reason enough to go back to Canada, to leave your husband and son to fight for themselves."

In a phone interview Monday, Johnston said he had his own "pet theory" as to why the stories in his Katherine Anne Porter Prize-winning collection are so "dark": Because his first novel, "Never So Green" had been published as a young adult novel.

"There's nothing wrong with that," Johnson said. "But at the time, I had labored on a novel I hoped would be appreciated by adults. It was, but it just wasn't marketed that way. ... And I guess I was really trying my damnedest to not write another young adult work."

While trying to avoid being pigeon-holed in the young adult section, the 1980 West High graduate still has some of his strongest narrative voices come from his teenage and pre-teen characters. None of Johnston's characters allow the author to wrap up his stories in neat and tidy epiphanies, but the adolescents seem particularly aware that they can't be trusted and that they're not being honest with themselves, let alone with the reader.

Johnston said he was always aware of his hometown's literary history. His mother, in fact, had taken poetry classes in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. But by the time he decided he wanted to be a writer and to start applying for MFA programs, he thought it was time to get out of town and go somewhere else. In his case, he went to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Yet Iowa City itself plays an extended role in "Lucky Gorseman." The shooting described in the quote above is none other than the Gang Lu shooting of 1991. Johnston said that he was back living in Iowa City at the time, but the story is told from the point of view of Gorseman as a 27-year-old in an creative writing class, who is remembering back to when he was 11 and when his physicist father, who happened to be in the bathroom at the time, barely escaped being killed by Lu.

"The story began having nothing to do with Iowa City," Johnston said. "Just a boy and his father traveling around."

Johnston said he wrote draft after draft without quite getting it right. But then he read an article about large-body objects in space and the potential for earth collisions.

"That struck a chord with me, and I began rewriting the story so that the father was a scientist," Johnston explained. "Suddenly I placed the scientist in Iowa City, and the random violence of a local nature seemed to connect with the violence of a celestial nature."

Because the 1991 shootings play such a small role in this story about a boy coming to terms with his father's imperfections, it's not likely to be compared to the other writings on the shootings, such as Jo Ann Beard's "The Fourth State of Matter" or Edwin Chen's "Deadly Scholarship." Nor is it a crass, insensitive exploitation of those tragic events, such as the 2007 film "Dark Matter."

But "Lucky Gorseman" and the other stories of this collection do show that Johnston now has become a part of his hometown's literary history.

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

Our View - Trying to cross Johnson County's urban-rural divide

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 26, 2010.

During last week's special election, there seemed to be a question as to whether the supervisors represent all county residents or only those in the unincorporated area. Although the supervisors do represent everyone in the county, regardless of where they are from, they also have a special obligation to be attentive to those county residents who live outside the city. Otherwise, the urban-rural divide in the county is likely to keep expanding.

That divide was evident in the Jan. 19 election results. Democratic incumbent Janelle Rettig won with 58 percent of the countywide vote, compared with 39 percent for Republican challenger Lori Cardella and 3 percent for Independent challenger Jim Knapp. Rettig also won with early voters (73 percent, compared with 24 percent for Cardella and 3 percent for Knapp) and with Election Day voters in Iowa City -- 64 percent, compared with Cardella's 33 percent and Knapp's 3 percent. But for Election Day voters outside of Iowa City, Cardella won with 55 percent -- compared with Rettig's 40 percent and Knapp's 4 percent.

The results are similar to what happened when voters were asked to decide the $20 million conservation bond issue in 2008. Because the election required a supermajority of 60 percent, the "Yes" folks -- led by Rettig -- made it over the countywide threshold by less than 1 percent. But the victory came largely because of the measure passing 70-30 in Iowa City. The "No" folks -- led by Cardella and others -- kept the measure from getting even a simple majority in the areas of the county outside of Iowa City.

(The comparison between the elections isn't exactly apples to apples, however. The 2008 conservation bond issue was put to the voters during a presidential election with distinct precinct ballots that allowed the auditor's office to go back and separate the early voting by district. In the Jan. 19 special election, every ballot was the same, and the auditor's office is not able to go back and separate the early votes by precinct.)

The 2008 election showed there was a mandate for conservation, but a mandate that was limited to voters in Iowa City and Coralville. That makes sense, of course, because it's the urban residents who were most worried about losing their connection to the countryside. But the concerns over the growth of county government have only expanded in the past 15 months. And those concerns were politicized -- especially in the rural areas -- after the initial appointing of Rettig fill out the remainder of the late Larry Meyers' term.

Unfortunately, those concerns probably will continue to rise as the supervisors decide:

• whether to raise pay for county officials and employees and

• whether to increase the rural tax levy in the next fiscal year to provide more money for secondary roads maintenance.

We think Rettig was the best candidate to figure how to represent all county residents, but now she and the other board members have to figure out how to supervise effectively in a county in which the urban-rural divide keeps growing.

Our View - Coralville taking steps toward open government

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 23, 2010.

Coralville government, for the most part, has managed to avoid the silliness that too often plagues Iowa City government. City administration runs a pretty tight ship -- the streets get cleared, the trash gets picked up, order is maintained. And the city has seen some very attractive improvements in recent years that have enhanced the quality of life for its residents.

But sometimes the machinery of government works so smoothly that officials stop asking why they need to pull this lever or press that button. They stop responding to citizens' questions and concerns because trying to explain how the machine works only would slow down the process and muck-up an otherwise well-oiled machine.

Some citizens respond to such governmental unresponsiveness with growing apathy about city issues. Others -- like current councilors Mitch Gross and Bill Hoeft -- run challenger campaigns, try to crash the secretive good-ol'-boys-and-girls club and begin working from the inside to make government more accessible.

That's why we'd like to congratulate Coralville city leaders for recently taking a few steps toward more open government.

Coralville's Web site is undergoing an overhaul with new features slated to be up and running Feb. 1. The newly designed will give users the ability to watch live council meetings and view archived sessions with the option of jumping to specific agenda items. The changes should make it easier for concerned citizens -- especially those who do not have access to Mediacom's CoralVision Channel 5 -- to keep track of what their elected officials are up to.

Coralville leaders also are considering the possibility of using security cameras in City Hall to record work sessions, which currently go undocumented. The installation of cameras in the building tentatively was included in the budget for the coming fiscal year. With money tight, council members are unsure of whether the project will be funded this time around.

Broadcasting the work sessions would be a welcome improvement to the conditions that currently exist. The council's work sessions are open to the public but basically only to those who can attend in person. The city not only doesn't keep a transcript of the work sessions, it doesn't even keep minutes of the work sessions because votes are only taken in the formal meetings.

Yet Iowa Code states, "Each governmental body shall keep minutes of all its meetings showing the date, time and place, the members present, and the action taken at each meeting. The minutes shall show the results of each vote taken and information sufficient to indicate the vote of each member present. The vote of each member present shall be made public at the open session. The minutes shall be public records open to public inspection."

Council member Tom Gill said that if security cameras are installed in City Hall in the future, then using them to document work sessions would be a cost-effective alternative to paying someone to transcribe meetings. In addition, he said the security cameras could be used to record the council's closed sessions, which the city clerk currently preserves with a tape recorder.

Although we prefer that Coralville broadcast the work sessions, keep minutes and provide a transcript online afterward, the council at least should turn the page on its more secretive history, start abiding by the spirit of the open meetings laws and start posting detailed minutes of the work sessions so citizens who can't attend the public meetings in person have a record of what was said.

Our View - State decision on workers comp makes no sense

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 22, 2010.

Last week, the UI Benefits Office e-mailed staff that, effective immediately, all workplace injuries sustained by UI employees in the Iowa City area now must be seen at UI HealthWorks in North Liberty. Before that e-mail, UI employees could choose between going to the North Liberty clinic and going to a workers' health clinic at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

The decision, unfortunately, doesn't make any sense. And we can understand why UI employees are so upset about the time and transportation challenges they face to getting treatment for their workplace injuries. Laurence Fuortes, a UI professor of occupational and environmental health who works with the employees' health clinic, said that regardless of the intent of the policy, the effect will be "to create an obstacle to receiving workers' compensation service."

State officials from the Department of Administration Services, where the decision was made, say the rationale for the change was based on finding the most experienced care for the employees. They say the physician at the North Liberty clinic is an occupational medicine physician and the physicians at the UIHC clinic aren't. They also point out that UI employees will be transported by university vehicles, when available, or will be reimbursed for mileage or even a cab. Plus emergencies still can be treated at UIHC, and injuries that need specialty care can be referred to UIHC.

Unfortunately, the folks at the state Department of Administrative Services seem to have not bothered to check with the people providing service at UI. Richard G. Saunders, UI assistant vice president of Human Resources, said the university didn't have a say in the change. And Patrick Hartley, the medical director of the University Employee Health Clinic & Occupational Medicine Clinic at UIHC, said he wasn't told the reason for the switch in policy.

Plus the costs for transportation -- whether borne by the university or by the employee -- make the decision all the more confusing. Given the number of employees who seek out treatment for work-related injuries, it would make much more sense to bring in "an occupational medicine physician" to the UIHC clinic rather than to require about 1,000 patients to go to North Liberty -- even when the 20- to 30-minute commute would make employees lose even more work time. (And contrary to what state officials tell us, the staff at the workers' clinic seem to be well experienced in occupational medicine.)

We're all for state agencies reorganizing to save money. And we're all for the state seeking out the most appropriate care for employees who are hurt on the job. But the Department of Administration Services needs to revisit this decision and allow UI workplace injuries to be treated at the workplace -- especially when the roads are icy, especially when it's unclear whether a workplace injury constitutes an "emergency" and especially when that workplace is the premier hospital in the state.

2010 readings kick off with book award finalist

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 21, 2010.

By Jeff Charis-Carlson, Iowa Cityscapes

Knowing little very little about Pakistani literature, I'm not qualified to evaluate how Daniyal Mueenuddin translates the images and archetypes of that nation's traditional literature for an American audience. But I can say that American readers will feel right at home -- almost disturbingly so -- in the fictional landscape Mueenuddin offers in his short-story collection, "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders"

Raised in both Lahore, Pakistan, and Elroy, Wis., Mueenuddin writes in a familiar literary prose that sweeps through of a cross-section of economic and social classes. His stories provide an "Upstairs, Downstairs"/"Gosford Park" examination of Pakistani society in and around Lahore. They interlock to become a Pakistani-American version of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County -- one tied together not only through shared geography but also through the characters' many links to the aging patriarch, K.K. Harouni. The stories tell the recent history of Pakistan by charting the quick rise and slow fall of the Harouni family, who consolidated their land and influence under the British and who now see their money and power dwindling in a postcolonial nation in a postindustrial world.

By organizing his stories primarily by character, Mueenuddin tries to give voice to a new community. The collection begins with "Nawabdin Electrician," telling the story of a poor but resourceful electrician who has to provide for his 13 daughters. It goes on with "Saleema," telling the story of the daughter of a heroin addict who becomes a maid in K.K. Harouni's Lahore mansion and begins an affair with the household chief of staff, Rafik. It continues with "Provide, Provide," telling the story of Jaglani, a manager who has cheated the Harounis out of much of their land, but who risks his new found wealth and power when he falls under the spell of his faithful driver's sister, Zainab. Other stories tell of servants, Western ex-patriots and Harouni family descendants looking to live in, to love in and to rebel against the West.

Some of the stories take place over the course of a week; others take place over generations. But readers never feel rushed, and they never feel that details are left missing. Mueenuddin's story-telling ability constantly reassures readers that all the pertinent information will be revealed in good time.

Take when K.K. Harouni ignores his children's accusations that Jaglani is cheating him. Mueenuddin's narrator observes, "The old man sentimentally thought that the people of Dunyapur, the village in the heart of the Harouni lands, revered his family, whose roots had been in that soil for a mere hundred years."

By quickly bringing up that "mere" hundred-year history -- and by alluding to the pre-British history that came before it -- Mueenuddin highlights how he is turning his fictional focus from the Harounis of the past to the Jaglanis of the present and to the unknown families of the future. But he also shows how, at every stage, the region's distant past erupts in unexpected and uncontrollable ways.

The mixture of past, present and future can be seen in a paragraph describing how Jaglani, who gets elected to public office, travels to visit the people he represents.

"Another year passed. Jaglani had been elected to the provincial assembly by a wide margin, and thus spent his time either in Lahore attending sessions or at the farm, hearing the petitions and complaints of his constituents, the people from his area. His district ran along both sides of the Indus River, and the people on the far side came across on a wooden ferry, flat-bottomed and long enough to hold twenty people, pushed along on long sweeps by an old man, whose body had remained muscular, but whose skin hung off him wherever the muscles didn't extend."

There are no happy endings in the fictional "other rooms" imagined by Mueenuddin. There are only happy, content, pleasant, wondrous moments that eventually dissolve into the reality of our unfair world.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

Our View - UI chooses the split-baby option for HVC complex

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 15, 2010.

When people try to split the difference between two options, they often talk about the "wisdom of Solomon." But they usually forget that the biblical king never actually split anything when deciding the case before him. When Solomon offered to split a baby down the middle to resolve a custody dispute, he knew that the real mother would renounce all claims rather than see the child hurt. He then gave the still-intact child to the woman who was ready to make a sacrifice.

When it comes to deciding where to relocate the Hancher-Voxman-Clapp complex (HVC), University of Iowa officials announced Thursday they actually want to go through with splitting the baby -- separating the H from the VC.

For nearly a year, UI officials have been wavering between what we consider two equally good options for relocating the flood-destroyed complex of buildings:

• Moving the facility just up the hill and out of the floodplain from its present location (which would please Hancher's out-of-area and older patrons who want to avoid getting caught up in downtown traffic and safety issues) or

• Moving the facility closer downtown (which would open up a number of possibilities for downtown and near downtown development).

A few months ago, UI officials threw the community for a loop when they announced a third option: Separating the facilities and relocating the Hancher portion close to its current location while moving the School of Music and its performance space to the downtown site.

We can understand why UI officials like the split-baby option. After all, it addresses the concerns of the many music faculty and students who have felt isolated on the arts campus and who prefer being closer to the heart of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. At the same time, it ensures Hancher Auditorium will be built on land the university already owns -- meaning that reconstruction wouldn't be contingent on the sometimes lengthy process of buying out private landowners.

The split-baby option became feasible only after UI began drawing up plans for what the combined HVC would look like at the downtown site. That's when they found that the facilities -- while part of the same complex -- still would need to be slightly separated. They then asked and received assurance that FEMA would be open to separating the facilities by a longer distance.

Obviously, the benefits of the split baby option have become more and more apparent to UI officials in the past weeks -- especially after one of the downtown property owners indicated he would be reluctant to sell. And if the Iowa state Board of Regents agrees with the UI recommendation and approves the splitting of the H from the VC, then hopefully the university can move forward without needing to threaten or to use eminent domain.

Downtown boosters, understandably, aren't very excited about the option of placing only the School of Music and its recital hall downtown. They've been dreaming a long time about the economic development opportunities that would follow building a more urban university auditorium. That's why, if UI officials are not going to move Hancher downtown, they at least should develop programming at the new Clapp that would help broaden the cultural opportunities in the downtown area -- programming that will help draw in an evening population very different than the current bar-goers.

It'll take a generation, however, to know if UI officials are displaying the wisdom of Solomon with this decision, or if they're merely pleasing no one by trying to please everyone.

Our View: Redistricting about to kick into high gear

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 14, 2010.

When the Iowa City School District began the process of redrawing school boundaries back in October, we wrote, "Regardless of how well-designed this process looks now, it will work only if regular members of the community make use of the opportunities to share their thoughts and opinions." We called on Iowa City area residents to keep coming out in large numbers to meetings and forums, and we called on the School Board to "make sure it is publicly building on this momentum, not quietly stifling it."

Follow the Iowa City Schools redistricting process on our redistricting home page...

In the past few months, the redistricting process has been making some progress. The district has hired consultants to ensure that it has accurate information and that the process moves along. And the district has chosen a 38-member redistricting committee to work with the consultants and to ensure that the deciding making is guided by input from teachers, staff and parents as well as from the different local governments included in the district boundaries.

Unfortunately, as reported in today's Press-Citizen, there have been concerns that committee meetings have been dominated by the consultants' presentations -- leaving an extremely small amount of time for any substantial discussion from the dozens of community members who are volunteering their time and expertise. Rather than facilitate discussion, the consultants have seemed overly focused on collecting the committee members' gut-level reaction -- as conveyed through electronic clickers -- to the "concepts" and complicated data presented to them just moments earlier.

District administrators say they have responded to the committee members' concerns and have added a committee meeting to the schedule. The committee now has two scheduled meetings -- tonight and Jan. 21 -- "to refine concepts to scenarios" and an additional meeting -- Jan. 28 -- to "discuss scenarios, consensus" that it can then take to the public forums scheduled on Feb. 4 and 5.

We hope these remaining committee meetings will allow the process to kick into gear and begin winnowing the concepts, plans and proposals to a number of good options that can be made public a few days before next month's public forums. Although the consultants have the enrollment projections and estimated costs that will be essential for the committee to understand the consequences of their proposals, these boundary decisions need to be based on more than mere numbers alone.

And we hope the list of options for redrawing boundaries still includes more creative possibilities, such as establishing some schools as year-round schools or magnet schools, re-designating some K-6 schools to become K-3 and 4-6 schools as well as building new schools and possibly closing or repurposing schools.

We know that it will be impossible for the committee to present the board with a proposal that will please every group. Yet we think it is very important that these committee meetings start allowing the committee members to speak out more.

In the meantime, the committee meetings are broadcast on the district's cable channel, and all the information presented to the redistricting committee is available on a special Web page on the district's site, redistrict. The Press-Citizen also has consolidated all of its coverage of the redistricting process on

Our View - Rettig is the right choice for Jan. 19 election

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 13, 2010.

It's clear that Janelle Rettig has an incumbent's advantage over her two challengers to fill the remainder of the late Larry Meyers' term on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. But Rettig's advantage isn't merely the result of having been appointed to the position in late October and serving as a supervisor for less than three months. It's the result of years of involvement in county politics and an acute understanding of the way local governments do and don't work.

Back in 2008, when Rettig chaired the Land, Water, Future campaign, we were very impressed with her knowledge of county issues. And the résumé she submitted when applying to be appointed to the supervisor position shows a strong amount of government experience working for Democrats and Republicans.

For two decades, in fact, Rettig has shown rare ability for a would-be politician: She examines issues from multiple perspectives. In her work with many local and state boards and commissions, Rettig repeatedly has shown she can seek and actually find compromise and common ground.

Rettig's past experience ranges from land use planning, to civil and human rights, to environmental and conservation issues, to government openness. And like her former boss, former Iowa Rep. Jim Leach, she often answers questions by providing a tutorial on the broader issues at stake in the question.

We didn't agree with all of Rettig's positions on the issues facing the county -- she, for example, thinks the county needs to go back to square one on the justice center plans. But we do think that Rettig provided the most comprehensive answers for how our budget-tightening county needs to go about:

• reducing expenses by working more cooperatively with local cities and the state to streamline government functions;

• conducting public business in full view of the public and in as professional a manner as possible;

• ensuring that all residents have a voice in county government;

• updating and overseeing the county's land-use plan;

• keeping an eye on the operational expenses for the new joint emergency communication center; as well as

• deciding how best to address the problems needs on by inadequately sized county jail and county courthouse.

We agree with challengers Lori Cardella and Jim Knapp that Johnson County government could use a fresh voice and perspective. County government in Iowa, after all, is by its very nature inefficient. No matter how cost effectively any individual county operates, it can't by itself overcome the overwhelming inefficiency of having 99 individual counties in a state of barely 3 million people.

But we think Rettig is the candidate best positioned for offering that watch-dog approach for the remaining months of Meyers' term. We heartily endorse having Johnson County voters remove the "appointment asterisk" next to her name by voting for her directly in Tuesday's special election.

Our View - Assessing the condition of Iowa in 2010

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. January 12, 2010.

During his first "Condition of the State" address back in 2008, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver said, "(The) condition of the state is strong because last year you passed and I signed historic legislation. These new initiatives related to job creation, renewable energy, health care and education, will improve our quality of life and strengthen our economy."

Rather than being uttered just two years ago, those words -- and the accompanying optimism -- now seem like they were offered two decades ago.

Last year, with Iowa still drying out after the floods of 2008 -- and with the continuing national and international catastrophe of a financial downturn -- Culver adopted a more sober but equally optimistic tone: "The condition of our state is strong, because the people of Iowa are strong! I believe this, because Iowans are tough. We're never better than when our backs are against the wall. We stand tall, and we never give up."

When Culver gives his speech today, we're looking for him to do something more than put a hope-filled rhetorical gloss on what is still very rough time in the state's history. After polling some of readers and writers, we suggest the governor use one of the following phrases instead of "strong":

• "Recovering": The worst has passed, but there are still a lot of sacrifices to be made and the road to recovery will be long and steep.

• "In the same economic boat with the rest of our nation": The length of Iowa's recovery will depend in large measure on how well the nation recovers. But our leaders can't sit around waiting for the feds to make us whole.

• "At least better than California": As bad as economic times are in Iowa, the state is in better shape that most others. With hundreds of millions of dollars still in reserves and with a high bond rating, the state has options that many other states don't. And Iowa has much lower unemployment and foreclosure rates than most other states. These facts, however, offer little comfort to those Iowans who have lost their jobs or are losing their homes.

• "Watchful": Our state leaders need to watch and learn from the mistakes of others -- especially because there aren't many successes to learn from.

• "In need of strong leadership": This is time when Culver and other state leaders have to step up and make some very unpopular decisions. They'll need to focus on putting Iowans back to work and avoid partisan bickering over attempts to restrict the social rights of Iowans.

Today, we're looking for our governor to acknowledge the hard truth about the state's condition and then to offer a clear, practical vision for how to rally Iowa's amazing people and resources over the next 12 months.

Our View - Budget-slashing Legislature convenes today

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 11, 2010.

"No money! No money! No money!"

That's the rallying cry of this year's Iowa Legislature. With budget shortfalls forcing government-wide, cost-saving measures -- including cutting back the legislative session from 100 days to 80 days -- legislators have a lot of difficult decisions to make about which state agencies need to tighten their belts even further.

Budget shortfall

Although the specific numbers differ depending on who is estimating, the state is facing a shortfall of somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion. The specific numbers get slippery because the larger estimates include the money the Legislature already has promised to schools, cities and counties as well as money to replace one-time federal stimulus funds. But it's obvious that legislators are going to have to renege on many of those promises.

The situation, in fact, seems worse than last year, when legislators had to clean up after some of the worst flooding and tornadoes in the state's history. At least then, lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum could find common cause to help Iowans recover from and prepare for natural disasters.

This year, however, the legislators have to clean up after the worst global recession in recent history, and they have to do so while trying to set up themselves (and their parties) to do well in the November elections. Democrats will be trying to persuade recession-battered Iowans that the party's trifecta of power should be extended for another two years; Republicans will be pointing out as often as possible that the state's fiscal and political health would be improved by ending one-party rule.

Republicans already have criticized Gov. Chet Culver for implementing a 10 percent budget cut across the board rather than calling for a special legislative session -- they say he's cutting the budget with an executive sledgehammer rather than with a legislative scalpel. But it seems unlikely that legislators are going to backfill anything but the most absolutely essential government services if they hope to avoid ending the current fiscal year in the red.

No state agency should expect its current budget to be made whole.

Reducing expenses

Nothing, in fact, should be spared from this budget-cutting Legislature. Democrats and Republicans already have been working together to figure out ways to reorganize state government to become more efficient, especially in the areas of:

• information technology,

• joint purchasing,

• consolidating boards and commissions and

• standardizing the ratio for the number of supervisors per the number of state employees.

The governor has implemented some of the recommendations through executive orders. Now we'll get to see whether a majority of the Legislature actually has the political will to implement some of the less attractive cost-saving measures.

And while state leaders say they don't want to raise any taxes during this time of economic uncertainty, they need to keep in mind that the Legislature is convening at a time when many members of the public are questioning why our cash-strapped state budget is bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars through tax credits to film producers, research companies and a host of other special interests.

We want our legislators to keep every cost-saving measure on the table, and that means they must improve the state's oversight of tax credit programs and begin cutting those tax credit programs that don't have any tangible benefit to the state.

Advocating for UI

Our local legislative delegation also needs to remind their colleagues regularly of the important role played by the University of Iowa and the other regent institutions in the state.

In November, an Iowa poll commissioned by the Des Moines Register found that only 31 percent of respondents favored sparing public universities from further budget cuts -- a number smaller than for many other essential state services. They need to tell the story of the good work being done at the university and the opportunities being opened up through the efforts of UI faculty, staff and students.

At the same time, they need to be more than mere UI cheerleaders. We also need our local legislators to step up and help ensure that UI is spending all of its public money responsibly.

Public business

Finally, with a shortened session, we fear that too many important budget decisions are going to be made quickly, behind closed doors and without enough of an opportunity for the public to highlight any unintended negative consequences.

Our local legislators say that they don't think this session will be any more (or less) secretive than usual, and they say all of the policy bills going through the normal committee process will be open for public review and comment.

But we again urge the state's legislative leaders to let the sun shine on their own proceedings and to increase the penalties against those officials who try to keep the public in the dark.

Our View - Expand list for mental health parity conditions

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 9, 2010.

In addition to the pork included in the U.S. Congress' bailout package for Wall Street back in 2008, the federal legislation also included a long-needed provision that would outlaw health insurance discrimination against Americans with mental health and substance-abuse conditions in employer-sponsored health plans. Although the legislation was signed into law under President George W. Bush, the full ramifications are still years away.

In the meantime, we think the Iowa Legislature not only should be ensuring that the state is in compliance with the new law, but also should be building on the momentum of the federal legislations and be working to further de-stigmatize mental illness.

We were disappointed last year when the Legislature failed to pass legislation that would have required insurance plans to provide coverage for mental health conditions at the same rates and on the same terms that are associated with physical conditions. The bill that made it the furthest in the legislative process would have expanded the Iowa Code's definition of "mental health condition" to include any condition or disorder involving mental illness or alcohol or substance abuse that is consistent with the diagnostic categories listed in the most recent version of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders."

Iowa does have an existing mental health parity law, but the law only includes a limited list of mental health conditions and doesn't include substance abuse at all. The changes proposed in the new legislation would mean that future Legislatures won't have to repeatedly tweak the law to include new categories of mental illnesses. Instead, the law would the list of conditions to be defined by the mental health professionals.

With the tragic examples of mental illness that have plagued Iowa City in recent years -- and with the economic downturn's ability to destabilize people emotionally as well as financially -- it's long past time for the Iowa Legislature to expand its provisions for mental health parity and give average Iowans better access to mental health services.

Our View - Iowa should cap interest rates for payday loans

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. 8, 2010.

When the Iowa Legislature reconvenes on Monday, lawmakers will be focused primarily on figuring how to balance the state's budget in a way that spreads the pain around and that causes the least amount of damage possible. And with the session shortened from 100 days to 80 days, there won't be a lot of time for lengthy debates on other issues.

Although we want our legislators to manage their time effectively, we also think that there are a number of non-budget issues that require their attention -- especially in this time of economic uncertainty. One of those issues involves setting caps of the interest rates for payday loans.

Lobbyists from the payday loan industry often defend their product as a means of "protecting consumer options." Temporarily cash-starved people, they argue, should have the option to take out a short-term loan at a higher percent rate -- especially when the interest paid would add up to less than the fee for a bounced check or a late payment. Having government set artificial limits on this free market, they argue with fist-pounding indignation, would hurt both consumers and businesses.

Perhaps the defenders of this industry would be right in making such statements -- and in expressing such indignation -- if the majority of payday loans actually were taken out by people who need only a temporary infusion of cash to get through an unexpectedly harsh economic period.

But the Iowa Division of Banking statistics for 2008 found that about half the payday borrowers in Iowa take out 12 loans a year, or one per month. And the Center for Responsible Lending reports that nationally the average payday loan borrower takes out 8.7 payday loans per year. The center also reports that about 60 percent of payday loans go to people with more than 12 transactions per year, and about 24 percent go to people with more than 21 transactions per year.

It would seem that the industry is designed not to help people get back on their feet but to ensure that people stay within a cycle of debt.

The industry defenders are right when they say that a $15 fee on a two-week, $100 loan is less than the fee a bank may charge for a bounced check or a credit card company for a late payment. But that's only if the fee is paid right away.

While the industry defenders would like to describe such a fee as being a mere 15 percent, it actually represents a 390 percent annual percentage rate. If the borrower is unable to pay back the loan right away, then that interest rate begins to add up and to start transforming "the cash-strapped" into simply "the trapped."

With more Iowans and other Americans facing financial uncertainty, we think our state legislators should take some time to talk about the dangers inherent in this loan option. We're glad to hear our local legislators pushing so hard to encourage borrowers and other lenders to develop workable alternatives to payday loans -- such as credit-union loans, small consumer loans, emergency-assistance programs and consumer-credit counseling.

During the next legislative session, we hope the Iowa Legislature does for the payday loan industry what it did for the car-title loan industry a few years ago: Set a reasonable cap on the annual interest rate that such lenders can charge.

Our View - Iowa City: City of literature, city of football

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jan. January 7, 2010.

Iowa fans knew in their bones that the No. 10 Hawkeyes would upset the No. 9 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in Tuesday's Orange Bowl. But Iowa fans also knew the Hawkeyes weren't going to make it easy on themselves.

After the Hawks racked up a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter, fans mentally were prepared for the interception that allowed the Yellow Jackets to cut that lead in half. And even though Iowa kept the lead throughout the rest of the game, many fans started nibbling their nails in the third quarter when it looked like Georgia Tech's offense finally found a way to break through the defense strategy orchestrated by Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker.

But with quarterback Ricky Stanzi playing like he never had had ankle surgery, the Hawkeyes were able to move on despite injuries and insults to win their first Bowl Championship Series bowl game in half a century.

Press-Citizen columnist Pat Harty summed it up best when he wrote, "And with Parker coming back, along with nine starters on defense, and a stable of running backs, and not to mention Stanzi, the future looks extremely bright.

"The present feels awfully good, too."

A grateful Hawkeye nation congratulates Kirk Ferentz and his team.

Writing workshops for veterans

Besides being a football city, Iowa City also is an UNESCO-designed city of literature. And our city leaders still are hard at work trying to figure out how to capitalize on this international recognition in terms of opportunities for economic development and cultural programming.

That's why we'd like to commend Emma Rainey and John Mikelson for managing to find such an innovative way to build on the city's literary reputation while reaching out to underserved sector of the public at large. Starting Jan. 15, Rainey and Mikelson will host a free, three-day writing workshop for current and former military personnel. Initially targeted toward veterans who live in the Iowa City area, the UI Vets Midwestern Writing Workshop soon went national and started attracting veterans from across the country, from a host of different conflicts and who range in age from 20 to 61.

Rainey, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, said she first became interested in working with veterans after reading so many stories about soldiers who had suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and decided to end their own lives. After trying to start some writing projects with other veteran groups, she eventually started working with the UI Veterans Center.

"I've been working for a long time writing exercises to help develop a sense of safety for soldiers," Rainey said. "They're not used to expressing themselves. In fact, they are trained not to. That's what they have to do in order to deal with conditions, to follow orders and to be part of a team."

Mikelson, the veteran's advisor for the UI Veterans Center, said he thought Iowa City would be a perfect place to host such a workshop. Similar programs have worked well in Los Angeles and New York and have resulted in works such as the anthology, "Operation Homecoming," and the HBO film, "Taking Chances."

"The genre is not new territory," said Mikelson, citing UI classes on topics such as "The Essay Goes to Combat" and "Wounded Warriors in Film and Literature." "But we're helping veterans themselves get to the point where they can write about their experiences."

The workshop also is sponsored the UI Division of Continuing Education, and Mikelson said he is working with the division to offer similar classes as online or distance learning courses. (The Jan. 15-17 workshop will take place in the UI Distance Learning Site on the second floor of the U.S. Bank building at 30 S. Dubuque St.)

Class size for the workshop is limited to the first 50 registrants, but there still are spots available. And although the workshop is free and open to all current and former military personnel, registration is required.

Visit for more information or to start thinking about other creative ways to build on Iowa City's literary history.

Our View - Strong leadership for 'weak mayor' council position

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on Jan. January 5, 2010.

How do you show "strong leadership" in a "weak mayor" system?

That's the riddle Matt Hayek will need to solve for himself if he is going to succeed in his new role as mayor of Iowa City.

Hayek, of course, can turn for advice to past mayors and city councilors -- people such as John Balmer and Ernie Lehman as well as Writers' Group members Karen Kubby, Jim Throgmorton and Bob Elliott. But their advice merely highlights the many tightropes on which every Iowa City mayor needs to learn to balance himself.

Everyone seems to say the Iowa City mayor needs to be "a good listener" who is respectful when the public and his fellow councilors voice their opposing opinions. But the mayor also needs to ensure that the meetings are run smoothly and that the council actually gets through its agenda in an efficient and productive manner.

"That's the trick for the person who is in the middle chair conducting those meetings and leading the discussion," Balmer said. "It's very critical for that person to be able to assemble the team, to be the captain and to get the teammates to follow."

Everyone points out that the mayor is the "voice" of the council and the "face" of the city. But they also say the mayor needs to remember that he also is "just one of seven," "the first among equals" and "no more or less powerful than anyone else." The mayor has to be approachable enough to work with his fellow councilors and the public, but he can't be overly concerned with being "well-liked" by everyone.

"You always have to listen to what the public has to say," Lehman said. "They may be dead wrong, but you have to let them have their say. ... And you can't retaliate."

Everyone agrees that the mayor has to be able to trust the facts, figures and "on the ground" reports provided by city staff -- otherwise the council starts to make the mistake of micromanaging the staff. But the mayor also has to know when staff members are taking too narrow of a view on a topic or when they are so excited about the benefits of a program that they forget about the program's costs.

"It's very difficult to get four councilors to say 'no' to something that sounds wonderful but that the city can't afford," Kubby said.

Everyone agrees that being a good mayor requires a lot of time and attention -- Balmer goes as far as to say that the mayor is "basically on-call 24-7." Yet the token salary for the position means the mayor winds up working for about minimum wage. That means that Hayek, as a partner in a local law firm and as the father of two small children, also needs to balance his public obligations against the demands of his personal and professional lives.

"There are positions around that country where people run for public office because they can't get a job anywhere else," Lehman said. "Luckily nobody runs for council in Iowa City for the money. ... They do it out of a sense of commitment to the community."

Hayek seems smart enough to recognize that he has signed up for an almost impossible job. He's assuming his new office at a time when the city is facing some very painful budget discussions that will leave very few people happy. He also now has to help find a city manager who is a "good fit" with Iowa City's unique brand of local politics.

We think the council made the right choice by voting unanimously for Hayek. And we count ourselves among the many local residents who are optimistic that the new mayor will find a practical, personal solution to the riddle of Iowa City government.

But given the difficult balancing act every Iowa City mayor is asked to perform, we also think it's time to have Iowa City voters start electing their mayor directly rather than have the councilors choose from among themselves.