IowaWatch joins Investigate Midwest! Meet our new newsroom!

As part of an effort to better cover crucial issues in the agricultural industry, Investigate Midwest has acquired IowaWatch and its talented team, bringing together a combined 25 years of public service journalism to Iowa and the Midwest. IowaWatch (The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism) will cease operations as a nonprofit and evolve into an expanded Iowa-based newsroom within Investigate Midwest (The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting) under an agreement approved this month by the boards of directors of both nonprofit organizations. Under the umbrella of Investigate Midwest, the Iowa team will focus its coverage on agriculture and rural issues. “As colleagues for many years, IowaWatch and Investigate Midwest have naturally gravitated toward the common goal of deeply covering rural communities and Midwest issues that often go unseen and unreported,” said Pam Dempsey, executive director for Investigate Midwest. The newsroom will do more investigative stories for Iowans and allow Investigate Midwest — whose mission is to expose the dangerous and costly practices of influential agricultural corporations and institutions — to expand its coverage in a state that’s a global leader in agriculture.

Iowan’s struggle with long COVID enters third year

Darcy Havel-Sturdevant thought she’d be working by now, two years after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Likewise, she thought she would have been there completely for her daughter, age 3 when Havel-Sturdevant was first diagnosed but now 5. “Throughout the last two years, she’s been really great with helping me if I need help,” Havel-Sturdevant, 35, of Iowa City said about her daughter, Rayne. “If I get really sad or frustrated she’ll start singing ‘Rockabye Baby’ to me and ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’ So that shows like the level of empathy and compassion that children have, you know, at that young age, especially, at least in my case, during the pandemic.”

Havel-Sturdevant said she tried to be optimistic that COVID-19 will end for her but more likely must accept what she called a new baseline for normal living. IowaWatch has been following Havel-Sturdevant’s bout with COVID-19 this past year because of her extraordinary problems with the infection.

School teaches taxpayers an expensive lesson

Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart has been a lightning rod during the past three years over the way Iowa’s public schools have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.Ahart announced last week that he is leaving, effective June 30. But the Des Moines school board ensured that Ahart will continue to carry that lightning rod for a little longer.His contract runs for another year, until June 30, 2023. So, you might think he is forgoing his $306,193 salary, his $7,200 annual allowance for a car and cell phone, and his $84,019 taxpayer-provided retirement annuity.But you would be wrong, wrong and wrong.Even though he will not be employed by the Des Moines schools after June 30, Ahart will still be paid every nickel, every dime and every dollar that he would have received had he chosen to work those 12 months left on his contract.This means Ahart will be paid as much to relax fulltime as he would have been paid to work fulltime.The lucrative “severance agreement” was approved by the Des Moines school board during a special board meeting two days after he announced his resignation. The meeting lasted two minutes. Yes, two minutes — and it included time to call the roll, approve the agenda and vote on the agreement.No one asked any questions.

Sac City, population 2,000, builds on its good bones

SAC CITY – This city is home to the World’s Largest Popcorn Ball, but there’s more than that popping in Sac City. The city initiated a successful streetscape project, renovated a former school building into a community center recreation complex and has some rolling North Raccoon River Valley topography that lends itself to some picturesque recreational trails. It is a county-seat community with several agricultural-based industries, some classic older homes and a historic Chautauqua campground featuring the only Chautauqua building left in the state, constructed in 1908. The community also has been able to secure a major grant to study a possible re-use of a building that will no longer house a middle school after this academic year. Sac City is a town that, as the saying goes, has some “good bones” to build on.

Waterloo’s Carver Academy sees kids who’ve dramatically changed

Editor’s note: IowaWatch in a year-long investigation found that although each state is required to identify the bottom-scoring 5 percent of Title I schools every three years, it doesn’t mean these schools are “failing,” as some Iowa policymakers label them. Iowa’s 34 schools are on a “comprehensive” list. IowaWatch is featuring some of them. Middle school has always been a time of change, but in 2021, the ability to adapt and persevere not just through adolescence, but through a global pandemic, showed just how determined kids can be. “In today’s age at the middle school level … we truly have to be adaptive,” said Sheena Canady, principal at George Washington Carver.

Evans: Iowa school debate needs a lesson in civics

A seat at the table. Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver provided that succinct explanation last week of what his fellow Republicans are looking to provide to Iowa parents as the state’s K-12 school districts wrestle with a host of controversies. His colleague, Senate President Jake Chapman, set the tone a few weeks ago for addressing these controversies in this year’s session of the Iowa Legislature. Chapman accused some teachers of having a “sinister agenda” toward their students and vowed to push for a law that would make it a felony for teachers and school librarians to provide students with books that Chapman and some parents believe are obscene. During an appearance Friday on Iowa PBS’s “Iowa Press” program, Whitver did not talk about the content of those books.

Educators at Iowa’s ‘failing schools’ say they are used as part of political agenda

How do educators at 34 Iowa schools feel about spending the past year hearing elected officials say they are running “failing schools”? Leaders at 13 schools explained the shortcomings of the metric that assigned them the “failing” label, as well as the unique challenges students and staff confronted — even before legislation introduced at the Statehouse singled them out as places where families could get state assistance to leave, they told IowaWatch. “Failing schools” is hyperbole for schools designated by the state as “comprehensive.” These are the Title I schools that score in the bottom 5 percent in the state based on students’ performance on the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress test, and/or for high schools, have a graduation rate below 67.1 percent. IowaWatch in a year-long investigation found that although each state is required to identify the bottom-scoring 5 percent of Title I schools every three years, it doesn’t mean these schools are “failing.”

A common misconception is that all schools are the same, said Jason Aker, principal of Baxter Elementary School in Baxter. “‘Thirty-four failing schools’ is a really crummy way of saying that, because the answer is simple; it’s the bottom 5 percent.

Evans: State government may be harming Iowa population challenges

I stumbled across a statistical tidbit the other day that probably will surprise many people. U.S. Census Bureau figures show that between 1900 and 2000, the state that grew the least in population, on a percentage basis, was Iowa. Read that again. No state had smaller population growth between 1900 and 2000, as a percentage, than Iowa. Not North Dakota.

Evans: Senate change won’t better inform Iowans

Typically, in the days leading up to the start of a new session of the Iowa Legislature, the attention is on lawmakers’ goals and priorities — and on the pledges they make to work together for the good of the people of Iowa. This year, however, Republican leaders who control the Iowa Senate announced a controversial decision that erases more than a century of openness — evicting journalists from the floor of the Senate chamber. This ill-conceived action makes Iowa an outlier among the legislatures in the 50 states. You could count on one hand those that do not allow journalists on the floor of their legislative chambers. Nowhere in their decision do Senate leaders pretend this change will better inform the people of Iowa about the important work the Senate does.