Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Discipline or Addiction: Two schools tackle vaping

Beech Grove, IN (November 27, 2019) IBG — Across the U.S., more than 2,000 people have reported vaping-related lung illnesses, and 47 have died. Some vaping happens in schools, so they share the burden of bringing this crisis under control. Which raises the question: what should the consequences be for a student caught vaping?

Some of these devices look like a flash drive, no bigger than a couple of inches. The smoke or vapor they release has little to no smell. Basically, they’re really easy to hide and are a nightmare for educators.

Beech Grove Senior High School

Beech Grove, Indiana
On a recent day at Beech Grove Senior High School in Beech Grove, Indiana, Students are dashing between classes. Principal Lizz Walters says about once a week or so, students are caught with e-cigarettes like those made by Juul.

Students caught the first time face an in-school suspension, she says. That means they have to complete educational materials on vaping and their parents are included too. They also can be connected to counseling. For a second offense, they’ll be suspended out of school.

"I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a school that was not sort of supplementing those resources with some type of school punishment," Walters says.

Still, Walters says striking this balance between discipline and help for students is a tough, daily conversation. Principals and teacher realize schools are structured and at home students may have much more freedom.

"But then eventually, we have to make sure that students recognize they cannot continue to do things in a school environment that is detrimental to the school environment," Walters says. "And that's hard. That is very hard."

In Spencer-Owen Community Schools, about an hour south of Indianapolis, a high school student got sick this fall after vaping a marijuana-laced e-cigarette. He went to the school nurse, and was reported to other school officials.

The student’s mother, Shannon Houck told RTV6, "How are we supposed to tell our children if you have a medical problem -- even if it is smoking a vape in school, and I understand he did wrong by doing that -- we’re teaching them don’t go to the school officials, don’t go to the nurse because you can get in trouble."

And that’s an important question, because more kids are vaping than ever before. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 1 in 4 high school students have used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days.

So now schools are left to decide how to handle these students.

Spencer-Owen Community Schools says it followed policy. And in most Indiana school districts, a student who vapes in school would be suspended or expelled after one or more instances.

"Teenagers are frustrating and impulsive, and what they respond best to is what's hardest." -Dr. Sarah Bosslet

"As adults, we think that ought to work, right?" says Dr. Sarah Bosslet, past president of Indiana's Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics says. "Because If you just tell them, ‘Look, if you do this, you're going to get kicked out,’ they won't do it.

"But anyone who's raised a teenager knows that that's not an effective strategy. Teenagers are frustrating and impulsive. And what they respond best to is what's hardest: individual attention and extra effort when they are at risk."

Bosslet says the academy opposes no-tolerance policies in schools.

As a pediatrician, Bosslet sees students vaping by sixth grade. And she says suspending these students can lead to more dangerous behavior, like vaping at home or using drugs.

"The worst thing you can do is isolate them and exclude them from activities that keep them busy and engaged and connected to their peers and to adults that they trust," Bosslet says.

She says there should be some kind of consequence for vaping: community service, additional education. But she and others say suspension isn’t the answer.

"I think school nurses see themselves as the leader on the forefront of this as a health problem," says Deb Robarge, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Nurses.

She’s also worried about how this sort of discipline can affect students. "I think we're concerned that we want them to get their education, we don't want them to lose out on opportunities they have only as a child because they've gotten caught up in this craze."

So for schools, is this a discipline issue, or a public health issue?

"I think it's somewhere in between," Robarge says. "And I've tried to kind of poll nurses across Indiana. But also, across the country … I think what a lot of school nurses are feeling like it's a mixture."

Some help for schools might be on the way. Raising the age to buy e-cigarettes and tobacco products from 18 to 21 will be at the forefront of the 2020 Indiana legislative session. A similar federal law also has been proposed.

SOURCE: Lakeshore Public Radio
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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Beech Grove native to receive Honorary Doctorate

Beech Grove, IN (November 26, 2019) IBG — Lloyd Wright, CEO and President of WFYI, will be the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters and will deliver Commencement remarks at Butler University’s 2019 Winter Commencement.

Winter Commencement will take place Friday, December 20, at 6:30 PM in Clowes Memorial Hall. About 150 students are expected to receive their diplomas.

Lloyd Butler

“In choosing honorary degree recipients and speakers, Butler selects individuals whose lives reflect our University’s core values and whose message can positively impact our students,” President James M. Danko says. “Lloyd Wright embodies not only the calculated risk-taking we encourage in our students, but our values of innovation and visionary leadership.”

Wright, who retired from WFYI in July after 30 years as President and CEO, led the station through incredible transformation and growth. He anticipated the impact that technological advances would have on the broadcast industry and embraced change, guiding the station into the era of high-definition.

Related | Beech Grove native Lloyd Wright set to retire in 2019

He was responsible for Indiana’s flagship PBS and NPR stations, which include six 24/7 broadcast services, WFYI Productions—a full-service media production facility, WFYI Learning Services and Community Engagement, Indiana Public Broadcasting News Service, and Indiana Reading and Information Services—a free service for Indiana’s print impaired.

Under Wright’s leadership, membership at WFYI increased to 25,000, and annual revenue reached a record high of $12 million. In addition to its primary content, WFYI runs PBS kids’ content on digital channel 20.2, how-to programs on 20.3, mobile content, and two digital radio stations.

Wright’s career includes more than 120 regional Emmy Awards, WFYI's physical move in 2008 to its modern facility at 1630 N. Meridian St., and three capital campaigns that raised a total of more than $34 million. Wright also served as founder and President of the WFYI Foundation.

“I’ve been a Butler University fan nearly my entire life, and WFYI has enjoyed numerous collaborations over the years,” Wright says. “I am humbled and honored to be recognized by Butler and to be associated with The Butler Way.”

A Beech Grove, Indiana native, Wright graduated from Indiana University in 1976. He started his career as Director of Instructional Broadcasting with the Indiana Department of Education. Wright then served for six years as Broadcast Operations Manager at WTTW in Chicago before returning to Indiana.

Butler’s selection of commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients is a result of a nomination process, and subsequent review and vetting process.

SOURCE: Butler University

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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Brian Bosma retiring after 2020 session

Beech Grove, IN (November 19, 2019) IBG — The longest-serving leader of the Indiana House has decided to retire after the 2020 legislative session.

Republican Speaker Brian Bosma told lawmakers Tuesday that he would continue in the powerful position that largely controls which proposals are considered until the upcoming session ends in March. Bosma said he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2020 after 34 years in the House.

Bosma presided over the House as Republicans took major steps such as creating the state’s private school voucher program, leasing the Indiana Toll Road to a private operator and adopting statewide daylight saving time.

The 62-year-old Beech Grove, Indiana native has been speaker since 2011 and also held the post in 2005-06. He says he’ll become chairman of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee and continue working at an Indianapolis law firm.

Gov. Eric Holcomb issued the following statement about Bosma’s decision:

“So many know Brian Bosma for his contributions of unparalleled consequence at a time when our state needed strength in the Speaker’s Chair. Others know him for his incredible capacity to give to causes serving those most in need. Since the turn of this century, I’ve come to know Brian as a trusted friend, and for that reason alone, he’ll remain on my speed dial. Speaker Bosma’s the type of state leader you don’t replace, you only follow. I’m wishing Brian and Cheryl an equally personally fulfilling next chapter in life, once this one comes to a close.”

Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer also released a statement:

“Speaker Bosma’s leadership in the Statehouse has made Indiana more prosperous and improved the lives of generations of Hoosiers. When we talk about the Indiana Success Story, one constant during the decades-long turnaround for our state has been Brian Bosma. We’re now a state of balanced budgets, able to make record investments in education and infrastructure, attract jobs from all over the world, and improve the health and wellness of our citizens."

Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane had this to say:

"I want to thank Speaker Bosma for over three decades of public service. While we may not have always agreed on the issues, I have enjoyed working with him in leadership as we have always fought respectably to make the best path forward for Indiana. I wish him all the best on his future endeavors. "

Indiana House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta also issued a statement:

"A career of public service for the people of Indiana that stretches over more than 30 years is something that demands respect and appreciation. I have known Speaker Bosma since I came to the Indiana House back in 2006, and have found him to be a good friend and a worthy adversary. I can only wish him well in the years to come."

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Monday, November 18, 2019

Indiana Connection To Autopsy Concerns

Topeka, Kansas (November 18, 2019) IBG — 13 Investigates uncovered a disturbing discovery. A Kansas man with no medical license is doing business in Indiana and allowing his contractors to perform autopsies without credentials. It's all coming to light, as another state works to shut down his makeshift morgue.

For the first time, an Indiana family is sharing their shocking story about a case that's more than a little unsettling.

Inside a makeshift morgue in Topeka, Kansas, disturbing images appear. Plastic containers hold what appear to be human organs and tissue. "This is the autopsy suite," Shawn Parcells announced in a video tour of his facilities. The converted house is where he does what he calls "gross dissections."

For nearly a decade he's been performing autopsies without a license or proper medical credentials. A Kansas court has finally ordered him to stop and is now shutting down his lab. But that order only applies to the state of Kansas, and for some Indiana residents it's too late.

In a portion of the video, Parcells boasts of working with one of the top research schools in the Hoosier state. "This one is a case we did for Indiana University, a brain case," he said.

According to the Indiana University School of Medicine, the school did contract with Parcells and his company as part of a national Alzheimer’s Disease study. Assistant Director at IU School of Medicine, Kati Duffey, told 13 Investigates it was for a limited number of instances, and that the school has been in touch with authorities.

In a statement Duffey wrote:

“Due to confidentiality, we cannot discuss individuals or organ donors who participate in research. We are aware of the legal proceedings taking place in Kansas. We take seriously the responsibility donors and their families place in us.”

And it’s not just tissue samples from Indiana causing concerns here in Indiana. 13 Investigates confirmed Parcells company has also conducted autopsies in Indiana. "As far as Indianapolis is concerned, I think we only had two cases. ...," Parcells said.

Now for the first time, the family of one of those cases is speaking publicly. "It was shocking at first. What in the world did this guy just do to my family?" Nicole Cash said. Cash is referring to the autopsy performed on her grandmother, Dollie Lee Kinder.

Cash is angry after learning the man whose company her family hired to do the autopsy had no credentials to handle her grandmother's remains. "He is not who he says he is," she said.

Cash said the Kinder family found Parcell's company, National Autopsy Services, on the internet a day after Kinder died in a Beech Grove nursing home.

Kinder suffered from dementia but her family said her death came unexpectedly. National Autopsy Services of Topeka, Kansas touted "unbiased experts" in "forensic and legal medicine." So Kinder's family signed a contract and paid $3,600 to get the autopsy done within three days.

Little & Sons Funeral Home in Beech Grove confirmed to 13 Investigates that the autopsy was performed at one of its Indianapolis facilities.

"I'm very angry because I feel like this man should have been stopped a long time ago," Cash said referring to several stories that have been done across the country regarding Parcells. CNN first uncovered Parcells was lacking credentials when he acted as a spokesman, detailing the injuries suffered by police shooting victim, Michael Brown.

In Indiana, you must be a board certified pathologist to perform an autopsy. Court records in Kansas show Parcells has never been a licensed doctor, pathologist, medical examiner or physician assistant.

A spokeswoman with the funeral home said no one checked credentials for the autopsy because it was a "private contract" and that the funeral home merely "provided space."

In a statement, the spokeswoman said:

"We sympathize with the (Kinder) family. Shawn Parcells is not and has never been employed by Little & Sons or any Dignity Memorial location."

Autopsies, if requested by the family, are arranged individually between the family and a pathologist and are performed under a separate contract, entirely independent of the funeral home." Now new questions are being raised about Parcells and his business practices. Cash caught up with him outside of a Kansas courthouse.

"Shawn, my name is Nicole," she said. "You did an autopsy on my grandmother, Dollie Kinder in Indianapolis. We have to have my grandmother's casket opened up because we don't even know if you just scammed us for the money or if you actually performed an autopsy on my grandmother.

What do you have to say right now?" "An autopsy was done, there was no scam," Parcells responded. But Parcells later told 13 Investigates, there was no autopsy of Kinder.

He claimed he hired a third party to remove only tissue and portions of Kinder's brain, but admitted the person who did the work was not a licensed doctor nor pathologist. "No, he's a surgical technician," Parcells said.

Parcells said he's working to get the Kinder family answers and never intended for anyone to be hurt. "He should be criminally charged and put into prison,"Cash said. "You don't think someone so cold hearted could do something like this to grieving families?"

The director of the Indiana Coroner's Training Board told 13 Investigates it is against the law for anyone other than a board certified pathologist to do an autopsy in Indiana.

Cash said she has reported Parcells to the Attorney General's Office. No word tonight on what action is being taken. Under the Kansas court order, Parcells must turn over all of the tissue from his lab to the Kansas Department of Health.

Meanwhile Cash and her family want a full review of Kidner's case.


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Friday, November 15, 2019

Beech Grove works to keeps kids safe at school

Beech Grove, IN (November 15, 2019) IBG — School districts in Indiana are pumping millions of dollars towards safety. A lot of that money goes towards securing a building to keep kids safe once they are inside. Administrators are working before the bell rings too.

"At the end of the day, schools are a vulnerable place," said Chase Lyday, president of the Indiana School Resource Officers Association.

School resource officers like Lyday monitor hallways all day to secure the campus once class starts. Moments like what happened this week at a Southern California school make him take a second look.

"Certainly sad when a student slips through the cracks. Our goal is to be as proactive and sensitive to kids’ needs," Lyday said.

Lyday said SROs focus on what is happening outside the school as well as inside.

"Parking lot patrols, we have officers even from nearby jurisdictions that drive by pay attention what is going on," he said.

Beech Grove

"It is impossible to prevent you know something, an incident but at least let’s try to minimize it so we worked very hard on that," said Paul Kaiser, Superintendent of Beech Grove Schools.

Beech Grove also wants to hire more SROs so that there can be one at the middle school and high school. They plan to put forth a referendum next year.

"You have to do everything you can ahead of time by working with kids and talking to kids," he said.

The Indiana Department of Education recently held training for a School Safety Specialist Academy. Administrators learned best practices for security. Right now, there are more than 3,000 school safety specialists in the state.

SOURCE: Fox 59

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Thursday, November 7, 2019

Steve McQueen’s Great Escape

Beech Grove, IN (November 7, 2019) IBG — There was the broken home. The violence, the neglect, the desertion: born in Beech Grove, Indiana, the young Terence Steven McQueen shuffled between his native Indiana and Missouri, and eventually California, passing from one home to another.

The child knew mostly misery. But he had been given something.

Somewhere, someone decided that McQueen needed to be baptized Catholic just as his mother had been before him. In the biographies this fact is mentioned in passing, understandably perhaps, as it appeared to have made little difference to the boy, the adolescent, and, later, the man. But the gift did matter.

Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968.

What the Hollywood star’s biographers also sidestep is his ending. In a strange way McQueen’s final earthly moments make sense of all the rest.

In that final “performance,” McQueen played a role much older than any he had acted on the Silver Screen, and, for once, it really was a matter of life and death.

But we’ll come to that.

What had passed for childhood soon he turned into a troubled youth. With no home, McQueen ended up on the streets, until a court sent him to one that was there to reform boys like him. The Boys Republic was to be the start of the end of childhood; for the young McQueen it was also the beginning of a mistrust of institutions — the image of authority had long since been fractured for this child from a broken home. It appeared to many that the only thing McQueen had been given in life was resentment.

From one institution to another he moved. Before living the life of a drifter and a vagrant. An angry young man can always find a home, however, in any military, and the United States Marine Corps was ready to receive a world-weary 17-year-old McQueen. It was 1947 and he would serve three years. Too early for Korea, he saw no combat, yet his time in the Marines was suspected of later killing him. Over 30 years on, he was diagnosed with a disease that was believed to have its origin through in the then routine removal of asbestos during a military chore.

He didn’t know it then, but the clock had begun ticking for Steve McQueen, curiously just as his luck was about to change.

From 1952 onwards, thanks to the G.I. Bill, McQueen set out to become an actor. For many years his desire for his acting talent to be recognized was more aspirational than real. Finally, however, six years later things began to shift. From 1958 to 1968, at rapid speed, McQueen ascended from bit-part player to television star, from supporting actor to lead, from movie star to superstar.

By the late 1960s, all Hollywood bowed before him; McQueen had become one of its new kings. By then, this King of Cool had touched the zeitgeist, or it had touched him, and thereafter bestowed upon him a glittering kingdom of tinsel. That was only one side of the story though.

There was another, darker side to this Hollywood luminary. This was not so surprising, given that there was very little light and much darkness at the heart of the world he inhabited. Perhaps inevitably, that darkness found its way into a man unable to resist its blandishments and allures. The public ascent had seemed rapid and assured; the private descent was to be equally so.

By the mid-1970's, there was a trail of broken marriages and emotional debris, Charles Manson-inspired death threats and drug busts, false starts professionally, and a reputation he didn’t need in Hollywood. That movie town no longer seemed to need this increasingly temperamental star. The movie business decided to move on. By then, McQueen was an actor in his 40's, with his looks fading as, inevitably, younger, hungrier actors jostled for his much-coveted crown. As the lights over Hollywood began to dim, it seemed that a king was being sent into exile.

His final cinematic outing was Tom Horn (1980). It was about a frontiersman finally cornered by modernity and the relentless march of time, facing death by hanging. As it happened, when Tom Horn was being made, having by then physically experienced the first signs of what was coming next, namely cancer, its star was equally cornered. Thereafter, McQueen’s life was hanging by an ever more slender thread.

Unexpectedly, as the end came into sight McQueen raised his gaze. When at the height of his former pomp, he had been asked by an interviewer what he believed in, the actor had declared: himself. Now, on learning that that same frail self was falling apart, another belief stepped in. For many years, McQueen had known a man called Sammy Mason. This man was as different as could be from the movie star and his circle. He was a family man, good at his profession and liked by his fellow workers, and, more important still, a Christian. One day the man who wore the tarnished crown of movie-stardom and who had ruled supreme in that fake empire, asked his friend what it was that seemed to hold him together.

But, by now, the clock began to strike as McQueen went to Mexico looking for a miracle cure to the cancer that was killing him. He didn’t find one.

By then, however, if only tentatively, McQueen had found something — or Someone — else. He asked to see the Evangelist Billy Graham. The movie star told the older man that he was now a Christian. He believed no longer in himself but in God’s only-begotten Son. They prayed together. Touched by the younger man’s obvious sincerity, Graham handed him his Bible.

Shortly before he died, McQueen said, “My only regret in life is that I was not able to tell people about what Christ did for me.”

On Nov. 7, 1980, the final chimes sounded; the race was run: Steve McQueen was dead.

On his coffin was laid the Bible that had been given to McQueen just days previously.

It was open at the following verse: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

SOURCE: National Catholic Register
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Siblings continue strong bond as religious sisters

Beech Grove, IN (November 7, 2019) IBG — Benedictine Sisters Jill and Susan Reuber have often shared the same path in life, but their roads to their religious vocations took different turns. They were born within two minutes of each other, part of triplets with their brother Eric.

Growing up, the sisters shared a bedroom and a car, became best friends and did many of the same activities — from playing in their high school marching band to working together at Dairy Queen. One of the few places where they were separated growing up was during Mass at their parish church.

“Our parents didn’t let us sit next to each other,” Sister Jill told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “Probably because they thought we would talk to each other,” Sister Susan said. “Or hit each other,” Sister Jill added, smiling.

Benedictine Sisters Susan and Jill Reuber, pictured in an undated photo in Indianapolis 
(CNS photo/John Shaughnessy, The Criterion)

Yet despite this remarkable closeness, Susan had a quick, emphatic reaction years later when older sister Jill chose to make her vows as a Sister of St. Benedict. “I wasn’t going to do what Jill did,” she said forcefully.

That response makes both sisters smile at the same time.

So begins the story of how these two 39-year-old sisters are not only connected by blood and love, but now also by their faith and shared vows as Benedictine sisters. Sister Jill’s journey to religious life took its defining turn when she was a student at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.

As a freshman and sophomore, she spent her spring breaks on mission trips to Nazareth Farm, a Catholic community in rural West Virginia. She was studying elementary education, and as a freshman wanted “to teach in the Appalachian Mountains,” she said.

“In my second year there, we prayed together in the mornings and the evenings. That’s where I found I wanted that prayer life, that community life,” Sister Jill said. “That’s when I started discerning that (religious life) is what I wanted to do. I also wanted God to give me a lightning bolt, to tell me what to do.”

There was just one problem with that lightning bolt plan. “During one Mass at camp, the priest’s whole homily was that God doesn’t give lightning bolts,” Sister Jill said.

By her senior year, she started visiting the Benedictine sisters’ community at Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Indiana, in the Evansville Diocese. “I fell in love with prayer, community and the way the sisters loved each other.”

Following her college graduation, she entered the Benedictine community in Ferdinand in August 2003 and professed her final vows in 2011. She is now the community’s vocation director, seeking to lead other women to the life she loves. It’s the life she wanted, but one Susan “wanted nothing to do with it.”

“When Jill was discerning in college, she was right that I didn’t want anything to do with it,” said Sister Susan, a 2003 graduate of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. “I wanted my own car, my own house and my own paycheck. But deep down, I didn’t want to do what Jill was doing. In college, for the first time, we really had our own identity.”

After graduation, she began a career in education, joining Roncalli High School in Indianapolis as an English teacher in her second year. “It was my dream job — teaching in a Catholic school, sharing my faith with my students,” she said. “Fast forward eight years to 2011. I’m starting to think something is missing in my life. I’m at school way too much.”

Right then, she gets a message from Benedictine Sister Michelle Sinkhorn — vocation director for the Ferdinand community at the time — inviting her to a “Come and See” weekend among the sisters.

“I didn’t know if I wanted to open that door,” Sister Susan recalled. “I talked to Jill, and she convinced me to come, that we could hang out for the weekend. In my mind, I was just going to see Jill.”

Then a series of lightning bolts hit, starting on that weekend.

“God opened my heart and said, ‘Why aren’t you pursuing this?'” Sister Susan recalled. “I saw how happy Jill is, and how happy the sisters are. At the end of the weekend, I sat down with Sister Michelle. I owned a house in Beech Grove, and Sister said, ‘Why don’t you visit the sisters at Our Lady of Grace Monastery there?'”

“The drive home was the longest two and a half hour drive I had ever made in my life. I’m going to have to quit my job and sell my house,” she continued. “Then at Roncalli, (Benedictine) Sister Anne Frederick handed me a brochure for their ‘Come and See’ weekend at Our Lady of Grace. She didn’t even know I had gone to Ferdinand. I saw that as a sign from the Holy Spirit that I should come here.”

She went to Our Lady of Grace for the weekend, thinking “I have to find something I hate about the place so I could be done with it.” She had a different feeling by the end of the weekend. When it was time leave, Sister Susan said, “I didn’t find anything I didn’t like. I fell in love with the sisters. What I was missing in my life was community.”

She entered the Benedictine community at Beech Grove in September 2012 and professed her final vows this past June. She also has returned to Roncalli as a teacher. Sharing the same vows has added another dimension to the siblings’ closeness. Living their vows also has brought them to a deeper relationship with God.

SOURCE: Catholic Philly

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Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Derailed: Talgo trains in limbo at Amtrak facility

Beech Grove, IN (November 6, 2019) IBG — Two massive brick warehouses have been a part of the landscape for more than a century. One of the buildings has a concrete sign that reads 1907. The other reads 1910. Both belong to Amtrak, which maintains its fleet here.

Most of the trains that come into this facility don't stay long. The big silver cars Amtrak is known for make a stop here, get repaired and return to service.

But in the front of the rail yard, there are two trains that never move.

Workers at the Beech Grove Amtrak facility pass these trains every day as they head past the front gate. They’re right next to the parking lot, just on the other side of a chain link fence. Weeds are growing up through the gravel next to their wheels. But they look different from the other trains there — they’re shiny white with a bright red stripe.

These are the trains the state of Wisconsin paid for, and at one point intended to run. But they never ran in Wisconsin, or anywhere.

A Long Time Coming

Before Gov. Scott Walker successfully blocked the high-speed rail line that would have connected Madison to Milwaukee in 2010, Wisconsin bought two trains from a Spanish company named Talgo.

The story of these trains is messy. And in a way, they're the physical reminder of the debate Wisconsin had almost a decade ago. While it's hard to say exactly when that story began, you could make an argument that it started when Wisconsin became a state in 1848.

The people who founded the state felt strongly about what government should and shouldn't do, and they spelled that out in the Wisconsin Constitution. One of the things they didn’t want Wisconsin to get into was borrowing money to build infrastructure, like roads and bridges.

Other states had gotten into money trouble by borrowing too much, and Wisconsin's framers were going to nip that in the bud. But times changed, and so did peoples' expectations for government. Over the years, voters amended the Wisconsin Constitution to allow borrowing for highways, forests, airports, port facilities and the like.

But even up until just a few decades ago there was one thing the state of Wisconsin couldn’t borrow for: railroads. And in 1989, then-Democratic state Sen. Joe Czarnezki of Milwaukee wanted to change that.

He introduced a proposal to end Wisconsin's 141-year-old ban on borrowing for railroads. And in 1992, voters passed it. "I don't know if we were visionaries, but it certainly was something where we were looking toward the future," Czarnezki said.

One year later, then-state Rep. Spencer Black, a Madison Democrat, wanted to put this borrowing power to use. He sponsored a plan that would give the state the power to borrow up to $50 million for railroads.

"I was concerned about transportation policies," Black said. "I felt it was too oriented toward building large new highways. It was neglecting nonautomotive transportation such as transit and rail transit."

To increase the chances of it passing, Black got it added to the state budget. The story of the day the Legislature voted on that budget is particularly interesting in the grand scheme of the high-speed rail saga. On that same day, according to the official Assembly journal from July 16, 1993, a 25-year-old lawmaker was sworn in. He had just won a special election for an open Assembly seat in the Milwaukee suburbs.

His name: Scott Walker, the future governor who would one day vow to kill Wisconsin's high-speed rail line. And on Walker's very first day in office, he got to vote on the budget.

And Walker voted "yes" — including on the $50 million in railroad bonding.

With Walker's help, the budget bill passed and Wisconsin could get into the railroad business.

A Major New Start

It would be 16 years before Wisconsin state government would decide to use this power.

After President Barack Obama signed the federal stimulus bill in early 2009, it looked like high-speed rail was about to take off in the United States. The stimulus set aside $8 billion for high-speed rail, and states like Wisconsin were about to compete for pieces of it.

And Wisconsin was getting ready for this rail boom.

On July 17, 2009, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle announced the state was making a deal with a Spanish train manufacturer called Talgo. "Today is a day that I believe we mark a major new start for transportation in the Midwest and in the United States," Doyle said.

Doyle said Talgo would open a manufacturing facility in Wisconsin and build two brand-new train sets for the state. He described it as a historic moment, imagining a future where passenger rail travel would thrive in the Midwest, with Wisconsin at the center of it.

Talgo, which had long dreamed of becoming big in the U.S., was also celebrating that day. "We have been patient," said Jose Maria Oriol, whose great-grandfather founded the company. "And now we can say that the dream in the Midwest (has) become a true reality."

Doyle's Secretary of the state Department of Transportation Frank Busalacchi was also there that day. Busalacchi had signed the contract with Talgo just days earlier. He said he helped design the trains. "I was able to pick the colors and I picked white with red trim, the Badger colors," he said. "And they were absolutely stunning."

But before the deal could be finalized, it had to be voted on by members of the state Legislature’s budget committee, the Joint Committee on Finance. It would be the first time Democrats and Republicans would debate this issue in public.

The Debate Begins

In 2009, Democrats ran the budget committee, just like they ran everything else in state government, so there was little doubt that the Talgo deal would pass.

But Republicans on this committee had a huge problem with the contract, namely the way it was reached by Busalacchi and Doyle.

From a procedural standpoint, there are a couple of ways the state can seek bids on a project like this.

One option is to open it up to private businesses to bid on through what's known as a "request for proposal," or RFP. The process for an RFP can be slow, but the idea is that it helps the state get the best bang for its buck. Other times, the state issues what's known as a "request for information," or RFI. While completely legal in Wisconsin, the requirements for an RFI are a little more relaxed, and the process is faster.

In the case of the Talgo deal, the Doyle administration chose an RFI. They started the process on Feb. 6, 2009, and Talgo was the only company that said it was interested.

Republicans on the budget committee, like Republican Rep. Robin Vos of Rochester, were livid about this.

"I looked on Wikipedia for what the definition of sweetheart deal is," Vos said. "It's a term used to describe an abnormally favorable arrangement. And it says sometimes it involves government officials and hints at the presence of corruption ... I cannot imagine a better definition in the state of Wisconsin for a sweetheart deal than the one you are presenting to us today."

But, Vos and his fellow Republicans were in no position to stop this train in 2009, so the Talgo deal passed on an 11-4 party-line vote. Wisconsin could officially use the nearly $50 million in rail bonding to build the Talgo trains in Wisconsin.

The End Of The Line

This wouldn’t be the only time the Talgo deal needed the Legislature’s approval — and in 2012, when it did — the political circumstances couldn’t have been more different. Walker had been governor for more than a year, and the Legislature was more Republican than it had been in decades.

Vos, the state representative who was critical of the Talgo deal back in 2009, was now the chair of the budget committee, and Republicans had a 12-4 majority.

On March 14, 2012, the DOT asked the budget committee for $2.5 million toward a permanent maintenance facility for Wisconsin's Talgo trains. This was always part of the deal with Talgo.

Technically speaking, Walker's DOT was asking the budget committee to vote "yes" at this meeting, because it had to. Wisconsin had a contract with Talgo and that contract included this maintenance facility.

"We had a contract," said Mark Gottlieb, Walker's DOT secretary at the time. "It was the administration’s job, in my opinion, to execute that contract and fulfill the state's obligation on it unless, and until, the Legislature told us that they were going to exercise their authority not to appropriate the money."

In other words, the Walker administration would keep its end of the Talgo deal unless the Legislature decided to break it. By this time, the trains themselves were just about ready, but the rail line between Madison and Milwaukee was already dead.

Wisconsin's Talgo trains in the process of being built. Photos courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation

That meant Talgo's trains would only ever run on the existing Amtrak Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago, which was one of the busiest routes in the country.

According to a DOT study, that inflated the costs. It found that running and maintaining two new Talgo trains from Milwaukee to Chicago would cost $10 million more each year than keeping the state's old Amtrak trains.

Republican lawmakers, like Vos, had heard enough.

"I do not believe that it is my responsibility to just turn a blind eye," Vos said. "It's not my job to fulfill a bad contract, to do something that is a bad decision for the state."

Going Nowhere In Beech Grove

According to court documents, the trains have been at the Beech Grove Amtrak facility in Indiana since the spring of 2014. Talgo is paying to store them there until they are sold or leased.

There is a chance these two trains could be sent to run on the Amtrak Cascades line through Washington and Oregon. These were not the only trains Talgo built in Milwaukee — the company also built two other identical sets to run in Washington and Oregon, which have been in use there since 2013.

But the Wisconsin Talgo trains have never run, and while they've been sitting in Beech Grove, safety regulations have changed. The Oregon Talgo trains are exempt from the new safety standards because they were already running. But the Wisconsin Talgos now require a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration.

The FRA granted Amtrak that waiver in November 2018, but Amtrak still hasn’t decided if it will actually use the Wisconsin Talgo trains.

And until something changes, Wisconsin’s trains are still going nowhere.

SOURCE: Wisconsin Public Radio

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