President Donald Trump threatened an imminent military strike against Syria on Monday night, vowing to respond "forcefully" to Saturday's apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians and warning that Russia or any other nation found to share responsibility will "pay a price."
As he began an evening meeting with military leaders at the White House, Trump promised to "make a decision tonight or very shortly thereafter." He said, "We have a lot of options militarily, and we'll be letting you know pretty soon. Probably after the fact."
The White House sharply rejected any suggestion that Trump's own words about pulling U.S. troops out of Syria had opened the door for the attack, which killed more than 40 people, including children.
Trump, asked at midday whether Russian President Vladimir Putin bore any responsibility for the weekend attack, responded, "He may, yeah, he may. And if he does it's going to be very tough, very tough." He added, "Everybody's gonna pay a price. He will. Everybody will."
Then, during the meeting with top military leaders, he said the weekend assault "will be met and it will be met forcefully." Those at the meeting included Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Amid the tough talk at the White House, the U.S. military appeared to be in position to carry out any attack order. A Navy destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, was underway in the eastern Mediterranean after completing a port call in Cyprus. The guided missile destroyer is armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, the weapon of choice in a U.S. attack one year ago on an airfield in Syria following an alleged sarin gas attack on civilians.
The Russian military, which has a presence in Syria as a key Assad ally, said its officers had visited the weekend site in a suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, and found no evidence to back up reports of poison gas being used. Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, accused Washington of deliberately stoking international tensions by threatening Russia in a tone "beyond the threshold of what is acceptable, even during the Cold War."
Trump said there was little question that Syria was responsible for the apparent weekend attack, although the government of President Bashar Assad denied it. "To me there's not much of a doubt, but the generals will figure it out," Trump said.
Emphatic in his condemnation of the apparent gas attack, Trump noted graphic pictures of the dead and sickened, calling the assault "heinous," ''atrocious," ''horrible" and "barbaric."
Fielding questions at the White House, Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it would be "outrageous" to say that Trump's recent announcement that he intends to remove all U.S. forces from Syria in the coming months had emboldened Assad. "I think that it is outrageous to say that the president of the United States green-lit something as atrocious as the actions that have taken place over the last several days," she said.
Mattis, in separate remarks at the Pentagon, also suggested Moscow bore some blame. He criticized Russia for what he suggested was its failure to ensure the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under terms of a 2013 agreement.
Trump said no action was "off the table" and also conferred with Vice President Mike Pence and his new national security adviser, John Bolton. Monday was the first day on the job for Bolton, who has previously advocated military action against Syria.
Trump said, "If it's Russia, if it's Syria, if it's Iran, if it's all of them together, we'll figure it out."
The United States, meanwhile, urged the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution that would condemn the continuing use of chemical weapons in Syria "in the strongest terms" and establish a new body to determine responsibility for chemical attacks. The draft resolution, obtained by The Associated Press, was circulated ahead of an emergency Security Council meeting.
An American official said the U.S. was discussing with allies whether they would participate in a retaliatory strike. If Trump decides to proceed quickly, the most likely partner would be France rather than Britain, because of concerns about obtaining permission from Parliament, said the official, who wasn't authorized to discuss the planning publicly and requested anonymity.
Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan spoke by phone Monday with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Sullivan and Johnson agreed that based on reports in the media and from the ground, "this attack bore hallmarks of previous chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime," the British foreign office said.
The White House deliberations came as Russia and the Syrian military blamed Israel for a pre-dawn missile attack on a major air base in central Syria, saying Israeli fighter jets launched missiles from Lebanon's air space. A group that monitors Syria's civil war said the airstrikes killed 14 people, including Iranians active in Syria.
Syria's state news agency SANA initially said that attack on the T4 air base was likely "an American aggression," but Pentagon spokesman Christopher Sherwood quickly denied the United States was behind the strike and the agency then dropped the accusation, blaming Israel instead.
The timing of the airstrikes in central Homs province, hours after Trump said there would be "a big price to pay" for the chemical weapons attack, raised questions about whether Israel was acting alone or as a proxy for the United States.
WAYNE, Neb. -- At a scholarship banquet last spring, Talesha Conner sat down at her table and looked at all the utensils in front of her. She immediately faced a conundrum.
"There were all these forks and I didn't know which fork to use," Conner said.
She's certainly not the only one who's been puzzled over the correct use of each fork, spoon or plate at a social dinner. Many can relate to Conner's solution to her dilemma: she watched what others did and followed suit.
On Wednesday, Conner sat among a couple dozen Wayne State College students to learn not only which fork to use, but a number of other etiquette rules for mingling and dining at social gatherings. For 17 years, the college's career services department has hosted the annual etiquette dinner to teach students social skills that could come in handy when trying to impress potential employers.
Conner, a freshman nursing major from Wayne, signed up so she'd be more prepared and comfortable the next time she attends a social gathering.
"I wanted to learn more about what fork to use," she said.
She and the other students learned about forks and much more. But, as the program facilitator told them, the key to etiquette isn't necessarily using the correct eating utensil in each situation, it's being polite and engaging so that those around you feel comfortable.
"To be honest, even if you do something wrong, if you're making people feel comfortable and good about themselves, they probably won't even notice," said Christina Fielder, director of advising in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who has spoken at all 17 of these etiquette dinners.
As Fielder repeated throughout the evening, a few basic social skills can help one feel, or at least appear, at ease in situations such as a job interview over lunch or a social hour that includes networking opportunities.
She began with social hour rules such as where to place your name tag (always on the right side of your chest so it's more visible when shaking hands) and how to introduce people to one another (introduce the more important person first). She also showed a neat trick about how to hold your cocktail napkin, plate and drink all in your left hand in order to keep the right hand free to eat and shake hands.
During both social time and dinner, Fielder emphasized that the main purpose of those settings is often socializing, not eating, so it's important to take small bites to make carrying on a conversation easier and avoid making a mess.
Jason Barelman, Wayne State director of career services, said such training is important for students, especially seniors who might soon be graduating and finding themselves in similar situations when interviewing for a job or other postgraduate opportunities.
"Dining etiquette, we just don't practice it that often in a formal setting," Barelman said. "It still holds true today because you need to have some basic etiquette skills if you're being interviewed over a meal."
Rachel Colwell, a senior speech communication major from Bellevue, Nebraska, attended the etiquette dinner last year as part of a scholarship requirement. With graduation looming in May, she decided to come again to brush up on her etiquette skills.
"I figured once I started applying for a job or grad school, it would be good knowledge to have," Colwell said. "It's nice to know which fork to use. It's those little things you don't always think about, how to look composed when you're not composed."
Fielder answered the important question about what each plate and utensil in a table place setting is used for and added many other basic etiquette rules -- chew quietly and with your mouth closed, pass items around the table to the right. And again, good manners can often overshadow etiquette errors.
"People do notice those social skills in these kinds of settings," she said, "simple things like (saying) 'please' and 'thank you.'"
Please. Thank you.
It's comforting to know that saying those few words can be more important (and easier) than remembering which fork to use when eating your salad.
SIOUX CITY -- Sioux City is switching the firm that provides security in its skywalk system and parking garages, saying it wants local supervision and increased responsiveness from its contractor.
The City Council voted 3-1 to hire 1st Class Security Inc. of Sergeant Bluff for a three-year contract worth $649,159.84. The contract breaks down to $15.76 per hour and will be about $164,000 more than the city's current three-year agreement with Per Mar Security Services, which expires April 23.
Mayor Bob Scott cast the lone no vote on the new contract, with Councilman Dan Moore abstaining.
The council selected 1st Class Security above four other firms that submitted proposals to the city, two with lower proposed prices. Per Mar had submitted a bid approximately $55,000 lower, and Securitas Security Services submitted a bid about $19,000 lower.
Parking and meter operations supervisor Monette Harbeck told the City Council the Parking and Skywalk System Board of Trustees, which makes recommendations to the council on parking and skywalk matters, had conducted evaluations and interviews and preferred 1st Class's proposal because the company is qualified and its supervisor for the security will be local. Harbeck said the supervisors for Per Mar and Securitas are both based in Omaha.
"Our last contractor, the supervisor was basically in Omaha, and whenever we had any issues very seldom were they addressed appropriately," she said.
Harbeck referred to a specific circumstance in which a person was locked in the skywalk one night and needed to be let out after hours.
"I was more than 50 miles away, and it was a couple-hour ordeal," she said.
Harbeck said the city has previously contracted with 1st Class for skywalk security, including a contract that ended in 2015, and has been pleased with its services.
Councilwoman Rhonda Capron said she believed 1st Class had proven itself to the city with its previous contracts.
"I know it's going to cost us a little bit more money, but at least we've got them here in town," Capron said. "And to me that's a huge deal. I mean, if you need somebody, you're not calling to Omaha where it's going to take them two hours to get up here."
Councilman Alex Watters said he hopes the city will see a reduced stigma that skywalks and parking garages are unsafe places. Harbeck pointed to the Sioux City Community School District's future plans to begin holding career academy courses in a renovated portion of the Sioux City Public Museum as another reason the skywalks will need to be secure.
After voting against the contract, Scott said that while he hopes the firm provides adequate security in the future, he had heard from some people who feel the assessments paid for security aren't supplying a quality service.
"Nothing against your service, but they don't feel like the security's going to be good, no matter what, and they're just paying extra for it," Scott said. "I've got to honor that feeling because I've not been overly impressed with the security in our skywalk system."
The security contract will be paid through assessments on 27 adjoining properties. Those include some city-owned properties, including the Sioux City Public Library and Sioux City Public Museum.
In other action Monday, the council voted 5-0 to award a $2,265,499.23 contract to Knife River Midwest LLC for the reconstruction of Morningside Avenue between South Nicollet Street and South Lakeport Street.
The contractor's bid was 2.5 percent below the engineer's estimate for the project. Work on Morningside Avenue is expected to begin May 1 and take 125 working days.
The project will include new paving, sidewalk, driveways and utilities to the street from South Nicollet Street to South Lakeport Street, including the Morningside-South Lakeport intersection.
The council also voted 5-0 to set in motion the 30-day notice period required to lease land in an urban renewal area for the future Bomgaars Ag Expo Center. The city plans to lease approximately 10.45 acres for the project at the former site of the Sioux City John Morrell plant. Work on the $16 million multi-purpose venue is expected to begin later this spring.
SIOUX CITY -- After hearing more teachers complain about a controversial plan that would cut their annual pay by about $4,800, the Sioux City School Board on Monday finalized the district’s 2018-19 budget that includes that pay cut and lowers the local property tax rate.
After discussing options for three months, the board members approved the $204 million financial plan with revenues and expenses for the year through June 30, 2019. Of that total amount, $169.6 million will come in general fund spending, up by $3.3 million from the current year amount of $166.3 million.
The budget approval came after a hearing in which six people spoke. A big topic was the elimination of supplemental pay for middle school and high school teachers who perform extra duties.
Teacher Julie Fischer slammed the district for using "voodoo economics."
"We have administrators trying to steal $4,800 from teachers and take no pay cuts for themselves...The cuts in our schools seem to be just leveled at the teachers," Fischer said.
Sioux City School District Superintendent Paul Gausman and school board members said they didn't like making the cuts, but were forced to make hard choices after basic state aid to public schools only increased by 1 percent.
Gausman said his rationale was not to cut entire teaching positions or programs, so cutting the extra-duty pay was a grudgingly best option.
"I certainly know it is unfavorable. I don't like it either," Gausman said.
In the approved budget, the district's property tax rate drops 4 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, from $15.39 this year to $15.35 per $1,000.
The district's share of property taxes paid by a typical property owner will still go up slightly, since property valuations as a whole have increased as a result of recent reassessments. The school district’s share of taxes paid to the school district by the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 would rise by $69, from $876 to $945.
Ultimately, in approving the budget on a 6-1 vote, the school board followed through with the administration proposal to eliminate the extra pay, of $4,792, given to 296 middle school and high school teachers, or about 30 percent of the total district instructors. Those teachers perform additional classroom duties during sixth period, in the eight-period schedule in the six middle and high schools.
Gausman previously said Sioux City is a rare Iowa school that has given such extra-duty pay, and it is no longer affordable. Eliminating the extra-duty pay saved $1.44 million, or nearly all of the $1.6 million school officials sought to cut in recent weeks for FY 2019.
The school board can make the cuts to extra-duty pay without bargaining that reduction through the Sioux City Education Association, which represents roughly 900 teachers. Republican lawmakers in 2017 approved a major overhaul of the state's collective bargaining law, which now limits mandatory items of negotiation to base salaries for most public employees, including teachers.
By comparison, one year ago board members went with an expansion of the district's early retirement program to make the majority of cuts for the 2017-18 budget. Gausman said another tough budget process could come in spring 2019, when the possibility of more early retirements might be pitched.
The district has more than 1,900 employees. For the 2018-19 year, the district expects to spend $135.3 million on salaries and benefits, an increase of about $2.4 million from the current year.
The budget includes local property taxes and state aid. The Iowa Legislature this year approved a 1 percent increase in supplemental state funding for K-12 districts for the budget year that begins July 1.
Sioux City School Board members lamented a new normal in which larger increases aren't coming from the Legislature to school districts, making it difficult to pay for personnel and program costs.
"There is just not the money," board member Jackie Warnstadt said.
Also during the discussions, the board members declined to spend $211,170 to hire three new talented and gifted program teachers. The board did add a new program called International Baccalaureate, at an estimated first-year cost of $67,500.
Over the past year, some district constituents have said they wanted an expansion of TAG teaching personnel. Gausman said he recommended launching an International Baccalaureate program, with challenging curriculum pieces across all subject areas, such as English, foreign language, math, science, social studies, the arts and physical education.
It will take five years to fully implement IB in five schools, ideally at one elementary school, one high school and three middle schools.
The $67,500 cost will be for an application fee to get underway with IB, and in May district officials will learn more with some research.
"You might choose later to do one building, or two, or none," Gausman said.
Board member David Gleiser, the sole no vote on the budget, spoke against moving ahead with IB, since he said the district "can't afford" to add programs in the current financial climate. Gleiser said community members would rather see more spent to prop up talented and gifted programming.
Community members Jeana Guy and Kristi Rice spoke against International Baccalaureate. Rice said it will cost millions to fully implement, and IB proceeding would mean TAG students would be "robbed of" opportunities.
Board president Mike Krysl said the Sioux City budget was set in an "awkward" timeline, as negotiations with the SCEA and other union groups are not finished, and Iowa school districts' budgets must be set by April 16.
"There is still a lot at play," Krysl said.
District Spokeswoman Mandie Mayo in a statement to the Journal said the budget "has estimated salaries and benefits using reasonable assumptions based on what we know and/or anticipate. When negotiations for all groups are complete, the district will reevaluate the assumptions used and proceed accordingly. If an amendment is needed later, such action can be taken."