Omaha World-Herald. July 28, 2015
Leaders step up for ethanol
Appearing together at a Blair, Nebraska, ethanol-industry plant last week, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds urged support for the clean-burning, corn-derived fuel.
These are the two top ethanol-producing states in the country, and that has created jobs as well as additional markets for agricultural output. More importantly, ethanol pollutes less and increases U.S. energy independence. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency is considering reducing the amount of ethanol that refiners must blend into gasoline. That's shortsighted.
So while they'll never cheer for the same college football team, it's good to see top officials of Nebraska and Iowa on the same side when it comes to ethanol.
The Grand Island Independent. July 29, 2015
Corrections culture change will take time
Changing attitudes at an institution is never easy, especially when what has existed is a "culture of fear." But that is exactly what Scott Frakes, the Nebraska corrections director, is trying to do.
For too long, Nebraska Corrections Department employees have worked under a cloud. During the last couple of years it has become abundantly clear that cloud, whether it was fear or intimidation, prevented problems from being addressed.
Frakes and Gov. Pete Ricketts are trying to clear the air and create a culture where workers' concerns are heard.
The wave of controversies has stretched from the Tecumseh prison riot in May to the miscalculation of release dates for hundreds of inmates to the early release of mentally disturbed Nikko Jenkins who went on to kill four people in Omaha after his release.
Overshadowing all of this has been chronic overcrowding at the state prisons, which have been operating at about 57 percent over capacity.
Through all of these instances ran the thread of trying to minimize the impact of the overcrowding. And a culture where employees were afraid to speak out.
In order to start changing this culture, Frakes plans an agencywide survey. About 300 corrections employees, from every job classification, will be surveyed and they will remain anonymous.
The survey is a good plan and will give the new prison administration some information to use in determining what has been good and what has been bad in the state prison system.
If a culture is going to be changed, employees need to give input and then have buy-in to the changes being made. A survey — listening to employees — is a good way to start.
Ricketts and Frakes are well aware of what some of the problems have been. For corrections officers it has been high turnover. This leaves the prisons short staffed, requiring overtime work, and it also means the guard staff is relatively inexperienced.
Union officials have suggested reinstating step raises, which ended in 2002, that would give guards raises for years worked. Currently, new workers get the same pay as experienced officers: $15.49 an hour.
A number of county jails also pay officers more, drawing experienced ones away from the state system.
Three steps for changing the culture would be eliminating an attitude of intimidation that keeps employees from making suggestions, rewarding experience and reducing overtime.
Easing overcrowding would also help, although it is more costly. The Legislature and governor are looking at options and some legislation was passed. However, easing the problem will take years, as will changing the "culture of fear" among state corrections department employees. Listening to employees, though, is a good way to start.
Lincoln Journal Star. July 30, 2015
Upon the Standing Bear trail
The transfer of ownership to the Ponca Tribe for a 19.5-mile stretch of the Homestead Trail is the perfect culmination to the long effort to make the trail from Lincoln to the Kansas border a reality.
Most importantly, the stretch of trail is believed to be close to the "trail of tears" followed by the tribe when it was forced from its ancestral lands to a reservation in Oklahoma. Nine people died on the journey, including Chief Standing Bear's daughter.
"The trail itself is a reminder of a tragic time in our tribe's past, a past that still resonates with us today," Tribal Chairman Larry Wright Jr. said.
"Our hope when people use this trail is that they will take time to reflect on the tragic history that is tied to it but also think of the beauty that the trail provides in its updated state."
The 59-mile trail from Lincoln through Beatrice to the Kansas border will connect with the Blue River Rail Trail in Kansas. Cyclists and other trail users will be able to travel from Lincoln to Marysville, Kansas, along one of the longest rail-to-trail conversions in the region.
Ross Greathouse, vice president of the Nebraska Trail Foundation, said he was thrilled to give title to the trail to the tribe, noting that it means the original vision to convert the abandoned rail line to a trail for hikers and bicyclists will be a reality.
The foundation raised nearly $1 million for the trail, including a $150,000 fund for maintenance. As part of the agreement, maintenance of the trail will be turned over to the Homestead Conservation and Trail Association, a nonprofit organization in Gage County.
The project was stymied briefly when the Lower Big Blue Natural Resources District, in an unfathomable decision last year, turned down the foundation's offer of the land.
In many ways, however, transfer of ownership to the Ponca Tribe is more meaningful and inspiring. Currently there is an effort by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and Sen. Deb Fischer pending in Congress to have the 500-mile trail followed by the tribe designated as the Standing Bear National Historic Trail.
Standing Bear played a significant role in U.S. history. He went to court to win a federal court ruling that Natives should be recognized as human within the meaning of the law.
The segment of the trail owned by the Ponca will be known as the Chief Standing Bear Trail, and these historical events will be commemorated by a trail that people can actually walk upon. What could be more appropriate than for the Ponca Tribe to hold the title to that trail.
McCook Gazette. July 30, 2015
Most important test has nothing to do with material
Emphasis on educational test results always bring about objections to instructors "teaching to the test," but along with pressure to improve test results comes the increasing possibility that teachers will fail a test of their own — ethics and morality.
The Omaha World-Herald was able to obtain a report showing eight serious cheating incidents across the state since 2010, but not detailed specifics about the cases.
Palisade native Matthew L. Blomstedt, education commissioner, invoked an exception to the state's public records law, saying releasing more details would discourage local officials from self-reporting violations.
The report did give examples of what a serious breach would be, such as changing a student's answers, directly coaching a student or providing test answers to students.
Of the eight, three from the 2014-15 school year are still under investigation and those involved in the remaining cases have been disciplined.
One fourth-grade teacher had her teaching certificate suspended for a year for fixing students' writing on the writing test, and four others received public reprimands.
The report listed 107 security breaches since 2010, 29 moderately serious and 70 least serious as well as the eight serious incidents.
"Moderate" might be something like allowing students to use calculators when it's not allowed or an adult reading a reading-test passage to a student. A least serious incident might be leaving up a wall poster describing the writing process in a testing room.
Cheating on a fourth-grade test is one thing, but remember recent incidents when military crews, in charge of launching nuclear missiles, were found to be cheating?
From what we've heard, test cheating has been widespread in the military.
Increasing emphasis on test results for financial gain will only make the practice more common.
Tests at any level are designed to demonstrate one's knowledge of the material, but inherent in every one of them is the examination of an even more important trait: personal integrity, of both the person taking the test and the one administering it.
Without personal integrity, supposed knowledge of the material is meaningless.