Monday, December 31, 2007

UI's Good News, Bad News

December 31, 2007, 9:30 a.m.; January 1, 2007, 3:45 p.m.

The University of Iowa's Good News and Bad News

Well, there's good news and bad news. Which do you want first? Bad news? OK.

UI Football Crime Update. The Iowa Hawks football team has now had more players in trouble with the law during 2007 than it had players on the field: the 12th has just been arrested (for "public intoxication and interference with official acts" sometime after midnight). Lee Hermiston, "UI Football Player Arrested," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 27, 2007. Apparently the player had been involved in a fight and "fled the scene of the fight and after a foot chase was caught by a Coralville officer." As one online comment put it upon noting the foot chase, "Does the Coralville cop have any years of eligibility left? Any chance we could get him on the squad?"

But the football team's contribution to Iowa's prison overcrowding also provided a bit of good news:

Iowa wide receiver Anthony Bowman has been granted deferred judgment and will serve no prison time for credit-card fraud.

Bowman faced up to two years in prison after pleading guilty Wednesday, but the judge's ruling means Bowman would eventually have the charge erased from his record if he complies with court agreements.
So not all is bleak in Hawk-land. AP, "UI Receiver Bowman Avoids Prison Time," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 29, 2007.

UI's Undisclosed Firing Without Cause Costs Iowa Taxpayers $830,000

The facts of this next story, which I'm not going to bother to summarize or comment about -- there are just too many issues -- was thought so bad by State29 that he was actually talking about federal prosecutions for RICO and other violations by former and present UI administrators. State29, "Organized Crime," December 29, 2007. As Brian Morelli reports:

Former University Hospitals CEO Donna Katen-Bahensky was actually fired prior to tendering her resignation last month, according to documents released Friday by the University of Iowa.

Because she was fired without cause, UI is sending her off with an $830,000 severance package, which stems from a contractual clause that calls for a payout worth double her salary. Her base salary is $465,000.

. . .

Based on a news release from UI officials Dec. 5, media outlets reported that Katen-Bahensky had resigned. Until now, the fact that she was terminated was not reported.
Brian Morelli, "CEO for UIHC was fired; Will receive $830K buyout," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 29, 2007; and see Brian Morelli, "Katen-Bahensky Was Fired," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 28, 2007.

Erin Jordan reports:

University of Iowa Hospitals CEO Donna Katen-Bahensky's contract was terminated earlier this year because she did not support a recent reorganization linking the hospital and medical school, officials acknowledged Friday.

"She had a problem with that structure and that philosophy," said Jean Robillard, vice president for medical affairs at the U of I. "There was nothing personal."

Because her contract was terminated, Katen-Bahensky -- who has since taken a $600,000-a-year position at the University of Wisconsin -- will receive about $830,000 in severance pay from the U of I.

Meanwhile, correspondence released by the university on Friday shows that school officials and Katen-Bahensky were discussing her termination in October.

But when the U of I announced her departure on Dec. 5 in a five-paragraph news release, the school called the move a resignation and did not mention severance pay.
Erin Jordan, "Rift led to U of I hospital chief's exit," Des Moines Register, December 29, 2007. And see Chris Rickert, "UW Hospital choice was unhappy at Iowa," Wisconsin State Journal, December 28, 2007.

UI Hits a "Homer" Finally, more good news. In this morning's Gazette "Homers and Gomers" editorial the UI wins a "Homer."

CHRISTMAS MIRACLE: Janel and Gabor Orgovanyi of Fairfield call their new daughter a “Christmas miracle.” They have good reason. Dorotea was born 14 weeks early during the Dec. 11 ice storm. Two doctors, John Dagle and Michael Acarregui, from Uni versity Hospitals in Iowa City drove on icy roads to reach the tiny infant. The ice storm had grounded the hospital’s helicopter and ambulances weren’t running. The doctors credited Henry County hospital with keeping Dorotea alive until they could bring special equipment and take her to the neonatal intensive care unit in Iowa City. Tiny Dorotea’s name means “gift from God.” So are the doctors and the remarkable UI facility that gives preemies a better chance to live and thrive.
Editorial, "Christmas Miracle/Homers and Gomers," The Gazette, December 31, 2007, p. A4.

There's lots of good news to report from the University of Iowa, but very little of it qualifies as "news" under most journalists' and editors' standard definitions. So until we see a headline like, "Student Excited by Professor's Lectures, Says She Never Knew Before that Learning Could be so Much Fun!" we'll just have to settle for a Homer from time to time.

And that's the good news, and the bad news, from the University of Iowa today.

Let's hope for a Happy New Year.

# # #

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Making Sense of Iowa Caucus Results

December 30, 2007, 12:15 p.m.

Making Sense of Iowa Caucus Results

I have earlier written of my suggestions for how to go about a comparative evaluation of a field of very impressive Democratic Party presidential candidates: Nicholas Johnson, "Op Ed: Caucus Choices Analysis [Dec. 22]," December 22, 2007.

Today I want to make a few comments about "the morning after the night before."

It's useful to always keep in mind the media's distortion of the significance of the Iowa caucus' process.

The media talks in terms of "winners" of the horse race that is their own creation. In fact, it is a gross misuse of the word "winner" to use it in referring to anyone in a virtual three-way tie in a delegate selection process that is not winner-take-all, and that is primarily a media event.

The Iowa caucus, like caucuses and primaries throughout the U.S., is ostensibly the beginning of the process of selecting delegates to a national convention at which the parties' nominees are selected. The Iowa precinct caucuses, which is what happens on Thursday, January 3, produce delegates from those precincts to Iowa's subsequent 99 county conventions, at which delegates are selected to conventions in each of Iowa's congressional districts, from which delegates are selected to the parties' state conventions, at which Iowa's delegates to the national conventions will be chosen.

Moreover, given how few national delegates Iowa will have (compared to states like California and New York), even if the Iowa delegates were selected on a "winner-take-all" basis -- which they're not -- it doesn't really make a hill of beans of difference who ends up with Iowa's national delegates.

So what is the caucus?

The Iowa caucus is little more than a media event. One of the most expensive ever -- in time, energy as well as money. The results will be "news" late Thursday night and Friday morning. That's it. Given that there will then be only four days until the New Hampshire primary, all eyes, television cameras, Internet and print media journalists -- and their audiences -- will be focused on New Hampshire.

The post-caucus "news" from Iowa is mostly spin. Clinton, Edwards and Obama will go on to New Hampshire regardless. The fact that one gets 31% of the delegates and another gets 30% or 29% is almost totally meaningless -- it certainly doesn't make one a "winner" and the other two "losers."

The story is all "expectations" -- meeting, failing to meet, or exceeding what the candidate's camp said they hoped for in Iowa. If any one of the bottom four were to end up as one of the top three that would be news; or if one of the top three would end up in the bottom four. But if they finish close to their current poll numbers (a virtual dead heat among the top three) the media will have to really stretch to make "news" out of that.

The only real news will be who, if any, drop out following Iowa.

The bottom four have, and will continue to have, much greater popular support among caucus goers and voters than will be reflected in next Wednesday and Thursday's news.

Why?

The math is such that, given the polls' indication that the top three Democrats are splitting fairly equally a total of 86 or 87% of the caucus goers, and given that a candidate needs at least 15% of those attending any given precinct caucus to be "viable" (that is, to have even a shot of picking up a single delegate to the county convention), it's going to be very likely that each of the other four (Biden, Dodd, Kucinich, Richardson) are going to have far more individual caucus goers favoring them than ever gets reflected in the late night ultimate delegate count.

Richardson is the only one of those four to reach double digits in the polls. He may get a similar proportion of caucus goers. But if the top three have 86% of the caucus goers in any given precinct there is no way he can come up with even one delegate from that precinct -- even if the Biden, Dodd and Kucinich caucus goers would all agree to support him, and there is no support for an "uncommitted" delegation, the odds of either of which are somewhere between very, very slim and none at all.

Thus, theoretically, Richardson could have the support of 10% (or more, if less than 15%) of Iowa's caucus goers in every precinct in the state and yet what the media will report (because it's what the precinct chairs will be reporting in to Des Moines) is not that he had 10% support, but that he got 0% of the delegates going to the county conventions.

It's been good for the country, and for the candidates, to have gone through this "retail campaigning" in Iowa -- as it will be as a result of their campaigning in New Hampshire and South Carolina. But it would be even better if the media would make more of an effort to understand and explain to the country what will really be going on here on January 3.

# # #

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Ultimate Negative Campaigning

December 30, 2007, 10:45 a.m.

Clean Campaigns

It's countdown to the Iowa caucus. Some 100,000 Iowa Democrats are projected to show up. (Which means the candidates, together, have probably spent at least $500 per caucus attendee to get them there.)

In any event, the negative campaigning is upon us in this virtual three-way tie: attacks in TV ads and mailers, surrogates making charges for which they or the candidate subsequently apologizes, "push polling."

But there's a form of "negative campaigning" that makes what's now going on look like an election for kindergarten class president by comparison.

It's old news in a way. But it's not only relevant to the current campaign season, it's relevant to my forthcoming Cyberspace Law Seminar this next semester.

While I was certainly aware of the potential problems raised by electronic voting machines, especially those without a paper trail, before a friend brought this video to my attention I had not previously seen what appears to be the following congressional testimony by this seemingly credible computer programmer spelling out in detail the extent to which machines may have been deliberately programmed to "flip" (the witness' word) the results in Florida or Ohio.

If anyone knows why this YouTube video is not to be believed, please put a comment at the end of this blog entry. I'm not interested in spreading rumors or false facts. Otherwise, I think we may have even more problems ahead of us in November 2008.

Senator Joe Biden has said, "There are some things worth losing elections for." Good for him, but it is not a sentiment widely shared among those (in both parties) engaged in negative campaigning right now.

When the end justifies the means, where if anywhere does one draw the line?



YouTube notes:

About This Video [Available here on YouTube]

Added [to YouTube]: August 02, 2006

Clinton E. Curtis, ex-programmer tells all during a Congressional hearing on voting fraud. In October 2000, Curtis was asked by Tom Feeney (R), then Speaker of the House in Florida, to write a computer program that would render electronic voting fraud undetectable. Curtis did just that.

From: Wrayer
Joined: 1 year ago
Videos: 97
Watch the video and judge for yourself.

# # #

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Earthpark Today - Dec. 27

December 27, 2007, 8:30 a.m.

Earthpark

[And see, Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark: Resources and Updates," December 18, 2007, and its links to additional sources and background.]

There are four things we know this morning, and two things we don't.

We know the media is reporting that President Bush signed the budget bill Congress passed and presented to him.
We have previously been told that, once he signs that bill its provision removing the $50 million matching grant for Earthpark is effective (unless the DOE acts on the grant application before he signs).
We know the media reports he did it on Air Force One while flying from his vacation location at Camp David to his vacation home in Crawford, Texas.
We know how high the budget bill is -- $555 Billion -- a bill taxpayers will someday have to pay, even if we succeed in handing it off to our grandchildren before the economy tanks.
Amy Gardner, "Bush Signs Domestic Spending Bill but Criticizes Pet Projects," Washington Post, December 27, 2007, p. A2.

What we don't know is how high he was flying when he signed it, or whether the DOE acted upon the grant request before he did. My best guess is that the DOE's Chicago office is still "reviewing" the Earthpark application. But I won't rely on that guess until I get confirmation from DOE.

Not incidentally, that application remains a "public record" (unless someone can demonstrate the contrary to me) that I continue to request the DOE put up on a Web site for all to see -- especially by those who may continue to be asked for money, since Earthpark's David Oman reports the project plans to continue its fund raising following a board meeting in January. (My recommendation remains what it has been for a couple of years: that Ted Townsend, Bob Ray and David Oman put their considerable expertise, energy and such financial resources as they may have into Ted Townsend's Great Ape Trust, and abandon the notion of a separate rain forest project.)

# # #

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Kiva: The Gift You Give, Keep and Give Again

December 26, 2007, 10:15 a.m.

The Charitable Gift That Literally Keeps on Giving . . .
and Costs You Nothing

How can you give away your money and still have it? Sound too good to be true?

Well, it is true. Read on.

While we're enjoying (or suffering from) the excesses of the holiday season, a good many Americans' thoughts turn to what we should be doing for others.

Add it all up and divide by 300 million Americans and it turns out we're averaging nearly $1000 in charitable contributions from every woman, man and child. Last year we gave a total of $295 billion, 83% of which came from individuals. We averaged contributions of 2.2% of our disposable income (65% of all households earning under $100,000 a year were contributors). (Of that total nearly half went to religious organizations and educational institutions.) Add to these numbers the value of the donated time of that half of our population that does volunteer work of some kind each year, and we can feel fairly good about what we're doing for others. Jeffrey Thomas, "Charitable Donations by Americans Reach Record High; Individual giving accounts for 83 percent of $295 billion total in 2006," USINFO.state.gov, June 26, 2007.

And yet, despite our best efforts, there are still over one billion people "living" (if it can be called that) on less than one dollar a day; every day 24,000 children die of hunger; 10 million under the age of five die every year of the diseases resulting from a lack of clean water. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "A World Mired in Despair of Poverty 'Will Not be a World at Peace,'" October 17, 2003; Jan Eliasson and Susan Blumenthal, "Dying for A Drink of Clean Water," Washington Post, September 20, 2005, p. A23.

Nor are these the only fellow humans in need of economic assistance of some kind.

Clearly, our government should do more of our share to help the rest of the world. But the fact remains that, even with increased government aid and individuals' philanthropy, we can't do this job ourselves.

So what to do?

You've heard of Lao Tzu's Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." The only trouble with this solution is that the man, or woman, may not be able to afford a fishing pole -- or whatever else they may need to not only feed themselves, but start a modest fishing business.

Enter Kiva.

It has been said that information, or an idea, is an example of a kind of property that you can give to many others and still retain it yourself.

So it is with the money you give to Kiva. They use it, but you still have it. It's money that's not given, it's loaned (and to a recipient of your choice, not theirs) from a Kiva account in your name that you control. Because the repayment rates are so nearly 100% -- much better than what many of our commercial banks get -- you'll be able to loan that money over and over again.

Concerned about your $25 contribution going to a charitable organization paying its CEO over $250,000 a year -- sometimes millions. "What difference will my little contribution make?"

Well, with Kiva every penny of your loan goes to the recipient of your choice. There is no overhead! (Of course, you can also contribute to Kiva, to support its administrative costs, but it is certainly not required, and if you do it is a separate transaction.)

As the Kiva Web site explains:

Kiva lets you connect with and loan money to unique small businesses in the developing world. By choosing a business on Kiva.org, you can "sponsor a business" and help the world's working poor make great strides towards economic independence. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive email journal updates from the business you've sponsored. As loans are repaid, you get your loan money back.
In this political season, this is an approach that ought to appeal to all. Liberals should appreciate this opportunity to help others. Conservatives should support the idea of loans rather than gifts, and giving to businesses rather than making "welfare payments." Libertarians ought to like the idea of keeping the government ("our tax dollars") out of it.

Want to do something really effective about "the immigration problem" from the south? Loan the little money needed by potential entrepreneurs in Mexico, Central and South America. It will help enable them to continue to live better in their home country, employ others in the community, circulate their profits with purchases in their local economy, and better support their children. Want to help build families, and provide education for children? Favor women recipients.

The minimum contribution to a loan request is $25 -- and it looks like that's what a lot of contributors choose. But it's amazing how fast, once a loan request is posted on the Kiva site, that 40 individual Kiva contributors, together, can come up with a requested $1000 loan.

The Web site reports this morning [Dec. 26] that this week alone $750,000 has been contributed for loans, 17,000 new lenders have joined Kiva, over 1000 new businesses have been started, 323 entrepreneurs finished paying back their loans, and the average loan, once posted to the Web site, was fully funded within 7.5 hours.

The only "cost" of this operation to you is the "opportunity cost" of what you would have earned on that loan if, instead of loaning it through Kiva, or spending it at Starbucks, you invested it at 5% interest. How much is that? On a $25 loan literally "a dollar and a quarter" -- $1.25.

Of course, there are costs of this program -- it's just that they're paid for by the recipient of your loan, not you. Kiva partners with microfinance institutions in the recipients' home countries -- what Kiva calls its "field partners." The field partners are funded with the interest paid by recipients to the field partner on your loan. Yes, there is interest. But it is a small fraction of the prohibitive rates of interest charged by for-profit individuals or institutions in the recipient's country.

As a lender
you can read all about your recipient of choice, the record of the field partner administering your loan, often see pictures of their project, and get regular updates on the progress of their business and repayments. Not only does it not cost you anything, it also makes you much closer to the ultimate recipient than a charitable contribution to a national, state or local organization.

Charitable giving is important -- essential to the continuation of many non-profits in our country. We need to continue to give generously.

But there is this additional option: become a "bank," a "microlender" to worthy potential (and existing) entrepreneurs in third world countries.

Now, while you're thinking about it, check out http://www.kiva.org, and see what I've been talking about.

Make it a Happy New Year -- for you, and for the series of recipients who will benefit from that first Kiva loan of yours over the years to come.

# # #

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Op Ed: Caucus Choices Analysis [Dec. 22]

December 22, 2007, 6:00 a.m.

Democrats who attend their precinct caucus the evening of January 3 will suffer the blessing of too many wonderful choices. Here's this morning's [Dec. 22] op ed with my suggested analysis for sorting through them to a choice. (And see also on that page the adjoining column by former Congressman Jim Leach, "We should look to Eisenhower, not Reagan, in 21st century.")

Qualities to keep in mind when picking a president

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 22, 2007, p. 15A

__________


All the Democratic Party's presidential candidates would make good-to-excellent presidents. How to choose?

Here are some suggestions from an Iowa-born old Washington hand.

• Don't miss the caucus. Take a friend. New York's Boss Tweed said, "I don't care who does the electing, just so long as I do the nominating." This is your chance to do the nominating. Plus, it's fun.

• Don't rely on "positions" and rhetoric. A campaign is not a presidency. Even if meaningful and honestly spoken, political forces and conditions change.

• Forget "electability." Any Democratic Party nominee is electable in 2008. (Although Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's high negatives create some risk.) Consider their ability to govern.

• Forget the media's top three. Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards are going to New Hampshire regardless. Use your chance to "vote twice." Support one of the others you want kept in the race. If they're not initially "viable" at your caucus you can switch.
Experience at everything

All have "experience" at something. But a president needs experience at everything. Who has the broadest, deepest range of experience?

An American president is policy wonk in chief as well as commander in chief. Federal personnel director as well as national cheerleader. They must maintain our economy while improving our foreign relations. Above all, they must have superior, large-institution administrative skills and experience.

When they negotiate and deal with other major institutions it gives them credibility as well as real understanding if they've worked within them: Congress, cabinet positions, municipal and state governments, international organizations, and negotiations with foreign leaders.

We don't have a school for presidents. There's no parliamentary system to provide the ultimate prime ministers both administrative and legislative experience.

Quality rankings

So here are the qualities I'm looking for -- followed by my opinion of who ranks highest.

• Experience administering large institutions (state or large city governments, corporations) -- Gov. Bill Richardson (governor; Secretary of Energy), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (mayor of Cleveland).

• A "people person" with charisma or down-home manner, sense of humor (including self-deprecation), or what Molly Ivins called "Elvis" -- Obama (charisma and "Elvis"), Richardson (down-home; humor).

• The understanding and credibility earned by working inside both Washington's executive and legislative branches -- Richardson (cabinet (Energy), Congress). (Legislative: Clinton, Edwards, Kucinich, Obama, Richardson and Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd).

• A willingness to put forward courageous, "best policy" proposals, rather than "starting off backing up" --Kucinich (only one to organize and vote against the war, and propose universal single-payer health care rather than for-profit insurance).

• Experience working inside international organizations (e.g., U.N., World Bank) -- Richardson (UN ambassador).

• Understanding of the elements and process of citizen empowerment -- Obama (community organizer).

• An understanding of foreign policy (as distinguished from administering it) -- Biden, Dodd (plus, of course, Richardson).

• An ability to work with, but an independence from, special interest money and influence (the "Washington Establishment") -- My guess is that all have, can (and will have to) work with Washington's real power centers.

However, Clinton's strength in this department is her weakness. She and Bill could probably name all of their 4,000 presidential appointees in one evening without notes. But part of the reason for their millions from corporate lobbyists and PACs is the Washington Establishment's expectation of another pro-corporate, business-as-usual Clinton administration.

• Experience negotiating with foreign leaders -- Richardson (North Korea, Iraq, Sudan; U.N.; return of hostages); Biden and Dodd.

• Champion of the underdog -- Edwards, Kucinich.
You may have a different list of qualities and evaluation of candidates. But I hope this kind of approach may be helpful to you in a year when we are blessed with a very tough choice from among excellent candidates.
_______________
Nicholas Johnson served as maritime administrator, FCC commissioner and presidential adviser for a White House Conference during the terms of three presidents. He now teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains the blog, FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com.,/i>

# # #

Rain Forest: Here Comes Santa Claus? [Dec. 22]

December 22, 2007, 5:30 a.m.

Another addition to Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark: Resources and Updates," December 18-20, 2007

Is there still a possibility that -- notwithstanding Congress' removal of the $50 million earmark matching grant Senator Grassley provided his Earthpark friends -- that they could still get the money?

As reported in the blog entry linked above, Congress stripped the grant from the omnibus budget bill. But two possibilities for funding remained: (1) That the DOE would grant the money before the president signed the bill, and (2) that President Bush would not get it signed by Friday.

So what's happened during the last 24 hours? It's not clear -- at least not to me. And here are two reasons why.

(1) The AP had a story about the $555 billion bill the Washington Post ran yesterday that concludes, "The provisions [for Pakistan aid] were part of a $555 billion spending bill Congress passed Wednesday . . .. President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law." AP, "White House Expresses Confidence Over Pakistan Aid," Washington Post, December 21, 2007, p. A17.

What's troublesome about that story? A story running Friday morning, saying the president "is expected to sign" is a long way from "the president signed Friday." And I haven't seen the latter anywhere.

(2) The Gazette carries a story this morning (no byline; dateline Washington) with the headline, "Rain Forest Review Continues; Congress Voted This Week to Withdraw Earthpark Funding," The Gazette, December 22, 2007, p. B9. (And see, "Earthpark Application Review Not Yet Complete," The Gazette Online, December 21, 2007, 5:12 p.m.)

It says, in part,

The U.S. Energy Department on Friday did not complete reviewing an application that could have helped Earthpark receive a $48.3 million federal grant, even though Congress voted this week to withdraw the funds. ["Even though"? What's the logical nexus between those two clauses?]

Department spokesman Brian Quirke said the review will not be completed before Wednesday.

. . .

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, secured federal funds for the project, slated for Pella, in 2003. In 2005, he put a hold on the grant, which originally totaled $50 million, until Earthpark officials could show they had raised an equal amount from private sources. That documentation is what’s now under review."
What are we to make of this?

(a) Does it mean that there was, in fact, a pre-condition for the removal of the funds: That the president sign the bill by Friday; that he failed to do so; and therefore the money is still, potentially, available?

(b) Clearly, the "documentation" from Earthpark remains a "public record" that should have been made available to the public and media regardless of what the facts may be.

(c) But why does DOE "now" still have that documentation "under review" -- unless there is the possibility of a grant? Why would DOE continue to invest human resources into reviewing a grant that Congress has forbidden the Department to make, and the Department does not intend to make?

I'll be asking Brian Quirke these questions in my effort to seek clarification, but meanwhile confusion reigns. Is there still a chance they'll soon be singing "Here Comes Santa Claus" in Pella?

Perry Beeman, "Official: No Plans to Fund Earthpark," Des Moines Register, December 22, 2007, provides the most clarification:

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia., had said the department could still issue the grant if it did so before President Bush signs the bill, which was expected as early as Friday.

"We don't plan an announcement today," Quirke said. "We don't plan an Earthpark announcement anytime soon."

Asked if the grant is officially dead, with the president expected to make it final, Quirke said "If the grant is rescinded, we won't have any money to grant."
What this sounds like is that (1) the president has not yet signed the appropriations bill, but (2) until he does, the DOE remains athorized to give Oman the $50 million, and (3) is therefore obliged to continue its review of the documentation, although (4) (while not stated in so many words) is disinclined to make an award knowing that Congress has ordered it not to, because (5) apparently there was no provision in the bill requiring the president to sign it by Friday in order to strip the $50 million; it will be removed whenever he does sign the bill.

In short, the rainforest may be on life support, but I haven't yet seen solid evidence anyone's actually pulled the plug.

# # #

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Earthpark: Resources and Updates

December 18, 2007, 3:20 p.m.; December 19, 2007, 12:15 p.m.; December 20, 2007, 6:00 a.m.; December 22, 2007, 7:00 a.m.



And see, Nicholas Johnson, "Rainforest: Here Comes Santa Claus? [Dec. 22]," December 22, 2007, for additional, puzzling update.

EXTRA! UPDATE! [Dec. 19, 12:30 p.m.; Dec. 20, 6:00 a.m.] Think Earthpark's finished? As Mark Twain once said during the early years of this project, "Rumors of Earthpark's death have been greatly exaggerated. Keep the champagne corked until further notice."

"Grassley said in a statement that the grant still could go through if the U.S. Department of Energy rules by Friday -- the day President Bush is expected to sign the budget bill -- that Earthpark has pledges to match the grant as required.

'Earthpark could bring unique opportunities to Iowa – not just environmental or energy related -- but also long lasting benefits to Iowa’s economy and education system,' Grassley said in a statement."

. . .

Executive director David Oman said the Earthpark board will have to reassess finances at its meeting in January. However, he said, Earthpark has been in touch with potential cash sources from the United States, and one in Europe. He declined to name them or to lay out Earthpark’s latest financial plans.

Said Oman: “Yes, I would expect that we would continue.”
The AP reports that budget bills passed by both House and Senate strip the $50 million matching grant opportunity for Earthpark, if (1) the President signs the bill by Friday (Dec. 21) and (2) the DOE does not finish its staff work, and award the grant, prior to Friday. So stay tuned.

"Congress Kills Earthpark Grant," Des Moines Register, December 19, 2007.

And see, Perry Beeman, "U.S. Earthpark Grant All But Dead," Des Moines Register, December 20, 2007; Gregg Hennigan, "Earthpark funding cut irks Iowa leaders," Gazette Online, December 19, 2007, Updated 6:43 p.m. (and in hard copy edition as Gregg Hennigan, "Congress rains on Earthpark; Bill rescinds $48.3 million in key funding; chances of restoring money slim to none," The Gazette, December 20, 2007, p. A1).

Note to DOE: Please disregard what I've written below about the desirability of acting quickly on this application.

# # #

Today's [Dec. 18] entry is a source of references as well as commentary.

Table of Contents

Commentary

Links to Prior Nicholas Johnson Earthpark Blog Entries

Links to State29 Earthpork Blog Entries

Acts of Congress (Senator Grassley) Authorizing Federal Expenditure

Code of Federal Regulations Re: Department of Energy Process

Senator Grassley Earthpark Letter to Constituent

Exchange of Emails between Nicholas Johnson and DOE's Brian Quirke

Commentary

David Letterman once had a long-running routine in which he was waiting for Oprah to invite him to be a guest on her show. Every night he'd call his main office to ask if she'd called that day and then dutifully enter in his log, "Oprah didn't call again today."

It was all reminiscent of the line from Randy Travis' song, "Since my phone still ain't ringing I assume it still ain't you." Randy Travis, "Is It Still Over?"

So it has been with the U.S. Department of Energy these days insofar as releasing Earthpark's application for $50 million is concerned.

Earthpark's David Oman apparently timely filed some sort of document with the Department (charged with administering Senator Grassley's generous $50 million earmark to Oman) on December 1. To get the money Grassley subsequently provided that Oman must match it. The document supposedly shows how Oman has defined a "match" -- and the Department now has to rule on whether it complies with the terms of the grant and other federal law.

Notwithstanding the fact this is a "public record," a document to which the public and the media have a legally granted right of access, it is being withheld by all who have copies: Oman, Grassley, and the DOE. Why?

The AP reported a DOE spokesperson said the agency would have the matter decided "a couple of days" after December 1. (That spokesperson tells me he really said "several days," but acknowledges that now, nearly three weeks later, qualifies as neither "a couple" or "several.") Why the delay? According to the legislation authorizing Grassley's earmark, to get the money Oman would have to have $48 (or $50) million "secured" by December 1 or the grant would revert to the U.S. Treasury. Is that so difficult to ascertain? It would seem to me he either had it, or he didn't, on December 1. Hopefully, he's not being permitted to "amend" his documentation.

Or is it that Senator Santa and the DOE think they can sneak $50 million into Iowa past the media and concerned citizens while everyone's distracted sometime around Christmas, New Year's, or the January 3 Iowa caucus without anybody noticing -- or reporting? If so (1) they don't need to be concerned, since the Iowa media seems determined to avoid this major national story and Iowa embarrassment, and (2) Senator Santa is going to need a bigger tractor than the one he used in his campaign commercials to mow his own lawn to bring a sleigh with that much money across our snow-covered corn fields.

This project has been dogged with public doubts since its inception, some of which I'll set forth in a moment. Those concerns have only increased over time. Putting all that aside, whatever may have been the arguments in favor of making a federal investment in the project some years ago, to put $50 million of federal taxpayers' money into the project now -- knowing what we now know -- clearly will be nothing but $50 million of the kind of government waste Senator Grassley has endeavored to make a reputation for fighting rather than funding.

Assume we make a gift to Oman of the $2 million he took from the $50 million fund before the match requirement was in place. Assume he now has $48 million cash in the bank -- a highly unlikely prospect, given that, the last we heard the project has been unable to raise a single dime during the last ten years! Even if he did have the $48 million cash on hand that, plus the $48 million cash match, would mean he'd have $96 million. Where is the additional $44-$54 million to come from, given this decade-long failure at fund raising?

The project was originally proposed to be a $300 million venture. Its own consultants have said it would not have a prayer of financial sustainability if it were to be reduced below $225 million -- and that was a few years ago (before construction costs increased), and when it was proposed to be located along an Interstate highway (or possibly even at the intersection of two). Now they're talking $140 million in a town of about 10,000 souls at a location far away from any major highway.

To give $50 million of taxpayers' money to such a project, knowing that -- best case -- it will require perpetual taxpayer subsidy to keep the doors open, and even then be a financial disaster is irresponsible if not criminal. Worst case it will be $50 million entirely wasted, as the project will never be built, or will be built only to promptly close.

Links to Prior Nicholas Johnson Earthpark Blog Entries

Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark's Week-Long Wake," November 26-December 7, 2007.

Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark: Grassley's the Story," December 7, 2007

Nicholas Johnson, "Maybe It's Only Human/Earthpark" in "To Err is Human, To Keep it Secret Even More So," December 14, 2007

and, of course, the monster Web site for Earthpark-Iowa Environmental Project-Iowa Child at http://www.nicholasjohnson.org/politics/IaChild.

Links to State29 Earthpork Blog Entries

State29, "Earthpark Rainforest: Preferring Secrecy To Openness,"
December 16, 2007

State29, "Exposing Chuck Grassley For The Fraud That He Really Is," December 12, 2007

State29, "Earthpark's Grant Application: More Than $100 To Copy," December 11, 2007

State29, "The Earthpark Roadmap," December 7, 2007

State29, "Grassley Finally Comments On Earthpark," December 6, 2007

State29, "Earthpark: Bloggers Doing The Jobs That The Media Won't," December 6, 2007

State29, "Blogger Malpractice?" December 5, 2007

State29, "Earthpork: Oh, The Irony," December 5, 2007

State29, "Earthpork: Keeping The Boondoggle Boondoggling," December 4, 2007

State29, "Earthpork: The Day After The Deadline," December 2, 2007 (updated, and thoughtfully providing local media with 14 categories of questions in case any ever choose to write about the matter)

Acts of Congress (Senator Grassley) Authorizing Federal Expenditure

(1) The language of the original earmark created by Senator Chuck Grassley in 2004 provided, in its entirety:

"Department of Energy, Energy Programs, Science. For an additional amount for "Science", $50,000,000, to remain available until expended, is provided for the Coralville, Iowa, project, which is to utilize alternative renewable energy sources."
Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-199, Title V, Div. H, §130, 118 Stat.3, 441 (2004).

This was one sweet deal: "$50,000,000 available until expended"! No conditions. No legislative requirements regarding process or oversight.

(2) It was subsequently revised to provide:

"Section 130 of division H (Miscellaneous Appropriations and Offsets) of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2004, Public Law 108-199, is hereby amended by striking "is provided for the Coralville, Iowa, project" and all that follows and inserting: "is provided for the Iowa Environmental and Education project to be located in Iowa. No further funds may be disbursed by the Department of Energy until a one hundred percent non-Federal cash and in-kind match of the appropriated Federal funds has been secured for the project by the non-Federal project sponsor: Provided, That the match shall exclude land donations: Provided further, That if the match is not secured by the non-Federal project [**2282] sponsor by December 1, 2007, the remaining Federal funds shall cease to be available for the Iowa Environmental and Education project."
Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act of 2006, Pub. L. No. 109-103, §315, 119 Stat. 2247, 2281 (2005).

Code of Federal Regulations Re: Department of Energy Process

The Department of Energy, Chicago office (which has the action on this one), is governed by the terms of Grassley's earmark and also the Department's own regulations involving grants. After being announced in a daily federal publication called the Federal Register they are ultimately arranged and bound in a multi-volume collection of all agencies' regulations called the Code of Federal Regulations. DOE regulations are in Title 10 of the CFR.

The relevant regulations regarding the rain forest project are called the Federal Assistance Rules, found in Part 600 of Title 10, especially (according to the DOE's Brian Quirke) sections 600.123 (Subpart B, "Uniform Administrative Requirements for Grants and Cooperative Agreements With Institutions of Higher Education, Hospitals, and Other Non-profit Organizations," "Cost Sharing or Matching"), 600.224 ("Uniform Administrative Requirements for Grants and Cooperative Agreements to State and Local Governments," "Matching or Sharing"), and 600.313 (Subpart D, "Administrative Requirements for Grants and Cooperative Agreements with For-Profit Organizations," "Cost Sharing or Matching").

(Although it would seem to me from the subpart titles that only Subpart B (non-profits) would be relevant to the rain forest project. In any event, all are somewhat repetitive. They require, in general, that in-kind contributions are to be valued at reasonable, local market rates.)

Given the length of these provisions, I will not reproduce them here in full. They may be found on the Internet, however, at the Government Printing Office site with this URL: http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_07/10cfr600_07.html.

Senator Grassley's Earthpark Letter to Constituent
(Source: Letter from a reader reproduced in State29, "Exposing Chuck Grassley For The Fraud That He Really Is," December 12, 2007.)

Thank you for expressing your concerns about Earthpark, the rain forest project to be located in Pella, Iowa. I am glad to have this opportunity to respond.

While the project was originally designed to be constructed in Coralville, the project leaders announced on September 28 that the project would be built in Pella. It will be relocated to a proposed residential, recreational and retail resort to be built on 240 acres on the southeastern shore of Lake Red Rock. It will be surrounded by 50,000 acres of natural habitat.

Federal funds for the rain forest project were included in the fiscal year 2004 spending bill through the Department of Energy. The $50 million federal appropriation only pays for part of the project, which has a total estimated cost of $150 to $200 million.

In November of 2005, I froze and put restrictions on the $50 million appropriation. My legislation requires non-federal dollars to be raised before additional federal tax dollars are spent. My measure also says that non-federal money must be secured by December of 2007 or the remainder of the federal funding will be reclaimed. Earthpark must submit the details of its proposal, including information on contributions they have received, to the Department of Energy by December 1. The Department of Energy will then determine if Earthpark has met the requirements specified in receiving the funds.

I appreciate your suggestion to require certain documents from the project leaders before unfreezing the federal funds. I will do just that an plan to study their match proposal carefully.

I want this project to succeed because it's a great opportunity for Iowans. Not only does the rain forest project show great promise for research and education, but it will also help the tourism industry in Iowa. Construction of this project will ultimately help Iowa build a better workforce, and provide more educational opportunities for teachers and students.

I understand the concerns that some Iowans have expressed about the amount of federal funds that we have appropriated for this project. Please know that during my time in Washington, I have worked for responsible government spending and to hold Congress accountable for your tax dollars. I will hold true to this commitment as I continue to work in the US Senate.

Again, I am glad to know your thoughts on this project. I always welcome your views, and urge you to stay in touch.

Sincerely,

Chuck
Comment: That he could write that sixth paragraph indicates to me that he either doesn't know the past history and current set of proposals regarding this project or is willing to misrepresent what he does (or should) know. Whatever one might have been excused for thinking or saying about this project five or ten years ago, so much more is known now that those representations simply can no longer be made with a straight face.

Exchange of Emails between Nicholas Johnson and DOE's Brian Quirke

[1] December 6, 2007

Dear Mr. Quirke:

As you are probably aware, there is a great deal of interest here in Iowa regarding the Earthpark application for the remainder of the $50 million Senator Chuck Grassley has made available to David Oman and his associates.

I have a number of questions to which I would appreciate your response.

1. Who (name and email) has the initial DOE responsibility for a judgment as to whether, or not, the conditions of the match have been met?

2. Who (name and email) has the final sign-off responsibility?

3. Because your indicated title is “Office of the Manager – Communications” are you a part of this decision making process, or are you primarily the public and media relations person for the Chicago office?

4. The local press reported that the application was timely filed by Earthpark (sent November 30, and received on December 1). I am assuming this is correct. Is it? It also quoted you as saying that document, and the DOE decisions regarding it, would be available within “a couple of days.” That would have been sometime between last Monday and Wednesday, depending on what days are counted. What is the current status of the decision making process and when do you now expect your decision will be made public?

5. Given the degree of interest in this matter, it would seem to me both more efficient for DOE, and certainly more efficient for citizens and media, if you would be willing to put the Earthpark document up on the DOE Web site. Agencies, including your own, often do this as you know. While the FOIA enables citizens to file formal requests, and even sue agencies if necessary, to get access to public documents, it certainly does not contemplate that this will be the required process in every case. Question: Are you willing to make the Earthpark application available via the Web (either in the electronic form in which it was provided to the Chicago Office, or if it only came in hard copy, as a scanned document)?

6. Can you refer me to the statutory, or DOE regulatory, directions from Senator Grassley’s office, or other written standards that will be applied by your office in determining whether whatever Earthpark has or has not provided should be considered to constitute a “match”?
Respectfully,

Nicholas Johnson

[2] December 7, 2007

I left a phone message but also decided to follow-up with an e-mail.

Q.1 and 2. The answer to both of these questions is Eric Simpson at eric.simpson@ch.doe.gov. Eric is the contracting officer for the Rainforest/Earthpark project and will be reponsible for signing/not signing the document which would realease federal funds to the project.

In doing this specific task (as is the norm for large projects) Eric has assembled a team of advisors to help ensure that federal acquisitions rules (Federal Acquisition Regulations...FAR) are followed and that the direction DOE received from Congress is complied with, i.e. the grantee has/has not met the congressional requirment to assemble private donors to match the allocated federal funds. This team includes another contracting officer, a project manager, financial experts to determine what is allowable and not allowable, and an attorney.

Q. 3. I am not part of the decision-making process. My role is to communicate to reporters and taxpayers what we are doing and how we are doing it.

Q. 4. Yes, you are right, the local media did report correctly that DOE received the application packet from the grantee by the prescribed deadline. Now we are reviewing each element of the application to determine whether or not it meets the direction we received from Congress and the FAR requirements. Clearly we will be paying special attention to the pledges to determine if they are legally enforceable; and if they are from responsible organizations.

I was accuratly quoted in the Cedar Rapids Gazette by Greg Hennigan (sp?) and then in the following AP story when I indicated we expected the review would take several days. Our position is that we intend to do this job correctly...not attempting to honor a deadline or schedule.

Q. 5. DOE's attorneys who handle FOIA matters are reviewing the documents...in an effort to to determine what to release and when.

We have a pretty good track record of honoring the sentiment you talked about in your e-mail....releasing documents without FOIA requests. Specifically regarding this project, the DOE Chicago Office made available a series of quarterly project management and financial reports (from the Rainforest grantee to DOE) on our website. This was in 2004 when we made available the prior (2003) reports and then continued the practice with reports as they were receieved.

Q. 6. Eric Simpson will be using the two documents mentioned above...the Congressional direction passed by the legislative branch in November 2005 and the FAR to make the decision.

Give me a call if you would like additional ainformation.

Brian

[3] December 7, 2007

Brian Quirke
DOE

Brian:

Thank you very much for the effort to call me, and the relatively prompt email response to my questions.

1. Given your prompt, professional and responsive reply that reflects favorably on you and the DOE – and I presume is actually a public document – I assume you would have no objection to my reporting its contents. But as a courtesy I didn’t want to do that without asking if there would be some reason I’ve overlooked as to why that might be inappropriate. So, is it OK I put it in my blog?

2. On Dec. 4 I quoted from a November 28 AP story as follows: “[Dec. 4] A week ago the Associated Press reported that Department of Energy spokesperson "[Brian] Quirke said a decision on the application could come within a couple of days after it's received." Associated Press, "Deadline for Earthpark matching funds is Saturday," wcco.com/Iowa Wire, November 28, 2007.” In your email to me you said you had indicated it would be within “several days.” It’s a minor point in some ways (and not in others), but did the AP story misquote you? Did you in fact say DOE would act within “a couple of days”? I don’t want to attribute that to you if it is not correct.

3. You have pointed me toward, “(Federal Acquisition Regulations...FAR) . . . and . . . the direction DOE received from Congress” in response to my question 6 (Can you refer me to the statutory, or DOE regulatory, or directions from Senator Grassley’s office, or other written standards that will be applied by your office in determining whether whatever Earthpark has or has not provided should be considered to constitute a “match”?) for which I thank you. My question wasn’t as clear as it should have been; what I wanted was (a) access to the full text of any relevant documents, (b) including any written, or record of oral, instructions received from Senator Grassley or any member of his staff regarding this matter (i.e., what was intended by “match” and whether the money was intended for construction costs or for any pre-construction expenses (including David Oman’s salary) the projects’ promoters wished to spend it on). What I meant to ask for was simply the citations to the source material (e.g., are the Federal Acquisition Regulations somewhere in the CFR, and if so what is the citation?). What is the citation to “the direction DOE received from Congress”? I can look it up on Westlaw or Lexis, or the Internet, if I have the citations – which I’m assuming are easily at hand for either you or Eric Simpson. If there are specific sections within the FAR that are applicable here, or a focus of your consideration, knowing what they are would also save me a lot of time.

4. Based on my earlier experiences with members of the House and Senate – probably round about the time your grandmother was born – I’m assuming that if Senator Grassley wanted to put a block on this, or delay it for further review, or conclude on his own that what Oman has presented is simply not what Grassley had in mind as constituting a “match,” that he could do that. Is that true? You may not want to express a position on that, but I’d be interested in anything you could tell me on that score.

5. Speaking of source material, I have a vague recollection of years ago looking at some of those reports you mentioned from the project that you all put up on a Web site. Do you happen to have the URL for where that material is? Is that where the document in question will be posted?

6. Although I am aware that there are exceptions to what an agency must make available under FOIA, I cannot offhand (without reviewing the law) think of any that would be applicable in this case. It seems to me that once the application was received by you it was a public record. That being the case, while the DOE may have a legal right to continue to withhold it on a representation that you all are “reviewing the documents...in an effort to to determine what to release and when,” it seems to me the answers to those questions ought to be “everything submitted” and “now.” Can you give me an estimate as to when you think this “review” might be completed? I do think that, in terms of the best interests of DOE, it will look bad if the decision is arrived at and released at a time when the Department is still refusing to make the project’s application public.

Thank you again for your assistance.

Nick

[4] December 14, 2007

[There was no response to my December 7 email; therefore, I wrote again, as follows:]

Dec. 14, 2007

Brian:

I intended to send you the message, below, on Dec. 7, just before leaving town. Given how prompt you were in responding to my earlier email, and the fact I’ve not heard back from you (so far as I know), my guess is that it must not have been sent for some reason (since I sometimes have that problem with my email accounts) – or maybe you were out of town as well. Anyhow, here it is again. I’d welcome your response. If there are any you have good reason for not wanting to answer just let me know that, too. Or if, as before, you’d have a preference for dealing with this in a phone call rather than an email that’s fine; just give me the time that would be the least disruptive for you.

Nick

[This was followed with a copy of my December 7 email.]

[5] December 17, 2007, 11:02 a.m.

I have time right now for a phone conversation if you would like.

Brian

[6] December 17, 2007, 11:03 a.m.

Regarding one of your questions, I did consider our earlier e-mail conversation to be "public" and therefore if you want to post it to your blog I would have no objections.

Brian

[Note: We spoke that afternoon, during the course of which he indicated that a full, written response to my December 7 email would be forthcoming. He also provided some clues, but not full citations, to the source of the directions from Congress (Senator Grassley) and the Code of Federal Regulations regarding the $50 million earmark grant.]

# # #

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Violence at City and West High

December 15, 2007, 7:00 p.m.

What's the Answer to High School Violence?

The Press-Citizen continues this morning (Dec. 15) its reporting of the story of concern over increased levels of violence in our high schools. Lee Hermiston, "Schools discuss how to deal with rising violence; Officials ask why students are fighting, bringing drugs to school," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 15, 2007. Editorial, "Violence in Our Schools Needs to be Stopped," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 13, 2007.

Iowa City's reactions so far are normal and conventional: "What we need are police in the high schools, "zero-tolerance" policies, maybe metal detectors and video cameras in the halls -- but definitely a get-tough attitude."

My view is that such proposals only address symptoms, not underlying causes.

I was going to write a lengthy blog entry on the causes and cures for school violence, and began the Internet research, only to discover from that research, as is occasionally the case, that I'd already written, not only a blog entry, but an earlier op ed column on the subject. Nicholas Johnson, "In School: There Are Alternatives to Calling the Police" in "K-12 Alternatives to Calling Police," July 2, 2007; and Nicholas Johnson, "Smaller Schools Are Better," Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," August 28, 2001, p. 9A (available online here).

So, rather than reconstruct what I've already written (and probably not as well), I'm simply reprinting that blog entry from July 2007 and column from August 2001.

But not before sharing a quote from, and link to, an excellent article my research also uncovered. It reviews the literature regarding the impact of school size upon a whole range of qualities of education (and comes complete with dozens of citations to research and data). This small excerpt from that paper addresses only the relationship of school size to levels of violence:

Vandalism and violence are additional elements of the processes of schools. The level of violence in our schools was a public concern long before the 1998 Columbine High School shootings. A recent report of the Departments of Education and Justice (Kaufman, Chen, Choy, Ruddy, Miller, Fleury, Chandler, Rand, Klaus, & Planty, 2000) portrays the degree to which one can expect to see higher incidences of violence against both students and teachers as school size increases. Michael Klonsky, of the Small Schools Workshop, commented on the findings (2000) on the Workshop'’s national listserve:

According to the study, incidents of violence and crime increase dramatically in schools with 1,000 or more students as compared with those of 300 or less. In urban schools with less than 300 students, for example, 3.9% of the schools reported serious violent incidents compared with 32.9% of schools over 1,000 students. In other words, if we keep building big schools, we are increasing the chance of a Littleton [Columbine’s city]-type incident by nearly 10 times.
Tom Gregory, "School Reform and the No-Man's-Land of High School Size," December 2000, p. 6.

In short, we (school boards in general and Iowa City's in particular) have deliberately chosen to build, and to expand in size, high schools that we knew, or should have known, would be more violent. Now we are beginning to pay the price for those choices.

This became an issue when I was serving as a member of the ICCSD School Board. The Board was proposing a $40 million bond issue (ultimately passed). I tried to impress on all who would but listen the kinds of research and data that Tom Gregory amasses in his paper.

As high schools increase in size, so do absences and numbers of drop outs; alcohol and other drug abuse; graffiti and property damage; bullying, fights and violence; sexual harassment and teen pregnancy. Most studies also support one's intuition that smaller schools produce smarter students -- greater interest in learning and academic achievement as well as higher percentages of students participating in extra-curricular activities.

(The related, so-called "schools within schools" approach, which we're trying at West, tends to be much less effective than separate small schools.)

To me, it was a no-brainer: You need room for more high school students? Don't expand the size of schools that are already too large. Put your money into more, smaller high schools.

But "local control of schools" means that no school district is compelled to apply "best practices" in its schools. And Iowa City followed the lead of the vast majority of the nation's school districts that have ignored the experts' advice regarding the benefits of smaller high schools. The nostalgia of sending one's children to the high school one attended, the self interest of administrators and teachers, coupled with the passion for winning football teams has been too much for most boards (including ours) to overcome.

And so we are left with the two large and conventional high schools we've paid millions to expand (plus our smaller, more successful (by these standards) alternative high school, Tate) -- and a growing concern about the increasing levels of violence that have resulted, though to the surprise of no one who's read the literature.

All that follows, then, is from my earlier blog entry (which included the op ed column on the subject):

# # #

In School: There Are Alternatives to Calling the Police
[July 2, 2007]

"The number of police calls to area schools has increased sharply in recent years, according to the Sixth Judicial District Juvenile Delinquency Annual Statistical Report.

The report, which includes Johnson County, shows that police responded to 563 complaints within the Iowa City School District."
Rob Daniel, "Police calls to schools on the rise; Report: 563 complaints in district," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 2, 2007

The column that follows was published in 2001. My commentary about today's school news, and why I thought of this old column in that connection, follows the column.

Smaller Schools Are Better
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," August 28, 2001, p. 9A
(available online here)

What do these prestigious organizations have in common?

Annenberg Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Center for Collaborative Education, Center for School Change, Gates Foundation, Harvard’s Change Leadership Group, Open Society Institute, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Smaller Learning Communities Program.

Give up?

Each believes smaller is better. Not smaller class sizes. Smaller high schools of 400 to 600 students each.

Many are willing to bet millions of dollars they’re right; $200 million from Gates alone. They have enough data to prove it that, says one, “it seems morally questionable not to act on it.”

In New York’s worst school district, an East Harlem secondary school is one of the city’s best. It graduates 90 percent. And it’s reduced violence without metal detectors. How?

Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley asked top security experts how to improve school safety. Question: Was their top recommendation metal detectors, more police in hallways, or video monitors? Answer: None of the above. It was smaller schools.

I graduated from University High School with 40 classmates in 1952. Then seven percent of high schools had over 1,000 students. Today two-thirds of all high school students attend such schools – including ours.

Smaller schools reduce students’ estrangement. They nurture a sense of belonging. And safety is only one of the benefits.

Smaller schools have better attendance rates, fewer dropouts, more academic achievement and extracurricular participation, more college-bound. Students feel closer bonds with teachers. Teachers with each other.

There are dozens of proposals for improving high schools. Even summaries require something closer to 650 volumes than 650 words. But smaller size is a good beginning.

John Carver says most school boards are incompetent groups of competent people along a continuum from micro-managing at one end to rubber-stamping at the other. All such boards can hope for is to do the wrong things better.

Competent and caring high school teachers confront a comparable dilemma. The system processes 150 students a day along a conveyor belt through their classrooms. They must function with a curriculum and classrooms designed to produce the assembly line workers of a bygone industrial age.

It is not teachers’ fault that, like board members, all they can hope for is to do the wrong things better.

They may be the best source of ideas on how to fix this system, but all the community’s stakeholders must have ownership. And decisions have to come from school boards and administrators.

Our superintendent, Lane Plugge, now chairs Iowa’s Urban Education Network. It’s just stepped up to the plate with a new book-length report titled Redefinition of High School – one of the 650 volumes anyone who cares about these issues ought to read.

The individual authors of its 12 chapters each focus on an issue. Waterloo’s superintendent, Arlis Swartzendruber, cites our school board’s contribution to concepts of board governance. Our own Pam Ehly and Bill Dutton propose “instructional strategies” that if read, understood and implemented would solve many high schools’ problems.

Many chapters note the value of smaller schools.

We’re not about to tear down City and West High and build eight new high schools of 400 each. So how can we gain similar benefits? It’s called “schools within schools.” Four teams of teachers in each. Four “schools” of students with their own portion of a building.

Athletic and music groups continue to draw from all four. Theaters and cafeterias are shared. It’s a best-of-all-possible-worlds win-win. Shared facilities and administration mean lower costs. Smaller schools produce better relationships and climate – and more learning.

Dr. Plugge has thrown an added starter into the board’s consideration of boundaries and educational opportunities: a redefinition, and possible physical redesign, of our high schools.

Architects need to know if clients want a cathedral or a tractor barn. So we’ve begun the process of redefinition.

Now every district stakeholder needs to participate in planning what will, hopefully, include the benefit of smaller schools.
_______________

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site www.nicholasjohnson.org.

# # #

The Answer is Blowing in the Cyberspace As the organizations cited in this column have concluded, the data is pretty convincing -- and support one's natural intuition -- that as high school size increases above an optimum (around 650 students) there is an increase in bullying, vandalism, teen pregnancy, graffiti, fights, alcohol and drug abuse, absenteeism and dropouts. It only makes sense.

Is manageable size a cure-all? Of course not. But it stands to reason that where a student is known by name by teachers and classmates alike, where adult mentoring becomes logistically possible, where everyone can participate in student activities (rather than just an athletically or musically gifted elite), that social constraints, rather than the presence of police officers, can be a major factor in controlling behavior.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I'm a big fan of the Internet. It provides public access to orders of magnitude more material than most towns' public libraries can offer their patrons (in hard copy). It permits much more flexible and through searching than hard copy reference works. And it retrieves the material at orders of magnitude faster speeds.

Are there drawbacks? Of course. We don't do a very good job of training students (or ourselves) in effective Google searching techniques, so Internet research experiences are sometimes more frustrating and less fruitful than they could be. And just as everything in hard copy books needs to be verified and confirmed, so sorting through the Internet's content -- open as it is to submissions by anyone -- requires even greater sophistication by users.

During the three years I served on the local school board I wrote a column every two weeks for the Press-Citizen. The column above is one of them. (Links to the full collection can be found here.) Although I had first hand knowledge as a student in the University of Iowa's experimental schools (University Elementary and University High School in a building now called "North Hall") I never attended a College of Education. So I spent a lot of time surfing the Internet while looking for ideas for the columns.

And what I discovered was a variation on Ralph Nader's observation that, "This country has more problems than it deserves and more solutions than it applies." I finally concluded that, with 15,000 school districts in this country, it was likely that there was no problem confronting any given one of them that had not formerly been confronted by another school district (1) identified, (2) addressed, (3) resolved, and (4) written up and made available on the Internet.

When we were considering the $40 million bond issue I noted that the need for that money and additional buildings (at that time) could have been avoided by applying the concept of "cluster schools" for our elementary schools. (Such an approach would also have eliminated, or radically reduced, the problem of disparity in class size.) Had we followed the recommendations of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year for our high schools we could have instantaneously eliminated all of their "overcrowding" and any need for expansion. I noted at the same time the advantages, if additional high school space was to be created anyway, of building high schools for 650 rather than expanding the populations in the two conventional high schools we had. (Tate was deliberately designed for fewer students.)

[Alas, it appears that the National Commission's report is no longer available online. However, a preliminary report and summary is available: The Lost Opportunity of Senior Year: Finding a Better Way, January 2001.]

With "local control of schools" school administrators, parents and taxpayers have the legal and political right to ignore such advice. If they are willing to pay $40 million for the privilege -- and the result is not otherwise criminal or illegal -- they can do whatever they want with their money. And I support local control of schools -- even when it results in plans and policies more driven by their impact on our competitive athletic teams' records than the entire student body's academic records. That's the stakeholders' right.

But there are consequences to those decisions that go well beyond their financial costs.

And our district's school board and administration now confront many comparable decisions as they are coming into the millions of additional dollars to be provided by our local 20% hike in sales taxes.

Prevention is almost always cheaper and more satisfactory than treatment.

Call the cops if you must.

But it seems to me that once you've let things get to the point that you need an Iraq-like surge of additional police in your school it's already too late. You've already lost that battle.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

To Err is Human, To Keep it Secret Even More So

December 14, 2007, 2:30 p.m.

Maybe It's Only Human

How is an unfunded indoor rain forest like a university?

Two stories, one theme.

Gregg Hennigan, "Earthpark decision expected ‘soon,’" The Gazette, December 14, 2007, p. B2.

Editorial, "UI officials must be open about their response to sexual assault allegations," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 14, 2007.

Earthpark. The Iowa indoor rain forest promoters claim to have satisfied Senator Grassley's demand that they match the $50 million earmark of taxpayer's money he's appropriated for their pleasure. They had to submit the documentation by December 1. Apparently they met that deadline.

So, do they actually have $50 million cash in the bank? Do they have pledges that can be called as soon as the pledges total $50 million and are accepted by the Department of Energy as meeting the standards for a match? Or are they offering little more than smoke and mirrors and possibilities of unspecified "in-kind" contributions at some undisclosed time in the future?

No one's talking.

Project CEO David Oman refuses to make public copies of his DOE application -- which is, of course, a "public record," and one in which the public has considerable legitimate interest, given that it is $50 million of our money. Senator Grassley, who admits to having a copy of the application also prefers secrecy to openness, as does the DOE. (The DOE has been presented a number of FOIA requests -- including one from The Gazette -- to which it will, ultimately, have to respond. But it offers no justification for not satisfying those requests now -- or, better still, just putting the document on the Web.)

"The Greatest 'Story Two' Never Told." From November 15 to 21 I wrote five blog entries regarding the alleged sexual assault at the University of Iowa. Nicholas Johnson, "The Greatest 'Story Two' Never Told" in "Not Getting Answers," November 21, 2007 (with links to the prior four).

The designation of a "Story Two" was my effort to make the point that there are really two stories here, not one.

"Story One" involves the alleged incident, victim, accused, and the investigation and evidence obtained. No one -- or at worst very few individuals -- have suggested that story needs to be told in ways that harm individuals and their reputations, or impedes the process of investigation.

"Story Two" has almost literally nothing to do with "Story One." Story Two is the story of what University of Iowa officials were involved, and when, and what they did. Not the names of students. Not students' reports of events. Not which students, by name, spoke with officials. But which officials talked to which other officials and when (as distinguished from what they talked about -- to the extent it would reveal details about the students involved, or what the evidence has revealed, that would have an adverse impact on the students or the investigation).

The Press-Citizen has been pursuing Story Two. Brian Morelli, "UI withholds documents in case; Could reveal if officials responded appropriately to alleged sex assault," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 8, 2007 -- the basis for this morning's editorial, linked above.

Some of the questions the paper is asking UI officials could potentially reach into Story One, and possibly impede the investigation. But the focus of the paper's inquiry involves Story Two. The editorial acknowledges UI President Sally Mason's call for "sensitivity" regarding the alleged accuser, and suggests that any compromising information simply be redacted from the requested documents. But as it concludes, "Answering our questions would in no way preclude the university from being sensitive to the victim. Not answering our questions gives the public cause to distrust the university's motives."

If it turns out that the University has had something to hide regarding its administrators' actions in this case, it will pay a very, very high price indeed for its secrecy and willingness to sweep under the rug of "being sensitive to the victim" what those administrators did, or failed to do. Not only does it give "the public cause to distrust the university's motives," it also puts a very heavy tarnish on whatever statements may be offered in the future when the University may have very legitimate reasons for secrecy and the public is left with no more trust in the truth of what it is being told than the trust it has in the statements of a White House press officer.

Despite the hundreds of lessons history offers as to the folly of attempting stonewalling and cover-ups of that which will, ultimately, become public, it may be only human to think that, "for me, on this occasion, I'll be better off to duck and cover than to come clean."

And that's how an indoor rain forest is like a university.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Earthpark: Grassley's the Story

December 7, 2007, 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m.

[This is a continuation of Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark's Week-Long Wake," November 26-December 7, 2007. Like the "Holy Roman Empire" that was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, "Earthpark's Week-Long Wake" proved out to be neither week-long nor a wake. It did end up creating a blog entry that now prints out at about 38 pages. All of that content is hereby "incorporated by reference" and remains as relevant as ever.

NOTE: Because I may very well be out of Internet reach during the next four or five days, if anything breaks and you don't see it here, that's why. Check State29 and read between the lines in everything in (or left out of) your local papers.]

Johnson Forms "Exploratory Committee" to Challenge Earthpark's Grassley

I have been asked on more than one occasion in the past to run against Senator Chuck Grassley. I've always rejected the invitations. Not only do I not dislike Senator Grassley, I actually admire the attention he gives to constituent services -- it is of a quantity and quality among the best of any elected official in Washington. Moreover, I've always taken some responsibility for putting him in office, having lost (by my count by six votes) the Democratic primary for Congress in 1974 that led to a general election of then-legislator Grassley to the U.S. House of Representatives that year. Besides, as Art Small and others have discovered, running against Grassley is more of a sacrificial service to the Democratic Party than a realistic opportunity to gain a U.S. Senate seat.

But I have to say, with the way the Earthpark $50 million earmark is going, I'm seriously re-thinking my past reluctance. And this morning's (or was it yesterday's) Des Moines Register story about Grassley's current position on Earthpark was enough to prompt a serious discussion with my wife over breakfast this morning about my undertaking a statewide race against Grassley.

That's how strongly I feel about this.

Grassley is the Earthpark Story

What would you think on reading the following headline:

Tony Leys, "Grassley: No more extensions for Earthpark project," Des Moines Register, December 6, 2007. (And see, State29, "Grassley Finally Comments On Earthpark," December 6, 2007.)

"No more extensions" is Washington-speak for "more extensions." And that's exactly what seems to be going on.

Oman's document proving (he says) he's "matched" the $50 million of taxpayers' money Grassley's offered to give him if he can match it, is a public document. Many members of the media and public would like to see that document -- and are entitled to as a matter of law. Oman refuses to release it. Senator Grassley, who knows what's in it, refuses to tell. The Department of Energy has been asked to put it up on the Web, or at least respond to the formal Freedom of Information Act requests now pending at the DOE. It has yet to respond. Why all this secrecy about something that is, by law, a public document?

If we can't see what Oman filed on November 30, how can we ever know what revisions he was permitted to make in the document thereafter?

If the DOE said last week they'd have an answer in "a couple of days" how can this continued delay, on top of the secrecy, be considered anything other than an "extension"?

Moreover, it's an ancient trick of government agencies and other institutions to save major announcements that might reflect adversely upon them for the evening before major holidays, when they know there will be few journalists around to cover the story. I first wrote about this in the Saturday Review in 1972, Nicholas Johnson, "Why Ma Bell Still Believes in Santa." Is that what we have in store?

Leys writes:
"Grassley said he had been told what was in the financial documents, but he declined to predict whether the project’s application would pass muster. He said he would not lobby the administrators.

“I’m writing the law, they’re administering it, and I’ve got to be careful not to contact the department while they’re making their decision,” he said. “I don’t think I ought to be seen to be trying to influence it one way or the other.”
Let's put aside for the moment the difficulty of having "been told what was in the financial documents" while being "careful not to contact the department."

What are we talking about here?

For starters, the initial $50 million was provided in one of those secret, undebated, "earmarks." The beneficiaries were Republican leaders, friends and campaign contributors of Grassley, who paid a former Grassley staffer handsomely (and successfully, as it turned out) to lobby the Senator for the $50 million. From the beginning, the grant was viewed by some fellow Republicans, journalists, stand-up comics, editorial and TV writers as laughable. The project has been offered to, and rejected, by a half-dozen or more Iowa cities -- some more than once -- and for very good reasons.

But let's put even all of that aside.

There was never a time at which a strong case could be made for the wisdom of using $50 million of taxpayers' money for this purpose. But my point, for now, is that whatever case one could try to make at the time of the initial award -- the time at which the case was strongest (weak, but its strongest) -- has continued to erode over time until today, when it has completely evaporated.

Even if you want to excuse Grassley for making the money available in the first place (and I'm not inclined to do so), there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for his failure to step in to prevent its being made available now -- match or no match.

It is by now obvious to all who will but look that "the emperor has no clothes." Such conditions as might have ever existed, when more was not known, no longer exist. There is not a prayer that this project will be built to the standards that would be necessary for it to even have a chance of programmatic and financial success -- or, even if it were, that it would create a sufficient cash flow to continue operations without ongoing taxpayer subsidy.

Consider the analogy to Iran.

If it is true that Iran has an active program underway to manufacture and imminently launch an atomic bomb our way (or Israel's), a presidential proposal that we launch a pre-emptive strike, start a war, and bomb their manufacturing facilities can still be questioned, but it will be considered in light of his rationale premised on that intelligence.

Once the NIE reports that Iran is not now, and has not been, engaged in such activities for the last four or five years, however, it is no longer possible for the president to continue -- at least not rationally or responsibly -- to advocate that course of action.

Give Grassley the benefit of the doubt, that he wasn't just doing a $50 million favor for friends, that he actually thought the project had merit for Iowa, and a probability of raising the additional $250 million (initially proposed) that economists thought necessary to a successful venture.

The point is, now he should know better -- as all do who have been paying attention. He cannot be permitted to pass this off onto the DOE, anymore than Bush could pass a post-NIE strike against Iran off onto the DOD.

To have awarded the $50 million in the first place may have been bad judgment and abuse of the earmark process.

To permit it to be given now, knowing what we do, knowing that it will be, if not entirely $50 million wasted at least never produce what was initially proposed, is not only shameful, it should be considered criminal.

Not up to speed on what we now know? Take a look at Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark's Week-Long Wake," November 26-December 7, 2007, and my Earthpark Web site.

What Leys has succeeded in extracting from Senator Grassley -- that he refuses to step in and guarantee the taxpayers will be saved this criminal expenditure, for which he is solely responsible -- is a beginning. And the Register is to be praised for getting us this much. But it is far from the end of this story.

For my suggested questions for Grassley that still need to be pursued see, in
Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark's Week-Long Wake," November 26-December 7, 2007, the discussion and questions following the sub-heading, "[Nov. 30] Senator Chuck Grassley Has Explaining to Do," about half-way down, following the Sharpnack editorial cartoon.

Don't let him "sidestep" this one.

video


Come on, Iowa media! Let's get going on this major national -- not to mention statewide -- story. Get us the Earthpark public document that has been sitting at the DOE for a week now. Ask Grassley how he can justify not stepping in to stop this criminal waste of taxpayers' dollars. Save me from having to go around to Iowa's 99 counties at my own expense running a fruitless campaign against our Senator as a way of getting this story to the Iowa voters. Please.

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The one-minute fair use clip, above, is from the delightful 1982 R-rated full-length musical comedy, "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," staring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, among a great many other accomplished and well-known actors, and still available for rental and sale. It's based on a true story of a brothel outside LaGrange, Texas, that was ultimately closed down in 1973, following the work of investigative reporter Marvin Zindler of KTRK-TV, Houston. The writing was done by Larry King (whom I remember from Austin in the 1950s), the Governor was played by Charles Durning, and the studio was RKO Pictures. The film is copyright by, presumably, RKO. The use of this very brief clip is for non-commercial, educational and commentary fair use purposes only. Any other use may require the permission of the copyright owner.

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