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Silver Lake patrons get look at new elementary school

BLADEN — Dianna Wilson of Bladen went to school in the old Silver Lake Elementary building here when she was younger, as did her parents. Now, she is looking forward seeing her grandchildren go to Silver Lake Elementary in a new building.

“I’m so glad my grandkids get to go to a school in a new building,” she said.

Silver Lake Public Schools finished its new elementary school in December 2019. On Thursday evening, the school had an open house to let residents see the rapidly completed building. More than 100 people showed up.

jjohnson /  Jarad Johnson/Tribune  

Community members congregated in the cafeteria during Silver Lake Elementary’s open house Thursday evening. The cafeteria extended the elementary and creates a common space the older building did not have.

The open house brought back memories for many of the visitors who had attended school in the old building that was erected in 1924. Instead of feeling sad to see the building gone, many appreciated the opportunity to see the future of education for students in the Silver Lake district, which serves the Bladen, Roseland, Holstein and Campbell communities. (Classes for the older grades meet in Roseland.)

“A lot of times when you talk about tearing down a school that the older generation graduated from and went to all their life, they’re kind of leary about it because they hate to see the old go,” said Principal Duane Arntt. “It’s good to see those people come out and support.”

Less than a year ago, the district didn’t know if it would even have a new building.

In February 2019, voters in the school district elected to pass a $3.8 million bond to tear down the old elementary building and build a new one. Roughly 82% of the about 600 votes cast approved the bond. Two million dollars came from a special building fund.

Two months after the vote, students spent their last day in the old building before finishing the school year in temporary classrooms at the Webster County Fairgrounds, about two blocks from the school, and at the Bladen United Methodist Church. The three-story building was razed shortly thereafter, with only the newer gymnasium spared.

Over the summer of 2019, Ayars and Ayars Inc., based in Lincoln, worked around a wet summer while building up the new school. The construction company finished phase one of the building — opening up half the school to students — two weeks ahead of schedule.

Students attended class for the fall semester in half the building while construction continued.

In early December, Ayars and Ayars finished the second phase — ahead of schedule again — and opened the entire building for use. Students and teachers have been in their permanent rooms since then.

During each move, staff, faculty and students helped move school supplies.

The new school features bigger rooms, an updated technology infrastructure and improved security. Construction also added a tornado shelter, a cafeteria and a common area.

jjohnson /  Jarad Johnson/Tribune  

Leon Lutkemeier, board of education president, delivers a thank you speech to the people attending a Silver Lake Elementary open house in Bladen Thursday evening.

But one of the biggest improvements for the school is that is is complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, because the building is one story. The old building was three stories, and students in wheelchairs had to use a large machine referred to as the “climber” to move between levels. The climber would take 15 minutes to move from the bottom floor to the top floor.

“It’s nothing compared to the old school,” Principal Duane Arntt said. “We love it. Kids love it.”

Dan and Debbie Albers were at the open house. Dan, who is pastor of the United Methodist Churches in Blue Hill and Bladen, opened up the Bladen church for the school to use while the new building was under construction.

The Alberses said they were impressed with how quickly the building was built and they are glad to see the school stay in Bladen.

Collins breaks 'yes,' Alexander 'no' on calling witnesses

WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said late Thursday she would vote to allow witnesses in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, building momentum for the Democrats’ effort to hear more testimony and increasing the possibility of a drawn-out trial the White House hoped to avoid.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said in a statement there was “no need for more evidence,” giving the Trump team the possibility of a deciding vote in their direction.

Collins, a centrist senator announced her decision after the Senate concluded a long question-and-answer session with the House Democrats prosecuting the charges and Trump’s lawyers defending him.

Alexander released his statement moments later.

A vote on the witness question, expected Friday, could lead to an abrupt end of the trial with Trump’s expected acquittal. Or it could bring days, if not weeks more argument as Democrats press to hear testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton and others.

It would take four GOP senators to break with the majority and join with Democrats to tip the outcome.

Collins said in a statement, “The most sensible way to proceed would be for the House Managers and the President’s attorneys to attempt to agree on a limited and equal number of witnesses for each side. If they can’t agree, then the Senate could choose the number of witnesses.”

But Alexander said that “there is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the U.S. Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense.”

Collins, Aexander and Lsa Murkowski of Alaska were playing an over-sized role in the final hours of debate with pointed questions ahead of crucial votes. Another Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, has made clear he will vote for witnesses.

Murkowksi drew a reaction during the debate when she asked simply: “Why should this body not call Ambassador Bolton?”

Alexander of Tennessee captured attention just before the dinner break when he questioned partisanship in the proceedings thus far.

In response to Alexander and others, Democrat Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, a congressional staffer during Watergate and now a House prosecutor, told the senators that the Nixon impeachment also started as a partisan inquiry. A bipartisan consensus emerged only after Republicans — including staunch Nixon supporters — saw enough evidence to change their minds, she said.

“They couldn’t turn away from the evidence that their president had committed abuse of power and they had to vote to impeach him,’’ Lofgren said. Richard Nixon resigned before he was impeached.

While disappointed that House Republicans did not join Democrats in voting to impeach Trump, she said the Senate — “the greatest deliberative body on the planet’’ — has a new opportunity.

Alexander, after his question Thursday night, consulted with a key staff aide to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. As the senators broke for dinner Alexander and Murkowski met privately.

Trump was impeached by House last month on charges that he abused his power like no other president, jeopardizing Ukraine and U.S.-Ukraine relations. Democrats say Trump asked the vulnerable ally to investigate Joe Biden and debunked theories of 2016 election interference, temporarily halting American security aid to the country as it battled Russia at its border. The second article of impeachment says Trump then obstructed the House probe in a way that threatened the nation’s three-branch system of checks and balances.

Thursday’s testimony included soaring pleas to the senators-as-jurors who will decide Trump’s fate, to either stop a president who Democrats say has tried to cheat in the upcoming election and will again, or to shut down impeachment proceedings that Republicans insist were never more than a partisan attack.

“Let’s give the country a trial they can be proud of,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead prosecutor for House Democrats. Americans, he said, know what it takes for a fair trial. He offered to take just one week for depositions of new witnesses, sparking new discussions.

Trump attorney Eric Herschmann declared the Democrats are only prosecuting the president because they can’t beat him in 2020.

“We trust the American people to decide who should be our president,” Herschmann said. “Enough is enough. Stop all of this.”

McConnell was toiling to keep Friday’s vote on schedule even as the trial was unearthing fresh evidence from Bolton’s new book and raising alarms among Democrats and some Republicans about a Trump attorney’s controversial defense.

In a day-after tweet, Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz, complained about the portrayal of his Wednesday night testimony when he said a president is essentially immune from impeachment if he believes his actions to be in the “national interest.”

That idea frustrated some inside the White House, who felt Dershowitz’s claim was unnecessary and inflammatory — irking senators with a controversial claim of vast executive powers. But those officials left it to Dershowitz to back away, wary that any public White House retreat would be viewed poorly by the president.

“I said nothing like that,” the retired professor tweeted Thursday.

His words Wednesday night: “Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest. And if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected is in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

Asked about it as one of the first questions Thursday, Democrat Schiff, said, “Have we learned nothing in the last half century?”

Schiff drew on the lessons of the Nixon era to warn of a “normalization of lawlessness” in the Trump presidency.

“That argument — if the president says it it can’t be illegal — failed when Richard Nixon was forced to resign,” Schiff told the senators. “But that argument may succeed here, now.”

“This is not a banana republic,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., rejecting the White House counsel’s suggestion there was nothing wrong with seeking foreign election interference.

Democrats played a video showing the many times Trump has campaign.

The president has argued repeatedly that his dealings with Ukraine have been “perfect.”

Republicans Collins, Romney and Murkowski all have expressed interest in hearing from Bolton and the others.

In a Senate split 53-47 with a Republican majority, at least four GOP senators must join all Democrats to reach the 51 votes required to call witnesses, decide whom to call or do nearly anything else in the trial.

Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the chamber and fielding senators’ questions for the trial, could break a tie, but that seems unlikely.

The chief justice did exercise authority Thursday with a stunning rebuttal to a question posed by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky designed to expose those familiar with the still anonymous whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s new president led to the impeachment inquiry.

Roberts had communicated through his staff to McConnell’s office that he did not want to read the whistleblower’s name, according to a Republican unauthorized to discuss the private conversation and granted anonymity.

“The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted,” he said.

Senators have dispatched with more than 100 queries over two days. The questions came from the parties’ leaders, the senators running for the Democratic nomination against Trump and even bipartisan coalitions from both sides of the aisle.

Trump’s team says the House’s 28,000-page case against the president and the 17 witnesses — current and former national security officials, ambassadors and others who testified in the House proceedings — are sufficient.

Instead, Trump’s lawyers focused some of their time Thursday refloating allegations against Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine while his father was vice president.

Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., responding to one question said the Bidens have little to tell the Senate about Trump’s efforts to “shake down” Ukraine for his own campaign.

Democrats argued Bolton’s forthcoming book cannot be ignored. It contends he personally heard Trump say he wanted military aid withheld from Ukraine until it agreed to investigate the Bidens — the abuse of power charge that is the first article of impeachment. Trump denies saying such a thing.

The White House has blocked its officials from testifying in the proceedings and objected in a letter to Bolton’s attorney to “significant amounts of classified information” in the manuscript, including at the top secret level. Bolton resigned last September — Trump says he was fired — and he and his attorney have insisted the book does not contain any classified information.


Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor, Matthew Daly, Laurie Kellman and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.

Organizers share plan to change Sutton Community Home

SUTTON — Organizers unveiled a plan to renovate the building and change services at the Sutton Community Home to better position the facility for long-term growth on Wednesday during a town meeting.

Architect Jeff Ahl with arCuretecture in Lincoln explained that the main building was constructed in 1964 and is nearing the end of its useful life. The building has small rooms and doesn’t meet accessibility guidelines.

Several organizations are involved in the process. The SCH board oversees the facility’s operations. The Sutton Community Home Foundation is organizing fundraising, and has brought in Steier Group in Omaha to lead a capital campaign. Jeff Ahl is the architect, and Hampton Construction is the general contractor.

Through collaborative efforts, Ahl said, the project has seen many revisions during the past four years. He explained that a group looked at a variety of designs during the last four years. Some would have moved the facility to a new location. Others included more significant changes at the current site.

The project wasn’t deemed financially feasible until the building costs were reduced to $4.9 million. The current design would include 16 new units. Fourteen would offer single bedrooms, while two would be two-bedroom units. There would be a new full commercial kitchen, sun room, spa and administration area.

To lower the costs enough to be feasible, the SCH board will have to discontinue the nursing home side of the facility and convert the entire facility to assisted living.

Ahl explained that the Nebraska Legislature recently adopted a new law that allows, but doesn’t require, staff of assisted living facilities to provide complex nursing interventions to residents of the facility and revised the definition of complex nursing interventions.

Complex nursing intervention services formerly had been allowed only at nursing home facilities. The new law allows some of those services to be provided at assisted living facilities.

Ahl said nursing homes are losing financial viability due to insufficient staffing, increased regulations and Medicaid reimbursement rates that fail to cover the cost of care. Even only looking at the construction costs, he said, it costs about 30% more to build a skilled nursing facility than assisted living.

SCH currently takes an average loss of $34 per day per resident on Medicaid, though some of that can be made up from private-pay clients and residents on Medicare.

With an assisted living facility, Ahl said, the staffing requirements would be lower — meaning not as many staff would be needed — and the construction costs are less. The trade-off is that true long-term nursing services wouldn’t be provided. He also discussed the possibility of using part of the assisted living area for memory care.

Employees at SCH expressed concern for displacing current residents who may not qualify for assisted living, which may require them to find a new home.

Danita Smith, a medical aide at the facility, said many of the residents are on Medicaid and may not be able to stay based on inability to pay.

“We care about what happens to the residents when they no longer qualify,” she said. “We think of them as family. Sometimes we’re with these residents more than our own families.”

Shelby Smith, another medical aide at SCH, said of the 30 residents at the facility, just six would qualify to be in an assisted living home. She said they will have limited options of where to go because most nursing homes in surrounding communities are full.

Neal Carpenter of Sutton recently joined the SCH board. His mother stayed at the facility, and he thanked the employees for their hard work and dedication.

He said he asked a lot of questions about the proposal, too, and believes this is the best course of action.

“I came to the conclusion that these folks up here have the best interests of Sutton in mind,” he said. “We’re trying to move in a direction that is sustainable long-term. We’re in it for the love of the community.”

Sue Ochsner, president of the Sutton Community Home board of directors, said the decision to discontinue the skilled nursing side wasn’t made lightly. She said members of the board were in tears when they realized they would have to give up the skilled nursing side of the business.

“To keep that, we would have needed to raise $8 million to $9 million,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t want to have a nursing home. It’s that we can’t financially support it.”

She said it’s too soon to know whether any current residents would be displaced with the change. She said the state law is vague on what exact services are permitted to be administered under assisted living.

The board hasn’t worked out the details because it will depend on the support from the community. She said if they were able to raise $9 million, they would go back to the drawing board and include a skilled nursing area. At this point, they are looking to simply keep a facility open and financially stable.

“We will need about $1.8 million raised to go ahead with the project,” Ochsner said.

Since the nonprofit group can’t use tax money for the project, it is pursuing a U.S. Department of Agriculture community facilities loan to finance the balance of the construction costs. The capital campaign will help show bankers that the community is behind the project.

Jim Worden with Steier Group in Omaha said they are working to create a customized capital campaign for Sutton. They would conduct the capital campaign in three phases.

First, the preparation phase would seek leaders and volunteers, develop a list of potential supporters and create information packages. This is expected to conclude in March.

Second would be the appeal process, using personal visits, direct mail and a calling campaign. The plan is to finish this phase in June.

The final phase would be the followup phase to collect pledges and reach people missed in the appeal process.

State chamber takes stand against workplace discrimination

The Associated Press

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s largest business advocacy group promised Thursday to oppose workplace discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity as part of a broader campaign to attract and retain high-skilled workers.

The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s announcement was hailed by some state lawmakers who have tried unsuccessfully to ban such discrimination. The Lincoln and Omaha chambers of commerce have supported those legislative efforts, but the state chamber previously shied away from the issue.

The chamber also pledged to fight for statewide broadband internet access, lower taxes, long-term funding for infrastructure such as bridges and roads, and education that helps fill the state’s workforce needs.

The chamber said the policies were adopted from Blueprint Nebraska, a statewide campaign to promote business development and expand the economy.

“When we said we’re all in on Blueprint Nebraska, we meant it,” said Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber.

But a spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts, a founder of Blueprint Nebraska, said the workforce discrimination policy was not a part of that group’s priorities.

“The governor opposes adding additional protected classes to state law,” said Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage. “The state chamber’s press release inaccurately characterizes Blueprint’s position regarding new protected classes. The final Blueprint report did not support such a policy change, and the Blueprint steering committee has not voted to support such a policy.”