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It's time for the state to rethink student assessment

NCS Pearson, the company that administers Wyoming's student assessment — the Proficiency Assessments for Wyoming Students, or PAWS — is running a public apology for technical glitches that rendered many students' test scores unusable this year.

Due to the widespread nature of the test problems, the state has requested that some scores be thrown out. And, according to an Associated Press report, the state Department of Education estimates the problems cost the state about $9.5 million in damages.

In addition, the colossal waste of teacher and student time can't be ignored. In an attempt to meet mandates in the No Child Left Behind Act, instructors spend months teaching to statewide assessment tests. Students feel the pressure to perform, and valuable class time is spent preparing for and taking the PAWS test.

NCS Pearson certainly owes the education department, teachers, students and parents an apology, as well as financial restitution, for its ineptitude — but it's time for the state to question its relationship with the company and to move forward in evaluating and rethinking its assessment process.

The State Superindent of Public Instruction oversees the Department of Education — the person who wins that race in the November elections should make a revamp of student assessment a top priority, and NCS Pearson should not figure into the equation.

With 28 days remaining until the Aug. 17 primary election, candidates will amplify campaign efforts in the coming weeks as voters make their final decisions.

The primary election promises to be telling in several races — four major gubernatorial candidates are vying for the GOP nomination, and a dozen Republican hopefuls are competing for three available seats on the Park County Commission. In the local House District 25 legislative race, three Republicans are seeking the seat, but no Democrats filed.

For certain races, it's quite likely that those who win in August will be our next elected officials.

Given the importance of next month's primary election, voters must be ready to make informed decisions — and the more they know about each candidate, the better prepared they are. Transparency is key in the weeks ahead.

It's encouraging to see some candidates take the lead.

Last week, GOP candidate Rita Meyer disclosed her campaign finance figures, detailing the $306,525 she has raised in her quest for the governor's office.

Wyoming Secretary of State Max Maxfield, who is seeking re-election, has been posting a steady stream of finance reports since January, months ahead of the filing date.

By Wyoming law, campaign finance reports must be filed by Aug. 10 — just a week ahead of the primary election.

That doesn't allow a lot time for media to report extensively on campaign finances, nor does it give voters very much time to digest the details. It's also likely that by Aug. 10, many voters will have made up their minds.

Money and politics make strange bedfellows, and you never know what a campaign finance report may reveal.

Voters and media have a responsibility to get to know candidates, and they can follow money trails easier when candidates are transparent and forthcoming.

As Meyer said in a release last week, “… Wyoming voters have the right to know who they are electing.

Transparency is about being accountable to the citizens of Wyoming.”

Meyer's and Maxfield's voluntary, early release of financial reports is commendable — and we challenge other candidates to follow suit.

Take the money or keep autonomy?

The announcement that federal money — $400,000 to $700,000 annually — may be available to fund the Heart Mountain Volunteer Medical Clinic poses some difficult questions for the clinic board, as well as community members.

The clinic, with a second branch soon to open in Cody, has survived thus far through generous community support and volunteer efforts, but with limited hours one evening a week.

The federal money would enable the clinic to operate on a full-time, 40-hour-per-week basis, but with the strings and red tape that accompany federal community health programs. But the “free” in free clinic would cease to exist — instead the organization would see needy patients on a sliding-fee basis.

The next few months will require an exhaustive look into the pros and cons of the proposal. The Heart Mountain Volunteer Medical Clinic Board is divided on how it views the offer, but as Dr. Nick Morris, who along with his wife, Madelyn, founded the clinic, asked, “...the ethical dilemma is, if they're going to give someone $400,000 to see eight times the number of patients, shouldn't we consider it?”

Prior to the proposed meeting with federal Community Health Program representatives in October, donors, community members, volunteers and — just as importantly, the patients receiving services at the clinic — need to voice their opinions to the board about how the clinic can best serve low-income and uninsured people in Park County and surrounding areas.

A federal community health program would have more resources and reach more people — but is the current free clinic model the best choice, with the clinic drawing its strength from continued community support?

Many controversies surround the new federal health-care legislation, so it comes as no surprise that the law's first element to take effect has businesses and consumers seeing red.

Under the health care bill, Americans who use tanning beds must now pay a 10-percent tax. The tanning tax took effect earlier this month and is expected to generate $2.7 billion over the next 10 years to help underwrite health-care reform costs.

While tanning businesses and their customers lament the new tax, it's certainly not the first time America has taxed harmful habits. Tobacco has been taxed since the Civil War, and in 2009 the government enacted the largest federal tobacco tax in American history.

And each time the tobacco tax increases, more people quit smoking, according to American Cancer Society research.

Likewise, the hope is that a tanning tax will help reduce the hours people spend baking underneath damaging ultraviolet light.

Exposure to ultraviolet rays — such as those in tanning beds — is shown to increase the risk of the sun-related skin cancer, melanoma.

“And those studies are all consistent — that regardless of the type of tanning bed that you're using, it increases your risk of developing melanoma,” dermatologist Allan Halpern said in an interview with National Public Radio.

Wyoming is becoming even stricter on tanning regulations. Starting this month, children and teens under 18 must have written parental consent to use an ultraviolet tanning bed.

The 2010 Legislature passed the measure, which Gov. Dave Freudenthal signed in March. It's a wise action for Wyoming, considering research shows melanoma risk increases for those who started using tanning beds before the age of 30.

Some residents feel burned by the new federal tanning tax and state's age requirements, but the long-term damage of ultraviolet-light exposure is more harmful than a new tax.

Money well spent?

Early this spring, University of Wyoming trustees and wealthy donors — along with alumni, parents and others — pressured UW president Tom Buchanan to deny controversial figure William Ayers' right to speak at the school.

The former 1960s radical and founder of the anti-Vietnam War group The Weather Underground was slated to speak about education reform on campus in April, but a torrent of angry e-mails and phone calls and donors' threats to withhold money led the privately-endowed UW Social Justice Research Center to rescind the invitation.

When a student re-extended the invitation, university officials barred Ayers from speaking on campus. The brief legal battle that ensued when that student, Meghan Lanker, and Ayers sued UW in U.S. District Court subsequently cost the school $86,000 in settlement money, legal fees and other expenses.

The choice by UW officials to deny free speech on campus was a poor one from the get-go, and the $86,000 price tag makes it even more difficult for many university supporters to swallow.

What amounted to a “heckler's veto” of free speech, according to Wyoming Chief U.S. District Judge William Downes when he ruled on the case in April, came with a hefty price tag.

Taxpayers and other UW supporters and donors shouldn't have to pay the legal tab for a few who insisted UW officials quell free speech. It's time for the hecklers to stand behind what they believe in — to put their money where their mouths are — and foot the bill.

Call it lucky number 13. Thirteen years ago, the Powell Valley Healthcare Board hired the 13th candidate interviewed for the position of chief executive officer.

In Rod Barton, Powell Valley Healthcare found an esteemed director with financial savvy and strong leadership skills to grow the institution as a profitable, reputable health-care facility in the region.

The numbers speak for themselves.

When Barton began in 1997, Powell Valley Healthcare was operating in the red with a nearly $1 million deficit. Thirteen years later, the budget is very much in the black — to the tune of $6.5 million in cash available, or 57.5 days of operating expenses.

Under his leadership, the hospital expanded to include an assisted living center, a walk-in clinic, an MRI and a brand-new medical clinic to accommodate a growing number of physicians who have signed on during Barton's tenure.

Last year, Barton was one of 50 hospital CEOs in the nation honored by the American Hospital Association.

His skillful leadership over the past 13 years makes Barton's recent resignation hard to swallow. Barton's departure, effective in late August, is indeed a loss to Powell Valley Healthcare and the community as a whole.

His resignation also comes at a difficult time as health care issues are hotly contested nationally and at a crossroads locally. Next month, Park County voters will decide on a primary ballot whether to fund a $14.2 million capital-facilities tax for proposed renovation and expansion of Cody's West Park Hospital.

Barton is leaving Powell Valley Healthcare in better shape than he found it in — and the challenge for his successor is to continue in that vein.

The upcoming Fourth of July holiday weekend will be filled with exciting events and fun activities throughout the area.

While enjoying all the area has to offer over the Fourth, it's crucial Park County residents and visitors practice safety as well.

The recent rash of traffic fatalities in Park County — due to excessive speed, lack of seat belts, driving under the influence and motorcyclists' failure to wear helmets — should serve as a strong reminder to use additional caution when traveling Wyoming's roadways.

Not drinking and driving — along with slowing down, buckling up and wearing helmets — can go a long way toward keeping the holiday weekend tragedy-free.

People traveling to the mountains to celebrate should make sure others are aware of travel plans and destinations. Travelers should be prepared to encounter high water in area creeks and rivers, and hikers should have bear spray or a firearm handy when enjoying the back-country.

Fireworks should be handled with care to avoid the burns and injuries that send thousands of people to emergency rooms across the nation each year during Independence Day festivities.

Young children should not handle or ignite fireworks, and older children should be supervised by adults at all times. In order to prevent unintentional fires, fireworks should be used only in still conditions and in areas cleared of brush and debris.

The Fourth of July should be a time for all Americans to celebrate our independence and to create long-lasting memories with family and friends. The proper measure of caution can ensure weekend revelry doesn't take a tragic turn for the worse.

Living in bear country often results in conflict.

Eighty-eight bear and human conflicts were tallied in Park County in 2009. That number doesn't include seeing a bear when hiking or hunting. Last year, seven grizzlies were killed in self-defense situations near Yellowstone.

Unfortunately, the Greater Yellowstone Region recently tallied its first fatal grizzly mauling in 25 years. In a June 17 attack, botanist Erwin Frank Evert was mauled to death after hiking in a North Fork area where a grizzly had been tranquilized for research conducted by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team. He was not carrying bear spray or a gun.

Questions remain about why Evert, who was familiar with hiking along backcountry trails, entered a dangerous area that researchers say was clearly marked. An investigation is under way to help piece together details of the tragic encounter.

The incident underscores the need for humans in bear country to be vigilant as well as armed with bear spray or a gun.

Considering the region's grizzly population and a new federal law that allows loaded guns in national parks, those carrying loaded weapons must be educated about bruin behavior.

Misreading a grizzly's behavior or acting out of fear can easily result in a dead bear —and, quite possibly, consequences for the shooter. Unless it's a proven case of self-defense, killing a grizzly is a federal crime punishable by up to six months in prison and a $25,000 fine.

Last month, a Jackson Hole hunter who claimed self-defense was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of illegally taking a grizzly.

“This whole thing adds up to that people need to make sure they are in a self-defense situation. You can't kill wildlife based on an undemonstrated fear of an unrealistic threat,” Mark Bruscino, Game and Fish chief bear biologist, told the Jackson Hole News and Guide after the trial.

In order to understand bears' behavior and how to react during encounters, residents coexisting with grizzlies should take advantage of the Game and Fish Department's bear safety educational resources.

Carrying bear spray is an effective way to protect yourself against a bear attack and can stop a bear without killing it. Research shows bear spray stopped grizzlies in 46 of 50 cases — 92 percent of the time.

Game and Fish bear-wise community coordinator Tara Teaschner highly recommends carrying bear spray and said she is happy to show residents how to use it. For information, call her at 307-272-1121 or 307-527-7125.

The threat of grizzly encounters is inevitable in our region, but by being prepared and educated, the number of fatal conflicts can be reduced.

The city of Powell held a public hearing Monday evening to discuss the proposed budget for fiscal year 2010-11.

Despite a public notice printed in the June 10 edition of the Tribune and a subsequent front page story reminding readers of the hearing, not a single Powell resident attended to pose questions, to learn details or to express approval or disapproval of the proposed budget.

Given the flood of online comments and letters to the editor in response to nearly every Tribune story regarding city spending, the lack of attendance comes as a surprise.

The new aquatic center, Homesteader Park, Powellink, the pending landfill closure — all hot-button issues for online comments and all major factors in the city budget — along with the standard salary information, utility operations and the like elicited not a single comment from Powell residents.

It seems the passionate folks who weigh in anonymously via online comments — as well as those who put pen to paper and sign their names to letters to the editor — in this case failed to recognize the value of face-to-face dialogue, discussion and debate afforded by public hearings. Or maybe it's simply easier to hide behind a letter or the anonymity of online forums.
City Attorney Sandee Kitchen made three calls for speakers at Monday's meeting, but the silence was deafening.

City officials and councilmen frequently are criticized for failing to consider public input.

In this case — as is the case with every year's budget — the city specifically sought public input, and there was none.

A 20-year effort to protect land near Yellowstone National Park from mining was resolved recently, but Park County residents will experience the mine's lingering effects as cleanup begins.

Wyoming's scenic Chief Joseph Highway will be the route for trucks hauling at least 48,700 tons of mine tailings during summer 2011.

The contaminated waste must be removed from a defunct gold mine near Cooke City, Mont. — a site that ignited a firestorm of controversy in the 1990s after the mining company Noranda sought to mine gold just three miles outside of Yellowstone National Park.

Thankfully, its mining plans were foiled, and today the beloved national park is protected from large-scale mining development.

Unfortunately, thousands of tons of pollutants remain at the mine site near Cooke City and are at risk of seeping into Soda Butte Creek and eventually running into Yellowstone's waterways.

A cleanup effort spearheaded by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality calls for trucks to haul tons of the harmful mine tailings over Wyoming's Chief Joseph Highway.

As a public highway, the scenic route is open to commercial traffic — an unfortunate reality for motorists who will find themselves sharing the road with heavy trucks.

Though Montana's cleanup plan has been in the works for years, officials in Park County apparently were unaware of the project and didn't realize that the highway would be the route for trucks hauling toxic mine tailings.

With Wyoming responsible for maintaining the highway, it's unsettling that Wyoming Department of Transportation officials weren't informed of cleanup plans until after the project was sent out to bid.

Given the history of dispute over the mining project and use of the highway, it's also disappointing that there wasn't an open line of communication between Montana officials and those in Park County.

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