A look at the top local stories of 2018
photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Photo Illustration; Journal-World File Photos
Maybe you want to remember 2018. Maybe you don’t. It has been that type of year, as our list of the top local stories of 2018 confirms.
There have been leadership shakeups — some with retirement cards, some with pink slips. There have been murders and the trials that come with them, complete with twists and turns. There have been historic budget cuts at KU, and the trepidation that the 2019 budget-cutting process will be even more painful.
But there also was a landmark moment for mental health care in Douglas County, although it took two elections and a fair amount of debate. And, Lawrence educators and parents are getting to know a new school superintendent who hopes to create a new direction for public schools.
So, how did we come up with the top stories of the year? Well, remember, we are journalists, not scientists. Our method was simple, if not scientific. I asked Journal-World reporters to look back on the stories they have written over the last year, and pick five to 10 that they thought were the most important or meaningful to the Lawrence and Douglas County community. Then, in consultation with some other editors at the Journal-World, I picked 10 of them. No voting this year, as we were worn out from covering elections, and I was fearful a vote may produce one of my least favorite terms — a hanging chad. No voting also means that the stories aren’t ranked. It is just a list of the top 10. You can debate what order they ought to be in.
Enough, though, with the explanation. Let’s get on with the stories.
• KU’s downturn: About a month before KU’s 2019 fiscal year began in July, faculty, staff and administrators got the memo that will shape the university for years to come: Departments across the Lawrence campus needed to cut about $20 million from the fiscal year 2019 budget. Technically, every department of every operating unit at the Lawrence campus was expected to cut about 5.9 percent from its budget. The total was expected to be about $20 million.
Although this story broke in 2018, put it on the list of early contenders for top stories in 2019. That’s because the budget-cutting process is expected to become more difficult for the 2020 fiscal year budget, which begins July 1, 2019. For the 2019 fiscal year, KU leaders allowed departments to basically tap into their savings accounts to meet the 5.9 percent cut. Many departments had cash reserves that weren’t budgeted to be spent. Those departments were allowed to meet their cut requirement simply by turning those reserves back over to KU’s Office of the Provost, which could redeploy the money.
That strategy, however, could get painful for the next fiscal year. With those reserves gone, the departments likely will need to make cuts to employees or services in order to meet their reduced budget amounts. You can already start to see what that will look like. In early December, Interim Provost Carl Lejuez announced that about 30 people would be laid off from the Lawrence campus as part of a program aimed to reduce employment totals by 150 people during the next two school years.
KU leaders have said they hope the budget cuts will put the university in a better position to provide raises, tackle deferred maintenance and relieve pressure on student tuition in future years.
The cutback in employees comes at a time when fewer students are coming to the Lawrence campus. Although enrollment grew at KU’s medical school in Kansas City in 2018, student totals continued to decline on the Lawrence campus, according to numbers released in October. Enrollment totals at the Lawrence campus and KU’s Edwards Campus in Johnson County have fallen by about 2,100 students since 2008, or about 8 percent.
• A mental health win: In November, Douglas County voters easily approved a new quarter-cent sales tax that will provide about $4.9 million a year in new revenue for mental health initiatives. The sales tax passed with about 70 percent of the vote, but it wasn’t as easy as those numbers suggest.
County voters in May rejected a half-cent sales tax option that would have funded both mental health initiatives and a $44 million expansion of the Douglas County Jail. The proposed jail expansion faced stiff opposition from several citizen groups that said the county should use alternative methods to reduce the overcrowding at the jail.
Keep an eye on this issue for 2019, as well. Although the recently approved quarter-cent sales tax didn’t include plans for a jail expansion, county commissioners are now exploring other funding possibilities for a jail expansion. Meanwhile, expect 2019 to produce some progress on the proposed mental health initiatives, which includes an $11 million behavioral health campus in the 1000 block of West Second Street near Lawrence Memorial Hospital. The campus will include a variety of housing options for people with mental illness. Construction on the housing parts of the campus is expected in 2019. The campus also will include a crisis center that is scheduled to be built in 2021.
• Election season: Lawrence residents were keeping a close eye on another election this year. One of their own was seeking a seat in Congress. Lawrence resident Paul Davis got national attention as pundits thought he might be part of the crop of Democrats who would successfully flip a Republican-controlled district in the U.S. House of Representatives. But Davis would go on to lose his bid for the 2nd District congressional seat to Steve Watkins, a political newcomer who staged a surprising victory in the Republican primary, and then, with the support of President Donald Trump, won the general election with about 48 percent of the vote.
A majority of Lawrence voters, though, did see their choice win in the governor’s race. Democrat Laura Kelly beat Republican Kris Kobach — a rural Lecompton resident — to put the governor’s mansion back in the hands of Democrats after eight years of Republican control. Kelly, who won about 74 percent of the vote in Douglas County, will have to work with Republicans. The GOP maintained solid control of the Kansas Legislature.
• Changes at the top: Although there won’t be elections, two big leadership positions are expected to be filled in 2019. Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug and Lawrence City Manager Tom Markus both announced their resignations in 2018. Weinaug, who had been county administrator for more than 26 years, retired in December. Markus, who came from Iowa City, Iowa, to Lawrence in 2016, has agreed to stay on until the spring, while city commissioners search for his replacement.
At the school district, the new face already has arrived. Anthony Lewis was hired in January and began in July as the new superintendent of the Lawrence public school district. Lewis is a former assistant superintendent with the Kansas City, Mo., school district and, prior to that stint, was a special education teacher in Montgomery, Ala. Lewis set out on a listening tour of the district, and he has since said the district needs to improve equity issues for minority students and remove other barriers to improved student performance.
• Athletic upheaval: Perhaps the most change in leadership, though, happened at Kansas Athletics. First to go was Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger. KU Chancellor Douglas Girod fired Zenger in May after saying “progress in key areas had been elusive” during Zenger’s tenure.
In November, head football coach David Beaty was fired, although he was allowed to finish out the football season. Beaty was replaced by former national championship coach Les Miles, and Zenger was replaced by former University of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long.
KU fans had other off-the-field developments to watch in 2018. The KU men’s basketball program was discussed prominently in a federal fraud trial that resulted in convictions related to a pay-for-play scheme orchestrated by representatives of Adidas, which is the apparel sponsor of KU Athletics. Although no one from KU was charged in the scheme, KU basketball player Silvio De Sousa currently is not playing while the NCAA investigates whether his guardian and others were involved in the pay-for-play fraud. The NCAA has said schools, if found in violation of NCAA rules, could face penalties after the basketball season concludes this spring.
• Kansas River murder: Lawrence received national attention after a mentally ill Missouri mother drove into the Kansas River near downtown Lawrence, killing her 5-year-old daughter and injuring her 1-year-old son. Scharron R. Dingledine pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in December. Rescue crews combed the Kansas River on the afternoon of Aug. 3 after she drove a stolen car off the banks of the Kaw, just north of downtown. Dingledine and her son, Elijah Lake, were pulled from the river shortly after the incident, but the body of her 5-year-old daughter, Amiyah Bradley, was not found until the next day. Dingledine, 26, hasn’t yet been sentenced but accepted a plea deal that would allow her to seek parole after 25 years in prison. Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson offered the plea deal, in part, because Dingledine suffers from mental health disorders that had not been properly diagnosed and treated, he said.
• Courtroom drama: The Douglas County courthouse was busy with other cases, too, and will remain so in 2019. Jurors convicted Carrody Buchhorn of second-degree murder for the killing of 9-month-old Oliver “Ollie” Ortiz at a Eudora day care. But new attorneys for Buchhorn have appealed the conviction and are arguing the then-Douglas County coroner wasn’t qualified to testify in the trial.
Jurors also convicted Danny W. Queen of second-degree murder in the killing of Bo Hopson at a Eudora bar where Hopson was working security. And one of the largest stories of 2017 is continuing into 2019, thanks to courthouse delays. The trial for three defendants charged in connection with an October 2017 downtown Lawrence shooting that left three people dead on Massachusetts Street was declared a mistrial in November. The judge in the case ultimately kicked Topeka-based attorney Jennifer Chaffee off the case a few days later, saying that she was “incompetent” to try the case. The trials for the three men are now scheduled for February, March and April.
• Oread fraud: Prominent Lawrence developer Thomas Fritzel is facing a federal prison sentence if he is convicted of fraud charges related to allegations that he schemed to collect more than $400,000 in fraudulent tax refunds from the city of Lawrence. The allegations date back to 2008, when Fritzel and others developed The Oread hotel near the KU campus. The city provided the project a host of incentives, including tax rebates. Federal prosecutors allege Fritzel and company bookkeeper Keela Lam created hundreds of sham transactions to take advantage of the tax rebate incentives. The city and Fritzel reached a civil settlement in 2017 that involved Fritzel paying the city $650,000 in damages. But the civil settlement did not preclude federal prosecutors from bringing criminal charges. Fritzel is tentatively set to go to trial in January of 2020.
• Immigration battle: A Lawrence family was right in the middle of one of the larger topics to grip the nation in 2018 — immigration policy. Syed Jamal, a Lawrence scientist and father, was detained in January, and already had been placed on a plane to be deported back to his native Bangladesh before he won a key ruling in his immigration case. Members of the community rallied around Jamal and his wife and children. The case attracted international attention and became a rallying cry for people opposed to new immigration regulations implemented by the Trump administration. In November, Jamal learned that he’ll be able to stay in America through at least early 2022 while the Immigration Court further considers his case.
• Traffic stop shooting: A May traffic stop turned into a police shooting incident on Sixth Street near downtown Lawrence. Brindley D. Blood, a Lawrence police officer, is charged with aggravated battery in the shooting of black motorist Akira Lewis. An investigation into the case alleges Lewis became involved in a physical altercation with another Lawrence police officer as part of a traffic stop. Blood is alleged to have shot Lewis while he was struggling with the other officer. The investigation states that Blood intended to use her Taser on Lewis, but mistakenly pulled her gun and shot Lewis in the back. Attorneys for Blood have filed motions seeking to dismiss the charges against her, saying she acted lawfully under the state’s “stand your ground” law. The next hearing in the case is set for February. Lewis also faces multiple charges related to the incident.