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Civic Skinny

School kids skip out on debt. Grassley tweets.

11/21/2012

The Des Moines school system has a lot of deadbeat kids. Or maybe nice kids with deadbeat parents. Or maybe deadbeat kids with deadbeat parents.

They’re skipping out on the money they owe the district for meals or after-school care or activity fees and the like. A lunch here, a music lesson there — it adds up to $200,000 to $300,000 a year in bad debt, and it has been that way for several years, district officials say. As a result, for the first time the district is thinking of hiring a bill collector.                 

“The district has over 31,000 students that participate in a wide array of programs,” the “notice to vendors” says. “Unfortunately a number of these students have incurred a larger-than-tolerated outstanding debt to the district. The district has put into place internal measures to collect the outstanding debt without success.”                

The deadbeats come from all areas of the city and all schools — elementary, middle school and high school. “It has varied from year to year but in general has been spread across the district,” school spokesman Phil Roeder told Cityview. Roeder added that if a collector is hired he wouldn’t go after “a student who owes $2 for an overdue library book or $5 for a meal ticket.” There would be a minimum, he said.                 

The district has asked debt collectors who’d like the business to submit information about themselves by Wednesday of this week. If the district decides to proceed, it will issue a request for proposals on Dec. 10, with a due date of Dec. 28. If the board decides to hire a collection agency, it would be a first for the district. But some other metro districts use bill collectors, Roeder says.                

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About two-thirds of students in the Des Moines system are eligible for free and reduced-cost meals under federal government programs — a subsidy of about $11.5 million — but students from families that don’t meet those guidelines pay around $3 million a year for meals. And families also pay the district a bit more than $3 million a year for child care, mainly after-school programs that watch the kids until their parents get off work. It’s primarily those programs that have the bad debt; it’s just a tiny chunk of the overall $400 million budget, but it adds up.                 

Meantime, the district is putting in new rules that gradually reduce the credit limit allowed to parents who charge meals — from $500 down to $25 by the start of the next school year. The district hired a new chief financial officer — Thomas Harper — last year, and he discovered the district didn’t really have a procedure to collect overdue accounts. …               

Chuck Grassley tweets:               

“Can’t believe it !! There is history on history channel. Learn abt electricity inventor Edison Powering America.”

                 

Next up: The senator tells us how Mrs. O’Leary’s cow invented fire. …                

Des Moines Redevelopment Company, the group of businesses that is buying and assembling properties on downtown sites they hope will be developed, is closing its first deal, paying $2.6 million out of their revolving fund to Wells Fargo Financial for the building generally known as the Allied Insurance building near Veterans Auditorium. The hope is that a hotel and entertainment center will be built on that and nearby parcels, and, indeed, a delegation of business and municipal leaders went to Philadelphia the other day to talk to a developer. The talks are said to have gone very well; representatives of the developer were in town last week.                 

Meantime, The Des Moines Register reported last week that a deal was about to be made that would have Wellmark turn the old Penney’s building over to the county, which would then turn the old convention complex over to Wellmark, which owns the empty adjacent lot. Then, presumably, the downtown YMCA would move there. The Register said the story was exclusive, which it was if you don’t count the fact that it was in Cityview a few weeks ago, which explained that the county hopes to get citizens to pass a bond issue to remodel the Penney’s building into courtrooms and offices for judges.                

The Register story said it wasn’t clear how the Y would pay for the site or what would happen to the Y’s land on the riverfront. Here are those answers: Business leaders are quietly pledging millions, and think they’ll have no problem raising the total. And the riverfront land — a choice parcel — would be sold, with the old Y probably being torn down to make room for condos or offices. …                 

The house at 519 Foster Drive sold last month for $1.1 million, the biggest sale in Des Moines this year. Polk County documents list the buyers as Reed and Michelle Pulver, the seller as Karsten Gebert. The five-bedroom, six-bathroom home was built in 1937, has a pool and tennis court built in 1980 and sits on 2.67 acres. The house itself has 5,139 square feet. Gebert bought the house from Gretchen Breedlove in 2006 for $865,000. Dr. Bob Breedlove, who was killed in a biking accident in Colorado during the Race Across America in 2005, bought it from Bill Ryan — who once ran WHO — for $615,000 in 1990. The taxes are around $22,000 a year. The assessor’s office also lists Reed Pulver as owner of a $490,000 house on Timberline Drive in West Des Moines. …                 

State Democratic chair Sue Dvorsky isn’t talking. At least, she didn’t respond to two Cityview emails asking if she planned to stay on as party chair. No one can remember her ever being silent on anything. …                 

Democrats are requesting a recount in the Iowa House election in Clive, where Republican incumbent Chris Hagenow beat Susan Judkins by 22 votes out of nearly 17,500 votes cast. …                 

Dan Saftig, who ran the Iowa State University Foundation with great success under Greg Geoffroy but who was summarily fired by new ISU president Steve Leath, now is a consulting vice president of Grenzebach Giller and Associates, “consultants in philanthropic management.” The ISU Foundation this week named Roger Neuhaus as its new president.

And next month Geoffroy will become chairman of the board of Ashford University, a for-profit college with a campus in Clinton. The college is owned by Bridgepoint Education, a publicly-listed company based in San Diego. Ashford has more than 90,000 students across the country — and a dropout rate of more than 50 percent. In July it was denied accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and it has come under widespread fire for many of its practices. It just hired as president the former head of the University of Maine system. The question: Will the sterling reputations of Geoffroy and the new president rub off on Ashford, or will Ashford’s reputation tarnish them? It will be one or the other. …                

In case you were wondering: There are 63 types of special license plates available in Iowa, including 24 associated with the military and 20 associated with Iowa colleges and universities. (Among the others: “Love Our Kids” and “God Bless America.”) As of June 30, the state had issued 117,636 special plates. …                 

And in case you were wondering, Iowa’s nonfarm employment was 1,496,900 at the end of September. The total was 1,488,100 when Gov. Terry Branstad took office nearly two years ago, promising to create 200,000 jobs over five years. Only 191,200 to go. At the current pace, he’ll hit his goal in the year 2048. Better late than never. CV

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