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Sioux City schools teach mindfulness to stressed students

SIOUX CITY | Students in two Sioux City schools are drawing in and out with deep volcano breaths, concentrating on deeper mindful listening and feeling stress dissipate as they move Hoberman spheres in and out with fingers.

Teachers in the Morningside Elementary and Pretty Creek Elementary schools in the Sioux City School District are touting the benefits of mindfulness for students. They say it gives students good tips on how to move from stressors in the school and their personal life, so they can clear their minds to focus on the subjects at hand.

"They are able to be present and to be with you now, not thinking about recess or what they might be going home to," Morningside Elementary first-grade teacher Shelly Pratt said.

Plus, "in an era of electronics, it is hard to get kids to focus," so mindfulness belongs in the classroom, Pratt added. She also sees benefits in moving kids around with simple breathing and other exercises, so they aren't static zombies in seats.

Justin Wan, Sioux City Journal 

First-grade student Carlos Rodriguez looks into a liquid timer used for mindfulness during a class at Morningside Elementary School in Sioux City.

New-Agey? Sure, Pratt says. But there is nothing wrong with pulling in holistic approaches to get kids to deliver fresh oxygen to their brains to think better and to let go of emotions that could be sidetracking them, she said.

"I've always been a little hippie at heart," said Pratt, who is a yoga instructor outside the classroom at Top Tier Fit in Sioux City.

She has shared mindfulness pieces for four years at Morningside Elementary, but things are ramping up more broadly through the school this year. She gets on the school intercom at the beginning of each week to share Mindfulness Mondays tips for all the grades. She said some teachers who were initially lukewarm about the mindfulness elements have embraced them.

Pratt and teacher Tina Brennan got almost $20,000 from the Sioux City Schools Foundation to buy the biggest slew of mindfulness tools in the district, which were added to their instruction in January.

Justin Wan, Sioux City Journal 

First grade teacher Shelly Pratt uses a Hoberman sphere to lead her students during a mindfulness activity at Morningside Elementary School.

Pratt and Brennan bought items to make "calming jars" for the staff and pupils, relaxation books such as "Breathe," yoga mats, Hoberman spheres, bells and mandala color books.

On Tuesday, Brennan was in a second grade classroom reading "I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness" by Susan Verde, sharing a YouTube video on mindful relaxation and having pupils use Play-Doh to create a visual representation of what peace looks like to them.

"See how you are all relaxed? You are focused and ready to move onto the next thing," Brennan said, and the students murmured affirmatively.

Pratt said mindfulness in the classroom has taken off nationally in the last two years. Brennan read up on it, saw some activities in other schools, then moved ahead the pieces she thought fit best at Perry Creek.

"Mindfulness is just paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, without judgment,' Pratt said.

Both teachers said there are no known studies that mindfulness concretely affects learning, but they believe the benefits show even a few minutes per day help pupil performance.

Brennan said students who are less anxious can learn better, so positive self-talk is encouraged. Some talented-and-gifted program students have stress management as a goal in their personalized education plans.

"The kids love it...My whole point is to get kids engaged," Brennan said.

In Pratt's first-grade classroom Wednesday afternoon, she had them run their arms from the side to above their heads and back, centered in front of chests, while using expansive volcano breaths.

"The benefit is learning to breathe, to calm down, to relieve stress," Pratt said.

The pupils colored mandala sheets while listening to relaxing music. Additionally, Pratt ran them through an exercise.

"We start in a seat, feet are flat on the floor. Close your eyes," Pratt began.

"When I tell you, move to a standing position as slowly as you can. Then you can open your eyes...Let's see how mindfully and slowly you can stand."

The pupils unhurriedly complied, eventually reaching the standing position.

Pratt asked what they noticed as they reached the completion spot.

"Everybody was smiling," said first-grader Detoma Bitema.

Revised federal tax cut for Iowans: $1.775 billion

DES MOINES | State revenue experts now project Iowa taxpayers will see their individual federal income tax liabilities cut by nearly $1.8 billion in the 2018 tax year, but the changes could mean they pay an extra $373 million over three years in higher state taxes due to Iowa's federal deductibility law.

Director Courtney Kay-Decker and analyst Amy Harris of the Iowa Department of Revenue on Friday revised their preliminary analysis of the federal tax reforms passed last year by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump would reduce overall income tax liabilities for 1,440,403 Iowa taxpayers by more than $1.775 billion. That was up from their initial run in January that projected federal taxes paid by Iowans would be lowered more than $1.538 billion.

The revised numbers estimate the average tax cut will range from $202 for 435,222 Iowans earning $20,000 or less up to an average cut of $3,288 for 327,234 Iowans making more than $80,000 annually. The average cut for 324,828 Iowans making between $20,001 and $40,000 was pegged at $655 and another 353,119 Iowans earning from $40,001 to $80,000 would see a 2018 tax year federal income tax liability reduced by $1,128, according to the revised revenue agency estimates.

Because Iowa is one of three states that allows its taxpayers to fully deduct their federal tax liability on their state income tax returns, revenue experts calculated that Iowa would collect an extra $33 million in the current budget year that ends June 30; an additional $148 million in fiscal 2019; and $192 million in additional state revenue in fiscal 2020 when the changes are fully implemented, according to the report. In January, those projections called for an extra $16 million in state revenue yet this fiscal year, $106 million in fiscal 2019 and $138 million in fiscal 2020.

The revised numbers are good news for Gov. Kim Reynolds and state lawmakers who are grappling with a projected $34.5 million state budget shortfall for the current fiscal year that ends June 30 and formulating plans to reform and reduce Iowa’s complicated income tax system by reducing rates and possibly eliminating the federal deductibility feature on state tax returns.

“It’s definitely a positive message,” said David Roederer, the governor’s budget director who also leads the state Department of Management and the Revenue Estimating Conference, which received Friday’s reports, “but we also need to be very cautious.”

Roederer said the numbers are in line with what the governor projected in the state budget blueprint she laid out for lawmakers in January, and hopefully would give budget-makers “a little more leeway” with a bigger ending balance in case this fiscal year’s revenue growth estimates should shift.

“I think it should give us all some confidence that the numbers aren’t going to drop from what the governor’s budget was looking at in January,” he told reporters after the REC meeting. “That’s the positive side.”

Reynolds is expected to unveil her tax reform/relief plan soon and the projected higher state tax collections resulting from the federal tax cut will factor into what she proposes, Roederer said.

“The governor’s goal is that since Iowa state taxes would be going up because of federal taxes going down that she wanted to make sure that Iowans got that money back as well,” he told reporters. “So that’s a key number as to how much we believe is going to be coming in so that you would know how much that you could be reducing.”

Kay-Decker said the revised numbers are “still in the range of reasonableness” of the federal tax-cut effects but she added that some portion of Iowans’ estimated tax payers appeared “attributable to “actual growth in income irrespective of the changes related to federal reform” while she took as a positive economic sign.

“I think the economic signals out there are generally good so hopefully that would mean that incomes are going to continue to increase,” she said.

The revenue agency analysis indicated Iowans statewide prepaid about $58.7 million in assessed property tax in December ahead of federal law changes while lowered their tax liabilities by $12 million for federal and $4 million for state but also means they will pay an extra $4.9 million in state taxes on their 2018 returns due to Iowa’s federal deductibility law.

All sides claim budget win; immigration fight looks tougher

WASHINGTON — Republican leaders, top Democrats and President Donald Trump are all claiming big wins in the $400 billion budget agreement signed into law Friday. But the push to pass the massive legislation underscored enduring divisions within both parties, and those rifts are likely to make the next fight over immigration even more challenging.

In Washington's latest display of governance by brinkmanship, the bipartisan accord bolstering military and domestic programs and deepening federal deficits crossed the finish line just before dawn — but not before the government shut down overnight.

Passage left nerves frayed and Democrats with little leverage to force congressional action on their most high-profile priority: preventing deportation of hundreds of thousands of the young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and remain here without permanent legal protection.

Lawmakers rushed to limit the disruption and impact over the lapse in government funding, voting in the middle of the night to reopen agencies before workers were due to report to the office. It was the government's second shutdown in three weeks, and most lawmakers were eager to avoid a big show of dysfunction in an election year.

Sen. Rand Paul did not share the urgency. Late Thursday, the tea party leader and Kentucky Republican put the brakes on the bill in protest over Congress' sudden willingness to embrace big deficit spending. Paul noted that he and many in his party railed against deficits when Democrats held the White House, but now seemed willing to look the other way with Republicans in control.

He said he hoped his stand would teach conservatives "to not accept just anything because it comes from a GOP Congress."

Paul's call clearly angered Republican leaders — Sen. John Cornyn called it "grossly irresponsible" — and it exposed a contradiction that may come to haunt Republicans as they try to fire up conservatives in midterm elections.

The budget measure provides Pentagon spending increases sought by Trump and the GOP, more money for domestic agencies demanded by Democrats and $89 billion that both wanted for disaster relief. The two-year pact, which also continues the government's authority to borrow money, postpones any possible federal default or likely shutdowns until after the November elections.

But the 652-page budget bill says nothing about protection for the "Dreamer" immigrants. That omission largely explains why a quarter of Senate Democrats and two-thirds of House Democrats voted no, and why immigration now because the next battle. In January, after a three-day closure, Senate Democrats secured from GOP leaders the promise of a debate and vote on a deal to protect the younger immigrants from deportation.

"Democrats have fought hard but, in the end, many opted to say yes to other priorities and leave Dreamers behind," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration America's Voice. He called that decision plus opposition by many Republicans "inhumane and indecent."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., set next Monday as the start of a free-wheeling immigration battle, a debate he promised when Democrats agreed to vote to reopen the government last month. Ryan hasn't scheduled House consideration, infuriating Democrats, but he said Friday, "We will focus on bringing that debate to this floor and finding a solution."

Democrats want to extend the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which lets the immigrants temporarily live and work in the U.S. but that Trump would end March 5. The Democrats also want to make the immigrants eligible for citizenship or permanent residence.

In exchange, Trump wants $25 billion to build his beloved, proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall and other barriers. He also wants reductions in legal immigration, including limiting the relatives whom legal residents can sponsor and eliminating a lottery that offers visas to residents of diverse countries.

There's no obvious compromise that could win the 60 votes from Republicans and Democrats needed to prevail in the Senate. The most promising outcome may be a narrow bill extending DACA protections for a year or so and providing some border security money for Trump.

Whatever happens, this week's budget battle dealt a clear immigration defeat to Democrats, who'd initially vowed to block spending bills until there was a deal to help the Dreamers. The setback left party members divided.

No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, a leader in the immigration fight, said the budget pact "opens the door" for Senate votes on protecting the young immigrants. But Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said anyone supporting the spending measure was "colluding with this president and this administration to deport Dreamers."

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona is preparing compromises to offer during his chamber's upcoming debate and says his party will suffer in November if the issue isn't addressed. No. 3 House GOP leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana says Republicans still disagree about "how to handle this number of people that Barack Obama encouraged to come in here illegally."

With the immigration fight looming, Congress voted overnight to finance the government through March 23, giving budget-writers time to craft detailed legislation funding agencies through the rest of this fiscal year.

Siouxland Community Health Center's federal funding renewed for two years

SIOUX CITY | Siouxland Community Health Center administrators and staff are breathing a sigh of relief after months of government wrangling.

Lawmakers finally agreed on a $400 billion budget deal early Friday morning, which will fund the nation's more than 1,400 community health centers for two years.

Health centers have been in limbo since the Community Health Center Fund, which was established in 2010 by the Affordable Care Act and accounts for 70 percent of community health center funding, expired on Sept. 30.

Mari Kaptain-Dahlen, CEO of Siouxland Community Health Center (SCHC), was optimistic that Democrats and Republicans would reach a bipartisan deal back in December, but they were unable to do so. Access to health care for more than 28,300 Iowans hung in the balance until the legislation passed the Senate 71-28 and the House approved it by a margin of 240-186 in the early morning hours Friday.

"We have a lot of people with insurance that access care here because of the excellent care that we give. Our doors are open to everyone, but we are so pleased that we have the federal funding to take care of those who otherwise wouldn't have access," Kaptain-Dahlen said Friday.

Reauthorizing funding for community health centers and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides low-cost health coverage to children in families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid, was tied to a slew of other pieces of legislation, including negotiating an immigration deal and disaster aid for Puerto Rico. While CHIP was reauthorized for six years late last month, it took longer for community health centers to get their funding renewed.

Community health centers in some states, including North Dakota and South Dakota, have reported staff losses and recruiting challenges as a result of the uncertainty. Kaptain-Dahlen said SCHC patients and staff weren't negatively impacted by the funding debate. 

"We changed nothing in our operations here. We wanted to make sure that all our staff knew that no matter what happened we would be OK," she said. "We're very fortunate. Our financial position is good. The funding is absolutely necessary, but we were able to make it through this."

Kaptain-Dahlen said SCHC's model is different from that of other health care providers. She said SCHC strives to be "very efficient" by providing a one-stop shop for patients in need of medical and dental care, as well as pharmacy services. 

"There's always a $6 million savings that we talk about with community health centers, because people are avoiding using emergency rooms. People are not accessing care at the wrong place at the wrong time. They have a neighborhood clinic with a community health center that allows them to see a primary care physician for primary care needs," she said.