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New ESU 9 administrator enjoying opportunities, challenges of job

When Drew Harris describes his job as administrator of Educational Service Unit No. 9 in Hastings, he likens it to drinking from a fire hose.

“You go in for a little drink, and there’s so much information flowing out at you,” he said.

Harris, 56, started at ESU 9 on July 1 after spending 13 years as superintendent of Thayer County Community Schools based in Hebron. He succeeds Kraig Lofquist, who resigned to become executive director of the state Educational Service Unit Coordinating Council.

“We were at Thayer Central for 13 years and loved it there,” Harris said. “It was a great place to raise our family. It seemed like a good time to try something a little different.”

He and his wife, Amy, moved to a small acreage northeast of Juniata.

“We’ve always been in the country,” he said. “We had to get back to the country.”

Their three children are all in college. Maggie is a freshman at Nebraska Wesleyan; Hank is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and their oldest son, Cole, is a senior at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas, after serving in the Kansas Air Guard.

Harris is from McPherson, Kansas, and worked in education in Kansas for 19 years before going to Thayer Central.

In going from Thayer Central to ESU 9, Harris went from school district with an enrollment of 450 to 500 students to an educational service unit with 14 school districts, 800 teachers and nearly 10,000 students.

“It seemed like a neat opportunity to try to impact learning for more kids,” he said.

After he took the ESU 9 job, Harris found himself explaining the role of an educational service unit.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand what our role is, and I think probably the best analogy I’ve ever heard is that it’s like a farmers’ cooperative for school districts,” he said. “We try to provide services that districts couldn’t afford to do themselves or can find discount in volume offerings.”

As a superintendent, Harris used the services of his local ESU.

lbeahm / Laura Beahm/Tribune  

Drew Harris talks about his role as ESU 9 administrator during an interview Monday.

“I had a great relationship there at ESU 5,” he said. “We utilized a lot of their services for special education, other programs and professional development.”

He has visited all 14 school districts in the ESU 9 area and has met with the superintendents.

“Several of them I’ve known over the years from my role as superintendent there in Hebron,” he said. “It’s been going great.”

ESU 9 has 44 employees, some of whom work in the ESU 9 office on the north edge of Hastings. Slightly more than half of the ESU 9 staff members, such as speech language pathologists, are embedded in school districts.

Participation by school districts in ESU 9 programs has declined in recent years.

“That evolves as you go,” Harris said. “When I first started in education, the preschools were all headed by the ESUs. Then the school districts expanded their services by providing more and realized ‘we could do this cost-effectively by ourselves.’ ”

He sees the role of the Educational Service Unit as being progressive, meeting the needs of the school districts as they arise.

“I think we’ve got to be in a situation where we keep getting that new, cutting-edge item,” he said.

For ESU 9, right now that means ramping up licensed mental health therapists.

“The ESU just has to be on that cutting edge of finding those special programs that are new and are services the districts need,” he said. “We’ve just to keep expending our services and offerings and look at what districts need on the horizon, not just today, but what’s coming down the pipeline at them.”

ESU 9 has organized a workshop for January 2020 geared toward school board members in which representatives of legal firm KSB School Law will provide legal updates.

“Those are opportunities that I think we can provide that are a benefit to everybody,” he said.

State officials plan historic survey of Fillmore County

GENEVA — Representatives of the History Nebraska State Historic Preservation Office are out and about, visiting Nebraska counties this month, promoting historic awareness and preservation.

This year they are visiting Fillmore, Furnas, Howard and Garfield counties.

A group from that office traveled to the Geneva Public Library this week for a meeting to raise awareness about historic preservation programs and to assist interested communities in implementing a historic preservation plan for any or all towns in Fillmore County.

History Nebraska was known previously as the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Kate Hewlings, survey coordinator for History Nebraska, gave a presentation on the different programs affiliated with historic preservation.

The programs include the National Register of Historic Places, Certified Local Government Program, Nebraska Historic Tax Credits, Valuation Incentive Program, Nebraska Historic Resources Survey, and Inventory and Federal Historic Tax Credit.

These programs are available to communities to preserve their historic properties.

After each initial county presentation, a historic survey of all the communities will be made by “walk-throughs” of the SHPO staff to determine buildings and other structures of historic significance.

“You have to know what’s out there first, so you can create a plan,” Hewlings said.

The survey work will focus in towns and populated areas of each county, but rural locations will be considered if historically significant.

“If you see people walking your streets, looking at everything and taking photos, that’s us,” Hewlings said. “We help communities realize what they have.”

Buildings and structures need to be more than 50 years old and must still retain their historic character. The surveyors get their “clues” from building materials, rooflines, doors, windows, chimneys and other decorative details to tell a building’s age.

Historical research also is conducted. This includes checking historic maps and written histories. The research helps surveyors by giving additional clues on how and where to look for historic properties within a county and where old, historic buildings may still exist.

In the end, all the findings are put together

Kelli Bacon, Certified Local Government (CLG) coordinator, said the goal of the program is to increase local preservation activities and link local governments with a national network.

CLGs are cities or counties that meet certain federal and state standards and with that status are entitled to apply for yearly grants from the Nebraska State Historic Preservation Office, a division of History Nebraska.

“At the present time, Nebraska only has eight CLGs, and I’m trying to get more,” Bacon said. “After the surveys are done, I work with them to help them reach their historic preservation goals.”

When all research is completed, a conclusion meeting will be conducted to help communities evaluate and plan.

Hewlings asked, “Why save old places?”

And then she replied, “To remember them, tell who we are. They provide teaching about the place, and we should save them to remember their beauty.”

Hastings home of state softball for 5 more years

The Smith Softball Complex will be home to the Nebraska state high school softball tournament for another five years.

The Nebraska School Activities Association voted on the matter during its November board of directors meeting Thursday in Lincoln after hearing from representatives from Hastings, York, Grand Island and North Platte.

“We turned out victorious. So, for us, we are excited. It’s a community win,” said Jeff Hassenstab, the city of Hastings’ director of parks and recreation.

Hastings has been the site of the tournament since 2008.

“The community has embraced the tournament, and I think the NSAA has seen how well we’ve done hosting the tournament the last 12 years,” Hassenstab said.

The terms have remained the same as they were for the last agreement period, with a 90/10 revenue split between the NSAA and Hastings Public Schools. There is also a guaranteed no-loss for the NSAA in the event that expenses exceed income from ticket sales. NSAA staff also get four complimentary hotel rooms, and there is free parking.

Hassenstab said plans to improve the softball complex include expanding the dugouts on all four fields and raising the backstops to protect fans from foul balls.

aroh / Amy Roh/Tribune  

Elaine Laux cheers on her granddaughter, K.K. Laux and the rest of the Hastings softball team during their first-round game of the Class B state tournament Oct. 17 at Smith Softball Complex.

Anjanette Bonham, executive director of the the Adams County Convention and Visitors Bureau, helped represent Hastings in its presentation to the NSAA board on Thursday. She said the softball complex is well equipped to accommodate every kind of patron at the tournament, including athletes, spectators, tournament officials and media.

Bonham said Hastings has proven its ability to successfully host a tournament and has a good relationship with the NSAA.

“We’ve got a great support system with the community and all of the volunteers. Everybody offers their time and support to always make this tournament a success,” Bonham said.

Hassenstab noted in the last couple of years, competition with other towns to play host for the tournament has been growing. He expects that competition to grow over the years.

“But, in the end, our complex is pretty tough to beat, “ he said.

The tournament also provides Hastings an economic boost from the teams and fans who come to watch the tournament. In 2019, the tourney drew about 7,000 visitors over three days to cheer for 24 schools from across the state. Bonham said that number is average, after accounting for the weather.

Hassenstab and Bonham said they are grateful to have community support for the tournament.

York offered to host the tournament at its two-year-old York Ballpark Complex, which has seven fields. Grand Island would have hosted the tournament at its Veterans Athletic Complex, and North Platte would have hosted it at its Dowhower Softball Complex.

Lawsuit fighting delay of Medicaid expansion

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services is offering a more complicated rollout and delayed expansion of Medicaid and, as a result, is facing a lawsuit.

That is how Rev. Jessica Palys, pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ and a former community organizer working in the fields of health care and health care reform in Chicago, described the situation Friday while providing an update on Medicaid expansion in Nebraska, during a meeting of the Hastings League of Women Voters.

Nebraska voters passed a Medicaid expansion ballot initiative in November 2018.

In order to implement this adult expansion program, Nebraska Medicaid is seeking approval to modify its current managed care program by creating the Heritage Health Adult Program.

Benefits will be available if qualifying individuals complete certain “wellness and personal responsibility requirements.” Nebraska Medicaid has stated this modification can be accomplished under the Section 1115 waiver demonstration authority.

As a result of the modification, implementation of Medicaid expansion has been delayed until Oct. 1, 2020.

Nebraska Appleseed filed a lawsuit in August, arguing the state will miss out on about $149 million in federal funding in 2019 by delaying implementation of Medicaid expansion.

The lawsuit asks the state Supreme Court to rule that expansion must begin no later than Nov. 17, 2019. According to the lawsuit, this is the latest possible date to open enrollment that would allow federal funds to pay for 93 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion.

Under the Affordable Care Act Medicaid expansion, federal reimbursement drops to 90 percent starting Jan. 1, 2020.

“By delaying implementation, Gov. (Pete) Ricketts, I think, would like to say it is saving Nebraskans money, but he’s doing these things that aren’t saving us money,” Palys said.

She was part of a group from Hastings that attended the Medicaid expansion hearing on Oct. 30 in Kearney.

Palys said the delayed implementation adds unnecessary work and community engagement requirements, and withholds vision and dental care from beneficiaries as a penalty.

This additional bureaucracy will triple the cost of expansion to Nebraska taxpayers, making Medicaid more costly.

Palys said DHHS projected in 2017 it would need $1.8 million in administrative costs in fiscal year 2020 to implement expansion without the waiver.

The agency now says it will need about $6 million to implement it. More than half of the $4.2 million increase due to the waiver will go to additional staff.

“They want to save money by pushing people off the program but they’re making so many additional unnecessary costs,” she said.

She said the proposed Medicaid requirements would add stress to the lives of people who are already pretty stressed. Many low income people are juggling a lot in their daily lives.

“People who are low income, there’s a narrative out there that says low income people are lazy or they don’t want to work,” Palys said. “They are experts of managing their own lives, but barely getting by. For us to say ‘we want you to do some work requirements because we don’t think you’re working hard enough,’ I just think is arrogant and superior and dismissive of what their reality is.”

The Department of Health and Human Services’ draft waiver application for the Heritage Health Adult Program is available for public review and comment. Comments will be accepted through Nov. 26, 2019.

Palys has organized an event to generate public comment and provide education about the Medicaid expansion, 6-8 p.m., Nov. 15 at the YWCA Adams County, 2525 W. Second St. Food will be provided.

Comments and questions can be submitted via email at DHHS.HHAWaiver@Nebraska.gov or mailed to Department of Health and Human Services, Nebraska Medicaid, ATTN: HHA Waiver, 301 Centennial Mall South, P.O. Box 95026, Lincoln, Nebraska 68509-5026.