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The Education Department punishes a student loan servicers for its billing mistakes.

The U.S. Department of Education has taken the unusual step of punishing one of the largest federal student loan servicers for failing to send on-time billing statements to 2.5 million borrowers.

The department said on Monday that it would withhold $7.2 million in payment owed to the Higher Education Loan Authority of the State of Missouri, better known as MOHELA, for the month of October. It announced that, of those 2.5 million borrowers, more than 800,000 failed to make an on-time loan payment in October, the first month that payments are due since the pandemic pause began in March 2020.

“The actions we’ve taken send a strong message to all student loan servicers that we will not allow borrowers to suffer the consequences of gross servicing failures,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “We are committed to fixing our country’s broken student loan system, and that includes strengthening oversight and accountability and taking every step possible to improve outcomes for borrowers.”

MOHELA did not respond to a request for comment.

The department’s announcement comes amid widespread reports of loan servicing errors and of borrowers waiting on hold for hours before reaching servicer workers who can explain and ultimately fix those mistakes. In fact, the department itself cataloged these errors — extensively — in a recent internal memo obtained by NPR and first reported by The Washington Post.

In that memo, dated Oct. 17, the office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) listed multiple large groups of borrowers who have been hurt by servicers’ errors during the return to repayment.

In addition to those 2.5 million borrowers who did not receive timely billing statements from MOHELA, some 16,000 borrowers who had petitioned the department to cancel their loans because they had been defrauded by a for-profit college were erroneously returned to repayment, the memo says. These borrowers should have been placed into a special payment-free forbearance until their claims could be reviewed and, potentially, their loans discharged.

(I added the above emphasis/block quote. This is exactly what happened to me.)

And then there’s what happened to Dan Szyman.

“This is crazy!”

Szyman, a 43-year-old father of three, works as an outpatient mental health nurse in an opioid addiction treatment program near St. Louis.

He was previously enrolled in the REPAYE income-driven repayment plan and was automatically enrolled in the Biden administration’s new, more generous repayment plan, known as SAVE. At summer’s end, Szyman remembers logging in to his student loan account and seeing that his new monthly payment, beginning in October, would be $99.

“That’s so doable,” he remembers thinking. “You know, I’ve got three kids. Any little bit helps.”

But then, in September, Szyman received a notice from his servicer, MOHELA, “saying that my bill was going to be $633. And I was like, ‘This is crazy!’ So I called them right away.”

A MOHELA call center worker told Szyman there had been a “system glitch.” He remembers being told: “‘We’ll get it fixed for you.'”

But it wasn’t fixed. When he called again, a different call center worker told Szyman that his loan would be put into forbearance until the “glitch” could be sorted out. And there it remains.

The internal Education Department memo suggests Szyman is in good company: 78,000 borrowers experienced something similar. All had their accounts transferred from one servicer to another and were shifted from an old income-driven repayment plan to the new SAVE plan.

What was the glitch? According to the memo, “their monthly payments were incorrectly calculated based on incorrect family sizes, family income and spousal loan balances.” It’s unclear which of these factored into Szyman’s six-times-larger payment.

“You know, I can deal with the bureaucracy and, you know, sit on the phone for four hours,” says Szyman, who told NPR his calls to MOHELA lasted between two and four hours. “But there’s so many people out there that can’t … and those people are probably struggling.”

The Education Department announced on Monday that it has instructed servicers to place all borrowers affected by these mistakes into forbearance, for any interest that accrued to be zeroed out and for that forbearance time to count as credit toward Public Service Loan Forgiveness. That’s good news for Szyman, who says he is just 17 payments away from having his debts forgiven under the program.

“You know, that’s what I’ve seen from this administration — that they are really trying hard to help people like me,” says Szyman, who says he is frustrated with his servicer but appreciates the Education Department’s moves to address the mistakes.

Sharing the blame

While borrowers welcomed the Education Department’s announcement, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who chairs the House Education Committee, made clear that she believes the department deserves much of the blame for these failures.

“Servicers need to be performing at their best. Period. But this doesn’t mean the Department is off the hook,” Foxx said in a statement. “For more than three years the Department has known it would need to return borrowers to repayment. Yet, the Department failed to provide any evidence that it had an actual plan to do so. Congress, servicers, borrowers, and taxpayers have all been left in the dark. But now the Department is suddenly shocked that there were errors?”

Congress too bears some responsibility for these mistakes, voting to flat-fund the office of Federal Student Aid and its loan servicing contractors this year, as congressional Republicans battled with the White House over Biden’s broader student loan relief plans.

That means FSA and its servicers were given the same amount of money for 2023 as they received in 2022 even though, as the FSA memo makes clear, “28 million borrowers now owe payments for the first time in at least three and a half years, more than 20 times greater than the number of borrowers who would typically enter repayment in a single month.”

“It sure would help if the government would actually provide more resources to get the work done,” says Scott Buchanan, head of the Student Loan Servicing Alliance, an industry trade group. “FSA is backlogged on SAVE applications and servicers are having challenges with all the system changes we had to make in a rushed fashion, but we are all working together to identify those and fix them quickly.”

Not only are an unprecedented number of borrowers returning to the system all at once, but the memo says the questions they’re asking call center workers are unusually complex. That’s because, as Buchanan says, the student loan system has changed dramatically in recent years.

As a result, the time spent on hold for borrowers needing help averages 58 minutes, according to the memo. Call lengths are 70% longer than they were in 2019. It’s little surprise, then, that more than half of borrowers, 52%, who called for help gave up before they ever got through.

Correction Oct. 31, 2023

A previous version of this digital story incorrectly identified MOHELA as the largest federal student loan servicer. In fact, it is one of the largest loan servicers.

Pee When You Can_001

Pee When You Can_001

Dave Meir

writer | artist

Pee When You Can_001

I’m a big fan of the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child. And I’m guessing if you are as well then you’re also a fan of the new Netflix Reacher movie with mountainous Alan Ritchson playing Reacher as opposed to the diminutive Tommy Cruise of previous Reacher movies.

In the books, Reacher is fond of saying, “Sleep when you can, because you never know when you’re going to sleep again.” Apparently an old army rule.

At 64 I’ve adopted a similar mantra.

“When you see a bathroom use it. You’re gonna need one (again) in the next half hour and you might not be near one.

 

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Here’s Looking at You Kid

Dave Meir

writer | artist

Here’s Looking at You Kid

 
Prologue

Throughout the 1980s and 90s I worked as a residential real estate appraiser in southeastern Minnesota. If you’re unfamiliar, real estate appraisers are – most often – tasked by mortgage lenders to determine the value of a property. The lender wants to know that the property is worth – at least as much – as they’re about to lend on it. 

In the late 80’s the economy was in the midst of yet another bank meltdown and appraisers were also tasked with valuing properties in the midst of bank repossession. Most often these homes were – hopefully – vacant.

During one of my early appraisal education courses, I had a roommate from Florida who worked with his Dad valuing and then selling bank-owned properties in Miami, Florida. He related any number of stories wherein disgruntled homeowners – continuing to squat in their property – were hiding in closets or dark basements when he came through to inspect the house. In one particular case, the owner popping out of a closet – loaded shotgun in hand. Granted he was in Florida and this is Minnesota – but the stories stuck in my head. And as you’ll see, fueled by baseless subconscious fear, the unchecked human mind can create any number of vivid scenarios.

 
Here’s Looking at You, Kid

It’s a bright blue sky morning and the air is filled with the flutter of fall leaves. I pull into a desolate dirt track that winds to a wooded home site somewhere south of Blooming Prairie, Minnesota.

My platinum-gray four-door Mercury Cougar coasts to a stop; I leave the engine running, the heater on. Opening my hard-plastic briefcase I begin assembling the tools of the trade for entering and appraising yet another vacant home. Clipboard, mechanical pencil, and house keys at the ready, I’m prepared in my mind to face Freddy or Jason or whoever lay in wait in the house. Just as I’m about to open the car door, I look up to see my windshield covered with bees.

Not honeybees mind you (Not that it would have made a damn bit of difference – bees are bees.) but those big ugly long-tail-hanging-down wasps; the kind you see clinging to the sunny side of the house in the fall of the year. I look towards the house to see a squadron of wasps streaming from the garage service door. With no intention of becoming the victim in a Stephen King novel, I decide this house will not get appraised on this day.

Fast forward a couple of weeks; quiet puddles have begun to ice over and there’s a wisp of snow on the ground. I’m back in front of the Beehive, waiting and watching, motor running. Fifteen minutes zip by in a breath with no notice of any bees. Exiting the safety of my wasp-proof platinum sedan I steel myself for the task ahead.

Surrounded by stately oaks the house is a large cedar-sided rambler with a two-car attached garage. A rusty-around-the-edges white metal service door leading to the garage stands open by six inches. Pushing it open the rest of the way with the toe of my size ten-and-a-half, brown Florsheim loafer, I step into the garage.

The concrete floor is littered with dead wasp bodies, the kind that sting. I approach the house entrance and press my ear to the door, listening for the whispered buzzing of live bees. They don’t make much sound, these wasps, so it’s hard to know whether or not I’m heading to a painful puffy death.

I can feel my heart pounding as I put the key in the lock, set my hand on the cold brass knob, and turn it; gently pushing the door into what appears to be the kitchen. No wasps, nowhere. Cool.

The inspection part of appraising a house requires a lot of head-down concentration. When my own house was last appraised the guy used an iPad for everything. Back in the day we filled out a paper Fannie-Mae appraisal form and sketched the floor plan as we walked through the house. I can’t count the number of times, walking through vacant houses sans furniture, where – concentrating on my clipboard – I ran head-first into the dining area chandelier.

My inspection routine always started in the basement and the door was to my left. Here we go. My mind flashes back to Florida and my Appraisal 101 roommate. Not to him specifically, of course, that would be weird, but to his stories about repo squatters hiding in basements and closets. My heart races and my breath comes in short staccato bursts as I descend to the inky blackness of the vacant beehive basement.

Thirteen wooden steps into the ever-increasing darkness my loafer catches on a stair tread. I lose my footing and then regain it just as quickly. I am, after all, an appraiser. Blindly I wave my hand back and forth in front of me, searching for the pull cord from a ceiling light fixture. I find a string and pull; beautiful incandescent light. God bless Thomas Edison. All good. No shotgun-wielding squatters. No bees that I can see.

I write down the bare minimum of needed information; forced air heat, central air, 150-watt electrical service, 40-gallon propane water heater, and I’m back up the stairs in a flash. Only a fool would spend any more time than absolutely necessary in the basement of a vacant house.

Back on the well-lit main level, I begin the process of sketching the floor plan in the kitchen dining area. Using quarter-inch graph paper and my bionic eye I’m fairly accurate in estimating room sizes for the sketch. I’ll verify it all later when I use a tape to measure the exterior.

I check the boxes on the Fannie-Mae form for dishwasher, disposal, and range hood. I notice a couple of dead bees on the counter and one on the vinyl floor in front of the ‘frig. Great, I think to myself, I thought the bees were only in the garage. Taking a breath I continue checking boxes and making notes; Formica counters, basic cabinets, average construction.

I draw in the six-foot-wide patio door that leads to a green-treated wood deck at the back of the house. Mercifully I sidestep the chandelier without even looking up – I’m in the zone now.

Stopping at the patio door I look out to the backyard. The wind has picked up, even the branches on the big oaks are bending. The house creaks in complaint of the cold and a shiver creases my spine. The temptation to get the hell out of there is overwhelming. I’ve been in hundreds of similar houses so I already know what’s at the other end of the house; three bedrooms and a bathroom. The only thing keeping me is appraiser ethics; I can’t report it on the form or the sketch unless I see it.

Rounding a short L-shaped wall I enter the living room, a long hallway at my left. Continuing my sketch I draw in the entrance to the garage and then a bow window that gives a view of the wooded front yard. I check the box for carpeting as the house creaks again and something imaginary crawls the back of my neck. Oak woodwork, typical basic ranch casing, I sketch in the front door and the coat closet next to it. Could it be anything other than a closet? Nope. And I don’t need to check either.

Drawing in the final wall of the living room I look up from my clipboard and glance down the hall . . . to see my nightmare come to life. Never have I screamed in terror and I don’t now;  thankfully. But my entire body convulses backward. My mouth drops open to say something but no words come. A hundred thousand tiny needles poke my back and I realize I’m not breathing. A flip-flop churning in the pit of my stomach brings me to the realization that scaring the crap out of someone is a real possibility. It is definitely one of those fight or flight moments and I’m strongly in favor of flight.

Starting a slow-motion spin to my right I try to make my escape on the legs of a rubber chicken and watch as my nemesis does the same. In fact, I suddenly realize, he’s also wearing a blue shirt and tie and size ten and a half brown Florsheim loafers. He is me and I am him; my reflection in a full-length mirror at the end of the hall.

So that – in case you were wondering – is how to scare the crap out of an appraiser; let them do it themselves.

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Sideshow

Sideshow

Sideshow

Sideshow is a piece of assemblage art that grew from a beginning I wasn’t really crazy about, into a finished art piece I am extremely proud of.

If you’re new to assemblage art, in this post you’ll find a description of my process in creating this piece. Maybe it’ll help you create something you’ll be proud of as well.

For starters let me give credit where credit is due. If you’re familiar with this kind of art and you told me, “this looks like something Michael DeMeng created,” well. . . let’s just say I would not be offended. No question, I am inspired by Michael DeMeng. I completed one of his many on-line classes and if you like this kind of art he is a great teacher.

Find Michael’s website and on-line class offerings at:

Very briefly, this piece started out simply as the robot. . . . . . 

Ingredients – From the Top Down

Spear Point: From a knight-in-kitschy-armor found at a neighborhood rummage sale.

Eyeball: From a bag of the same purchased on Amazon. Primarily because where in the hell else would you get eyeballs? The eyeball is mounted in Apoxie Sculpt clay formed around the top of the next piece.

Triangle Top: This is a piece of trim found at the local Habitat for Humanity store. It was a little too wide so I sawed off about ¾ of an inch on one side, cut a half-assed 45-degree miter, and put it together with a big glob of Liquid Nails.

Railing: The railing in front of the Ring Master is from a nasty old birdhouse I found at a rummage sale. It was full of twigs and acorns and feathers and covered in bird crap; but hey – “A mans gots to do what a mans gots to do, ya know.” I drilled holes in the top piece of the box and glued the railing into those holes with W6000 glue.

Ring Master: This is a child’s action figure also found at a rummage sale. I wanted him to look more like a Circus Ring Master than an action figure so I tweaked his coat with some Apoxie Sculpt and added an Apoxie Sculpt top hat. I sanded him, covered him with gesso, then painted the black pants, red jacket with gold piping, and white gloves. After that was dry I covered him with Michael DeMeng’s “The Uszhhh,” to make him look older.

Ring Master’s Whip: This is a piece of a shish-ka-bob skewer painted black. The “whip” is fine copper wire wrapped around the tip.

Ring Master’s Reins: Initially I wanted this to have the look of a marionette. I was going to make a crossed piece of that same skewer material and have the reins wrapped around either end. Instead, I used waxed leather thread to make it look like he was holding reins. That hand on the action figure is open on the bottom and the reins would fall out. So I cut a short piece of copper tubing and glued that inside of his hand and then ran the reins through it.

Nameplate: The nameplate with Roboman is a piece of metal from the back of the same “knight-in-kitschy-armor” as the spearhead top. It was nice and thin and easy to cut with tin snips. Plus it was already painted – which I ended up sanding off anyway. I bought a set of letter stamps at Harbor Freight to stamp the name. I wanted it to look imperfect – which it turns out – I’m good at. So there. I used the same painting technique on this nameplate as I did on the robot legs (we’ll get to that) and then brushed a couple of layers of Liquitex gloss varnish. It’s stuck onto the piece with 3M double-face tape.

Yellow Corner Lights: The little yellow light bulbs come from a surplus store in St. Paul, Minnesota called Axman. https://www.ax-man.com/  Axman is worth a visit even if you don’t do this kind of art. They have some crazy stuff there – from plastic skeletons to an iron lung. The light bulbs are glued into holes in the frame of the box. Each bulb is surrounded by the metal cap from an old metal 35mm film canister. 

Box: The wood for the box, while not “old” or necessarily “found” did come from my garage. And if you saw my garage you would agree that i did, in fact, ”find it.” The corner pieces (that the yellow bulbs are glued into) are pieces of two-by-two that were cut from a homemade folding background bar. That background bar used in my – now closed – photography studio since 1990.

Arched Doorway” The arch was but from a piece of quarter-inch masonite, again, “found” in my garage. The red and yellow “bulbs” were made from Polymer clay formed in a silicone mold and then baked. You can buy lots of coll silicone molds on Amazon and Etsy.

Castle Doorway Background: Before I finally landed on the circus theme I had a vision of making this like the doorway to Frankenstein’s Castle with the monster coming through the doorway. I searched “Frankenstein’s Laboratory” and found a couple of really cool images to use for the background – but they were copyright protected. I reasoned with myself that they’d be in the background and barely visible so why not? The professional photographer in me won out and I went to Dreamstime and purchased this image. It’s not a laboratory image but I like the look. And my conscience is clear.

Black cloth curtain: It’s barely visible in the images but it runs around the inside of the opening. Found in my rag box in the garage. I purposely frayed the edge and it’s held in place with #M Double Fced tape.

Entrance FLoor: This Apoxie Sculpt clay. I used a metal ruler to make the perspective lines to look like a tile floor leading into the background. Used some clay tools to make marks and holes in the clay so the aging paint would be more effective.

Faucet Handle: A truly random addition. The center of the handle is a piece from a decorative ceiling fan chain pull that was in my box of, “I’ll use this someday” hardware.

Box edging: The front edges of the box are covered with metail strapping and then held in place with screws and washers to add texture.

The Robot: His legs are tuning forks.

 

Tuning Fork Legs

 

My son told me about a University of Minnesota thrift store where they sell used furniture, lab equipment, office machines, flooring, books, clothes, etc… from University buildings – like a College Goodwill Store.

 

At the time I was working on some 1950’s robot ideas – think Rosie from the old animated TV show The Jetsons or the Robot from Lost in Space. I thought these tuning forks from the U of M Thrift Store, at the low, low price of $1.50 a pair, would make perfect legs.

 

From what I understand tuning forks are typically made of aluminum. I tried a couple of different methods of “aging” them with no real success. I tried soaking them in vinegar, spraying them with bleach and leaving them in th sun, as well as soaking them in a container fill with crumpled aluminum foil and a solution of Oxiclean. All gave meager results at best.

 

I took Michael DeMeng’s on-line class, Shades of Alchemy, https://www.michaeldemeng.com/online-classes/shades-of-alchemy-online-on-demand and learned this technique for painting metal. Using Michael’s recipe for what he calls, “The Uszhhh” (because he usually uses it on all of his work) and heating up the metal with a heat gun, allowed the paint to adhere to the metal legs. 

 

I know it’s maybe frustrating, but it wouldn’t be fair to Michael DeMeng for me to tell you the entire process. The on-line video is only $39 – I don’t make anything for referring you – and it’s well worth it if you like the painting on this piece.

 

The Robot Body

I was in the midst of a few other projects at the time but I wanted to get started on a robot. Tell me if you find the following familiar to your art journey:

 

I discovered Jonni Good at Ultimate Paper Mache on You Tube. I was intrigued and immediately went out and got a hand held mixer, bowls, a gallon of glue, a big bucket of sheetrock compound and a bunch of toilet paper so I could make my own paper mache clay. 

 

A few batches of clay later I decided I wanted to try polymer clay so I bought a bunch – and a pasta roller to activate the clay – and tried that for awhile. And that was fun and I liked the results but I wasn’t completely enamoured.

 

Then I bought some DAS air dry clay and gave that a shot on a few things.

 

Continual reading, Instagram scrolling and YouTube watching finally lead me to Apoxie Sculpt clay – which my son had recommended to me from the get go. I really wanted to try Apoxie Sculpt for this robot but I already three different kinds of clay I hadn’t used up yet so I told myself no, I wasn’t spending anymore money on clay.

 

I formed the robot body out of aluminum foil wrapped around the tuning fork and covered that with some of the DAS air dry clay. 

 

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August 4th, 2022, marked the beginning of the end for the small-minded holier-than-thou 62 percent living in Jamestown Township/Hudsonville, Michigan.

The largely toothless, ignorant mass came together to strike down a millage tax proposal that would have supported a local library. Why? Because the library had a single LGBTQ-themed book on its shelves.

A fist-bumping, high-fiving throng of sleeveless flannel shirt-wearing revelers had assembled outside the Reformed Church of America to celebrate their victory over free speech. It was here that I found a likely candidate to interview.

Wearing cutoff denim shorts, the requisite flannel shirt, and a red baseball cap emblazoned with “Guns & Bullits Equals Freedom,” he introduced himself as Peter P. Johnson – but I could call him P.J. – and said he was a life-long resident of Hudsonville.

As we talked, he pumped his sign reading, “50% millage increase to GROOM our kids? Vote NO on Library!”

“People, they gonna be movin’ right here to little ole’ Hudsonville in droves. We gonna have us a real estate boom like you ain’t never seen. I’m thinkin’ ‘bout investin’ in some mo-bile homes. Bound to be folks a comin’ that appreciate that economical kinda livin’.

“Because?” I asked.

“Because we’re cleaning up this here town, that’s why; gettin’ rid all-a them fag lovers.”

I asked him to explain.

“People from fer ‘n wide been a searchin’ for a place to live where they ain’t gotta worry about they kids gettin’ haircuts from no fairy-godmother.” Johnson spit tobacco juice into a Coke can he was holding and winked, “If ya knows what I mean.”

I didn’t, but he continued after noticing my quizzical expression.

“Right here,” he shouted, tapping a tobacco-stained finger on his sign, “like the sign says, we ain’t gonna pay no more taxes just so’s them damn LBJ Cuties can GROOM our kids.”

I took a chance, “I think that proposed tax was to support the library, which apparently has LGBTQ books on its shelves.”

P.J. looked at me like I was from outer space.

“No, no, no, ya damn fool. Ain’t nobody give a rip ‘bout no books. Feller I work with, his sister’s husband’s uncle, is on the City Council. She says her husband said his uncle said he heard the liebarry buildin’s gots some vacant space in it. Story is them fruitcakes was gonna open up one of their hair saylons. They wanted our tax dollars to hep ‘em out.”

“I really don’t think that’s it,” I said, “but I heard the library will have to close without these tax funding dollars.”

“We don’t need no damn liebarry. Hell, I ain’t been in one since I was in the sixth grade, and look at me! You ask me we done kilt two birds with one stone. Gettin’ rid of them loop-de-loo tooty fruity lovers and that there money pit of a liebarry.”

A man in a clerical collar called to P.J. asking if he needed a beer. 

“Hell yeah!” he hollered back. “Sorry, gotta go,” he apologized, “Man upstairs offers you a beer you take him up on that shit right now.”


I’ve always liked reading the Onion, and this is my attempt at an Onionesque story. My apologies to the 37% of Hudsonville voters still in their right minds. You can read the real story HERE.

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