Saturday, June 18, 2022

White Ga. parents, riled by misinformation, rallied to chase a Black educator away, then followed her to her next job

By Nicole Carr
ProPublica

This story and accompanying videos were co-published by ProPublica and Frontline as part of an ongoing collaboration.

In April of 2021, Cecelia Lewis had just returned to Maryland from a house-hunting trip in Georgia when she received the first red flag about her new job.

The trip itself had gone well. Lewis and her husband had settled on a rental home in Woodstock, a small city with a charming downtown and a regular presence on best places to live lists. It was a short drive to her soon-to-be office at the Cherokee County School District and less than a half hour to her husband’s new corporate assignment. While the north Georgia county was new to the couple, the Atlanta area was not. They’d visited several times in recent years to see their son, who attended Georgia Tech.

Cecelia Lewis
Lewis, a middle school principal, initially applied for a position that would bring her closer to the classroom as a coach for teachers. But district leaders were so impressed by her interview that they encouraged her to apply instead for a new opening they’d created: their first administrator focused on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

DEI-focused positions were becoming more common in districts across the country, following the 2020 protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The purpose of such jobs typically is to provide a more direct path for addressing disparities stemming from race, economics, disabilities and other factors.

At first, the scope of the role gave Lewis pause. In her current district, these responsibilities were split among several people, and she’d never held a position dedicated to anything as specific as that before. But she had served on the District Equity Leadership Team in her Maryland county and felt prepared for this new challenge. She believed the job would allow her, as she put it, to analyze the district’s “systemic and instructional practices” in order to better support “the whole child.”

“We’re so excited to add Cecelia to the CCSD family,” Superintendent Brian Hightower said in the district’s March 2021 announcement about all of its new hires. (The announcement noted that the creation of the DEI administrator role “stems from input from parents, employees and students of color who are serving on Dr. Hightower’s ad hoc committees formed this school year to focus on the topic.”) Hightower acknowledged “both her impressive credentials and enthusiasm for the role” and pointed out that, “In four days, she had a DEI action plan for us.”

Cherokee County is in northwest Georgia. (Google maps)
During her early visits, Lewis found Cherokee County to be a welcoming place. It reminded her of her community in southern Maryland, where everyone knew one another. But leaving the place where she’d been raised — and where, aside from her undergrad years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she’d spent most of her adult life — wasn’t going to be easy. Before her last day as principal of her middle school, her staff created a legacy wall in her honor, plastering a phrase above student lockers that Lewis would say to end the morning messages each day: “If no one’s told you they care about you today, know that I do ... and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it!”

Lewis was beginning to prepare for her move South, spending as much time with friends and family as possible, when she got a strange call from an official in her new school district. The person on the line — Lewis won’t say who — asked if she had ever heard of CRT.

Lewis responded, “Yes — culturally responsive teaching.” She was thinking of the philosophy that connects a child’s cultural background to what they learn in school. For Lewis, who’d studied Japanese and Russian in college and more recently traveled to Ghana with the Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad program for teachers, language and culture were essential to understanding anyone’s experience.

At that point, she wasn’t even familiar with the other CRT, critical race theory, which maintains that racial bias is embedded in America’s laws and institutions and has caused disproportionate harm to people of color. In a speech the previous fall, then-President Donald Trump condemned CRT as “toxic propaganda” and “ideological poison.”

The caller then told Lewis that a group of people in a wealthy neighborhood in the northern part of the county were upset about what they believed were her intentions to bring CRT to Cherokee County. But don’t worry, the district official said; we just want to keep you updated.

The following month, inside a gabled white clubhouse overlooking the hills of a Cherokee County golf course, dozens of parents from across the county had assembled on a Sunday afternoon for a lesson in an emerging form of warfare. School board meetings would be their battlefield. Their enemy was CRT.

One of several presenters at the meeting was Rhonda Thomas, a frequent guest on conservative podcasts and the founder of the Atlanta-based Truth in Education, a national nonprofit that aims to educate parents and teachers about “radical ideologies being taught in schools.” “So what is critical race theory?” Thomas asked the crowd. “It teaches kids that whites are inherently racist and oppressive, perhaps unconsciously,” and that “all whites are responsible for all historical actions” and “should feel guilty.”

She added: “I cannot be asked for repentance for something my grandparents did or my ancestors did, right?”

Thomas stressed that parents should form their own nonprofit groups and cut ties with their schools’ Parent Teacher Associations. “The PTA supports everything we’re against,” she told them.

Another presenter, a local paralegal named Noelle Kahaian, leads the nonprofit Protect Student Health Georgia, which aims to “educate on harmful indoctrination” including “comprehensive sexuality education” and “gender ideology.”

Kahaian emphasized how to grab attention during upcoming school board meetings. Identify the best speakers in the group, she told them, adding: “It’s OK to be emotional.” Be sure to capture video of them addressing the board — or even consider hiring a professional videographer.

“It’s good in case Tucker Carlson wants to put you on air,” Kahaian said. “It really helps.”

She then briefed them on how to file grievances about school board members’ teaching licenses and on their right to request school board members’ cellphone records.

And she advised them on the benefit of collaborating with “outside forces” to file open records requests to school systems for employee emails and curriculum plans that could provide evidence of inappropriate material being taught in classrooms. Doing so would allow those outsiders to “take some of the heat.”

But there was one agenda item that would inspire the crowd to take more urgent action than any other: They had to figure out what to do about the Cherokee County School District’s decision to hire a woman named Cecelia Lewis.

“And when I got a text message from somebody saying that this person was hired, I immediately was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, where are my people?’” said another speaker, Mandy Heda, a Cherokee County GOP precinct chair who introduced herself as a parent of four students in the district.

Thomas, Kahaian and Heda did not respond to multiple requests for comment or to a list of questions detailing the points they raised at the clubhouse meeting and elsewhere.

After asking the crowd to look at the Maryland district where Lewis was coming from, Heda wondered how Lewis could “leave that at the border” (she didn’t elaborate on what “that” was) and how the longtime educator could come “to Cherokee County and not want to change us.” (Like Cherokee, the district where Lewis was a principal serves a majority-white county that voted for Trump in 2020 — though Heda and others in the clubhouse seemed unaware of this.)

A man interjected, saying he’d contacted the Cherokee County School District to find out “how they arrived at the choice to hire” Lewis. Hadn’t there been any local candidates, he asked.

“You cannot tell me, you know, that you can’t find somebody else qualified,” Heda responded. “And if you’re looking for her to be Black, that’s fine. But that’s not what this is about. This is not about the color of her skin. It’s what she’s going to bring into our district and what she’s going to teach our children.”

Another person in the crowd later asked if the arrival of Lewis was a done deal. Several confirmed that it was.

“We don’t have to accept it, right?” another man asked, the crowd’s energy rising in response with a collective yes. “We can change that, right?”

“In some way, shape or form,” another woman vowed.

The May 2021 clubhouse meeting, a recording of which was provided to ProPublica by a parent who attended, provides a window into the ways in which conservative groups quickly and efficiently train communities to take on school districts in the name of concepts that aren’t even being taught in classrooms.

National groups, often through their local chapters, have provided video lessons and toolkits to parents across the country on how to effectively spread their messaging about so-called school indoctrination. Parents Defending Education has created “indoctrination maps” tracking everything from a district celebrating “Black Lives Matter week” to one that allows students to watch CNN Student News, while the Atlanta-based Education Veritas and Kahaian’s Protect Student Health Georgia provide portals for anonymously reporting educators supposedly sympathetic to CRT, DEI and other so-called controversial learning concepts.

In the wake of 2020’s summer of racial reckoning, as the work of anti-racist authors shot to the top of bestseller lists and corporations expressed renewed commitments to diversity initiatives, conservatives mounted a counteroffensive against what they viewed as an anti-white, anti-American, “woke” liberal agenda. And with that effort came a renewed vilification of CRT, a four-decade-old theory that, contrary to its opponents’ accusations, is rarely if ever taught in K-12 public school systems (it typically is taught in graduate-level college and law school courses). That effort quickly snowballed into complaints about what used to be basic history lessons involving race and slavery, which organized groups began conflating with CRT and campaigning for their removal from curriculums.

Nearly 900 school districts across the country have been targeted by anti-CRT efforts from September 2020 to August 2021, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, San Diego, found. Teachers and district equity officers surveyed and interviewed for the report “often described feeling attacked and at risk for discussing issues of race or racism at all, or promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion in any way. Equity officers told us that at times they feared for their personal safety.”

The report also stated: “Only one equity officer described a year free of anti ‘CRT’ conflict.”

“It makes me very sad for my colleagues,” said Cicely Bingener, one of the UCLA researchers and a longtime elementary school educator.

Using local media coverage and lawsuits, ProPublica has identified at least 14 public school employees across the country, six of them Black, who were chased out in part by anti-CRT efforts in 2021. Some of the educators resigned or did not have their contracts renewed, while others were fired by school boards where elections had ushered in more politically extreme members.

Since January 2021, legislatures in more than 40 states have proposed or passed bills and resolutions that would restrict teaching CRT or would limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. Four days after the meeting in the golf course clubhouse, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp released a statement solidifying his stance against CRT and asking the state Board of Education to do the same. “I urge you to take immediate steps to ensure that Critical Race Theory and its dangerous ideology do not take root in our state standards or curriculum,” it read.

On June 3, 2021, the Board of Education did just that, joining Utah’s as the first such groups to pass resolutions of that kind. Georgia’s declared that “the United States of America is not a racist country, and that the state of Georgia is not a racist state.”

In predominantly white Cherokee County, 40 miles north of downtown Atlanta, the fight over CRT has led some residents to question whether they still recognize the community they thought they knew.

“These are our neighbors,” said Leanne Etienne, a Black mother of two Cherokee County students, one of whom served on the superintendent’s ad hoc committee that led to the creation of the DEI position. “These are people who are the parents of the children my kids go to school with. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. You don’t know who to trust. You don’t feel safe.”

After that April call from the school district official, Lewis was confused but remained optimistic. She read up on CRT and determined it had nothing to do with her role. Then came more calls.

In one, a district official asked Lewis if she has social media accounts. “Only a LinkedIn,” she replied. (Lewis barely has a digital footprint. She has never posted anything on social media nor made any professional statements in regard to CRT or any other controversial topic.) The official explained that some of the people upset about her hiring were complaining that a Twitter user with her name was posting Marxist ideology.

Around that same time, according to Lewis, several emails and handwritten letters were showing up at her school in Maryland, calling her a Black Yankee and saying her liberal thinking is unwanted. She saved only one, with typewriting on the envelope. The return address was just “A Cherokee County Citizen.”

“They ultimately just said, you know, ‘We don’t want you here, and we don’t want you to push us to find out what will happen if you come here,’” Lewis said.

On May 18, 2021, two days after the meeting at the clubhouse, Cherokee County’s schools communications chief and its school board members received the first of approximately 100 form letters that would flood their inboxes over a 48-hour period, demanding that Lewis be fired.

Another parent wrote to a school board member, citing Cherokee County’s recent census statistics: “Did you know that 77.8% of the population is considered ‘whtie [sic] alone’ 7.7% are black and 11.1% hispanic? Are we now in a county that is going to cater to a handful of people?”

Lewis said she was willing and eager, once she arrived in Georgia, to speak to concerned parents. “I just felt as if there was a misunderstanding,” she said, “and as soon as I [would] have an opportunity to get there and really speak on my own behalf, then it was going to be OK.”

She also felt comforted by the fact that school district officials were regularly checking in with her, offering reassurances that they were monitoring the situation and that everything would be OK “once they get to know you.”

Lewis tends not to talk about racism in terms of her professional life. She said that, until she got the Black Yankee email, she had not experienced racial prejudice and was accustomed to learning and working in majority-white spaces. She also recalled being surprised when someone from the district pointed out that a hiring like hers was rare, in that there were not many minority leaders working in the district.

“I did not think that in 2021 that that was really a thing,” Lewis said, noting the district’s proximity to Atlanta, with its high concentration of Black leadership and affluence. “And that was probably just ignorance on my end. And I mean that in the purest form of ignorance, of just not knowing. I didn’t know.”

On May 20, 2021, one of Lewis’ soon-to-be colleagues called to say that the people upset about her hiring were claiming to have spotted her around Cherokee County and were sharing with one another her supposed locations. Lewis, however, was still in Maryland.

That same day — following an increase in social media posts, emails and phone calls complaining about Lewis and CRT — the district installed metal detectors and assigned extra security at the county building where school board meetings are held.

Lewis soon received yet another call. Someone from district leadership asked if she was planning to watch the board meeting that night. She replied that it hadn’t been on her radar.

“You should watch it,” they said.

Well before the Cherokee County School Board meeting’s 7 p.m. start time, people hoping to get inside were being turned away. The room and the overspill viewing area in the lobby were at capacity. Those who were denied entry gathered outside near the parking lot, where they could peek through windows and glimpse the large screens mounted in the boardroom. Others hung around outside, planning to watch the livestream of the meeting on their phones.

At home in Maryland, Lewis and her husband sat in their bedroom, the laptop propped up between them.

Inside, just before the meeting started, mothers in black T-shirts printed with the words “I don’t co-parent with the government” smiled and posed for pictures. A husky man with a deep voice formed the beginning of the large prayer circle that inched toward the dais where district officials, student delegates and Cherokee County’s seven school board members were seated.

The first order of business was introduced by Mike Chapman, a Republican board member who’d held his seat for more than two decades: a resolution against teaching CRT and the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times series that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” (Conservatives have railed against it as racially divisive and have often lumped it together with CRT in an attempt to ban both from schools across the country.)

Supt. Brian Hightower
What came next caught Lewis off guard.

Hightower, the superintendent, read from a statement: “While I had initially entertained and publicly spoken to the development of a diversity, equity and inclusivity, DEI plan, I recognize that our intentions have become widely misunderstood in the community and it created division.

“To that end, I have concluded that there will be no separate DEI plan.”

To Lewis, it was as if the “foundations of everything that I was asked to do have just shifted, and I was not a part of the conversation.”

State Rep. Brad Thomas, a Republican, spoke next. He assured the board that, as the father of a Cherokee County student, he’d done his research after fielding complaints about Lewis’ hiring.

He said he now had a plan of his own in the works: He would be drafting legislation to ensure that teaching CRT and the 1619 Project would be illegal statewide. “We’ve pulled language from Tennessee’s bill. We’ve pulled language from Texas’ bill. We’ve pulled language from Oklahoma’s bill. We’ve pulled language from Idaho’s bill,” he said. “And I’ve put some of my own language in there.”

Heda, the Cherokee County GOP precinct officer who’d spoken at the clubhouse meeting four days earlier, also addressed the board. She claimed that the definition of DEI had changed over time and now represents the views held by people with “the same woke political understanding of power dynamics and social positions.”

“We cannot fix racism with institutionalized racism,” she said.

A neighbor of Heda’s approached the lectern next. The woman, who is Black, spoke in favor of the decision to hire Lewis. It was the first time she was mentioned by name.

According to one observer, that’s when the crowd gathered outside began beating against the building’s windows.

“No, no, no!” they screamed in unison, the sound reverberating through the lobby as their fists pounded the glass.

A subsequent speaker, a parent named Lori Raney, was rewarded with applause when she asked the board, “My question to you is, if you vote to do away with the DEI program, does that mean the new DEI officer has her offer rescinded? Because why do we need to pay $115,000 for somebody who doesn’t have a job to do anymore?”

At that moment, Lewis recalled, her husband said: “That’s it. We’re not doing this. You are not going there.” He left the bedroom in disgust.

Not long after, a volunteer from the campaign of Vernon Jones, a Black Republican who at the time was running for governor (Jones later switched to a run for Congress), read a statement to the school board from the candidate. “Embracing the teaching of critical race theory is a slap in the face of Dr. King’s teachings,” said the volunteer, Stan Fitzgerald. “Taxpayer-funded anti-white racism is still exactly that — racism.”

Upon hearing that, Lewis thought about how Martin Luther King Jr. promoted humanity and love, and she was devastated to hear his words used by strangers to attack her. Everything she had just witnessed felt contrary to his ideals.

Breaking down in tears, Lewis closed her laptop. She could no longer watch.

“That cut me so deeply,” she said. “It hit the core of who I am as a being.”

Lewis missed the part when Miranda Wicker, another parent and member of the county’s Democratic Party, addressed the board. “Those who want this ban are spouting talking points fed to them by an outside special interest group with a deeply political agenda to keep people riled up against an invisible other,” said Wicker, who was interrupted by loud shouts.

“Stop the disrespect!” school board Chair Kyla Cromer yelled at the crowd after banging her gavel. “Stop! Stop!”

Cromer threatened to adjourn the meeting early but ultimately allowed it to continue.

The board voted 4-1 with two abstentions to pass the anti-CRT and anti-1619 Project resolution. But the crowd was still worked up. Cromer moved to take a break. The livestream of the meeting was paused. But the yelling continued. And things spiraled out of control, to the point that Cromer abruptly adjourned the meeting.

One man in the crowd screamed: “I’m furious!”

Another declared: “We’re going to hunt you down!”

The school district’s chief communications officer, Barbara Jacoby, would later say that’s when the students attending the meeting started crying.

“They had to be rushed out of the room,” Jacoby recalled. She went with them and the school board members as security guards ushered the group to a conference room behind the dais. “And then we had to be walked to our cars,” she said. “We had to be followed out of the parking lot onto the highway by police officers.”

In response to questions from ProPublica, the school board provided a statement describing how some members requested school police escorts to their homes, where city and county agencies conducted extra patrols. In response to the other questions, including ones about anti-CRT letters the board received, Jacoby responded on its behalf, stating “the information you note below is correct.” Cromer and Hightower declined to comment.

Jacoby said the scene felt unreal. “It’s certainly not anything anyone who comes to work for a school district expects would ever be part of their job.”

Lewis’ phone kept ringing that night. People from the district were telling her that this is not who they are, that they’re embarrassed by the actions of their neighbors and church members, that they’re sorry she had to witness this.

In a phone call the next morning, Hightower apologized to Lewis. He said he still wanted her to come to Cherokee. Another administrator asked if she would consider a different position.

But by then she’d made up her mind. She told Hightower: It’s just not going to work.

“I can’t say I blame her,” Cherokee County School District chief of staff Mike McGowan said in an interview with ProPublica. “There was so much misinformation about who she was, what she stood for and what was going on politically.”

In response to a detailed list of questions to the district covering all aspects of Lewis’ experience in Cherokee County, Jacoby responded that “we have no further comments to add.”

The following morning, before it was publicly known that Lewis had quit the job she’d never started, a former Cherokee County student who’d attended the school board meeting appeared on “Fox & Friends and warned that the board was still pursuing CRT under the guise of other concepts. “I think that they’re relying on wordplay to try to confuse Cherokee County representatives or constituents that aren’t necessarily completely involved because they’re busy with their day-to-day life,” the guest, Bailey Katzenstein, said. She claimed that CRT initiatives would be carried out by “someone from Maryland” in the form of programs “synonymous” with CRT: DEI and SEL (or social emotional learning). SEL is a decades-old child development concept that emphasizes building self-awareness, teaching kids how to better communicate, fostering relationships and making responsible decisions, according to scholars and researchers.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable,” Katzenstein said of the school board not banning DEI and SEL along with CRT. “They’re hiding behind closed doors, and I think it’s completely full of cowardice.”

The Fox host, ending the segment, said: “If you thought this was an elite, New York City school problem, Bailey Katzenstein just told you the exact opposite. This is spreading. It’s going all over the country, and it’s having real impacts.”

The next day, Cherokee County parents used their private Facebook group to continue to report Lewis “sightings.” (People with access to the group shared screenshots of posts with ProPublica.)

“My husband swears he saw Ms. Lewis at Ace yesterday afternoon!” one woman wrote, adding, “He saw the Maryland plates and the driver looked just like her.”

But Lewis was still in Maryland. She hadn’t returned to Georgia since the house-hunting trip.

In a statement quoted in the Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News a week and a half later, Lewis wrote: “I wholeheartedly fell in love with Cherokee County when I came to visit and accepted the position, but somehow, I got caught in the crossfire of lies, misinformation, and accusations which have zero basis.”

When Lewis and her husband actually relocated to Georgia later that summer, the Cherokee parents’ private Facebook group lit up.

“Guess where Cecelia Lewis is possibly landing now?” another woman wrote.

They’d figured out her next move.

Five days after Lewis quit her would-be job in Cherokee County, the district’s human resources director forwarded a copy of her resume to the chief academic officer at his former school district, one county over. “Great catching Up!” he wrote. “Talk soon.”

Cobb County is just south of Cherokee County. 
The social studies supervisor’s boss wrote in the letter that most of the presentation was appropriate. There were just a few issues.

The boss wasn’t happy with the “sensitive content and images” and “probing questions” in the presentation. One slide included a photo of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin atop Floyd, his knee pinned to Floyd’s neck, along with two questions that challenged educators in how they approach lessons about such controversies: “What can we share with our black students to help them cope with the bottom?” “What did the man on top miss out on learning that could have made him a better person?”

Additionally, the director’s letter reminded the social studies supervisor that there already had been discussions about references to the 1619 Project, about vetting all presentations, about monitoring social media posts for the “message they send to the greater Cobb County community” and about ensuring that outside organizations the social studies supervisor might partner with would present controversial issues in a manner acceptable to the school district.

In 2021, the social studies supervisor retired. Lewis — who holds a master’s degree in teaching the subject — applied to replace her.

In June, at around the same time that Lewis got the call from Cobb County to come in for an interview, Cobb’s seven-member school board passed its own anti-CRT and anti-1619 Project resolution. Three members — all of them Black Democrats — abstained, noting this was not the first time they were blindsided by the addition of a problematic, last-minute agenda item.

Once a Republican stronghold represented by Newt Gingrich in Congress, Cobb County flipped to blue in 2018 and has remained that way since. By 2020 the county elected its first Black sheriff and county commission chair. Though the school district’s population is 30% Black and 24% Hispanic, the school board majority remains white and conservative.

By mid-July, another metropolitan Atlanta school district was courting Lewis. But by then she was living in Cobb County and decided to follow-up with the district there. It had been weeks since she’d gone through multiple rounds of rigorous interviews, during which Cobb officials complimented her on her credentials, saying she’d be an asset in multiple leadership roles, according to Lewis.

Lewis recalled that a district official finally called her back toward the end of July to apologize for the delayed response and explained that the superintendent had been involved in vetting her hiring, something that typically doesn’t happen for a person who applies for a supervisor role.

The district offered Lewis the job on that call, and she accepted. She was asked to report to work the next day, July 20.

By the end of the week — right around the time when the Cherokee County parent circulated the tip in the private Facebook group that Lewis might now be heading to Cobb — Lewis got a call from a school district leader. It was someone above her boss, Lewis said. According to Lewis, the person requested an immediate, off-site meeting.

It was already after 6 p.m. Lewis had just settled in for a manicure and pedicure. She left her appointment and headed to a nearby Panera Bread, where she and the district official took a seat near the back of the restaurant.

The person explained that complaints about her were “percolating” out of Cherokee into Cobb, according to Lewis, who also remembered the person telling her to be careful; she’s an at-will employee (meaning she can be fired at any time for any reason without notice) and the person might not be able to help her. Lewis also recalled the person telling her that she shouldn’t have to endure in Cobb what she went through in Cherokee.

Lewis was stunned. “I did nothing but showed up to work, signed a contract, agreed to do what I was asked to do in the job description,” she told ProPublica. “And yet again, I’m getting attacked.”

Around the same time, Cobb’s four Republican school board members, its superintendent and another district official, John Floresta, were fielding complaints about the decision to hire Lewis.

“I am appalled that anyone would advocate for the racist, sexist, and Marxist ideology that is Critical Race Theory,” one woman wrote to the group in an email, which ProPublica obtained through an open records request. Her name was redacted. She went on to say, among other things: “I insist that you pass real policy reforms that forbid indoctrinating children with CRT in classrooms,” “Anyone found pushing CRT on CCSD time should be immediately terminated,” and “Make no mistake: press releases and toothless resolutions just won’t cut it.”

“I agree with you 100 percent,” Cobb County school board member Randy Scamihorn responded. “Thankfully, the majority of the Board did vote on June 10th to ban CRT and 1619 Project from our schools in Cobb County. We then directed Superintendent Ragsdale to implement the enforcement of this decision, which he readily agreed to do.”

“I’m glad to hear you feel that way, but it certainly seems we need to remain vigilant,” the woman replied. “Why has Cecelia Lewis been hired by Cobb? She was hired by Cherokee schools for CRT and was run off because the parents put up such a fight. Now Cobb has quietly hired her. This isn’t a good move for the optics that Cobb has supposedly banned CRT.”

There is no record of an email reply from Scamihorn.

In response to ProPublica’s request for comment on the email exchange, a spokesperson for the district responded on behalf of Scamihorn: “Your assertion that Mr. Scamihorn ‘agreed 100%’ that ‘anyone pushing CRT on CCSD time should be immediately terminated’ is grossly inaccurate and not consistent with the email you are referencing. The Cobb Board did pass a resolution which directs the District to focus on keeping schools, schools, not on political distractions.” When asked to elaborate on what was inaccurate or inconsistent, the spokesperson did not respond.

Floresta responded to a different email complaining about CRT, assuring the sender that it was not allowed to be taught per district policy. The sender then pointed to the hiring in Cobb of “Cecelia Lewis, a well known advocate for CRT and DEI agents who actually resigned from Cherokee County recently because of the push back from the parents.”

“How in the heck did Dr. Cecelia Lewis get hired on?” the email continued. “It is ASTOUNDING to think that anyone would think this was a good idea. We need answers on this, immediately, and an explanation of her role within the County. To list her under Social Studies does not fool any of us.”

On Lewis’ fourth day on the job, she got a message from one of the district secretaries.

“I received a call from a parent wanting to know if you were the same person hired in Cherokee County. I just told her that someone would give her a call back to address her questions.”

Lewis’ boss soon told her to direct all such messages to her office. She also told Lewis to hold off on responding to any emails regarding her hiring, after Lewis replied to a positive note that came in from a supportive parent.

The following week, Lewis was supposed to introduce herself to all the social studies teachers at a districtwide training meeting. She said she’d been asked, before the Panera meeting, to prepare a presentation and share the social studies program vision.

She said she was then asked to shorten the presentation to a simple series of slides. Then, to one slide.

Finally, she learned she wouldn’t even be acknowledged at the meeting as the new supervisor of social studies.

“When the day came, I was told that I had to sit in the back and flip the slides for the presenter,” Lewis recalled. “I was not introduced at all.”

Lewis said she did receive warm welcomes when she individually introduced herself to teachers, some of whom said they’d heard she’d arrived and wondered when they’d meet her.

Not long after the meeting, she recalled, other aspects of her job began to change. Her emails to social studies teachers would need to be vetted before she could hit send (not a single one was approved). And she’d now be on a special project, reviewing thousands of resources that had already been approved and adopted by the district.

“It was pretty much them tucking me away,” Lewis said. “Every meeting was canceled. Every professional learning opportunity that I was supposed to lead with my team, I couldn’t do. Every department meeting with different schools, I was told I can’t go.”

According to Lewis, the only direct communication she was allowed to have without vetting was with other supervisors.

“They were wasting their money,” she said. “I’m just sitting here in this room every day, looking through resources that have already been approved, which makes no sense, and not given much direction as to what I’m looking for — just making sure they’re aligned to standards, which obviously they were.”

At the end of August, Lewis requested a meeting with her supervisor and the district’s chief academic officer. She told them that she would be submitting her two-week notice.

The next day, she got one last email from district leadership.

“As we discussed, it is never our intention, as an organization, for an employee to feel anything other [than] the support and collegiality associated with a positive and professional work environment,” the email said. “Please know your concerns and feedback, as an individual and employee, were heard and valued.”

ProPublica submitted to the Cobb County School District and its school board a list of detailed questions about the hiring of Lewis, the community blowback and the changes to her job. A school district spokesperson responded: “Cecelia Lewis was employed by the Cobb County School District during the summer of 2021, voluntarily submitted her letter of resignation in early fall of 2021, and like every Team member, her contributions and work for students was greatly appreciated.”

Lewis’ departure from not one but two school districts didn’t put an end to the efforts of anti-CRT groups. In fact, the groups used Lewis’ retreat as a rallying call.

In August 2021, Educate Cherokee — a group with a now-defunct website that identifies itself on Facebook as a local chapter of the national conservative nonprofit No Left Turn in Education — announced that it would be holding an event. According to an online notice about the event, it would be led by Heda, who had spoken at the clubhouse and the school board meetings, and Raney, who at the school board meeting had called out Lewis’ salary. In the notice, the group claimed the elimination of “a new DEI administrative position” as one of its accomplishments. “Bring your ideas, energy, and enthusiasm,” the meeting notice said. “We need to convert all of it into an effective election effort to eliminate CRT by replacing all of the current school board members up for re-election with new conservatives committed to our cause.”

In the months to come, four school board candidates — Michael “Cam” Waters, Ray Lynch, Sean Kaufman and Chris Gregory — established themselves as part of a collective effort to gain a majority on the board, in part by ousting board members who’d come under attack following Lewis’ hiring.

The candidates dubbed themselves 4CanDoMore and launched a website, the top of which states: “In May of 2021, Cherokee County was taken by surprise when it was announced that our ‘conservative’ board voted to bring in Cecelia Lewis, as Administrator on Special Assignment, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). However, her history was riddled with Critical Race Theory (CRT) ideologies in her previous school district. Why would the current board vote 7-0 to bring in someone to implement programs not in alignment with the family values of our community?”

In March of 2022, the 4CanDoMore candidates got a boost. The 1776 Project PAC, founded last year by author and OANN political correspondent Ryan Girdusky, had been singling out open school board seats across the country and supporting candidates who ran on platforms to ban CRT and the 1619 Project. (The super PAC’s name is a nod to an advisory committee launched in 2020 by Trump partly in response to the 1619 Project. Trump’s 1776 Commission sought to support a “patriotic education” in schools and oppose lessons that teach students to “hate their own country.”)

In 2021, the 1776 Project PAC backed 69 school board candidates in eight states. Fifty-five won their seats, its website claims, including all 15 candidates the PAC endorsed in Texas.

The 4CanDoMore candidates were the 1776 Project PAC’s first endorsements of 2022.

Girdusky did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the decision to zero in on Cherokee County candidates.

In May, two of the 4CanDoMore candidates lost their primary bids to incumbents. The other two, Kaufman and Lynch, advanced to a June runoff. Another familiar face in the anti-Lewis effort also made it to the runoff: Kahaian, the paralegal who’d told parents in the clubhouse how to prepare for an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show. She’s running for a seat in Georgia’s House of Representatives.

Even before any potential shake-up on the school board, some changes have already arrived in the Cherokee County School District. Among them is a ban on the word “equity” from any district initiative.

“We had to stop using the word because the word was redefined by people,” said Jacoby, the Cherokee County Schools communications director. “And so we had to take the word out of the equation, and say, OK, fine, ‘access.’ There’s no way around that access is important.”

After moving back home to Maryland, Lewis continues to work in education, although her role doesn’t primarily focus on DEI. “I may not have the specific acronym tied to my official title, but I am committed to celebrating diversity and promoting equity and inclusion,” Lewis said.

She also noted that, even in the face of increasing attacks, educators should not lose sight of their value and the difference they can make in children’s lives. “No one can take that away from us.”

Today, the metal detectors remain installed at the entrance to the building where Cherokee County School Board meetings are held. A staff member is permanently assigned the task of evacuating students in attendance, should the need ever arise. And an increased number of security officers are strategically placed throughout the meeting room and beyond.

Standing in line outside the building before a recent school board meeting, mothers identified themselves to each other as “a Marjorie” — meaning a proponent of the speaking style of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, known for her provocative and unfiltered claims.

A little while later, once the meeting was underway, a man who described himself as a school bus driver and a grandfather stepped to the microphone during the public comment period.

“This is not California or New York. This is Cherokee County, Georgia. We can choose what and how our students learn on a local level,” said the man.

“I was raised in a different era, in the ’50s and ’60s, where we were equipped to survive and succeed.”

How We Got the Interview: Cecelia Lewis initially was reluctant to talk about her experience in Georgia. For several months, she did not respond to requests for an interview. Lewis then declined to comment in March, citing safety and privacy concerns. After multiple additional requests, Lewis agreed to an interview, her first regarding what happened to her in Georgia, seeing it as a way for her experience to help people understand what educators are facing in these times.

Friday, June 17, 2022

House passes bills on meatpacking, fertilizer and biofuels; meat measure up for vote in Senate Agriculture Committee

"Democrats, struggling to maintain their tenuous control over the House amid soaring food and fuel prices," sent the Senate a raft of bills Thursday "aimed at promoting competition in the meat sector, reducing fertilizer usage and expanding the use of biofuels," reports Agri-Pulse's Philip Brasher.

"Republicans portrayed the Lower Food and Fuel Costs Act as a 'messaging bill' that would do little to address inflation while attempting to deflect attention from the Biden administration’s policies. But the bill passed, 221-204, with support from seven Midwest Republicans:" Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, Don Bacon of Nebraska, Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Iowans Randy Feenstra, Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Brasher reports. "Five Democrats voted no: Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Peter Welch of Vermont."

GOP critics focused on a plan to create a special investigator's office in USDA’s Packers and Stockyards Division to probe allegations of unfair trade practices in meatpacking, Brasher reports: "Other provisions are intended to allow year-round sales of E15; fund additional biofuel infrastructure; increase payments under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program for nutrient management practices; increase funding for precision agriculture; establish a USDA-run Agricultural and Food System Supply Chain Resilience and Crisis Response Task Force; and authorize loan guarantees for meat and poultry processing expansion. A Democratic amendment adopted during floor debate would authorize USDA to spend $100 million to increase domestic fertilizer production, an effort Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is already undertaking."

The Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the its version of the investigation measure, "along with legislation to mandate minimum levels of cash trading in the cattle sector," Brasher notes. "Both measures have Senate GOP sponsors." House Agriculture Committee Chair David Scott said the need for the probe was illustrated by JBS USA CEO Tim Schellpeper's response when asked at a hearing whether packers had colluded to fix prices: “Not that I'm aware of.”

UPDATE, June 23: The Senate panel approved both bills, Successful Farming reports.

Good journalism is good business, rural editor-publishers testify at National Summit on Journalism in Rural America

Seventh in a series of reports on the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, held June 3-4 by the Institute for Rural Journalism and the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky. Previous articles were on the state of rural journalism, the Summit-driven effort for sustainability in rural journalism, nonprofit models, help from higher educationphilanthropic support for rural news media and how two rural newspapers, a daily and a weekly with identical print circulation, are raising revenue. Summit sessions can be viewed on YouTube.

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

The research question posed by our National Summit on Journalism in Rural America was "How do rural communities sustain local journalism that supports local democracy?" We phrased the question that way to make the point that the sustainability of rural journalism depends more than ever on the communities it serves. In other words, it will need to get more of its revenue from its audiences, and that will require engaging more with those audiences and giving them real value for their money. As I said at the Summit, "People aren't going to pay good money for bad journalism."

Doing good journalism in rural areas has always been more difficult than in urban areas, because there are fewer resources and often less willingness to run against the grain. The latter factor has become more common lately, as the divisiveness of national politics changes the character of local politics in some places. But there are ways to turn both challenges into opportunities, and we explored that in several Summit sessions, including one called "Good journalism is good business."

The speakers for that session were two editor-publishers of excellent weekly newspapers that are not the only papers in their communities, but are financially successful: Sharon Burton of the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., and Marshall Helmberger of the Timberjay in Tower, Minn. In the hills of Southern Kentucky to the forests of Northern Minnesota, both try to be relevant.

Marshall Helmberger (CJR photo by Stephanie Pearson)
Helmberger said the Timberjay does that with "solid, fearless reporting on local and regional issues," maintaining its independence while showing civic leadership. He said his editorials often "run against the grain" of local opinion, but he doesn't think it has hurt the paper. He said editorials have cost it some subscriptions, but more may have come from people appreciative of campaigns like the one that changed a law on public access to contracting between public bodies and private entities; it's called "the Timberjay law."

"They know when it comes to our investigations we don't play favorites," Helmberger said. "Over time, the light bulb clicks on and they realize newspapers can play an important role in bringing positive change to the community. . . . We don't just have readers. We have engaged readers who can't wait for the next issue." That showed when the Timberjay was the target of a frivolous lawsuit that would still take a big part of its annual cash flow to defend. Crowdfunding for the defense raised $30,000, Helmberger said, and one reader paid for a $35 obituary with a $500 check and said to keep the change.

Both Helmberger and Burton have played unusual – and probably for most journalists, controversial – roles in their communities. Helmberger is the executive of the local economic-development authority, and Burton served on the board of the local hospital that had been driven into bankruptcy by mismanagement. When the new county judge-executive asked her to serve, she had many reservations because journalists are supposed to cover news, not make it. But she agreed "because I could not think of anything more important to do as someone who loves this community and the people who made it great," she wrote, adding that she felt she could make sure the board was more transparent than it had been. She recused herself from reporting or editing any hospital stories, and had an outside professional edit them for publication. For more on Burton's exploits, click here.

Sharon Burton
Burton told the Summit crowd that when she told the judge-executive (the county's elected administrator) that she liked her but that wouldn't affect her watchdog reporting and commentary, the official replied, said "That's why I try to make sure I don't do anything wrong." Burton said, "I don't think that you can get a greater compliment in your town . . . that they'll acknowledge when they make decisions, they think about you. You know? And that's what we should be in our communities. That's what we're supposed to be."

That said, Burton volunteered that today's more contentious political landscape has made her more careful about commentary. "I shy away from hard-hitting editorials now, because there's so much hate" and focus on "local issues that need to be discussed," she said.

Burton concluded with a personal statement that many independent editor-publishers would make, and one that could be useful in reassuring or alerting readers concerned about owners' motives: "I make money so I can be in the newspaper business. I'm not in the newspaper business to make money," as she said most buyers of newspapers are today. "It's obvious by the quality of what they're doing that they're not in it because they love newspapering. I think they're part of our problem, because they hurt our reputation."

Speakers in other sessions gave other ideas for rural journalism that serves the public and helps make money. Penny Abernathy of Northwestern University, who popularized the term "news deserts," said that as the deserts appear, irrigation can come from across the county line: "Successful papers don't think geographically" but are "breaking out of geographic jail" with news coverage and advertising sales, she said.

Abernathy also passed on a line about the value of community journalism that could be a good pitch for subscriptions: "It helps you realize whom you're related to that you didn't know."

Jim Iovino
Burton and Jim Iovino of West Virginia University said it's important to get information to people when they need it most. Iovino said that means publishing advance stories on public meetings, and well in advance, so people can make time to attend. "The audience, in many cases, is a bystander in all this," he said. He noted that Crystal Good of Black by God West Virginian, created a "Citizens Guide to Advocacy," outlining how to attend a meeting and participate.

Iovino also touted electronic newsletters on particular topics, which "can turn weeklies into seven-day brands by creating a daily check-in for readers" and competing with social media. He noted the advice of the Table Stakes program: "Audience first, digital first, print better."

Tom Silvestri of The Relevance Project of the Newspaper Association Managers promoted his central idea of the local newspaper serving as "THE Community Forum."

In today's media landscape, Silvestri said, "I wouldn't launch a newspaper or a website, I'd launch a forum. He said that as publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he did 78 "public squares," and offered a set of tools for replicating that work, down to the layout of the seating. He said forums on local issues don't cost much to do, but can build audience, and "You can make money off an audience." Also, the experience can help you do paid and sponsored events that generate income.

Dink NeSmith
More than one speaker stressed that rural newspapers can't afford to ignore minorities in their markets, as many have. Dink NeSmith of The Oglethorpe Echo in Georgia said the nonprofit weekly is finally covering the county's Black community, with the help of students at the nearby University of Georgia.

"I cannot praise the students enough," NeSmith said, citing a Black truck driver who made a big donation to the nonprofit and a reader who said, "There's actually something to read in that damn paper now."

NeSmith said the weekly is also engaging readers by asking them to write essays answer the question, "Why do I love Oglethorpe County?" That's uplifting, engaging and inviting, and that's what we need.

Rate of new rural coronavirus infections remain steady; rural death rate higher than metro for 60th week straight

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, June 7-13
Map by The Daily Yonder; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

The rate of new coronavirus infections in rural counties stayed nearly unchanged during the week of June 7-13 while deaths related to Covid-19 climbed slightly, Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. Rural counties reported 65,346 new infections last week, 38 fewer than the week before. Meanwhile, 433 new Covid-related deaths were reported in rural counties, 67 more than the week before, or an 18 percent climb.

"In metropolitan counties, the number of new infections fell while deaths increased by more than 25% compared to two weeks ago," Marema reports. Metro counties reported 647,191 new infections last week, down 60,843, or 8%, from the week before. Covid-related deaths in metro counties totaled 2,184, an increase of 488 from two weeks ago, or nearly 28%.

"For the 60th consecutive week, the rate of Covid-related deaths was higher in rural counties than metropolitan counties last week," Marema reports. "Rural counties had a death rate of 0.94 per 100,000 last week, while metropolitan counties had a death rate of 0.77 per 100,000." Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

Over 90% of rural heartland bankers surveyed say a recession is more likely than not within the next 12 months

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.

A June survey of rural bankers in 10 heartland states that rely on agriculture and energy found that nearly 93 percent believe a recession is more likely than not within the next year. Accordingly, the Rural Mainstreet Index fell to 49.8 from last month's 57.7, the lowest reading since September 2020. Any number over 50 in the 0-100 index is growth-positive. The index surveys bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

"Much like the nation, the growth in the Rural Mainstreet economy is slowing. Supply chain disruptions from transportation bottlenecks and labor shortages continue to constrain growth," writes Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index. "Farmers and bankers are bracing for escalating interest rates — both long-term and short-term."


Quick hits: Rural entrepreneurs well-placed to be climate leaders; Kansas faces dire foster-parent shortage

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at heather.chapman@uky.edu.

Much of rural Kansas has so few foster parents that the loss of just one can leave a huge hole in a county, reports Kansas City's KCUR.

How to prepare for, and react to, storms that knock out your electricity, from The Daily Yonder.

The last line of the paid obituary for a man who was a major paper-company executive in Idaho reads: "The best tribute you can give to Lee [Gill] is to pick up a piece of trash." His funeral is today.

The Guardian digs up a 1977 climate memo to Jimmy Carter "that should have changed the world."

Through simple measures, rural entrepreneurs can become climate leaders, says the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. Read more here.

Abbott baby formula factory shuts down again after storm flooding; could start production again in a few weeks

Just weeks after the Abbott Nutrition baby formula plant in Sturgis, Mich., got back up and running, production has stalled again after a severe storm caused flooding in parts of the facility. "On Wednesday, the company said that it was assessing damage from the storm and cleaning the plant, which would delay production and distribution for a few weeks, but that it had sufficient supplies of EleCare and most of its specialty and metabolic formulas to meet demand until new formula is available," Christine Hauser reports for The New York Times

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert M. Califf "said that the agency had been informed about the stoppage but that it was not expected to have much impact, given increased imports of formula as well as production by Abbott and other manufacturers," Hauser reports. The plant is expected to be up and running again in a few weeks. 


Remote work and cheaper housing lure new rural residents

Remote work opportunities and cheaper housing are drawing many from the nation's biggest cities to smaller, often rural, areas, according to a recent report from the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan public-policy think tank.

"Since the pandemic began, there has been a debate about whether the rapid rise of remote work would affect where people live. Some argued that remote work effects would be mostly temporary and local. Others argued that remote work would have significant effects on where people live and the economic geography of the U.S. and elsewhere," says the report. "With the release of 2021 U.S. Census Bureau Population Estimates, we are able to see more conclusive evidence about what has happened so far. The results do not paint a picture of a continuation of recent pre-pandemic trends, but rather a significant change in where people are moving and living. While much research remains to be done, the evidence is consistent with remote work beginning to change economic geography."

Here are some top findings from the report:
  • The report divides counties into six population types: large urban, small urban, suburban, exurban, metro rural, and non-metro rural. Large urban areas have seen the biggest drop in population growth rates during the pandemic, though small urban areas also declined. Population growth rates in the suburbs remained much the same over the pandemic, but exurban, metro rural, and non-metro rural saw increased growth rates.
  • Remote work opportunities, not temporary pandemic policies, have been a major factor in persuading people to move to rural areas from large cities.
  • Rural areas with tourism and recreation-based economies have been more likely to attract urban emigrants. Lower rural population density didn't seem to play much if any role in attracting new residents.
  • Affordable housing has been a big draw for urban residents seeking to relocate.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

If private equity comes for your hospital, check it out; you may need to ask, 'Is a bad hospital better than no hospital?'

Audrain Community Hospital in Mexico, Mo., closed in March. (Photo from Kaiser Health News)

"Private-equity investors, with their focus on buying cheap and reaping quick returns, are moving voraciously into the U.S. health-care system . . . putting vulnerable communities at the mercy of firms whose North Star is profit, rather than patient health," reports Sarah Jane Tribble of Kaiser Health News.

Tribble's object example is Noble Health, which recently closed two rural hospitals in central Missouri: Audrain Community Hospital in Mexico and Callaway Community Hospital in Fulton. The company gave vague reasons, but it "should have had plentiful resources to keep them afloat," Tribble writes. "Noble was launched in late 2019 by Nueterra Capital, a venture capital and private equity firm that has raised millions of dollars to back dozens of health-care companies, according to Nueterra’s portfolio and federal filings. What’s more, in addition to Medicare and Medicaid funds, Noble had received nearly $20 million in federal Covid relief money in the 18 months before it closed the hospitals — funds whose use is still not fully accounted for."

Kaiser Health News chart by Krishna Sharma
Tribble says the story is a cautionary tale for other communities with struggling hospitals: "Noble acquired the hospitals after charming local leaders desperate to save beloved local institutions. And federal regulators did nothing to block or thoroughly vet the acquisition, despite red flags. Noble’s directors had little health-care experience. The one who did was Donald R. Peterson, whose previous foray into the space, an infusion company, ended with charges of Medicare fraud."

After Noble took over, "The hospitals stopped paying their bills, according to lawsuits filed by contract nurses, security guards, and others," Tribble reports. "Inspection reports from the state workers coordinating with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services were alarming, listing 135 pages of deficiencies that put patients “at risk for their health and safety.”

The business model of Noble and other private-equity firms is “all about creating short-term returns for shareholders,” Ambar La Forgia, a Columbia University assistant professor who studies private equity in health care, told Tribble, who says LaForgia raises a hard question for rural America: “Is a bad hospital better than no hospital?” In Audrain County, officials didn't know that was the question, and they "were easy prey for investors," Tribble writes. "Noble was the only bidder for the failing hospital, said Lou Leonatti, the longtime local attorney, and many in Mexico, a town of 11,000 and the county seat, 'believed we were saved'."

Rural hospitals face danger as pandemic funding runs out; 1 in 5 are at significant risk of closure or service reduction

Federal pandemic aid drastically slowed the pace of rural hospital closures. (Bipartisan Policy Center graph)

Federal pandemic aid helped slow the pace of rural hospital closures, but that aid is drying up, and the hospitals are still dealing with pandemic-driven financial problems and staffing shortages, and one-fifth are at significant risk of closure or service reduction, the Bipartisan Policy Center reports.

A new BPC report offers insights on the state of rural health care through interviews with providers, national organizations, federal and state policy experts, and rural hospital leaders in Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The report focuses mostly on strengthening health-care delivery through Medicare and Medicaid, since those programs play an outsized role in rural America. Here are some highlights from the report:

  • About one-third of Americans are enrolled in Medicare.
  • Nearly one-quarter of Americans under age 65 rely on Medicaid as their primary health insurer.
  • Many rural stakeholders said that, once federal pandemic aid dries up, many rural hospitals will once again be at risk of closure unless additional action is taken to protect them.
  • Hospitals experiencing persistent financial losses (negative total operating margins over three consecutive years) ranged from 6% in Nevada to a high of 38% in Wyoming.
  • Out of 2,176 rural hospitals, 441 (one-fifth) face three or more concurrent signs of financial risk that put them in danger of service reduction or closure, and 909 (42%) face two or more signs of risk. The risk signs include negative total operating margin, negative operating margin on patient services alone, negative current net assets, and negative total net assets.
Based on its interviews, the Bipartisan Policy Center recommends several short-term policies to stabilize and strengthen access to rural hospitals and health clinics:
  • Provide rural hospitals full relief from across-the-board Medicare spending reductions, known as sequestration, until two years after the federal public health emergency ends.
  • Take rural facilities out of the ongoing 'extender' and 'needing to be renewed' budget cycle, including by permanently authorizing the Medicare Dependent Hospital program and making rural low-volume payment adjustments permanent.
  • Update or rebase Sole Community Hospital and Medicare Dependent Hospital payment structures to ensure reimbursement is in line with current costs.
The report also has a raft of recommendations to improve workforce recruitment and retention, and improve access to specific services such as ambulance care, telehealth, behavioral health, and maternal care services. Read the report here.

Rural residents, especially in South, likelier to have medical debt; most Americans have had some in the last five years


More than 100 million Americans, representing 41% of adults in the nation, have medical debt, and they are more likely to live in rural areas, according to a
new data analysis by the Urban Institute. The issue is a "critical challenge to Americans’ financial stability and well-being," says the report, since "people with medical debt are likely to forgo needed medical care, have difficulty meeting other basic needs, and face an increased risk of bankruptcy."

A Kaiser Health News and NPR investigation found that the problem of medical debt is "far more pervasive than previously reported," Noam Levey reports, "because much of the debt that patients accrue is hidden as credit-card balances, loans from family, or payment plans to hospitals and other medical providers." According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll that informed the reporters' investigation, more than half of U.S. adults said they've gone into debt in the past five years because of medical or dental bills. About one in four with medical debt owe more than $5,000 and about one in five said they'll probably never pay it off.

Medical debt "is forcing families to cut spending on food and other essentials. Millions are being driven from their homes or into bankruptcy, the poll found," Levey reports. The issue is also deepening racial disparities, and is preventing many from saving for retirement, buying a home, affording college, and more. It's also making life harder for people already facing cancer and other chronic illnesses. 

The Urban Institute analysis found that people with medical debt in collections are more likely to live in the South; of the 100 counties with the highest levels of medical debt, 79 are in states that didn't expand Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. One-off medical emergencies aren't driving medical debt: The prevalence of chronic medical conditions among a county's residents was the strongest predictor of medical debt. Counties with higher shares of uninsured, low-income, younger, or Black or Hispanic residents also have higher rates of medical debt. 

The No Surprises Act, which took effect Jan. 1, aims to protect patients from out-of-network medical bills, but it has some limitations; ground ambulances, for example, can cost thousands of dollars but are not covered under the bill. About half of emergency ground ambulance rides result in out-of-network charges for people with private insurance, according to a recent KFF study.

EPA says PFAS, 'forever chemicals,' riskier than first thought and it will offer $1 billion to help address the problem

The Environmental Protection Agency warned Wednesday that widely used "forever chemicals" in drinking water are more dangerous than previously thought, and advised local governments to install water filters or at least warn residents of contamination, Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post. The advisories are non-binding, since the federal government doesn't currently regulate polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. However, EPA plans to propose mandatory standards for the two most common types of PFAS this fall. 

"Once finalized, water utilities will face penalties if they neglect to meet them. The advisories will remain in place until the rule comes out," Grandoni reports. "EPA also said Wednesday that it is offering $1 billion in grants to states and tribes through the bipartisan infrastructure law to address drinking-water contamination."

PFAs were invented in the 1940s and are used for nonstick cookware, flame-retardant equipment, water-repellent fabrics, fast-food wrappers and more. The chemicals have been linked to health risks for some time, but recent studies about the most common PFAS show that "lifetime exposure at staggeringly low levels of 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion, respectively, can compromise the immune and cardiovascular systems and are linked to decreased birth weights," Grandoni reports.

Sign up for USDA's Census of Agriculture by June 30

Want to stand up and be counted in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture? You have until June 30 to sign up. You will need to sign up if you didn't participate in the 2017 Ag Census and you don't get other USDA surveys or censuses. Click here to sign up or for more information.

USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service holds the Ag Census every five years to provide as complete a count as possible of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. This year will feature a new web portal meant to make participation easier. Producers who sign up in time can complete the survey securely online in November (NASS will mail out access codes then). In addition, NASS will mail out hard copies of the survey in December.

The survey has been conducted for more than 180 years, and remains the only source of comprehensive and impartial agricultural data for every state and county.

Low-lying rural areas near coasts will bear the brunt of sea-level rise, analysis of Chesapeake Bay maps indicates

Median elevation of Chesapeake Bay watersheds
(Limnology and Oceanography graphic)
"A new analysis using highly detailed elevation maps of the Chesapeake Bay suggests that North America's extensive areas of low-lying rural land will allow coastal marshes to persist or even expand as salty water creeps upward into what are now forests and farmland," Science Daily reports.

According to the study, recently published in Limnology and Oceanography Letters, more than 600 square miles of low-lying land in the Chesapeake region—more than 75% of it rural—will become marshland by 2100. "The challenge for North American landowners and governments will be to equitably manage the conversion of what is now mostly privately owned, income-producing rural uplands into coastal wetland habitats whose value lies mainly in providing publicly valued ecosystem services such as flood protection and the nurture of fish and bird populations." David Malmquist reports for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Rising sea levels will affect more than the Chesapeake. Here's an interactive tool showing which parts of North America could be submerged at different sea levels (presumably, low-lying lands near such areas could also become marshy).

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Senate's response to school shooting would boost rural mental-health care; Uvalde's GOP representative backs it

The U.S. Senate's response to the massacre of students and teachers in Uvalde, Texas, could include funding for mental-health treatment that will increase access to it in rural America. The framework of the agreement by 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans, and endorsed Tuesday by Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, includes three mental-health measures:
  • Expansion of a key method of funding community behavioral-health clinics
  • Funds to help families and youth access mental health services via telehealth
  • Beefing up school mental-health services, such as early identification and intervention
Other points in the framework include funding to encourage states to implement “red flag” laws that let authorities keep guns away from those deemed by a judge to represent a potential threat. The legislative language of the bill being drafted.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wants the legislation to include some mental-health ideas from his committee, whose jurisdiction includes health care. But even if it doesn't, Wyden hopes momentum will remain "for a separate mental health package later, especially since the gun violence prevention framework doesn’t mention substance-use-disorder services," reports Dorothy Mills-Gregg of Inside Health Policy.

Many rural communities lack behavioral-health centers. Mills-Gregg reports, "Telehealth is a cost-effective tool and provides a natural opportunity for young people who are especially adept at using technology, Wyden said."

The framework of the deal was endorsed by Republican U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, whose district includes Uvalde. He told Fox News Radio's Guy Benson, "This bill is going to have is going to invest more in mental health than at any other point in our nation’s history. . . . mental health clinics, especially in rural America, that they don’t have the resources."

Omicron wave, twice as deadly in unvaccinated people as its predecessors, hit rural areas harder, killing many people

The omicron variant of the coronavirus, which cause a wave of the Covid-19 infections in late 2021 and early 2022, "spread like a grass fire in America’s densely populated cities, but led to higher rates of death in rural counties where vaccinations are lagging," reports the University of Cincinnati, home to one researcher in a group who recently published a study on the phenomenon.

Their report, in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, "revealed striking disparities in health care between urban and rural America," Michael Miller writes for the university. Researchers "found that counties with vaccination rates of less than 40% had far higher mortality rates than counties with vaccination rates of 60% or more. The study recommended that health policymakers continue to make vaccination coverage a priority."

Looking forward, rural counties "face a higher probability of developing chronic illness from long Covid," said study co-author Claudia Moreno of the University of Washington. She also voiced concern that health officials are less able to track Covid-19 infections because fewer people are reporting new cases: "In the early part of the pandemic, people knew exactly what the infection rates in their counties were day to day—like the weather. And now we have peaks in case loads that are so much higher, but there is less public awareness."