September 17, 2014

Water Patrol panel not just about drowning incident at Lake of the Ozarks

The chairwoman of a new bipartisan House Committee that will look into the operation of the Water Patrol division of the state Highway Patrol says that committee is about more than any one incident – even the drowning of an Iowa man while in Water Patrol custody back in May.

Representative Diane Franklin (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Diane Franklin (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

One thing specifically identified as a target of the committee in the media release announcing it is the training received by Water Patrol troopers.

Eight days before that release was issued, Trooper Anthony Piercy told a coroner’s inquest he hadn’t received enough training in how to make arrests on the water, how to put a life jacket on a suspect or what to do in a rescue situation. The inquest was investigating the drowning of 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson, while in Piercy’s custody on the Lake of the Ozarks.

Franklin says it wasn’t just that, nor any other particular incident, that led to the committee’s formation, “But I think that there’s just a culmination of items that have happened, and as we move into committee and we have testimony, we will hear those things.”

On the subject of training, Franklin does say prior to merging with the Highway Patrol the Water Patrol’s academy was recognized as one of the finest in the country.

“We’re interested not in looking at a particular situation, but being able to compare the training that we were recognized for across the nation with the training that is in place today, and to see what are the differences,” says Franklin.

Franklin says there has already been opposition by many in the Lake of the Ozarks area to the merger.  Much of it stems from work done by a former area state representative, Robert Cooper, to advance the Water Patrol.

She says Cooper, “worked extensively with the Water Patrol to bring about parity in their pay … and to extend their law enforcement abilities beyond the water’s edge.”

When that merger happened it was projected to save the state between $2.8-million and $3-million annually. The committee will explore whether that savings has been realized.

Franklin thinks the better question is whether the Water Patrol is doing enough to keep people safe and meeting its responsibilities as a law enforcement agency.

She says answering that is the higher priority for her committee. “Is this a savings, but is it a savings at what cost? Are we getting the value we had before out of the dollars that are being spent.”

Depending on what her committee finds, Franklin says solutions could be anything up to a bill proposing to undo that merger, “if that’s what it takes.”

“But we need to examine that. I’m not saying that’s our goal,” adds Franklin. “Our goal is to investigate, have results, and from those results, make decisions.”

She expects to have a report ready before the new legislative session begins in January.

Missouri Legislative committee to look at Water Patrol training, financials

A bipartisan State House Committee has been formed that will investigate the state Highway Patrol’s Water Patrol Division. The group will look into the training received by troopers, the overall cost benefit to the state of the Water Patrol’s merger with the Highway Patrol in 2011, and the management of the division.

Though not specifically referenced in the media release announcing the committee, the drowning death of a handcuffed suspect in the custody of a Water Patrol trooper has generated recent interest in Water Patrol training practices.

20-year-old Brandon Ellingson had been arrested on May 31 on the Lake of the Ozarks on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. He was being transported to shore when he fell out of the Patrol boat. A life jacket that had been placed on him slipped off and Ellingson sank into the water and drowned.

The Trooper that arrested Ellingson, Anthony Piercy, testified in a coroner’s inquest that he wasn’t trained in how to make arrests on the water, how to put a life jacket on a suspect or what to do in a rescue situation. Piercy said he needed more training after converting from being a Highway Trooper.

How much the committee could delve into that particular situation is unclear, since it is still the subject of litigation.

The release says the committee will also look into whether the state is saving $3-million annually as the Nixon Administration projected when the governor signed legislation setting the merger in motion.

The office of House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, announced the committee and says it was formed at the request of Representatives Diane Franklin, R-Camdenton, Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark and David Wood, R-Versailles.

Franklin will chair the committee and Representative Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City, will co-chair. They will be joined by Republican state representative Todd Richardson of Poplar Bluff and Democratic state representatives Pat Conway of St. Joseph, Jeff Roorda of Barnhart and Clem Smith of Velda Village Hills.

GMC adding 750 jobs to Wentzville plant

General Motors will add a third shift to its plant in Wentzville to make pickups and vans, adding 750 new jobs beginning early next year.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports the new shift will bring employment at Wentzville to 3,350 workers. Plant manager Nancy Laubenthal says anticipated demand for two midsized pickups that will be made at Wentzville, the GMC Colorado and the GMC Canyon, played into the decision to increase production there.

This will be the first time the Wentzville plant has had three shifts.

One MO lawmaker calls Ed Commissioner retirement an “opportunity”

Missouri’s education commissioner has announced her retirement at the end of this year.

Representative Genise Montecillo (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Genise Montecillo (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Chris Nicastro has been praised by some as a proven leader who worked to bring change to Missouri’s public education system and challenge educators.

For others, she has been the subject of controversy and criticism. Her plan to rebuild the Kansas City School District from the ground up included the hiring of a consultant that the state auditor’s office found to involve a potentially biased bidding process with several conflicts of interest.

Under Nicastro, the Department has been criticized for its handling of student transfer issues in the St. Louis region. Some teachers unions and like-minded lawmakers were angered when it was learned she was in communication with a group that had been pushing a ballot initiative to eliminate teacher tenure.

St. Louis representative Genise Montecillo thanks Nicastro for her service to education for nearly four decades, but acknowledges she has been one of the commissioner’s critics.

“We had several disagreements,” says Montecillo.

She has maintained her issues with Nicastro were not personal, but says from a, “strictly legislative perspective, I know, myself, I was provided with misinformation on numerous occasions where I felt like there was a manipulation of facts when you’re talking about altering fiscal notes, and I still do believe that the commissioner steered a contract in violation of federal law.”

Montecillo says it’s time to move forward with a new commissioner – someone from outside the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“I believe this presents an opportunity for us to move forward and restore confidence in the Department of Education,” says Montecillo, “not only with the legislature but also with parents.”

Montecillo says whoever steps into that position will need to provide stronger leadership, especially as the legislature returns in January and resumes debate of the school transfer issue.

A request for an interview with Nicastro and State Board of Education President Peter Herschend was not answered by Tuesday morning.

Missouri Education Commissioner announces retirement

Missouri’s Commissioner of Education has announced her retirement. Chris Nicastro will retire at the end of this year, having been Commissioner for five years.

Chris Nicastro testifies in a House Committee Hearing (courtesy; Missouri House Communications)

Chris Nicastro testifies in a House Committee Hearing (courtesy; Missouri House Communications)

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced her retirement in a statement touting accomplishments during her term. It focuses on the launching of the 10 by 20 initiative that aims to have Missouri student achievement rank among the top 10 states in the nation by 2020, the implementation of new standards for learning, for district classification, for early childhood education and for educator preparation.

Nicastro’s term has also been marked by controversy, however.

An audit released last month found problems in the way the Department hired a consultant to carry out Nicastro’s plan to overhaul the Kansas City School District. She has also been criticized for pushing unaccredited school districts to form a super school district. The Department has also been criticized for its handling of the student transfer law regarding unaccredited districts in the St. Louis region.

Several state lawmakers and some organizations have called for Nicastro’s resignation in recent months.

The state Board of Education’s president, Peter Herschend, has been supportive of Nicastro, and remains so in a statement regarding her announcement.

“The State Board of Education is grateful for her years of service to education, but even more important is the better life she has worked to achieve for hundreds of thousands of Missouri’s students,” writes Herschend. “Most of those children will never know Chris Nicastro, but those of us involved in this business of education know, and we are appreciative of her tireless service.”

Governor Jay Nixon also expressed praise for Nicastro.

“For nearly four decades, Commissioner Nicastro has dedicated her career to improving public schools and helping students succeed,” Nixon writes. “The progress Missouri’s public schools have made during her tenure as Commissioner is a testament to her unwavering commitment to providing every Missouri child with a high quality education that prepares them to meet the demands of the global economy.”