- Associated Press - Monday, December 1, 2014

Omaha World-Herald. Nov., 30, 2014.

Good news for Nebraska

Graduating nearly nine out of 10 Nebraska high school students in four years is, as Gov. Dave Heineman said, “an extraordinary achievement.”

The news this month that Nebraska’s four-year graduation rate hit 89.7 percent is certainly a moment worth cheering.

State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt is right to mark the milestone with praise for teachers and administrators, students, parents and taxpayers. Their hard work made such improvement possible.

The benefits of a better-educated workforce are exponential. The state’s economy will be better for it.

That’s why leaders in business, education and state government set the ambitious 90 percent goal five years ago, and why educators pressed to hit the mark. Best of all, statewide test scores seem to show that Nebraska’s high schools did so without diluting the value of a diploma.

The state’s graduation rate was up for the third year in a row. Some 65 of the state’s 245 school districts graduated every student in four years.

Consider our hats tipped.

The state also made welcome progress on a related front that still needs work - graduation rates for students of color. Graduation rates were up slightly for Nebraska’s white, black and Latino students statewide, plus students for whom English is a foreign tongue.

Omaha Public Schools, where all but a quarter of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, graduated more than 80 percent of high school students, continuing an impressive recent climb. As recently as 2011, OPS graduated 72 percent.

Dig deeper into the numbers, and in a single year the district halved the gap in graduation rates between white and black students, to 4 percentage points. The district also put a 3-point dent into the graduation gap between white and Latino students, now down to 6.74 points.

Millard Public Schools and Westside Community Schools, too, narrowed their graduation gaps between white students and students of color.

“So, not only are our overall four-year graduation rates continuing to increase, we’re decreasing the gap between the different groups of young people who are graduating,” ReNae Kehrberg, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at OPS, told The World-Herald.

Several key steps by the district are now bearing fruit, she said: A 4-year-old push for more engaging lessons. Better teacher and principal training. A more coherent set of district priorities focused on classroom learning.

A growing public sense of the district’s increased focus on student achievement is part of what helped OPS earn voters’ trust for a record $421 million bond issue.

The state’s 90 percent graduation target was one goal set by the P-16 Initiative, a coalition of education, business and government groups representing education from preschool through college and beyond. The initiative was designed to improve academic achievement, improve schools’ effectiveness and prepare young Nebraskans to succeed after graduation.

For his part, Blomstedt is right when he says that Nebraska’s schools can’t rest on their laurels, or on artificial quotas. They need to keep working to ensure that they prepare the next wave of students for college or careers.

Encouragingly, OPS Superintendent Mark Evans echoes that sentiment. While lauding the district’s topping of the 80 percent mark, he said, “We know we’re not where we need to be yet.”

Still, teachers, administrators, students, parents and taxpayers can take a moment to appreciate these accomplishments. This is news even skeptics can feel good about.


Lincoln Journal Star. Nov. 30, 2014.

Wrong way to reduce overcrowding

The problems in the Nebraska prison system were not merely created by inaction, inattention and incompetence.

Some of the problems can be traced to intervention from the governor’s office in a misguided attempt to reduce the prison population.

That was the revelation that came at the last meeting of the legislative committee that has been investigating the scandal-ridden corrections department.

The dismaying disclosure shows that the governor’s office was working behind the scenes rather than directly confronting the problem of prison overcrowding.

It must be emphasized that the public’s safety was put at risk.

Parole Board Chairwoman Esther Casmer testified that Larry Bare, chief of staff to Gov. Dave Heineman, threatened her job if she did not let more prisoners out on parole more quickly.

Casmer said that Bare told her she did not need to worry about losing her job because of who was paroled, but because the board was not paroling enough prisoners.

Nebraska’s prison system has been over capacity for years. Continuation of that trend could have meant construction of more prison cells - an expensive proposition.

Bare told the Journal Star that he never threatened Parole Board members’ jobs. He said he remembered the conversation as one in which he urged the board to work hard to make the parole system function efficiently, and told members not to worry if a prisoner misbehaved on parole. “We’re not going to roast you for that,” Bare said.

In addition to the meeting with Bare, Casmer said that at one time, former prisons director Bob Houston was visiting her office several times a week to suggest ways of moving prisoners out faster. Casmer said Houston told her he was conferring with Bare on a daily basis.

Casmer said that the Parole Board responded to the pressure by releasing prisoners on parole before they had completed their rehabilitation programs, and by reducing the penalties for violating prison rules.

Casmer’s disclosure came too late to have much impact on the current administration. Heineman leaves office in just over a month. And it appears no one will face severe repercussions for problems in the department, which range from miscalculated sentences to the release of convicted murderer Nikko Jenkins with no attempt to have him committed because of mental illness.

Earlier, corrections lawyers George Green and Sharon Lindgren were allowed to retire rather than be fired. Records administrator Kyle Poppert was suspended without pay for two weeks.

Attorney General Jon Bruning and Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly announced last week that no criminal charges would be filed. “This was incompetence, ineptitude, negligence, but not criminal intent,” Bruning said. In order to file charges, he said, prosecutors would have had to prove the employees “knowingly” violated the law.

Thanks to the work of the special investigative committee, it’s clear that Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts will come into office with a huge mess to clean up. And it’s likely to cost taxpayers millions.


McCook Daily Gazette. Nov. 28, 2014.

Use common sense to stay safe this holiday season

Once you get your Black Friday shopping done, you’ll need somewhere to put the presents.

It’s a happy time of year, but not if that Christmas tree and those outdoor lights happen to start a fire.

Year after year, we hear just such tragic stories.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, from 2007 through 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to about 230 home structure fires a year that began with Christmas trees. They caused an average of six civilian deaths, 22 civilian injuries and $18.3 million in property damage each year.

Christmas tree fires are three times more likely to result in a death than other types of home structure fires, and more of them occur after the holiday than before.

While electrical failures or malfunctions were involved in about a third of the home structure fires, one in six occurred because a heat source was too close to the tree, lights getting too much voltage were involved in 12 percent and seven percent were started by candles.

Twenty percent of home Christmas tree structure fires were intentionally set, half of them within the 20 days after Christmas.

Natural trees are more prone to catch fire than artificial ones, but are less likely to if they are kept moist.

The U.S. Product Safety Commission has a few tips:

- Use only lights that have been tested for safety by an independent testing lab. Check each set for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires or loose connections. Discard or repair before using them.

- Fasten outdoor lights securely to protect from wind damage. Use no more than three standard-size sets of lights per extension cord. Turn them off when you go to bed or leave home.

- Never use electric lights on a metallic tree. They can become charged with electricity and electrocute anyone touching them. Use a colored spotlight above or beside a tree instead of fastened to it.

- If using a real tree, make sure it is green, needles are still firmly attached and don’t drop when the trunk is bounced against the ground. The trunk butt of a fresh tree is sticky with resin.

- Place the tree away from fireplaces and heat sources, and cut off a couple of inches of trunk to expose fresh wood for better water absorption from a sturdy, water-holding stand.

- Never use lighted candles on a tree or near other evergreens, use non-flammable holders, keep them away from decorations and wrapping paper and place candles where the cannot be knocked down or blown over.

- When making paper decorations, look for materials labeled non-combustible or flame-resistant. Avoid smoking near flammable decorations.

- Make an emergency plan to use if a fire breaks out and see that each family member knows that to do. Use a little family time this holiday to practice the plan.

Above all, use common sense when it comes to safety around the home this holiday season.


Kearney Hub. Nov. 29, 2014.

Nebraskans enjoy online convenience, time savings

More and more Nebraskans are renewing their driver’s licenses online. In fact, 80 percent are opting to do digitally what used to require a trip to the county courthouse to accomplish. According to a recent report to the Nebraska State Records Board by Rhonda Lahm, director of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles, driver’s license renewals are just one of a number of popular online services that allow Nebraskans to save time and avoid hassles when licensing their vehicles or obtaining operator permits.

Since online license plate renewals became available in 2008, the DMV has launched 18 new services. Of those, 13 are free, while fees from the five others generate enough revenue to cover costs for the rest. The services allow Nebraskans to conduct business without expensive and time-consuming trips to courthouses or the State Capitol. Some services make so much sense they’ve garnered national recognition.

One award winner is a recent addition to the DMV’s online services, the Handicap Permitting System. It allows Nebraskans to acquire handicap parking permits online instead of having to appear in person in their courthouses.

Online services employ modern technology. An example is the Ignition Interlock Program, which recently received several enhancements so applicants can use the completely electronic process, which taps into courts, insurance companies, interlock providers and the DMV while issuing the permits.

Nebraskans are adopting new online services at a rapid rate. Consider this anecdote.

According to Lahm, the DMV recently launched a service in which motorists can upload photos or pdfs of their proof of insurance in order to renew vehicle registrations. That sometimes is necessary because not every insurance carrier participates in the DMV’s electronic database. In mid-October, the new photo/pdf service was launched as a pilot program at 6:30 a.m. By 6:37 a.m. that same day, the first applicant had taken advantage of the new service.

Soon, the DMV expects to launch a free “live chat” service to reduce the reliance on telephone calls to the DMV’s Financial Responsibility Division. The department also is working on a project that will allow Nebraskans to change the address of their driver’s license online by uploading documents rather than making a trip to an examining station.

Nebraskans pay a small fee and credit card charges for some online services, but few people appear deterred by the small added expense. State government delivers a total of 280 services online, and Nebraskans, by the thousands, are using them to take care of corporate matters, reserve a campsite or tend to scores of other matters, including renewing their driver’s licenses.

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