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WCDA asked to change policy on scholarships

The Northwood Anchor of Northwood, Iowa

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A passionate, articulate group of Worth County residents met with the Worth County Development Authority Board of Directors on September 7 at 4:30 p.m. at their office in Northwood.

Dedicated to providing their adopted, court appointed and foster children the best opportunities possible, the well-expressed Tom and Dorothy Hagen, Stephan Davis, Mindy Hereen and Joan Stumo, all of Northwood; attorney Mark Young and Lionel Foster of Mason City, each spoke on behalf of all children to the WCDA regarding fair distribution of scholarship funds.

Dan Reeder, president of the WCDA, chaired the meeting. Attending were board members Dennis May, Joyce Russell, Gary Christian-son, Dean Hendrikson, Ken Abrams and Amy Yezek. Also at the table were Kim Koenigs, WCDA executive director; Deb Hanson, chief financial officer; and WCDA attorney Kristie Arzburger, who developed the current scholarship policy.

Curt Beason, an attorney who represents casino entities across Iowa, attended the meeting via speaker phone. Beason explained to the board and audience that the WCDA is a private non-profit organization and has complete discretion of how and where they spend casino dollars using IRS tax code 501(c)3 guidelines. Beason said the WCDA is also required by the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission to operate under Chapter 21 of the Open Meetings, Open Records Law of the Code of Iowa.

"The WCDA is a leader and role model of all the non-profit casino license holders in the state of Iowa, "said Beason. "They should be congratulated on the way they conduct their business."

The WCDA receives 5.76 percent of gross income of Diamond Jo Casino in Worth County. To date, the WCDA has granted $6 million of those dollars to Worth County education and college scholarships.

"The most recent position the WCDA has taken on scholarships is reasonable and appropriate, "Beason said.

In view of alleged past abuses of these monies, the WCDA recently changed wording of the scholarship policy to say:

"Only those students who live with their biological parent(s) within the geographic border of Worth County for the entirety of both their junior and senior years of high school shall be able to receive a scholarship."

Following Beason's comments about the board and its action, president Dan Reeder asked each board member how they feel about the recent scholarship changes.

Most of the board said the changes were necessary because it wasn't the intent of the WCDA board to give scholarships to "people who want to beat the system."

Joyce Russell told the board she liked the phrase "biological parents."

"I know what Kim and Deb, [employees of the WCDA] go through with people, "said Russell.

Koenigs told the gathering that people are calling the WCDA office to see if they can be guardians of their friend's children so that they may be eligible to get scholarship money.

Board member Dean Hendrikson commented that the word "biological" conveyed the wrong idea to the public. He supports making a change in the policy to include the word "adoption."

Dennis May took Hendrikson's idea a step further by indicating a desire to hear from those foster parents and guardians of children present at the meeting before he makes a decision on the policy change.

Attorney Arzberger addressed the concern of the WCDA board that "conservatorships" (guardian by another name) are being used as a way for children to be eligible for the WCDA scholarship. She defined foster care as a temporary placement for children, not a permanent or long-term arrangement. She also defined guardianship as a method by the courts to place a child in the care of an adult, and that the arrangement can be "undone."

Joan Stumo, of Northwood, was the first to give comment to the board. Stumo is a court appointed child advocacy volunteer. She read a letter from Edith M. Haenel, a licensed independent clinical social worker and resident of Worth County. That letter is reprinted in its entirety on the opinion page of this week's Anchor.

Tom and Dorothy Ha-gen of Northwood, who have been foster parents for 37 years and only take long-term teenage boys into their home, had much to say to the WCDA board.

Accompanying the Hagens was 21-year-old Stephan Davis. Davis is a former foster child of the Hagens, who graduated from a Worth County school, received a WCDA scholarship, completed an educational course at NIACC, and currently lives and works in Worth County.

"Under the changed policy, Stephan would not be eligible for a scholarship, "Tom said.

"This young man was not put in our home to get the high school scholarship money. Why are you discriminating against children like him?

"This year alone, we have added five foster kids to the Northwood-Kensett enrollment, that's approximately $30, 000 in state aid to our school, which is suffering from declining enrollment.

"Stephan is our only foster kid, throughout our career as foster parents, who has stayed in our home, graduated from high school and gone to college. He used the WCDA scholarship for what it was intended. We are so proud of him. You have to understand that taking away a scholarship opportunity from kids who can not live with their own parents is discriminatory.

"Why would you discriminate against these children?" Hagen said.

At that point, board member Ken Abrams said he wants to change the policy to include adopted children because they (the board) had a lot of other business to conclude at the meeting.

Reeder asked Lionel Foster, a member of the Child Advocacy Board, to speak. He is also a former Mason City councilman and is the director of the Mason City Human Rights Commission.

"You [the WCDA] need to protect the integrity of your program. Foster care takes all shapes. Just adding adoption does not address the issue. Foster children, especially 13-15-year-olds, are not easily adoptable.

"These days a lot of grandparents are caring for their grandchildren because the children's parents are unable to do so. I am currently instrumental in making changes in the State Legislature regarding grandparents' rights.

"I ask you not to be so restrictive that disadvantaged kids are going to suffer. That would be a travesty, "said Foster.

At this point some members of the board started to look at their new scholarship policy in a different light.

"We're in a difficult situation and are trying to figure out how to treat everyone fairly," said Christianson. "Perhaps we have misspoken and should revise the statement. We want to be fair and will take a hard look at any changes we make to the scholarship program."

Dorothy Hagen made sure to recognize the impact that Diamond Jo has on foster children.

"Kim Pang, the general manager of Diamond Jo, clearly supports the foster children program. All our current foster children are working at the casino," said Dorothy.

According to Pang, he tries to hire the foster children who apply for employment at the casino, to give them experience in the working culture.

Attorney Mark Young, a father of adopted children, whose legal work includes representing children in foster care, offered his services to the WCDA. He wants to make sure all children are treated fairly. He has submitted the following language for the WCDA board to adopt:

a. Only those students who are residents of Worth County and who live within the geographic limits of Worth County for the entirety of both their junior and senior years of high school are eligible. This provision applies both to biological children as well as legally adopted children.

b. Foster children who otherwise meet the requirement in (a) above are eligible, subject to the foster parents providing verification of their legal placement in foster care by the Juvenile Court.

c. A student who has been placed in the care of a legal guardian living in Worth County, and who otherwise meets the requirements in (a) above may qualify for the scholarship. However, the WCDA reserves the right to require verification of legal guardianship through the District Court. The WCDA reserves the right to make an independent determination whether eligibility for the scholarship was a consideration, in whole or in part, in establishing or continuing the guardianship. If the board so determines, then the board may deny the scholarship for that student.

As a result of this meeting, board president Dan Reeder, said that a decision to change the language of the policy would be considered at a future meeting.

Copyright 2010 The Northwood Anchor, Northwood, Iowa. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

© 2011 The Northwood Anchor Northwood, Iowa. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from DAS.

Original Publication Date: September 15, 2010

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