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    Thursday
    Jun012017

    Nation's Least-Funded Schools Get What They Pay For

    Education funding has yet to bounce back from the recession in many states. But nowhere is the situation more dire than in Oklahoma.
    BY  JUNE 2017
    school hallway and lockers
    Shutterstock.com

    In his 17 years as a school official in Oklahoma, Robert Romines has dealt with more than his share of painful situations. In 2013, as superintendent in the town of Moore, he had to shepherd his system through the aftermath of a tornado that caused $2 billion in total damage, destroying entire neighborhoods and taking down two elementary schools. Today, he is up against a subtler but deeply corrosive attack on his schools: death by a thousand spending cuts.

    No state has suffered more than Oklahoma when it comes to education funding over the past decade. As it has struggled to balance its budget in the face of declining oil revenue, spending on schools has declined further than anywhere else. Oklahoma now spends $1 billion less on K-12 education than it did a decade ago. One in five of its school districts has opted for a four-day school week; the base minimum salary for educators hasn’t been raised in nearly a decade; and emergency credentials are being awarded at a record pace to help fill teacher vacancies. Arts programs are going away. Some schools are consolidating their sports programs with other schools to save money. Funding was cut in this year’s education budget for the statewide science fair, in which students compete for awards and scholarships.

    In Moore, Romines has tried to hold off as long as possible from making budget cuts that directly impact students. But in the last few years, he has had no choice.

    Click to read more ...

    Monday
    May012017

    The City Managers on a Constant Quest for New Places to Fix

    BY  MAY 2017

     

    In the early 2000s, Mark Scott had been working for the city of Beverly Hills for 20 years -- 14 of them as city manager. Thanks to the opulence of the town, it was the kind of place where a budding manager could learn the business minus the typical “city” problems. But eventually the absence of serious issues started to get to Scott. During his tenure, he had watched neighboring Los Angeles endure dramatic civil and social unrest. Meanwhile, in Beverly Hills, luxury merchants and developers were bending over backward to do business. In 2003, the town’s Rodeo Drive Committee announced that the glassware company Baccarat was displaying $1 million worth of crystal chandeliers along the famous road’s median. It all triggered something in Scott, and he decided he needed a change. Or, really, a challenge.

    He couldn’t have picked a more opposite place for his next chapter. Scott landed in Spartanburg, S.C., a former mill town divided almost evenly between white and black residents. About one-quarter of the town lived in poverty.

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    Monday
    Apr032017

    John Arnold: The Most Hated Man in Pensionland

    The billionaire philanthropist has vowed to secure retirement for public employees. So why do so many public employees despise him?
    BY  APRIL 2017
    (Photos by Brent Humphreys)

    John Arnold wasn’t a pension guy.

    The billionaire financier, who made a fortune in the stock market before retiring at 38, hadn’t ever really been interested in public retirement plans. But in early 2009, just months into the global financial crisis, Arnold began seeing a flurry of news articles about public pension funds collectively losing billions in the stock market crash. Assets had plummeted, causing unfunded liabilities to shoot up. Cash-strapped governments couldn’t afford to fix the shortfall, and the longer they delayed putting more money in their pensions, the worse the problem would get. In short, it was a policy nightmare.

    Arnold became intrigued. “The fact that you could go in one year from having a system that was well-funded to having a major gap -- that affected me,” he says. He started digging and found a book called Plunder: How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation, by conservative writer Steven Greenhut. As the title suggests, the book is an anti-union take on public pensions that details the misdeeds of the system’s bad actors -- public employees who game the system and wind up with pensions that are equal to or better than what their working salaries had been. Reading that book, says the now-43-year-old Arnold, “just made me mad.”

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    Wednesday
    Mar012017

    The Myth vs. the Truth About Regulating Payday Lenders

    When state laws drive so-called "debt traps" to shut down, the industry moves its business online. Do their low-income customers follow?
    BY  MARCH 2017

    In 2010, Montana voters overwhelmingly approved a 36 percent rate cap on payday loans. The industry -- the folks who run the storefronts where borrowers are charged high interest rates on small loans -- predicted a doomsday of shuttered stores and lost jobs. A little over a year later, the 100 or so payday stores in towns scattered across the state were indeed gone, as were the jobs. But the story doesn’t end there.

    The immediate fallout from the cap on payday loans had a disheartening twist. While brick-and-mortar payday lenders, most of whom had been charging interest upward of 300 percent on their loans, were rendered obsolete, online payday lenders, some of whom were charging rates in excess of 600 percent, saw a big uptick in business. Eventually, complaints began to flood the Attorney General’s office. Where there was one complaint against payday lenders the year before Montana put its cap in place in 2011, by 2013 there were 101. All of these new complaints were against online lenders and many of them could be attributed to borrowers who had taken out multiple loans.

    That is precisely what the payday loan industry had warned Montana officials about. The interest rates they charge are high, the lenders say, because small-dollar, short-term loans -- loans of $100 or $200 -- aren’t profitable otherwise. When these loans are capped or other limits are imposed, store-based lenders shut down and unscrupulous online lenders swoop in.

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    Tuesday
    Jan032017

    Fighting Sex Trafficking Is Harder Than It Seems

    More than half the states have passed laws to protect victims, but the laws aren’t always enforced and often produce new challenges.
    BY  JANUARY 2017

    When a young teen named Anjelique ran away from her home near San Francisco last summer, her trauma didn’t end when police eventually found her. Instead, while her distraught mother and grandmother posted “missing child” fliers all over the East Bay area, police took Anjelique to an Alameda County social services assessment center in Hayward. Before police take troubled youths home, they often bring them there to receive counseling and services.

    But 12-year-old Anjelique only stayed one night. That’s because sex traffickers were using the assessment center as a recruitment base. Anjelique befriended another teenage girl in the center, who convinced her to leave. Together, they walked just a few minutes up the seedy commercial strip in Hayward to a budget motel. Once there, Anjelique was put to work.

    As a means of controlling her, her mother said, Anjelique’s traffickers got her hooked on heroin. As part of an investigation into her story, a local news crew visited the motel where Anjelique unwittingly entered the sex trafficking trade. Filmed one night this past summer, the news video shows young women arriving early in the evening while others linger in the doorways of rooms or on the balcony outside. Throughout the night, men come in and out of the rooms; other men whisk the girls away in cars, bringing them back a few hours later.

    Anjelique eventually escaped, and at the time of the news story, was spending time in drug rehab for her addiction.

    Anjelique’s story may sound sensational, but in the world of child sex trafficking, it’s painfully normal. Traffickers seek out vulnerable, unhappy teens -- like runaways. Juvenile detention facilities or social services centers such as the one in Hayward are prime recruiting grounds. Sometimes, young women already in the trade become recruiters themselves, approaching other vulnerable girls and offering them what seems like an exciting life. The new recruit comprehends the full reality of her new situation too late. Readily available drugs help numb the pain.

    Click to read more ...