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Sioux City School District looking to draw more substitute teachers

SIOUX CITY -- On a single day last fall, nearly 200 Sioux City public school teachers took an excused leave of absence, requiring district administrators to locate dozens of substitutes to cover classes.

Administrators and school board members last month engaged in a wide ranging discussion on the often difficult task of lining up enough substitute teachers. As an added incentive, the leaders discussed whether the district needs to raise the substitute pay scale, which currently ranges from $110 to $130 to $172 per day, depending on the accumulated number of days they substitute.

There is currently a pool of 201 teachers who routinely serve as substitutes in the district, which has around 1,000 full-time teachers. 

Human Resources Department Director Rita Vannatta said the district has spent $5.5 million over the last three years to hire substitutes, with the amount consistently around $1.8 million annually.

School board member David Gleiser said substitutes handle a sometimes difficult task.

"There is a special place in heaven for substitute teachers," he said.

Additionally, other Siouxland districts also sometimes have trouble lining up substitutes. Sergeant Bluff-Luton Superintendent Rod Earleywine said, "it is kind of hit-and-miss. Some days, we are filled."

Earleywine said the district has 31 teachers who form the pool of substitutes for SB-L, with about half of those coming from retired teachers.

Vannatta said the prime reasons regular teachers are gone include sickness for themselves or family members, taking personal vacation days or being out for professional development. Per Iowa code, first-year teachers are given 10 days of sick leave, then the amount goes up in following years.

Over the last three years, Sioux City teachers averaged about 6.5 sick days and nearly three days for professional development.

Vannatta said the average fill rate for teachers with substitutes has been 93.5 percent, meaning 6.5 percent are unfilled. Many days in late August 2018, as the year began, had 100 percent fill rates.

"My personal goal is a 100 percent fill rate," said Vannatta, who manages personnel matters.

The day with the most teacher absences came on Oct. 26, 2018, when 192 were gone for various reasons. The report showed that Friday is the most missed day of the school week, accounting for 24 percent of absences in the district.

Sioux City school officials will hold more discussions on the topic in an upcoming meeting. Superintendent Paul Gausman said it is important that school board members understand the challenge at hand.

The information in Vannatta's report included the substitute teacher pay rate of adjacent school districts, which compete with Sioux City at times. The compensation in nearby districts ranges from $85 to $196 per day.

Some examples include Sergeant Bluff-Luton, where the pay is virtually the same as Sioux City, with $110 for up to 20 days of subbing, $130 for days 21 to 50 and $170 for more than 50 days in a school year.

In South Sioux City, the pay is $115 for up to 25 days of subbing, $135 for days 26 to 50 and $175 for more than 50 days. Le Mars pays $115 per day for substitutes, while Woodbury Central in Moville pays $120 per day, then $156 after a person has worked 10 days in the same position.

Earleywine said SB-L set the pay rate near that of Sioux City, to be competitive. He said there's a more modern way to reach out to possible subs for an opening, through an automated phone system to send out inquiries, plus a mobile phone application way to get responses.

At times when substitutes are not lined up, other full-time teachers in the Sioux City district use an open planning period to cover for an absent teacher, for which they are paid an extra $30. Over the last three years, the annual amount paid to teachers to cover in such classrooms ranged from $52,695 to $83,880.

Additionally, the Sioux City district has an incentive program to promote excellent teacher attendance. That program pays bonuses of $250 for teachers who miss no days in a year, along with $175 for one day gone and $150 for two days maximum.

For 2017-18, 233 teacher received such bonuses, including 39 who missed zero days.

School board member Miyuki Nelson encouraged a look into reasons why teachers need to use sick days, saying a more robust wellness program could help reduce absences.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mistated the number of teachers in the Sioux City district.

Black Virginia voters feel betrayed, left in no-win scenario

RICHMOND, Va. — Eva Siakam's choice to campaign for Ralph Northam in 2017 was a simple one: He was a Democrat and endorsed by Barack Obama, America's first black president.

But sitting in a stylist's chair at Supreme Hair Styling Boutique in Richmond on Friday, she shook her head in disgust when asked about revelations that Northam wore blackface 35 years ago.

"I really believed in him," said Siakam, a 28-year-old student. "To find out that he dressed up in blackface is disappointing. He's shown his disdain for black people."

Black voters who factored prominently in the 2017 election that helped Northam become Virginia governor are feeling betrayed over the scandals that have engulfed the state over the past week, leaving them with a less-than-ideal set of choices at the top of the Democratic Party: a governor and attorney general who wore blackface and a lieutenant governor who stands accused by two women of sexual assault. The next person in line for governor is a conservative Republican.

Many are struggling to come to grips with a list of nagging questions: Do they forgive the Democrats, keep Republicans out of power and demand the governor get serious about racism? Should Northam step down and hand the office to African-American Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who faces sexual assault allegations? Or should all three of them walk away and let principle prevail, even if the other party takes charge?

The dilemma was being weighed in black barber shops, salons, restaurants and living rooms and in activist and political circles across the state in the midst of a still-unfolding reckoning around race and scandal in the Old Dominion.

"We don't even know where to take the conversation from here," community organizer Chelsea Wise said at a meeting of Democrats in Richmond on Thursday. "Do we want to address all of them, or are we just sticking with Ralph right now? The fact that it's all of our top leadership shows that we need to take a hard look at the Virginia Democratic Party as well."

The governor has been facing calls to resign ever since a photo emerged from his medical school yearbook page in 1984 that showed someone in blackface next to a person wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. He initially said he was in the photo, then denied that but said he did wear blackface when he impersonated Michael Jackson around the same time. Days later, Fairfax was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2004, and Attorney General Mark Herring came forward to admit that he, too, wore blackface in the 1980s.

As of Friday night, Northam informed his Cabinet that he was determined to stay in office, Herring remained in a wait-and-see posture, and Fairfax had denied a second accusation of sexual assault, this one from a classmate at Duke University who said he raped her in 2000. Northam is vowing to start an honest conversation on race to begin to heal Virginia's lingering racial legacy.

Siakam said she thinks Northam should resign, but said the conversation must now turn to the larger impacts of racism on communities of color.

"There's nothing you can do for us to forget, but we should focus more now on structural racism," she said.

African-Americans, who make up 20 percent of Virginia voters, overwhelmingly supported the commonwealth's top three Democrats in 2017, in large part as a repudiation of what they saw as the racist rhetoric and policies prevalent in the 2016 presidential campaign and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville just months before the election. 

Wise said she had reservations about Northam's commitment to black communities during the election, but supported him anyway and was prepared to hold him accountable amid a racially divided national climate.

"We knew Trump had just gotten elected and we needed a Democratic governor in Virginia, especially because of the importance of the state in national elections," Wise, 34, explained. "I almost felt like I couldn't question him because of the urgency add the importance of what we just had on the national level."

Wise said she felt betrayed by Northam's revelations, particularly because he remained silent about his own past after the events of Charlottesville.

Shemicia Bowen campaigned for Democrats up and down the ticket. The 44-year-old Richmond resident said she gasped when she learned the governor had worn blackface 35 years ago. She finds Herring's revelations were even more alarming because he's the state's top lawyer and has to deal with daily decisions affecting black people in the criminal justice system.

Still, Bowen struggles with the way forward for black Virginians. She doesn't think anyone will step down, and as a loyal Democrat, she's not sure they should turn over the state to Republicans.

"We can't just throw the whole ticket away at this point," said Bowen.

Norfolk native Joe Dillard said Northam should resign, and that the allegations against Fairfax should be investigated before discussing what consequences he should face. But the idea of a Republican governor should all three step aside was not unpalatable if it's the right decision, he said.

"Do I think I should support Democrats to the point where I allow certain things that my great-grandparents would slap me in the face for letting slide? No, I won't," Dillard said. "I am not a Democrat before I'm an African-American man. For me, it's always people over party."

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Water fluoride controversy playing out in Ida County, Iowa

IDA GROVE, Iowa -- Ida Grove city leaders and residents disagree on whether fluoride should continue to be placed in the city water supply, so residents in the Ida County town seat may be surveyed on the subject.

Ida Grove Councilman Doug Clough on Friday said the fluoride issue at hand may be placed as a survey question on utility bills to gauge where residents stand. Clough said since 1971 city officials have been placing hydrofluorosilicic acid, most recently in liquid drops form, into Ida Grove's water supply to prevent tooth decay.

Christie Van Houten, of Ida Grove, has spoken in council meetings and on a personal Facebook page has shared numerous posts about her opposition to the fluoride.  Van Houten has linked to an online poll with the title, "Stop re-introduction of Synthetic Flouride in Ida County Drinking Water!"

Van Houten urged people to vote on that poll, which contains the snippet, "Water fluoridation is allowing government to mass medicate. This is what doctors can not do to individual patients. Put another way: Would you allow your neighbor to decide what medication you should ingest (even if it’s against your will)?"

Clough said the controversy has been aired on social media and newspaper letters to the editor, as city council members have veered on whether fluoride should be in the water. Ida Grove is a town with 2,142 people.

"Everybody is passionate on both sides," Clough said.

The issue of whether fluoride should be in public water systems comes up periodically in Iowa and nationally. In January, a Hawaii lawmaker introduced legislation that would require the state's major public water suppliers to fluoridate drinking water, as a way to promote better dental health.

Siouxland dentists routinely say brushing, flossing, a twice-a-year check-up and fluoride in water are key elements of cavity prevention.

Clough personally wants the fluoride to be placed in the water, even though he voted against it last summer.

City Water Superintendent Lon Schluter in a July 2018 council meeting said the city equipment used to drip in the liquid form of fluoride needed replacement, and noted that not all area towns add it. The council that day unanimously voted to stop using it, the office of the city clerk confirmed Friday.

Clough said he subsequently educated himself on the topic, and learned the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta doesn't see any health risks associated with fluoride in water systems. Local public health officials, including from Horn Memorial Hospital in Ida Grove, in subsequent meetings urged the council to use fluoride.

Thereafter, the council on a 3-2 vote in November moved back to approve using it. However, fluoride is not currently being placed into the Ida Grove water system, while waiting for the updated equipment to arrive.

"We are in this little hiatus," Clough said.

The topic was last discussed by the council in January, and Clough said there is some sentiment to put the issue to a referendum by residents. He said the Iowa League of Cities has advised such a ballot referendum has never been put before voters statewide.

Clough said that's why the city may put the issue out as a survey on utility bills.