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Nebraska Appleseed demands end to private management of Omaha-area child welfare cases

LINCOLN — Nebraska Appleseed sent a letter to state officials Monday demanding an immediate end to private contracts for child welfare case management in the Omaha area.

The letter argues that the contracts violate the Nebraska Constitution’s prohibition against special legislation, that is, legislation that treats similar groups of people differently. It gave the state one week to comply or face a lawsuit in Lancaster County District Court.

Sarah Helvey, Appleseed’s child welfare program director, said the issue is created by the system of private case management that serves only two counties in the state, Douglas and Sarpy. She called for the state to take back management of cases in those two counties.

“Nebraska’s children and families deserve a stable child welfare system that is not subject to disruption on an ongoing basis,” she wrote. “The time for experimenting with the Eastern Service Area has come to an end and it is time to return to a cohesive system of case management statewide.”

A Nebraska Health and Human Services spokesman said the agency does not comment on threats of litigation or pending litigation.

Currently, PromiseShip, an Omaha-based nonprofit, is responsible for overseeing the care of abused and neglected children in the two counties. PromiseShip, formerly known as the Nebraska Families Collaborative, has held the contract for almost a decade.

But the cases of area children and families are slated to be transferred to St. Francis Ministries, a Kansas-based nonprofit formerly known as St. Francis Community Services, on Jan. 1.

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State HHS officials signed a contract with St. Francis on July 3, after going through a public bidding process.

St. Francis offered to do the Omaha-area case management job over five years for $197 million, less than 60% of the $341 million bid from PromiseShip. The two were the only bidders for the contract.

The letter was sent to HHS, which contracted first with PromiseShip and now with St. Francis; the State Department of Administrative Services, which handled the bidding process; and PromiseShip and St. Francis.

Helvey said she hopes that the state officials and private contractors will come to the table to resolve the matter without need for litigation. But she said Appleseed is prepared to go to court “to defend the rights of Nebraska’s children and families and the tax dollars that have been supporting a disjointed system.”

While Appleseed could have raised the special legislation issue previously, Helvey said the group decided to do it now because of the disruption that will be caused by the change of contractors.

PromiseShip previously filed a lawsuit challenging the decision to award the contract to St. Francis. That case is pending in Lancaster County District Court.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

D.C. West cuts ribbon on new elementary built with controversial funding

The red ribbon fluttered to the ground, and Superintendent Melissa Poloncic pumped her fist in the air.

Just four years ago, property tax dollars were getting sucked out of the Douglas County West Community Schools to help other metro-Omaha districts under a legislative tax-sharing experiment known as the Learning Community common levy.

Taxpayers in Poloncic’s district twice had rejected proposed bond issues, in 2014 and 2015, as her sharply divided community disagreed over how to pay for proposed building upgrades.

But last week in Valley, Poloncic was all smiles welcoming parents, kids and local dignitaries to the ribbon-cutting of the new $17.3 million Douglas County West Elementary School, which was built without a bond issue or a vote of the people.

Poloncic credited creative thinking, luck, hard work and a favorable Nebraska Supreme Court ruling for making it possible.

However, the financing tool that Douglas County West used has stirred debate among policymakers.

Nebraska State Sen. Mike Groene, chair of the Education Committee, described the tool as an unintended “loophole” he wants to plug.

Douglas County West built the school with a lease-purchase agreement.

Lease-purchase agreements can be struck between a school board and a financing entity, typically a bank.

The bank retains title to the property until the district completes the lease-purchase payments.

Such deals are lawful, according to a 2015 Nebraska Supreme Court decision.

The case was part of a long-running controversy in the Scribner-Snyder school district over whether the district should merge with a neighboring district or remain independent and upgrade its facilities.

After a merger with West Point was shot down, Scribner-Snyder voters in March 2012 rejected a $7.5 million bond issue to expand and renovate its junior-senior high school.

So the school board, facing a state fire marshal’s order to correct safety hazards at the school, turned to a Plan B: It set up a lease-purchase plan with a local bank to build a $720,000 metal building with six classrooms.

The Scribner-Snyder school district, 55 miles northwest of Omaha, planned to take ownership of the modular addition after four to five years of lease payments to the bank.

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The deal prompted a lawsuit by a group of district taxpayers, represented by attorney Jovan Lausterer, who were concerned about rising property taxes as well as the precedent set if school boards authorize new construction without a vote of residents.

Lausterer argued that Scribner-Snyder had subverted the intent of state law: that such lease-purchase deals were intended for financing repairs and maintenance projects or property like buses.

The Supreme Court sided with the district.

The losing taxpayers turned to lawmakers without success.

“There just has not been an appetite by the Legislature to restrict that as a vehicle for financing,” Lausterer said. “As of right now, I think it’s well-settled law that you can do it until the Legislature restricts it.”

Groene tried to rein in lease-purchase or bank-loan financing of buildings with a 2018 Education Committee priority bill that stalled.

He said districts always had authority for lease purchases, but until recently they rarely used it.

“Nobody did because they didn’t have the excess taxing ability to make the payment,” he said. “They needed the tax dollars to operate their schools.”

In recent years, however, some rural districts, benefiting from rising valuations, have found that they can pay for day-to-day operations and still have enough room under the $1.05 maximum levy limit to allocate up to 14 cents to their building fund as a way to build schools and gyms.

He said he knows of at least six Nebraska districts — of the 196 districts that have a levy under a dollar — who have raised building levies to construct new school buildings.

Most districts issue bonds for school construction. They repay the debt through their bond funds, which are allowed to collect taxes in excess of the $1.05 levy limit.

“Everybody just assumed when they built new buildings they’d have a bond election,” Groene said. “Well, we did that for 50 years, then all of a sudden these loopholes start showing up with taxing ability below a dollar in combination with avoiding a bond election by financing with lease purchases or bank loans.

Last year’s bill, LB 778, would have clarified that special building fund levies could not be used to build a new school or addition without a vote of the people.

Two years ago, O’Neill Public Schools board members voted for a $13.3 million construction project paid for by lease-purchase.

The project under way at the junior/senior high school includes classrooms, a band room and a new gymnasium.

“We had four modular classrooms that were put in place 30 years ago as a temporary solution to some overcrowding,” Superintendent Amy Shane said. “And they were still there 30 years later.”

She said the district had previously used lease-purchase to add classroom space and some restrooms, so residents were familiar with the tool. The school board members are “not wild spenders,” and the project did not have a lot of frills, she said.

Still, it generated some opposition.

“I won’t say everyone was throwing a parade,” she said. “Especially our larger farmers who bear the brunt of most of our property taxes.”

Douglas County West’s Poloncic said her district’s property tax picture improved when lawmakers did away with the metro area’s common levy in 2016. That meant the district could keep its locally generated property taxes.

It was a “perfect moment in time” for the project, she said.

“We were really able to do this efficiently for our taxpayers because of the timing,” she said.

The district is using just over 10 cents of its special building fund levy — about $200 on a $200,000 house — to pay for the new 82,000-square-foot school.

Poloncic, however, points out that the district’s overall levy will stay at $1.08, the same as last year.

The district’s levies for specific spending funds for next year are still being worked out. but Poloncic said they will most likely be set close to this year’s levels: 89 cents for the general fund, just under 14 cents for the special building fund and 5 cents for the Qualified Capital Purpose Undertaking Fund, which is typically used for health and safety projects.

She said the that project approval process was “transparent” and that the district’s use of lease-purchase made sense to taxpayers because the tax rate wasn’t going up.

“Our elected officials have to make decisions based on the heartbeat of their community,” she said. “And that’s exactly what this board of education did. I believe they had a good pulse on our community and knew that this was the right thing to do.”

The district’s elementary school enrollment is on the rise, up from 408 in 2015 to 496 last school year, an increase of 21.5%. The new school has an enrollment capacity of 675.

Clay Janke, a student, snipped the red ribbon, and visitors poured in for an open house.

Fourth grade teacher Mary Jean Fitzgerald taught in a portable classroom last year.

The new school has an open, friendly feel, she said.

“I think kids will feel more comfortable and more at home,” Fitzgerald said.

Maryann Lenhart explored the school with her husband, Jack, daughter, Kellie and grandsons Trey, 9, and Kobe, 7.

“It’s really awesome,” Lenhart said. “Everything looks really neat and high-tech.”

Jack Lenhart, 70, who attended the old elementary, gushed over the new one.

“It’s so beautiful, good gosh,” he said.

He joked that he missed one thing from the old school: “Buckets to catch the rain.”

Photos: Fighting measles in Nebraska, Iowa through the years

Pilot who calmly saved scores of lives in 1989 Sioux City crash landing dies at 87

Alfred C. Haynes, the pilot who 30 years ago last month saved scores of lives when he steered his crippled jumbo jet to a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, has died.

Haynes died Sunday at age 87 in a Seattle-area hospital, said Gary Brown, the director of emergency services in Iowa’s Woodbury County and a friend of the retired pilot.

“He was a great guy, and probably the most humble person I ever met in my life,” Brown said. “Two words he never wanted used in the same sentence were his name and ‘hero.’ ”

Nonetheless, Haynes was praised for his calm heroics on July 19, 1989, after he brought his disabled DC-10 to an emergency crash landing in Sioux City after it had lost all flight controls. While 112 people lost their lives that day, it was amazing that 184 lived.

Haynes, a former Marine aviator who had flown for United Airlines since 1956, was the pilot of United Flight 232 on that fateful day as it cruised high over northwest Iowa on its way from Denver to Chicago.

That’s when a fan disk in the jet’s rear engine disintegrated, causing the engine to blow apart and sending fragments ripping into the plane’s tail section. The engine’s catastrophic failure severed all three of the plane’s hydraulic systems, disabling all flight controls.

That meant the pilots had no ability to steer the plane up or down or left or right. And no brakes to stop it once on the ground.

The odds of all three systems failing had been considered a billion to one, so there was no protocol for landing a plane in those conditions. Haynes and the crew would have to make things up as they went along.

“None of us knew what to do,’’ he would say years later. “But with our combined knowledge, we worked it out together.’’

Haynes and his fellow pilots learned that they could crudely control the plane by throttling its left and right engines. He requested an emergency landing at Sioux City’s Gateway Airport and, with the help of his fellow pilots, brought the plane into a perilous right-circling descent over Sioux City.

Haynes’ cool resolve would be revealed days later when investigators reviewed the black box radio logs. When the Sioux City controller told him that he was free to land on any runway, Haynes chuckled aloud. “You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh,” he said.

He also calmly addressed the passengers on the plane’s public address system: “We’re going to make an emergency landing in Sioux City. And I’m not going to kid you. It’s going to be rough.”

Haynes made a point of making sure the final approach kept the plane away from the city, avoiding an even bigger disaster.

With Haynes unable to control the speed of the descent, the plane crashed hard on the runway, sparking a giant fireball, and then it broke apart. Most of the plane slid more than a mile off the end of the runway into a cornfield.

Rescuers who witnessed the scene and assumed that all had perished were stunned to suddenly see dozens of survivors emerging from the cornfield. All were evacuated to area hospitals.

As for Haynes, the cockpit had broken off from the rest of the wreckage, and it took more than a half-hour for anyone to realize that all four pilots were alive inside the crumpled shell.

He was hospitalized for days, but he soon recovered and resumed flying.


Flight attendant Susan White Callender, right, holds the hand of Alfred Haynes after a 2014 press conference about the 1989 crash landing of United Flight 232 plane crash in Sioux City, Iowa. 

Haynes would later say he put his most basic flying skills to use as he fought to keep the plane in the air over Iowa. While he was happy that 184 people survived the crash, at a 25th anniversary gathering in Sioux City in 2014, he expressed regret for those who died.

“It’s our responsibility to get the airplane from A to B safely, and we didn’t do it,” he said.

But it’s unlikely that anyone could have saved those who lost their lives. When the Federal Aviation Administration used flight simulators to replicate the situation, not one pilot in dozens of tries could bring the plane to the ground safely.

Haynes retired two years after the crash at the mandatory retirement age of 60. He then proceeded to give 1,700 talks on Flight 232.

He always said five factors contributed to the flight’s best possible outcome: luck, communications, preparation, execution and cooperation. Those traits were not only evident in the cockpit, he said, but among the rescuers on the ground in Sioux City.

“Our luck ran out about 50 feet in the air,’’ he said, “but it lasted for a long time.’’

Haynes was living in SeaTac, Washington, in recent years. He had befriended Brown after the ordeal and continued to stay in touch over the years. Brown said he last saw Haynes several years ago after the pilot gave a talk in Des Moines.

Brown said Haynes endured tragedies in his personal life. His wife, a former flight attendant, died a day before the 10th anniversary of the crash. Haynes also lost one of his two children, a son, in a motorcycle crash.

Brown said Haynes devoted all the honoraria he received for his speaking engagements to scholarships, including some still given in the Sioux City area. And Haynes in all his talks never failed to praise the way the people in Sioux City responded to the crash and rallied around the survivors.

“He considered Siouxland his second home,” Brown said. “The world lost an incredible guy, and our community lost the greatest ambassador we ever had.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Photos: Flight 232 crash in Sioux City

Veggie burgers were living an idyllic little existence. Then they got caught in a war over the future of meat.

Tofurky wasn't keeping cattle ranchers awake at night.

For decades, veggie burgers were the token offering to vegans at the backyard barbecue, and Tofurky was the Thanksgiving benediction to the meat-free loved ones in our lives.

But as plant-based meat goes from an afterthought to a financial juggernaut that aims to change how most people eat, the opposition has suddenly awakened: Many of the country's 800,000 cattle ranchers have declared war on newcomers Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which use technology to make products that hew closely to the taste and texture of meat, and now "first-generation" veggie burgers and similar products are caught in the crossfire.

In 2019, officials in nearly 30 states have proposed bills to prohibit companies from using words such as meat, burger, sausage, jerky or hot dog unless the product came from an animal that was born, raised and slaughtered in a traditional way. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Wyoming have already enacted such laws. In Missouri, the first state where the ban took effect, violators incur a $1,000 fine and as much as a year in prison. Mississippi's new law is sweeping: "Any food product containing cell-cultured animal tissue or plant-based or insect-based food shall not be labeled meat or as a meat product."

The states, in most cases backed by cattlemen's associations, claim consumer confusion as the driving force for the laws. The newest offerings, they say, cross a line when they make unsubstantiated health claims (many have long lists of processed ingredients and are high in sodium) and when the packaging is unclear.

"Beyond Meat Beefy Crumbles has a picture of a cow on the front and says 'plant-based' in very small lettering at the bottom," said Mike Deering, a cattle rancher and the executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association. "I'm a dad and I'm going through the grocery store before one of my boys has a meltdown, and [if] I pick up that package that says beef with a picture of a cow on it, I'm going to buy it."

This isn't quite a David vs. Goliath fight. The cattle associations have enormous political power, and several of the top veggie brands such as Morningstar Farms and Boca are owned by food giants such as Kellogg and Kraft Heinz. Notably, the major meat processors - Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods, for instance - aren't taking sides, relying on the ranchers for traditional meat but also investing heavily in these new alternatives they believe consumers increasingly desire.

The future of ranching faces a big threat if plant-based meat, thought to be much better for the environment, becomes a mainstay of the American diet.

Traditional animal agriculture is looking to the lessons learned by the dairy industry, which saw cow's milk sales dwindle by $1.1 billion last year, much of that business scooped up by alternative milks such as almond and oat. And as the stock price of Beyond Meat, which went public this year, has soared, some of the biggest retailers and restaurants in America have got on board with plant-based alternatives.

In September, Impossible Burgers roll out in grocery stores. Subway has announced meatless meatballs, Carl's Jr. and sister company Hardee's have gotten on the meatless meat wagon, Dunkin' introduced its Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich and Burger King expanded the reach of its Impossible Whopper to all franchises.

On July 22, Tofurky joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Good Food Institute (a nonprofit that promotes plant-based meat) and the Animal Legal Defense Fund to file a lawsuit claiming Arkansas' new labeling law, which went into effect July 24, violates the First and Fourteenth amendments.

"If we lose, there's something wrong with our judicial system," said Tofurky chief executive Jaime Athos. "The first thing to get out of the way is that people are confused. It's all [the cattlemen's associations] can come up with to censor speech."

He said there is mandatory court-ordered mediation because the two sides have failed to reach an agreement. If Tofurky loses, plant-based meats will have to be repackaged to reflect approved nomenclature, an expensive endeavor for a national company that sells to all 50 states. The bigger issue, Athos said, should focus on the emerging science about the benefits of a plant-based diet.

"The meat industry's chickens are coming home to roost. Their industry was propped up by agricultural subsidies and misrepresented the true nutritional value and necessity of meat in the American diet," he said. "We know better. These are not healthy things."

Despite being dragged into the fight, Athos said he's not miffed at what's transpired.

"When it comes down to it, we've undertaken a monumental task and we now have partners to help us achieve those goals," he said. "What a great thing to be able to live your values. What we're seeing with plant-based is the conversation shifting from 'why' to 'why not.' "

There are reasons for Athos to be sanguine. Tofurky has seen year-over-year double-digit growth that has been limited only by production capacity, he said.

"There's no question we're seeing more attention to the category," said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Food Association, which advocates for the leading plant-based food companies. ". . . To have a company like Tofurky have an easy time talking to Walmart? This wasn't the case five or 10 years ago."

Morningstar Farms, which has been around for more than 40 years, has shifted from being just in grocery stores to being in restaurants, universities, schools, cafeterias and hospitals, with nearly 25,000 locations and with 7,500 new restaurants projected by 2020.

While parent company Kellogg doesn't disclose specific sales data, it issued a statement saying the plant-based surge led by Impossible and Beyond has been beneficial, driving more consumers to meat alternatives. Morningstar has announced its entire portfolio will be vegan by 2021 (plant-based cheese and egg will be added into the mix), while Boca, owned by Kraft Heinz, went through a major brand refresh with new recipes and retro-cool packaging updates in 2018.

For Jan Dutkiewicz, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University who teaches a class a class titled "Modernity and the Slaughter House," these first- and second-generation plant-based companies make strange bedfellows, with widely discrepant agendas.

"Tofu and seitan have been around for centuries. These were not on the mainstream radar - the stuff hippies eat. For Tofurky and Morningstar, customers were more vegans and vegetarians, not mainstream consumers. They weren't trying to compete with meat on taste," he said. "Impossible and Beyond are not an outgrowth of Tofurky. Their aim is to mimic meat as closely as possible. They are trying to supplant meat entirely."

The investment capital involved is different, too, Dutkiewicz said, "by orders of magnitude."

Plant-based items that closely mimic meat are seen as a promising new revenue stream for most big meat and food companies. These giants are beginning to reposition themselves as "protein companies."

Earlier this month, Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world, announced it would launch a plant-protein line under the Pure Farmland brand. Maple Plant-Based Breakfast Patties, Simply Seasoned Plant-Based Protein Starters and six other products will debut in stores in September. Tyson Foods is debuting its own meatless-protein line. Perdue has launched blended meat-and-veg chicken nuggets, tenders and patties. Nestlé is rolling out a plant-based line, and Hormel's Applegate has debuted blended meat-and-mushroom burgers.

The top item on the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's list of 2019 policy priorities is to hash out a regulatory framework for plant-based and cell-based meat, a responsibility that will slide back and forth between the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

According to Deering, some of the hubbub really relates to the anticipated launch next year of cell-based meat, that is meat, poultry and seafood products derived from muscle tissue grown in a lab with cells harvested from a living animal. Ranchers fear that insufficient labeling will not distinguish between traditional animal agriculture and these products that do not yet have a track record for safety and human health.

"We are at the mercy of the market, at the mercy of the weather," Deering said. "We represent some of the most resilient people on the planet who can compete any day of the week and twice on Sunday. This is about consumer protection."

Also earlier this month, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), a nonprofit that lobbies on behalf of the fast food, meat, alcohol and tobacco industries, placed ads in the Wall Street Journal and New York Post highlighting many of the ingredients in fake bacon and fake sausage, pointing out that many of the plant-based meat options are highly processed and suggesting this might fly in the face of what folks think of as "healthy."

"People see veggie burgers on the menu and think it sounds like it's chopped-up salad," said Will Coggin, managing director of CCF. "Despite what the name leads people to believe, 'plant-based' meats are made in industrial facilities, not gardens. Fake meat companies are trying to promote a 'health halo' over their products, but consumers should know that imitation meat is highly processed and in some cases has more calories and sodium than the real thing."