SIOUX CITY | Second grader Damian Lozano is quickly acquiring an appetite for reading.
Luckily, he was one of the students participating in a "book tasting," Wednesday morning, at Liberty Elementary School.
Were kids actually eating books? No, they were simply being asked to read a handful of pages from books representing different genres of literature.
"In elementary school, many students find a favorite genre and stick to it," second grade teacher Molly Tomke explained. "Teachers are always trying to encourage kids to add more variety in their reading choices."
This is why she placed fiction, nonfiction, history, mystery and fairy tale books at various stations inside her classroom.
In addition, Tomke added tablecloths, menus, place settings and, even, votive candles to the desks of her students.
"If you listen closely, I even have some background music to set the proper mood," she said.
But why exactly was Tomke wearing a chef's jacket, toque and black-and-white striped pants?
"Right now, Miss Tomke is really Chef Tomke," she said with a laugh. "And this isn't a second grade classroom. My students are dining at Cafe Del La Tomke, where books are always on the menu."
Damian Lozano seemed content, sampling the historical "Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves."
"It looks like it might be good," he said, thumbing through the pages. "But I bet it won't be as good as Spider-Man."
Sitting at a different table, Damian's classmate Drake Scott was spellbound by a book entitled "Terrific Turtles."
"I hope the book will tell me how to keep track of turtles because I'm always losing track of the four turtles I have at home," he said.
As her students perused through books, Tomke said she enjoys creating a fun, engaging environment for learning.
"We call the concept a 'room flip' because students know something exciting is going to happen to their classroom but they don't know what it is," she said. "Last year, I turned my room into a hospital and the kids became surgeons, operating on words."
Mostly, Tomke wants her students to be able to apply school work in real-life situations.
That was true for Silvia Carrillo, who fell in love with the book, "Alexis and the Perfect Recipe."
"I like to help my mom cook dinner every night," the second grader said. "I can tell my mom this story the next time we make spaghetti together."
SIOUX CITY | Members of a Sioux City advisory board scrutinized financial projections from a private firm vying to manage the Tyson Events Center and Orpheum Theatre Wednesday afternoon, as well as heard more information on a competing management proposal made by city staff.
Wednesday's meeting of the Events Facilities Advisory Board was the final public meeting before the board's members weigh in on whether to turn over management of the two venues to a private firm, Spectra, or keep them under city management.
The board, appointed by the City Council, will not make its recommendation via a public vote, but rather through an email poll of the 11 voting members. Board President Tim Seaman will poll each member individually, then write a draft of the resolution and forward it to City Manager Bob Padmore, a non-voting member of the board. Such a move will save time, since the board typically only meets once a month.
An email poll of members of a local government board does not seem to directly conflict with Iowa's open meetings law, Iowa Freedom of Information Council executive director Randy Evans said Wednesday. But, he told the Journal "good government practices" would be to hold a vote in an setting open to the public.
"I think the people of Sioux City deserve to know what the rationale behind the advisory board’s decision is," he said. "What are the factors the advisory board members are seeing to justify the recommendation one way or another? What elements of it are they weighing in their opinion?"
Seaman, an evening news anchor at KCAU, told the Journal Tuesday afternoon that he had not heard any issues with conducting the poll via email and the board is not attempting to do anything out of line.
The noon meeting Wednesday was a follow-up to a Friday meeting in which board members questioned representatives of Spectra, the Philadelphia-based private management firm that responded earlier this year to a request for proposals to manage the two city-owned venues.
Events Facilities Director Erika Newton told the board members she had not spoken during Friday's meeting because she didn't want to turn the meeting into a debate between Spectra and her department, which submitted its own proposal.
However, she said she saw issues with Spectra's projection that it would add more than $600,000 in revenue and lower the city's operating subsidy by $530,000 over three years, partially by bringing in 58 new events during that time period. Judging by her experience with the market, Newton said she's not sure Siouxland would support those additional shows to the degree Spectra thinks the region will.
"I don't know that that's going to result in more revenue and lower the deficit," she said. "I'm just concerned about the realistic side of things and who will end up paying the price if those numbers are not met."
The Events Facilities Department's total subsidy from the city is currently around $1.7 million per year.
Newton said many of Spectra's ideas to generate revenue also have been similarly proposed by her department under its restructuring plan.
Seaman said he was not satisfied with Spectra's answer to a question on how they would sell more tickets than the city currently does.
"They basically said, 'Because we're Spectra.' That's not a good answer," Seaman said. "Show me you've done some due diligence into what this community is and how those tickets might be sold."
Board member Dave Madsen asked if the city would be open to giving Newton time to try out her proposal first to see if it works.
"Why not give city staff an opportunity to try some of the things that they're talking about for the next year or so, and if it's not working then make a decision about it?" he asked, but received no direct answer.
Padmore said he believes the decision comes down to whether the private company can better reduce the two venues' operating subsidy -- the primary reason the city is looking into private management.
"If you believe they can reduce the deficit, then you go with Spectra. If you don't believe they can reduce the deficit, then Spectra shouldn't be the one," he said.
The City Council will receive the board's final recommendation along with two others prior to making its decision.
The Orpheum Theatre Board of Directors has already voted to recommend the city pursue transitioning to Spectra, "with the understanding and great consideration that it is critical that they do everything possible to maintain critical staff overseeing the Orpheum in place."
A separate panel -- comprised of Padmore, Assistant City Manager Mike Collett, EFAB Member and Sioux City Journal Editor Bruce Miller and Orpheum Board member Dave Bernstein -- will also make a recommendation to the council.
Padmore said the three recommendations will likely go before the council as an agenda item at its regular Oct. 9 meeting.
SIOUX CITY | Displeased with continued taxpayer funding for a Sanford Center program for children, Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor has called for the county to withdraw from a regional group that delivers mental health services.
During the supervisors' weekly meeting Tuesday, Taylor urged his fellow supervisors to exit Sioux Rivers Regional Mental Health and Disability Services group. His plea came just three hours after he found himself on the losing side of a continuous vote by the Sioux Rivers board related to expenditures to the Sanford Center, a Sioux City-based social services agency.
"It is difficult to stand by and watch consistent mismanagement, a culture of fear among providers and those with mental illness poorly served by this governance board. Woodbury County would best leave," Taylor later told the Journal.
Taylor said he'll have legal counsel look into how the county can withdraw from Sioux Rivers, "in order to best protect our citizens." Others in the region want Woodbury County to hold firm and not exit.
Woodbury, Sioux and Plymouth counties formed the group in July 2014 after the state changed from a local to a regional method of delivering mental health services for low-income people. Proponents argued that services could be provided more cost effectively on a regional basis, particularly for smaller counties.
Over the subsequent months a rocky relationship developed, with other Woodbury County officials threatening to voluntarily leave the group. In August 2016, then-supervisor Mark Monson said, "We can withdraw from the region. The region can decide to dissolve."
The latest controversy is over Taylor trying to ensure that taxpayer money is well spent by Sioux Rivers, which receives a combination of state and local funds.
In July, Taylor aired concerns that more than $250,000 in taxpayer money is going through Sioux Rivers to the Sanford Community Center for a joint outreach program with the Sioux City school district that serves teens with mental health issues.
Taylor has repeatedly pointed out the outreach specialists are not licensed mental health workers.
At Tuesday's Sioux Rivers board meeting, he proposed the group only fund services provided by licensed clinicians. The measure failed to advance on a 1-1-1 vote.
"...this vote is indicative of how the Sioux Rivers region consistently lacks the best interest of Woodbury County's most vulnerable. Unlike the licensed clinicians Sioux and Plymouth counties have in their schools, another set of rules will again apply to Woodbury County and this time to kids," Taylor said.
The current sharing agreement between Sioux Rivers, the Sioux City school district and the Sanford Center covers $290,600 for five outreach specialists to be placed through the combined decisions of Sanford and school district officials. Of that money, $30,000 comes from the school district and $260,600 from Sioux Rivers. An additional $215,000 goes to Siouxland Mental Health Center in Sioux City, which has licensed clinicians, said Aaron Haverdink, the mental health services coordinator for Sioux County.
The agreement says services for five outreach specialists and up to 85 hours per week on therapy services can be provided to the school district by Siouxland Mental Health Center.
A letter by Taylor formed the basis for the Tuesday agenda item for the Sioux Rivers Board. The motion was to direct the Sioux City School District to start a more stringent Request For Proposals process for how they direct money for services and to only have licensed clinicians provide services, beginning with the 2018-19 fiscal year
Two people from each county make up the six-member Sioux Rivers governing board. In Tuesday's vote, both Taylor and Supervisor Keith Radig supported the motion to comprise the Woodbury County affirmative vote, while both Sioux County representatives voted against it, and the two Plymouth County members split their votes, so the final outcome was 1-1-1.
In interviews with the Journal Wednesday, Sanford Center Director Fitz Grant and Sanford Board of Directors Chairman Dick Owens said it would be misguided for Taylor to halt money to the nonprofit organization. Owens said Taylor's quest to pull Woodbury County out of Sioux Rivers is "pretty way out."
Owens said there is an important need for Sanford outreach workers in schools to steer pupils to get mental health services. He said Sanford is not a referral entity, but recommends students in need to school officials, who make the ultimate decision whether to refer pupils for care.
Patty Erickson-Puttmann, the Woodbury County service coordinator for Sioux Rivers, a few weeks ago said the Sanford personnel have broad educational backgrounds that were helpful in their expertise. Owens said Iowa Department of Human Services does not mandate certification requirements for workers handling early intervention for students in need of help. He said the Sanford outreach workers have done lots of ongoing training in the mental health field.
"Our people have taken training that is not required but highly recommended," Owens said.
Haverdink said Wednesday it would not be "ideal" for Woodbury County to back out of Sioux Rivers. Haverdink said Sioux Rivers CEO Shane Walter, who is from Sioux County, will soon attend a Woodbury County board meeting to speak out against such a move.
"There is a lot riding on the line, if we were to break up," Haverdink said.