Friday, February 04, 2011

Utah legislature reaches out to rural counties

The Utah Legislature is observing its first "Rural Legislative Day." Amy Joi O'Donoghue, of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, reports the goal of the day is "to highlight success stories and provide a platform for feedback." The day is sponsored by Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development and will include discussions of rural issues at the state senate building.

Seventeen of Utah's 29 counties are designated rural, but some fear "their contribution to the economic livelihood of the state may be overlooked because of the dominance of the Wasatch Front, where most Utahns live and work," writes O'Donoghue. "The reason we've decided to do this is to engage the rural communities by becoming more proactive," said Bev Evans, director of the state's Rural Development Office. "Without having something organized in a formal way, people don't often feel as comfortable coming up to the Legislature," added Evans, a lawmaker for 20 years. (Read more)

A rural Mass. town deals with development: "Any time you make changes folks get skittish"

Change has come slowly to Marion, Mass., but more is coming, and the town is planning for it, reports Paul Kandarian for The Boston Globe. The town of 5,000 year-round residents is located near Buzzards Bay on Route 6, which "has seen some significant additions that have already begun changing the character of rural Marion," Kandarian writes.

(Map by Bing) Marion just got a drive-through Dunkin' Donuts, which "required a nearly 10-year battle," and more such developments are expected. Tom Magauran, vice chairman of the Planning Board, explains some of the decisions the town is facing. "We’re proposing a bylaw at spring Town Meeting that calls for all general structures on Route 6 to be two stories, to be consistent with the area.” The bylaw would provide tax incentives under a proposed Neighborhood Overlay District, he said, and would take a two-thirds majority to pass. "Any time you make changes, folks get skittish."

The other big, recent openings in Marion, all within a mile of one another, are a new police station and Little Neck Village, a senior housing development. Cumberland Farms, which owns two convenience stores at the corner of Route 6 and Front Street, wants to raze one of them and replace it with a store twice as large. That project is in litigation after the Planning Board rejected it. (Read more)

Finally, it's cool to be rural (but we knew that)

Rural America, or at least urbanites' view of it, is becoming the hot trend in pop culture. "It's as clear as a dust cloud on the horizon coalescing into a stampede of bison: Call it country, Western, country-and-Western or something else altogether, but popular culture can't seem to get enough of rural Americana," Adam Tschorn of the Los Angeles Times reports.

Rural-flavored movies "True Grit" and "Country Strong" have experienced recent success at the box office, and Jennifer Lawrence is an Oscar best-actress nominee for her role in "Winter's Bone" (photo above). A doyenne of hipness, Gwyneth Paltrow, sings country music (photo below from "Country Strong") and "the Ralph Lauren women's spring/summer collection that's soon to hit stores has a distinct frontier glam flavor (think a rodeo's worth of leather and fringe, oversized steer-head belt buckles and lacy blouses with leg-of-mutton sleeves)," Tschorn writes.

The rural trend isn't confined to movies and fashion. "Moonshine has become as trendy as absinthe," Tschorn writes. "Canning and raising chickens have become hipster hobbies, and one of the most popular time-wasters on Facebook, FarmVille — played by nearly 55 million people this month alone — is a faux-farmstead game that has people harvesting virtual crops and tending to virtual livestock." Rural-focused cable network RFD-TV has seen a 74 percent average viewership increase since 2007, and Nashville-based CMT (Country Music Television) saw a 19 percent increase last year in viewers for its annual awards show.

"It's cool to be rural now," Patrick Gottsch, founder and chief executive of the Omaha-based Rural Media Group, which owns RFD-TV, told Tschorn. "For a while, there was a stigma [about the country] — that you had to move to the city to make a living. And that's been changing." Brad Beckerman, chief executive and co-founder of the Stillhouse brand, which has gained publicity for its urban moonshine, told Tschorn the rural focus is similar to the slow food movement. "It's the speed of everything," he said. "Thanks to things like the BlackBerry and the Internet, people are exhausted at how fast everything moves. People want to come back to center. They want to go to a moment in time when everything moved at a slower pace, back to their roots." (Read more)

Va. ruralite says closing her town's post office would be step toward eliminating small-town life

UPDATE, Feb. 5: Mary Garrigan of the Rapid City Journal goes to Howes, S.D., to write about possible post-office closures and their impact; her story has revenues and expenses for several post offices, a good starting point for any localized story on the topic.

We've been following the U.S Postal Service's push to close rural post offices across the country. Until now, few national media have looked at the impact on local residents. One ofthe offices among the 2,000 the USPS is considering closing is the one-room office in Star Tannery, Va., Paul Schwartzman of The Washington Post reports. Schwartzman spent a day at the Star Tannery office to better understand who uses the rural post office and what effects its closing might have on them.

Star Tannery's main attractions include "its church, which hosts an annual picnic on the second Saturday in August; a bar with $2 drafts and karaoke every Wednesday; a fire hall, home to the annual farmers carnival in July; a lone market that serves sandwiches on white - and white only - and does not have a toaster; and the post office, all of 308 square feet, which has been in the same white clapboard building since 1923," Schwartzman writes. The first visitor of the day, 74-year-old Helen Keller, arrives 45 minutes after opening. She has come to the office not only for mail, but also for "the possibility of conversation," Schwartzman reports. (Post photo by Katherine Frey)

If the post office is closed, locals will have to make the 20-mile round trip to Strasburg for many postal needs. "As much as inconvenience, they fear losing that inky black 'Star Tannery, Va.' on their postmark, a celebration of their place on the map," Schwartzman writes. Retired microbiologist and cashmere goat farmer Anne Repaske, 85, puts the price of closing the post office even higher. "Closing the post office would be one step toward eradicating small-town life in America," she told Schwartzman.

Like all the potential closings, Star Tannery's is about the bottom line. The Postal Service pays $300 a month for the office and a minimum of $33,000 a year for the postmaster, but "revenue has fallen, from $37,316 in 2008 to $31,341 last year," Schwartzman reports. Dennis Voorhees, the service's manager of operations for Virginia, said office only does about two hours of work a day and the service can provide alternative services for locals. "We don't feel the post office makes or breaks the community," he said. Already, people in rural areas drive 10 or 15 miles to buy groceries, he said. "Why not for postal service?" (Read more)

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Missing city chicken object of surprising fondness

Elizabeth Giddens writes for The New York Times about one of her chickens, Gertrude, stolen from her Bedford-Stuyvesant coop-home. "The chickens of New York City, for the most part, live fairly sheltered lives, securely tucked into private backyards and padlocked community gardens. Our chickens, by contrast, are public figures." Many of these city chickens belong to "the nostalgic migrants from the Caribbean and rural South, there’s an awful lot of chicken love in Bed-Stuy these days." (Times photo by Damon Winter)

Giddens writes, "It’s nearly impossible to feel melancholy in the company of chickens. They are a balm for the weary urban soul. The spirit of the chicken regularly infects the sidewalk ... People break out in chicken dances. They cluck. They coo. They cock-a-doodle-doo. (One toddler ventured a tentative 'oink, oink' before her mother gently corrected her.)"

Last summer, Gertrude, a Rhode Island Red and Giddens' prize layer, was stolen. "We posted a big sign on the gate, letting people know what had happened, and pleading for her return, no questions asked." The reaction in the neighborhood was immediate and dramatic. "People were devastated. A man with a neck tattoo shook his head and tut-tutted, 'What kind of person would do something like this?' ... Such dramatic emotional outpourings for a lost chicken seemed frankly disproportionate ... since your average American consumes more than 80 pounds of poultry a year, the odds were good that most of the mourners had eaten a chicken in the last few days, if not hours."

For Gertrude's fate, read the whole essay to its happy ending. Think of Gertrude as the latest plucky ambassador to city folk. (Read more)

Proposal to end rural airports' subsidies poses philosophical challenge for newly elected GOPer

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has introduced an amendment to an aviation bill in the Senate to eliminate the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes 140 rural communities, reports Brandon Hubbard for the Petoskey News in Michigan, a state with six of the airports in the program. Carriers get subsidies to cover losses accumulated while serving the small airports, plus a fixed 5 percent profit. Nationally, the program is estimated to cost about $200 million a year.

In the 48 contiguous states, subsidies per passenger as of June 1, 2010, ranged as high as $5,223 in Ely, Nev., to as low as $9.21 in Thief River Falls, Minn., according to Transportation Department data, according to The Associated Press.

The bill could be among the first philosophical challenges for freshman Republican Rep. Dan Benishek, who has four of the rural airports spanning his large Northern Michigan district, writes Hubbard. Benishek has called repeatedly for government to get its spending under control. (Read more)

USDA considers approving biotech corn; millers worry it could ruin their products

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will decide soon whether to approve a form of biotech corn designed specifically for ethanol production. Corn millers are urging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack not to approve the corn, "claiming the biotech kernels could accidentally get into the processors' grain supplies and ruin them," a fear Syngenta Seeds, maker of the biotech corn, says is unfounded, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. Mixing of the kernels could result in corn chips that crumble in the bag or cereal that's soggy before it gets to your mouth, Brasher writes.

"The Syngenta product is the latest of several thorny biotech and food-safety issues that Vilsack has had to face," Brasher writes, pointing to Vilsack's approval last week of genetically engineered alfalfa. Vilsack is also expected to rule soon on production of biotech sugar beets. "Meanwhile, the demand for biotech seeds to increase crop yields has helped fuel growth at Syngenta, Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred," Brasher writes. Pioneer announced plans last month for a $32 million expansion that would add 132 jobs in Johnston, Iowa.

The millers don't question the crop's safety, but worry cross-contamination could compromise their products. The biotech corn contains an enzyme that helps break down the starch in the kernel, which would save ethanol plants in energy costs but is unsuitable for cooking into products like chips or cereal, Brasher writes. "We love biotech," Mary Waters, president of the North American Millers' Association, told Brasher. "We don't question the safety. It's just a question of can we still make the food products we make now." Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart said there is little chance of  "the grain getting into the wrong hands, the wrong processes." (Read more)

Obama administration speaks out in favor of offshore wind power

An Obama administration official announced Tuesday the administration is working to streamline leasing for offshore wind development, a move that could have implications for midwest wind power. "Offshore wind development in the United States has suffered significant delays, most notably the case of the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, which has been trying to secure the necessary permits for almost a decade," Andrew Restuccia of The Hill reports. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement Director Michael Bromwich said that the administration is making offshore renewable energy a "top priority." (Read more)

If the administration follows through on that promise, "Obama is swinging the debate of Atlantic vs. Midwest wind in favor of the eastern seaboard, whose politicians and utilities have recently discovered the joys of offshore wind so much that they now are balking at  helping to pay for the multistate transmission line needed to send wind-generated electricity from Iowa and the Upper Midwest to Chicago and points east," Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog. Piller notes Iowa is the second-largest generator of wind electricty in the country and had hoped to export surplus capacity to other states if the trasnmission line was built. (Read more)

Project brings solar energy to West Virginia

Solar energy is coming to the West Virginia coal fields on a small-scale basis. Proponents hope the project shows that renewable energy can work there. The Jobs Project, a group formed to bring alternative energy jobs to Appalachia, is building a 40- by 15-foot rooftop solar array for a doctor in Williamson, Vicki Smith of The Associated Press reports. The array will be constructed by unemployed and underemployed coal miners and contractors.

Nick Getzen, spokesman for The Jobs Project, said people were skeptical when the idea was first floated about a year ago. "This is the first sign for a lot of folks that this is real, and that it's real technology, and they can have it in their communities," Getzen told Smith of the rooftop project. "In no way are we against coal or trying to replace coal. There's still going to be coal mining here. This is just something else to help the economy."

The Jobs project teamed up with Mountain View Solar & Wind of Berkeley Springs to develop the privately funded job-training program. Mountain View reports demand for solar energy has been growing in West Virginia and the company has tripled in size two years in a row. "This training model we're unleashing in Williamson is something we've proven," Mountain View owner Mike McKechnie told Smith. "It's not a pilot project. It's something we've shown works." (Read more)

Another town struggles with Wal-Mart's arrival

Tehachapi, Calif., population just over 12,000, is "the latest in a long line of rural communities grappling with how to maintain their small-town character while at the same time encouraging business growth." Walmart wants to come to town.

The local planning commission approved a site plan that would allow the retail giant to build a 165,000-square-foot supercenter and would create 300 jobs with an average hourly wage of $12.28. Christopher Zehnder, a member of Tehachapi First, a group organized to keep Walmart out of town, said of the newest store, "There's natural growth and then there's negative growth, like a cancerous tumor in the human body," he said. "This is like a cancer." Opponents fear the new Walmart will kill local stores and "a little bit of its soul," writes Courtney Edelhart for the Bakersfield Californian.

City officials seem to be supporting Walmart. Mayor Ed Grimes said competition is good for local retailers. "I've heard these arguments in every city Walmart has gone to," he said. "I think whether they fail is up to the people. Nobody's forcing you to shop there. If you like local stores, support them. If I were a business owner, I'd be fighting like heck to make my business more attractive and grow." Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amelia Neufeld said, "You need only drive by any of our other stores to see how Walmart fosters opportunities for other businesses. Walmart stores are actually a magnet for growth and development."

Charles Fishman, author of "The Wal-Mart Effect," said the concerns of opponents are not unfounded. Fishman says that generally Wal-Mart shoppers are buying things they usually buy, so they will just switch to the lowest possible price for the items. "I don't believe that local shops have a right to survive," Fishman said. "They have a right to compete for your business like anyone else. They're never going to be able to compete on price, but they can compete on service or selection or quality." (Read more)

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

County coroners often lack adequate skills and funding for death investigations

Television shows like "CSI" may portray medical examiner offices as state-of-the-art facilities with highly qualified staffs, but that isn't the case in most offices across the country. "In a joint reporting effort, ProPublica, PBS' "Frontline" and NPR spent a year looking at the nation's 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices and found a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes," A. C. Thompson, Mosi Secret, Lowell Bergman and Sandra Barnett report. "Blunders by doctors in America's morgues have put innocent people in prison cells, allowed the guilty to go free, and left some cases so muddled that prosecutors could do nothing." (Photo by Andres Cediel for Frontline)

A 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences revealed the U.S. has fewer than half the forensic pathologists it needs, so even "physicians who flunk their board exams find jobs in the field," the reporters write. Officials in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arkansas acknowledge that uncertified doctors who had failed board exams were employed in their states. In counties that operate on a coroner system, "the person tasked with making the official ruling on how people die isn't a doctor at all," the reporters write, noting elected or appointed coroners "may have no qualifications beyond a high-school degree have the final say on whether fatalities are homicides, suicides, accidents or the result of natural or undetermined causes."

In it's 2009 report, the academy "called for the creation of uniform federal standards for death investigation and recommended making certification mandatory for doctors working in the field of forensic pathology," the reporters write. So far those proposals have gained little traction in Washington, D.C. The proposals would also take money, though one estimate places the price of a good medical examiner's office at about $2.50 per person per year. "It's difficult for people to spend money on medical examiner systems," Dr. Victor Weedn, the Maryland assistant medical examiner, said. "They see it often as wasting money on the dead, without realizing that everything that is done in a medical examiner office, or a coroner office, is truly done for the living." (Read more)

The state-by-state breakdown of medical center offices is on ProPublica's Web site here. The report uses data from the 17 statewide medical-examiner systems, two hybrid state and county coroner systems, and the systems in the 50 most populous counties that had county-based systems as of July 1, 2009. While the data may be a little urban focused, we imagine this has to be an issue in rural areas as well.  UPDATE, Feb. 24: Officials in rural Solano County, California, "xare reviewing more than two dozen homicide cases in which Dr. Thomas Gill, a forensic pathologist with a 20-year history of errors and misdiagnosed causes of death, performed autopsies," Ryan Gabrielson reports for ProPublica.

Wait for farm machinery increases as commodity prices go up and farms get larger

As the size of farms and farm yields have increased, so has the demand and waiting time for farm machinery. "Five years ago, a new tractor could be delivered in a couple of months. This year, if you order today, we can get it delivered by September," Dan Seitsinger, a sales representative for Van Wall Equipment in Story City, told Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register. Other companies agree that increased demand, resulting from "the outgrowth of big jumps in corn, soybean and livestock prices since mid-2010, has generated more sales and longer wait times for deliveries," Piller reports. (Photo by Mary Chind, Des Moines Register, of the 56th Iowa Power Farming Show.)

The longer wait times have not helped growing farmer impatience, Piller writes. "Farmers are in more of a hurry these days," Seitsinger said. "They don't like to wait. I understand it. The money is bigger and they don't want to miss opportunities." Despite the soaring corn prices not everyone was buying at the 56th Iowa Power Farming Show in Des Moines this week. "People seem to walk around with their hands in their pockets," one show vendor told Piller. "Farmers are pretty careful. Not everybody got the $6 corn or the $14 soybeans, and they know those prices can go down again."

Much of the increased sales can be attributed to the sheer size of today's farms, Piller writes. "Farms are getting bigger, yields are higher and farmers need bigger equipment," said Rod McGlothlin of Titan Machinery. "That means bigger tractors, and they want to trade up." The Iowa show annually attracts 19,000 visitors to see displays from 640 companies, though manager Tom Junge reports a waiting list of exhibitors. (Read more)

Scholarship program may not reach rural students

Alaska ranks last among all states in sending students to college, especially when getting poor students to college. A 2010 law which provides merit-based scholarships to students who take tougher course loads in high school was supposed to help address those problems, but some stakeholders say the law does little to help rural schools. "With rural schools struggling just to get kids to come to class and, in the smallest communities, with class size -- fewer students mean less money -- Alaska's neediest students and the schools they attend may face more obstacles than others to reap the program's rewards," Jill Burke of the Alaska Dispatch reports.

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell admitted that not all of the state's schools were prepared to teach on-site more difficult curriculum, but claimed "schools will get better if  'parents demand improvements' and fight for their child's right to learn at a higher level," Burke writes. Still that demand may not be enough to bring new classes to rural schools, said Dr. Norm Eck, superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District headquartered in Kotzebue. Noting that the realities of life in rural Alaska are likely to impact Alaska Native students most, "We have to provide equal opportunity to our Alaska Native students, he said. "Right now we don't."

"The state has said all schools unable to offer on-site courses that satisfy the merit scholarship program's requirements will be able to connect students to those classes through either virtual or distance learning," Burke writes. "Still, a general lack of broadband infrastructure in rural Alaska may make that goal challenging to fully execute." Eck and other rural educators don't have a problem with the scholarship program outright, but he said the access needs to be fair. "We have to provide the opportunity to learn for the kids who want and need to take advantage of that," he told Burke. "There are no easy answers." (Read more)

Cooperative Extension Service is dealing with budget cuts in many states; more expected

The recent cuts that the University of Tennessee recently announced in its Cooperative Extension Service are the latest in a series of cuts at land-grant universities across the nation, the weekly Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse notes today.

"Budget shortfalls also have forced cuts in extension rosters and program offerings in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio in the past two years. Like at Tennessee, administrators at some other land-grant universities are making the tough decisions now given the looming expiration of federal stimulus funding and continued bleak state and local budget outlooks. California, for example, is considering replacing its statewide network of county offices with regional locations to help offset another $1 million reduction this year in taxpayer support," Agri-Pulse reports.

Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida, told the newsletter, "Extension remains extremely important to the land-grant system, but it simply doesn’t have the money to maintain the infrastructure.” Extension services are using the Internet more, but some farmers don't have broadband access and "still prefer the touch and feel of 'hard copies' of information, countered Stan Moore, an extension dairy educator from Michigan who serves as president of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents," Agri-Pulse reports. Reflecting the shift to regional offices, "NACAA has 3,200 members nationwide, down from a peak of about 4,000 a decade ago." Agri-Pulse is a subscription service but offers a four-week trial. The site is here.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

House Democrats allege diesel use in fracking operations violates Safe Water Drinking Act

Congressional investigators allege oil and gas companies appear to have violated the Safe Water Drinking Act by injecting millions of gallons of diesel fuel into hydraulic fracturing wells across more than a dozen states. "Fracking" involves injecting a mixture of sand, water and chemicals into rock formations and has opened previously inaccessible natural gas reserves. "Oil and gas companies acknowledged using diesel fuel in their fracking fluids, but they rejected the House Democrats’ assertion that it was illegal," Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times reports.

"We learned that no oil and gas service companies have sought — and no state and federal regulators have issued — permits for diesel fuel use in hydraulic fracturing," California Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman and two other Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, wrote in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency. "This appears to be a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act." The oil and gas companies counter that EPA has never developed rules and procedures to regulate the use of diesel fuel in fracking operations. In the letter, Waxman, Colorado Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette and Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey write they were "unable to draw definitive conclusions about the potential impact of these injections on public health or the environment."

"Everyone understands that EPA is at least interested in regulating fracking," Matt Armstrong, a lawyer with the Washington firm Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents several oil and gas companies, told Zeller. "Whether the EPA has the chutzpah to try to impose retroactive liability for use of diesel in fracking, well, everyone is in a wait-and-see mode. I suspect it will have a significant fight on its hands if it tried it do that." Companies have used diesel fuel to disperse other chemicals suspended in the fracking fluids, but environmental groups and regulators have worried some of its components, including toluene, xylene and benzene, a carcinogen, could reach drinking water. (Read more)

Schools have specific duties when dealing with homeless students

Communities across the country have begun the mandated biennial count of their homeless populations, but the rural homeless are likely to be among the most undercounted segments of that population. The count is required by the Department of Health and Human Services, though several states count the homeless every year, The Rural School and Community Trust reports. RSCT has provided a valuable resource for rural schools by outlining their responsibilities for dealing with homeless students. Homelessness is defined for schools by the McKinney-Vento Act. The definition includes people who are staying with someone else or living in substandard conditions, like a camper, tent, or an abandoned building. Homelessness also includes children who cannot live in their families' house, for whatever reason.

Homelessness presents a number of challenges for rural schools, which "need to figure out ways to identify children who may be experiencing homelessness and how to approach their families, without offending them, to talk about available services and educational opportunities," RSCT writes. Among the specific duties lined out for schools by the McKinney-Vento Act are employing a declassified staff person to serve as a homeless education liaison, immediately enrolling homeless students without a residency verification, specifically mentioning free lunch eligibility for those students and providing transportation to and from school. School may also not segregate homeless students and are required to take steps to avoid stigmatizing those students or their families. (Read more)

Rural landowners can take steps to limit poaching

Poaching is usually considered an act of trespassing with the intent to take an animal and can be more than just a nuisance for rural landowners. "Poaching is a nationwide epidemic," Jonathan Goode writes for LandThink. "Missouri reported 2,000 arrests for deer poaching in 2009 alone." Poachers can present a safety hazard to landowners in addition to simply hunting animals where they are not invited. Rural owners aren't helpless, though, as they can take a number of steps to prevent poaching on their land, Goode writes.

Poachers often look for unused land, often owned by out-of-towners. Goode advises giving the local game warden or other law enforcement officer permission to hunt your land if you are an out-of-town owner, so poachers know law enforcement personnel may be around. Landowners should not assume game wardens will catch poachers as their jurisdiction usually includes vast tracts of land. While landowners are more likely to encounter poachers than wardens, they should do everything possible to avoid confrontation, Goode writes, noting "generally poachers are armed, and they are already breaking the law, so they may resort to violence to avoid capture." (Read more)

Rural Ore. schools convert to charter schools

Some rural Oregon schools are turning to an unlikely solution for added funding: becoming charter schools. When superintendent Mike Hughes arrived at the Elkton School District in western Oregon in 2008, enrollment was down and the state funding crisis had the district on the brink of collapse, Kimberly Melton of The Oregonian reports. Hughes told community members the 130-student K-12 school would likely need to close within two or three years, but "nearly three years later, Elkton has new computers, new curriculum and materials and nearly 80 new students," Melton writes. (Photo by Benjamin Brink/The Oregonian, students in the cafeteria of Elkton High School)

Elkton reversed its fortunes by utilizing an exception in Oregon's charter school law. The law prevents districts from turning all their schools into charters but waives that restriction if the district has only one K-12 school. Elkton is "one of a growing number of rural and remote school districts in Oregon that are using the charter school law to survive," Melton reports. Charter school designations bring access to an additional $500,000 in federal grants and fewer state requirements. Three single-school districts have notified the state Department of Education that they plan to apply for 2011 federal charter school grants.

Hughes' charter school proposal was met with initial skepticism by some Elkton community members, who "feared he'd make kids wear uniforms, get rid of licensed teachers or change the school into a religious academy," Melton writes. After sending community members to visit another charter school nearby, Hughes won their approval. Elkton is now a natural resources-focused academy, playing on its walking distance to the Umpqua River. Enrollment reached 200 last year, up from 130 in the 2008-09 school year. Hughes says innovation is the key to surviving as a charter school. "Being a charter, I don't really have district boundaries anymore," he said. "Kids can leave as fast as they come. Going this way, we have to stay on top of our game. It's an amazing process, a total team concept. If you don't do something unique, you won't survive." (Read more)

Roger and Beth Ailes and their small-town newspaper, and a competitor, improve coverage

In the best New Yorker style last week, the departing Peter J. Boyer laid out the tale of Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News, arriving in Phillipstown, N.Y., a town of just under 10,000 and one of "a scattering of villages and hamlets along the Hudson River, about fifty miles north of Manhattan in Putnam County," across from West Point. Ailes purchased the 145-year-old Putnam County News & Recorder in July 2008. We reported on the sale of the newspaper to Ailes here. The newspaper was "dry and gray, and displayed little instinct for a news angle, but it was -- that increasingly rare thing -- an independently owned newspaper focussed exclusively on local events." (Actually, that's not so rare; about 40 percent of weekly papers are still independently owned. The New Yorker's famed fact checking does not appear what it used to be.)

Ailes told Boyer he had bought property in the area in 2001 so that he could "look out at the river." He built a 9,000-square-foot "weekend home" and he, his wife Beth (right) and their young son began to be part of the community, she as publisher. Beth Ailes "shares her husband's political views, and, like him, she wanted the paper to have a role in events," writes Boyer. The dramatic change for the P.C.N.&R., as locals call it, began when Joseph Lindsley was hired as editor. He published the paper's first editorial, an essay critizing the Obama administration's bailouts and spending programs, and began a multi-week series of excerpts of the Federalist Papers, 85 essays published anonymously in 1787 and 1788, urging New York to ratify the proposed U.S. Constitution. The news columns were more robust, too; the paper's attention to proposed changes in the local land-use plan helped forge compromises. (New Yorker photo by Sylvia Plachy)

Local liberals smelled a political agenda. "I don't want my buying the paper to be some sort of passive endorsement of any kind of bully pulpit," said one resident who had quit buying it. "I think there was this assumption that this was going to be the new front, of trying to win back the country for the GOP," said another resident, apparently unaware that most rural Americans already vote Republican. A group began to emerge that was interested in giving the P.C.N.&R. some local media competition.

Enter local resident Gordan Stewart, a former Jimmy Carter speechwriter, and someone believed to have deep pockets. Stewart "conceived a radical alternative: an online newspaper that would follow the community-supported model of public broadcasting," writes Boyer. Stewart recruited staff from the P.C.N.&R. ranks and unveiled his new online newspaper, Philipstown.info, on July 4, 2010.

Lindsley felt betrayed by the staff departure. "They tried to take us down," he said, but Ailes does not seem concerned about the viability of the paper. "Nobody's ever going to run me out of any place that I don't want to leave," he said. Boyer concludes that the P.C.N.&R. and Philipstown.info have "achieved a kind of symbiosis, beneficial to the community. Many places a thousand times larger are served by only a single newspaper; Philipstown now has two, each distinctly better than what was there before." (Read more, subscription required) "Regardless of what you think about Roger Ailes and Fox News, he and his wife seem to have improved local news coverage in Putnam County and for that we salute them," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Teaching climate change in coal country presents special challenges

Teaching climate change for any high school science teacher can be a difficult task. But in a place like Gillette, Wyoming, where livelihoods depend heavily on coal and other fossil fuels, those lessons are met with added pressures. "At some point in their schooling, students in Gillette learn that Campbell County is synonymous with coal — and it doesn’t take long for them to pick up on it," writes Michael DiBiasio of the Gillette News Record. "Knowing all that, if you are a science teacher in a coal town like Gillette — a teacher whose salary can be traced back to one of the county’s surface mines — what do you teach your students about climate change?"

DiBiasio interviews several local science teachers about their approach to teaching climate change for the story and most agreed the important task was getting students to think about the issues for themselves. Tom Jacobs, a science teacher at Campbell County High School, notes when he moved into his classroom 17 years ago he found a film about the benefits of burning coal for the environment in a storage closet. "The industries want us to be skeptical," Jacobs said. "When you talk about climate change, you have to talk about it in a neutral, safe voice. You’re not standing on tables, screaming at politicians."

Jacobs equated teaching climate change in coal country to teaching evolution in the Bible Belt, but at least one other teacher said climate change presented a different set of challenges. "It’s not necessarily in the same ballpark as evolution because it’s not a matter of is it true or not. It’s pretty cut and dried that we know it’s happening," Mark Winland, another Campbell County High School science teacher, said. "It’s also different because one is going up against a set of beliefs and the other is going against a livelihood, and that makes it an emotional issue for a carbon community."

Chemistry teacher Brent Daly notes: "The industry builds our schools and supports the people who live here. Cheap energy is important to our economy, but there may be a price we’re paying for that cheap energy." Christy Gerrits, a middle school science teacher, received an angry email from a parent after she showed Al Gore's documentary ,"An Inconvenient Truth," to her seventh-grade class. Michael Mahoney, a science teacher at Sage Valley Junior High, shows "An Inconvenient Truth" and competing documentary "Carbon Dioxide and the ‘Climate Crisis’ — Reality or Illusion?" as part of a lesson about propaganda and bias.  For Mahoney, dueling viewpoints is a necessary approach for coal country. "I just want to get these kids looking critically at situations," he told DiBiasio. "It’s a good way to introduce climate change, particularly in Gillette where you can get blow back from parents." (Read more)

Alabama governor crosses political lines to form rural development office

In an extreme example of crossing political lines, Alabama's new Republican governor has hired his former Democratic challenger to head a new office designed to improve economic conditions in the state's rural areas. Republican Gov. Robert Bentley announced last week he had appointed Democrat Ron Sparks to head the newly created Ala­bama Rural Development Of­fice, Markeshia Ricks and Sebastian Kitchen of The Montgomery Advertiser report. "During the campaign, I got to know Commissioner Sparks well and the one issue we could always agree upon is the need to improve the lives of those who live in our rural communities," Bentley said. "This is an example of how we can put politics aside and work together for the common good of all Alabami­ans. I appreciate his willing­ness to serve."

"Sparks had been with the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries since he was appointed as­sistant commissioner in 1999," Ricks and Kitchen write. In 2002, Sparks was elected commissioner of the department and was re-elected in 2006. Sparks was soundly defeated by Bently in the November gubernatorial election, and the two "edu­cation, federal health care re­form and gaming, but appear to have put aside those differ­ences to work together on ru­ral issues," Ricks writes. (Read more)

At least one rural Alabama newspaper has given Bently major credit for his bipartisan move. "Alabama’s new Republican governor has just hired his Democratic election opponent to lead the state’s efforts to improve conditions in rural areas," The Daily Home of Talladega and St. Clair counties writes in an editorial. "He could not have found a better man for the job. The newspaper concludes, "It is an unprecedented but very welcome political move on Bentley’s part. 'This is an example of how we can put politics aside and work together for the common good of all Alabamians,' he said. We heartily concur." (Read more)

Roosevelt's 1944 call for an 'Economic Bill of Rights' is still relevant, especially for the South

In the wake of the country's most recent recession and war, should Americans turn to the 66-year-old advice of a former president for improving the economy? During his state of the union address on Jan. 11, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a second Bill of Rights, guaranteeing the right to a useful job, the right to earn enough money to provide food, clothing and recreation, the right of every business to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition, the right to adequate health care, the right to protection in old age and the right to an education. Ferrel Guillory, director of The Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Richard Hart, communications director at MDC, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing economic and educational opportunity writes about Roosevelt's speech for The Anniston Star(Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

"So why recall Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union?" Guillory and Hart ask. "Because 2011 is developing into a year of reckoning — a moment of difficult decisions that cry out for leaders focused on equity, opportunity and competitiveness in arming the nation’s people and their communities for coping with a time of disruption." Guillory and Hart argue that too many Americans are not truly free in the face of financial insecurity. A growing group of young adults without the skills to get an education or better job are in even worse shape.

"We need to fix an education system bound by early industrial-era structures at a time when we need schools to prepare young people for coping with a 21st century of life-long learning," Guillory and Hart write, noting that "across the South and the nation, a community’s skill levels will determine its economic prospects." The two writers call for regional collaboration that goes "beyond the urban/rural/city/state boundaries that now constrain our thinking." Guillory and Hart conclude, "However difficult our current economic moment, it is an opportunity for leaders who would seize it to chart a course, not for a return to an old 'normal,' but toward a more prosperous society, more widely shared. That’s what FDR was trying to do. And it’s what we need today." (Read more)

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum has more information about the speech. The MDC report, State of the South, is also available.

Alpha Natural Resources buying Massey Energy

Alpha Natural Resources says it is paying 21 percent more than Massey Energy's market value so the combined companies can become a global leader in metallurgical coal sales. "With the announcement Saturday that Alpha reached an agreement to acquire Massey in a cash and stock deal valued at $7.1 billion, Alpha is now poised to become the world's third-biggest producer of coal used by steelmakers just when global demand for the resource is growing and supplies are increasingly scarce," Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal reports. Under the deal, Alpha will have 110 mines and 5 billion tons of coal reserve.

"We've always thought the combination between Massey and Alpha could be very compelling," Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield told Maher. "We were fundamentally convinced that the world was going to remain fundamentally under-supplied for metallurgical coal for the foreseeable future." Crutchfield said the company expects to save money on transportation and production costs thanks to the acquisition. Former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who opposed the company's sale and retired at the end of the year, will not be part of the new company. (Read more; subscription may be required)

"Under the terms of the agreement, Massey stockholders will receive 1.025 shares of Alpha stock and $10 in cash for each share of Massey stock," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. "Alpha will own 54 percent of the combined company and Massey will own 46 percent." Massey has faced increased regulatory and financial pressure following the April 5 explosion at its Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., that killed 29 miners. The transaction is expected to close in mid-2011 and is subject to federal regulatory approval, as well as approval by the stockholders of both companies, Ward writes. (Read more)

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said the sale is good news because Alpha has a better safety record and "Massey had come to represent all that was wrong with the coal industry." And, of course, the UMWA has "open lines of communication" with Alpha, 1,500 employees of which are members of the union. (Read more)