Lowering Academic Expectations

A few weeks back, a request came in for thoughts on grade inflation – basically lowered academic expectations.  Grade inflation is easiest observed in the Spring – high school graduation time.  The more students that share valedictorian status, the greater the statistical improbability.  It is possible to have the Lake Wobegon situation, where everyone is above average – but that is not the way to bet.

We can glance at the ACT scores – Schooldigger  ranks Montana high schools based on their students ACT performance.  It’s worth a glance – Whitefish is rated third in state.  Troy was 99th in 2018, and rose to 88th in 2019.  Lincoln County High School in Eureka was rated 78th in 2018 and went to 96th for 2019.  Libby was 58th in 2018 and 103 in 2019.   119 high schools were ranked. 

The ACT was a test to evaluate a student’s potential for college – now, with all Montana high school students taking it during their junior year, it has morphed beyond the individual student  application into a tool for evaluating each school.  The ratings were an unpleasant surprise when I looked at our high school.  This link shows the ranking data over the decade. In 2013, LCHS was in the top half.  Follow the link.  Look at the data.  I started writing this, and the data led me into a spot I didn’t want to see.

I recall taking placement tests in the fieldhouse at MSU back in 1967.  Sitting on a folding chair, with a chunk of particleboard there was a single memorable statistic shared: “42.8 percent of you will be here next Fall.”  George Bush had definitely not sold the concept of “No Child Left Behind.”  A lot rides on class rank and test scores for college selection . . . yet as I write this, I remember 2 academic full rides that I dismissed because travel costs were too high.  My freshman year travel was carpooling in Grant’s Mercury, with high school classmates, back from the cow college. 

I was pretty shocked in 2010 when I saw that 71.8% of South Dakota high school graduates were going directly to college.  Some of those new freshmen had to be below average.  Still, there are spots where kids learn a lot more in today’s high schools.  Now, high school algebra is often an 8th grade class – I had classmates back in 1967 who had taken algebra as their final math class as sophomores.  Today the kids in 8th grade learn about electron orbital configurations – that was my Junior year. 

We have to look at online education.  I can’t say I hated teaching online, but even large lecture halls gave me a chance to catch students who were having problems – I remember the girl who showed up regularly, took notes, and was flunking the class . . . and a few minutes visiting showed that she was a first-semester freshman from a small rural school and didn’t realize that ANTH 412/512 meant the class was intended for seniors and grad students.  As a teacher, I liked the opportunity to save a student who was off-course.  Online, my best students looked at the grade rubric, finished their work by mid-term, and were gone.  The advice I got to improve the class was to add busywork to keep them through the semester.  Online is a great option for the self-motivated learner who doesn’t need a teacher.

I haven’t kept on topic well.  The moment of reading the LCHS state rankings stays in my mind as I write. 


Does Each Solution Create a New Problem?

It’s not a happy situation when a problem’s solution creates a new problem that is equal or greater than the original problem.  In Elementary school civics, I learned that the Secret Ballot was developed to solve the problem of political bosses ability to tell people how to vote, and punish people who voted against their candidates.  I was about 10 or 12, and I bought the idea – if someone was buying votes, you could take their money, go into the voting booth and vote against them, and nobody would ever know the difference.

Later, I learned that the secret ballot had its own weakness – it depended on the honesty of the folks who count the ballots.  Before the secret ballot, everyone knew how I voted.  It made it harder to rig the election with a fake count.  I’m pretty sure that Stalin didn’t say “Those who cast the votes decide nothing.  Those who count the votes decide everything.”  But it’s a solid description of a problem resulting from the secret ballot.

Easy absentee voting removes my need for a ten-mile round trip to vote – it’s a solution to that problem.  Still, in the past 6 months, we’ve seen two fubars here in the north end of Lincoln County.  The first fubar was the loss, misplacement, whatever of a box full of ballots that were left, lost, abandoned, whatever, in Eureka instead of being delivered to Libby for the count.  I use the term fubar – the official news release included the descriptor “impeccable” and pardoned the error with the thought that his heart was in the right place.  The obvious question is whether or not the hiring process is stringent enough.  A less obvious question is whether or not the county functions to provide fair and competent services – Koocanusa did a good job of cutting the middle from the county.

The most recent problem with absentee voting was two-fold.  First unsolicited absentee ballots were sent out to protect folks from disease.  Second, a simple blunder included two districts in the mailing that didn’t include eligible voters.  The initial response to my question about it was credited to the election administrator and reads “All I can tell you is that their address is in both the Eureka School District 13 and the Trego district 53. They can legally vote for District 13.”

The official release, when the blunder was recognized, is a bit different – but, hell, I was there to bring the problem in the open. 

I didn’t bother looking at the possibility of fraudulent counts being enhanced by loose absentee ballot controls.  Jimmy Carter already made that determination – and I did cast my secret ballot for him back in 1976.  Still like the man – though I thought that only Buchanan kept him from being the worst president ever.  But that was back in the 20th century – in the 21st both Carter and Buchanan have had some stiff competition.


Lincoln Electric Held Annual Meeting

Saturday, Lincoln Electric Coop held their annual meeting as a drive-in meeting at Lincoln County High School.

As with last year’s meeting, it was drive-in, with attendees tuning their radios to listen in. Unlike last year’s smoke, this year’s meeting was cold, wet, and windy.

View from one of the registration checkpoints (before the weather really started to worsen)

At 9 am when the meeting started, there were 97 members registered. With last meeting‘s bylaw change, a quorum only required 2% of coop members, so the meeting was able to continue.

To say the meeting was uneventful might actually be an understatement. Members did vote by mail -over 200 of them, in fact- but it made little difference since there were no more people running than open seats. In fact, each incumbent was reappointed.

Capital credit checks were mailed, we heard a few California jokes, and a bit about the state legislature.

What’s the difference between California and the Titanic? The Titanic had its lights on when it sank.

(I’m paraphrasing the joke, but it was something along those lines)

The discussion on legislation was informative; We learned about House Bill 475 which proposes to classify hydroelectric power as a renewable resource. The representative of the Montana Electric Coop Association was optimistic that the bill will be signed.

As renewable energy sources become increasingly required, having a reliable energy source that qualifies (such as hydroelectric) becomes important in avoiding blackouts and brownouts.

Other news: Rural Propane Services had a rough year but “is on the rebound”, expect to see a rate adjustment (but most residential members won’t see much of a change)

The meeting closed in under 45 minutes.

Community, Laws, Ordinances & Regulations

Illegal Meetings- Open Meeting Laws

How to avoid having an illegal meeting?

Having read about the recent meeting during which two of the county commissioners and the mayor of Troy (among others) ran afoul of Montana’s Open Meeting Laws, it seems time to consider how not to have an illegal meeting.

Montana’s Open Meeting Laws require that “Meeting of Public Agencies” be open to the public. Public Agencies include boards, bureaus, commissions, agencies, etc.

First, what is a meeting? According to Montana’s Code Annotated, if it has a quorum, it’s a meeting. And it certainly doesn’t have to be in-person! (An email exchange is quite sufficient to be considered a meeting – especially now).

Now, quorum is an important word. On a five member school board, a quorum constitutes three members. Any two members can talk on the phone without having an illegal meeting. Of course, if the number of board members drops, the situation becomes more complicated.

In general, the smaller the board, the more important it is to be certain meetings are announced well in advance, so that state laws are followed. With small, three person boards, an illegal meeting could be just a careless phone call away.

Decisions made at meetings that violate Montana’s Open Meeting laws may be declared void (there is a time limit on that, though).

When does the public need to know? The requirements that the public be given notice in advance of the meeting are actually part of Montana’s public participation laws, and only apply when the meeting will include something of “significant public interest“.

How long in advance should the public know? Depends- the rule is that the more significant, the more notice should be given. (Forty-Eight Hours is the suggested minimum for County Commissioner’s meetings, according to the Attorney General).

Community, County Ordinances, Laws, Ordinances & Regulations

Litter vs Artifacts?

If you leave trash sitting around long enough (about 50 years), something mysterious happens and it stops being litter (punishable by a $200 fine) and becomes an archaeological resource which if you remove from federal land could lead to a $500 fine and six moths in jail.

What’s the difference?

Litter is, according to the Lincoln County Ordinance:

“Litter” means any quantity of uncontained or openly stored materials which may be classified as trash, debris, rubbish, refuse, garbage or junk, including but not limited to:
a) any worn out or discarded material that is ready for destruction or has been collected or stored for recycling or salvage;
b) old or scrap metals, wire, rope, batteries, paper, tires, cardboard, plastic, cans, wood, concrete, glass, crockery, or rubber;
c) dead domestic animals;
d) animal and vegetable wastes from the handling, preparation, cooking, and the consumption of food that is not incorporated into a properly maintained compost system;
e) discarded, broken, or unusable furniture, fencing, or building materials,
f) discarded, broken, or non-functioning appliances, campers, mobile homes, junk vehicles, machinery, fixtures, or any component parts thereof, that are serving no apparent purpose, or will not be made to function within a reasonable time;”

Ordinance 2018-02 – Litter Control

It’s probably worth noting that Lincoln County’s litter ordinance doesn’t just apply to roadsides: “It is unlawful for an owner, lessee, or occupant of private property to allow litter to accumulate on his or her property.” As with the community decay ordinance, there appears to be some potential for overlap between “yard art” and “illegal”.

Archaeological resources are broadly defined by federal law, and include trash over 50 years in age (though only if it is of archaeological interest– that is, “capable of providing scientific or humanistic understanding of past human behavior, cultural adaptation, and related topics…”) Archaeological resources are covered by 36 CFR 261.9 (theft of government property, penalty of up to 500$ and/or up to 6 months imprisonment), which means that they are illegal to remove from federal lands.

So, 50+ year old trash? If it’s on federal ground, leaving it is the safer bet. On private property, while explaining it was an artifact rather than litter might make for an interesting argument, that $200 (each day) fine might also prove persuasive.

Litter, to be removed? Or an artifact to remain? Sometimes labels provided clues, allowing the item to be dated, and making the determination easier.


Snow Pack on the light side of average

45 years ago, it took a week’s effort on a Ski-doo Alpine to get the data I can download in 10 minutes. We were high-tech then – two tracks and a single ski on each snow machine, and clockwork powering the recorders that kept track of the water equivalent setting on the snow pillow. Now there are fewer stations – and the missing Bald Eagle Peak data reminds me of the winter climbs up the mountain, carrying the heavy sampling tubes, on snowshoes. Probably the hardest work of all, and that data collection no longer maintained.

The simple description of the snowpack is that it is a bit lower than average, but next month will provide enough data for the NRCS hydrologist to start projecting data. We always tried to have the measurements done for the first of the month, so I looked on January 31. The ten-minute download from the places I once spent the better part of a week getting to is:

Water EquivalentPercent of Average
Banfield Mountain10.4 inches87%
Hawkins Lake15.5 inches96%
Garver Creek 7.1 inches103%
Stahl Peak20.7 inches89%
Grave Creek8.6 inches81%
Poorman Creek17.1 inches75%
Bear Mountain30.2 inches82%
Hand Creek6.0 inches81%
Noisy Basin23.0 inches90%

To get to the data – and the map – you just click .  It also provides elevations of the sites so you can get a great idea of how the winter snow is up high.  Making the data so readily available makes hydrology a science for everyone.

Laws, Ordinances & Regulations

The Force of Law

It’s amazing just how many regulations/rules/statutes/ordinances/laws are out there.

What we learned in grade school civics is simple and elegant, and unfortunately far from the complete picture. In elementary school we are taught the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. This is accompanied by the simple explanation that the legislative branch (the legislature) makes the laws and the executive branch (the president) enforces them. The same model is used by the state. Simple. Easy to understand. Incomplete.

While in the strictest sense the legislature can and does pass laws and the executive branch of government does enforce them, the actual situation is far more complex. Often, what the executive branch does is create a regulatory agency to enforce the law. For example, back in the 1970’s, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and charged it with enforcing the Clean Air Act. Of course, the EPA quickly grew to handle far more than just the Clean Air Act. Like other federal departments and agencies, the EPA creates rules and regulations which have the force of law. They aren’t laws in the same sense that the laws created by the legislature are, per say, but for the guy trying to follow them, there just isn’t much difference.

How many federal regulations are there?

Statistics about federal regulations can be found here, provided by George Washington University. The entire collection of regulations is available online via the electronic code of federal regulations.

Given that George Washington University’s very nice bar graph has units in “thousands of pages”, it’s rather easy to conclude that there are lots of federal regulations. Of course, it’s likely that most of them won’t apply to any given individual, but how is one to know which ones do? Alas, without reading all of them, there doesn’t seem to be a good way to know.

And, of course, this is just federal. Each state and state agency has its own collection of regulations, plus county and local governments can pass laws (and regulations with the force of law).

The County’s list of ordinances is at least, mercifully short (Silver Butte Road, Community Decay, Park Rules of Conduct, Dog Control, Litter Control, Recodifying Ordinance). That said, the county’s regulations aren’t nearly as easy to find, being spread out across various departments.


Board of Health Recommended New Member, Appointed Officers

Since the board met via zoom, attendance was relatively straight forward. It did, however, require an installation (brief) of zoom.

The meeting began with the nomination of officers. Current Board Chair Jan Ivers mentioned a desire not to return as chair, but expressed doubts that anyone else would wish to take the position.

She and Josh Letcher (County Commissioner, representing District 3) were both nominated for board chair and the floor was opened for comment, which went as follows:

The first public comment came from DC Orr, of Libby. He began by remarking on the necessity of use of parliamentary procedure by the board chair, and suggesting it was an area in which Jan Ivers had been lacking as chair.

Jonathon Allen spoke next, suggested that officers should be chosen later, once a new member is appointed, since George (Jamison) stepped down.

Deb (presumably Debra Armstrong, board member representing Eureka) spoke next, in favor of Josh as board chair. She expressed some concerns about rules of order not being followed, not sticking with the agenda, etc.

Laura (presumably Laura Crismore representing Libby) inquired if it was necessary to follow the bylaws. In response to her question the bylaws were cited and the board seemed to conclude following them was necessary.

Josh Letcher remarked that he appreciated being nominated and that he understood the frustration with the way meetings had been going. He also praised Jan Ivers for improving in her role as board chair. He concluded by commenting on the difficulties the current meeting schedule would cause him, given his need to travel if he were elected Board Chair.

Then Jan Ivers spoke, remarking that “Four years ago, no one wanted this position, so I took it”.

Jim Seifert (representing Troy) referenced a comment Josh Letcher had made previously about acting as a liaison between the board and the county commissioners, asking Josh to clarify his role on the board.

Josh Letcher replied that he did not remember the comment, but did remember an email, pointing out that the county doesn’t actually have a representative on the board from north county.

The Board, upon voting to appoint a board chair appeared to do so unanimously. Yes, Josh Letcher and the board member that nominated him both voted in favor of appointing the other candidate. Sara (Sarah Mertes, county representative out of the Libby area) was appointed as vice chair (3 votes to 2, with one abstaining. The other candidate was Debra Armstrong of Eureka). After the definition of secretary was read aloud from the bylaws, Jim Seifert accepted the nomination and was appointed secretary (no other nominations).

Board Recommendation: The board interviewed 6 candidates, rating them using a rubric (not provided the public). Interviews were in alphabetical order

  • Scott Bernard.
    • Scott Bernard lives in Eureka. He is a Eureka town councilmen with training in Hazmat and emergency response. He has experience in the American Red Cross as well as time as a Volunteer Fire Fighter, in addition to the training he received during his time with the army.
    • When asked about his reasons for wanting to be on the board, he advocated diverse backgrounds and experience in board members.
    • When asked his opinions about the pandemic response, he stated he had mixed feelings.
  • Anne German
    • Ann German is of the Libby Area. She was very blunt that she should not be appointed in order to represent North County, and would defer to someone from North Lincoln County (were that what the board was seeking- this was not confirmed to be the case), though she is interested in serving if another opening occurs.
  • Robin Gray,
    • Robin Gray is a native Montanan, born in Hamilton. She has 43 years in education, a degree in Elementary Ed, and a Masters in Education (and administration?). She referenced some of her time as a superintendent. She stated that she has prior board experience (listing several boards) and remarked that she brings a “team atmosphere”
    • On the pandemic response, she said she would have liked more communication or more ongoing communication on the pandemic, so that the board could promote factual information.
  • Latimer Hoke
    • Latimer was the youngest of the candidates. He has a bachelors of science and secondary Ed, a masters of science in education. He has been an EMT for 11 years, and a member of the ski patrol for 10. He has spent the last 8 years as a teacher in Eureka. He remarked that his board experience more limited than the other members, since he’d had less time to accumulate it. He has been on the ambulance board in Eureka.
    • Asked his opinion on the pandemic response, he remarked that he has observed a lot of passing the buck and not leading by example.
  • Patty Kincheloe
    • Patty Kincheloe chose Montana rather than being born here. Her degree is in education. She has a Masters in Educational Leadership and was a principal for a few years. She’s spent 30 years in the public school and 5 years in an alternative school. She currently substitutes at Chrysalis. Patty Kincheloe has spent 18 years with the ambulance, and worked with children with fetal alcohol.
    • On the pandemic response, she stated that she believes that we should wear masks when we’re in a spot people feel uncomfortable
  • Jeff Peterson
    • Jeff Peterson has a PhD in Health Communication. This would be his first community board, he’s been on several academic boards
    • On the Pandemic: He stated that it certainly could have been handled better, coordination from top down could have been better. Peterson remarked that there had been a lot of community passion around this issue which could have been better harnessed.
    • Jeff Peterson believes that his job and specialty on the board would be to “help people find appropriate information and the sources we can all agree on and translate that”

The board discussed the candidates briefly. It came down to Patty Kincheloe vs Jeff Peterson, with what sounded like 4 votes in favor of Jeff Peterson. The recommendation will go to the Commissioners, who have final say.

At 7:40 (it began at 6), the meeting finally moved the the next agenda item and the board went on to hear from Jeff Peterson (yes, the same Jeff Peterson) who’s working on contract with the Health Department. Peterson clarified that he would not serve on the board until his contract was over.

But, you don’t have to take my word for it. Go watch the whole thing! Fair warning, though, it’s about 3 hours. Or- read about the rest of the meeting.


Board of Health Meeting: Reports, Vaccines, and more

In a meeting that lasted the better part of three hours, the board of health appointed officers, selected a candidate to recommend to the commissioners for replacing a board member, heard reports and answered questions.

After an hour and forty minutes (when the audience had, admittedly, started to thin substantially), reports began.

Team 56: It’s not entirely clear why Team 56 reports to the health board, or what their precise relationship to the board is. However, it was reported to the board that Team 56 delivered masks to high schools, “spread kindness, not covid” posters, as well as delivered thank you notes and balloon bouquets to the ER staff.

Covid Response Report: Jeff Peterson (yes, this is the same Jeff Peterson that the board recommended the commissioners appoint to the board) reported on the work he’s doing for the county (on contract). It sounds as though most of Peterson’s time has been spent filming videos for the website. The current focus is on frequently asked questions and “translating the science”.

Medical Provider Summary: Provided by board member Dr. Sara Mertes. Many of the first responders have received their first vaccine and the second will be administered soon. The vaccine used was the Moderna vaccine, and they hope to be administering vaccines to the community in the next several weeks.

Covid 19- Vaccinations– The county health department is working with clinics and hospital to put together a central list so that when vaccines arrive, people will be on the list for vaccines. They are prioritizing age and underlying conditions. The public can call the health department to get on the list, and the county will ask only for age and name (though information about a qualifying health condition could be provided). While there is a CDC program people can opt into for tracking symptoms/side-effects, it’s totally optional.

They were very blunt on the current states of vaccines in Lincoln County. They county has no idea how many vaccines we will receive, where they will arrive, or when. We can, however, expect that it will be the Moderna vaccine.

ChemPACK plan– No changes, but the plan is reviewed annually. This is part of the emergency medical counter measure plan. The chempack is a CDC owned cache containing nerve agent antidotes. Board approved the plan.

Liaison (George Jamison, county representative, leaving the board in order to devote more time as a volunteer with the asbestos program ): The PEN regulation– property valuation notification process- was formally adopted last March. One of the provisions was deferment on when it would become effective. This evening’s action item was to make it effective, as of February 1st. This regulation will impact the folks down in the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site.

Health Officer: Dr. Black spoke. He stated that while vaccines are not that far away, it’ll take time to get enough people vaccinated in the community. Dr. Black imagined looking at people’s faces with out masks in 6 or 7 months, but says we won’t be there until we get 80% of people vaccinated. He thinks that a high participation in vaccination will be necessary in order to get back to normal.

At 8:40, Jim Seifert discussed the rating system he’d proposed at the last meeting. He had decided not to put it on the agenda. One reason is that the health department is already overwhelmed and he didn’t want to add to their burden. He says he still believes that if one hospitalization or one death would be prevented, a rating system would be worthwhile. However, implementation would take several months and the vaccine is coming out.

Proposed update to operating procedures– tabled (It’s getting late. The room is cold)

Public Comment:

DC Orr: DC Orr critiqued Dr. Black’s response to someone’s question on vaccine safety (Dr. Black responded to a question by telling the person asking to read the vaccine studies). DC Orr suggests that Dr. Black could present on the topic. He also noted that the board is not familiar with its bylaws and did not follow the rules of order. He suggests they read a handbook on board membership. He then asked why Team 56, not being a governmental unit, was on the Agenda. Quoting Jim Seifert at the previous meeting, he described Seifert’s words as “demonizing” the community and called for him to apologize.

Trista Gillmore: Trista Gillmore, as Lincoln County Public Health Nurse would like to answer people’s questions about mRNA vaccines and provided her email (she may need a few days to answer questions):

Diane Watson: Diane Watson noted that the website for the county health department states that it says the public has 7 days to submit questions if they want them discussed at the meeting. She asked when the agenda and minutes would be posted?

The board clarified that the agenda must be posted 48 hours (2 days) in advance of the meeting but will be posted at least the Friday before the meeting). Draft minutes are always posted with the agenda.

While there seemed to be some confusion on how to answer the question (the problem of having to ask questions 7 days in advance of the meeting with the agenda not yet posted). Finally, Jan Ivers (board chair) explained that it is what the board is looking at with revising operating procedure number 2.

With that, the meeting was adjourned. The meeting times have been changed to 6 pm on Tuesdays, the second Tuesday of the month. The next meeting will be February 9th.

Community, Weird Words

Sharing the definition of Impeccable for the County Clerk

A January 13 article in the Tobacco Valley News described how a box of ballots was left behind on November 3 and counted days later.  The Western News in Libby brought the matter to light on January 5.  The kudos and praise belong to our local press – blunders such as this need to be brought to the light of day.  The article described how the ballots were counted late – and the TV News quoted Robin Benson, county clerk and recorder: “I still think that the election staff, Chris, did an impeccable and amazing job . . .”

The Cambridge English Dictionary shares the definition of impeccable: perfect, with no problems or bad parts.   What was it the guy in the Princess Bride said?  “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Of course, she may have thought impeccable was a relative term, and been using Georgia standards.  Transparency doesn’t call for the media announcing the error and the correction.

Another TV News quote from Josh Letcher described the former election administrator.  “He did great things.  He put his heart into it.”  It is good to know that Nelson‘s heart is in the right place – but it would be more reassuring had his head been in the right place.  It’s a bit harder to sneer at Georgia when this happens here.  Again, high praise to the media for bringing this to light.