Tuesday, September 1, 2015

09/01/2015 at 4:24am

Frank Estrada.

Part of a series of interviews with rural leaders who will attend the 2015 National Rural Assembly, September 9-11 in Washington, D.C.

If the National Rural Assembly awarded perfect-attendance stickers, Frank Estrada would have a gold star.

The Lockhart, Texas, civic leader has attended each of the four previous Assemblies. And he plans to be there for the fifth gathering on September 9 in Washington, D.C.

“Frank is one of our most devoted and enthusiastic participants,” said Whitney Kimball Coe, coordinator of the National Rural Assembly. He’s especially active in online social networks that connect local and national leaders.

Estrada heads economic development activities for the Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. A long-time public servant, he served as mayor pro tem of the City of Lockhart, Texas, for nearly three decades.

Estrada says the Rural Assembly helps him spot the issues that are likely to be on the horizon for Lockhart, a city of about 12,000 residents between San Antonio and Austin.

“I find out what other communities are going through and I try to get ready for what will happen here,” he said.

In turn, he’s able to share how Lockhart has dealt with its issues. A big one this year is how to take advantage of a new major highway that connects Lockhart with two major metropolitan areas.

What is your part of rural America like, and what are the key issues there?
The City of Lockhart Texas has a population of 12,000. Lockhart is actually known as the best barbeque in Texas. I had some guys come in from Austin, and everyone knew that we had the best barbeque right here.

In my area there are broadband issues and the affordable housing issues. Our county is one of the poorest in the state of Texas. It’s sad, but more than half our population lives in mobile homes. It’s not easy to find affordable places to live, especially for lower income families. I don’t know what it’s like in other rural communities, but that is one of the things of concern here.

Most of my concerns at the other Rural Assemblies I’ve attended were around broadband in the rural communities – the quality but also the affordability. I was fortunate to attend the convening with the staff of the active chairman of the state legislator recently, and we expressed our concerns and I told him stories about what was going on in my community to try to get small rural providers the ability to provide access to broadband for rural communities. With broadband, people in rural communities could go on the internet and efficiently talk to their doctors and get diagnosed online. A lot of people can’t drive to the cities easily. And a lot of those people are not covered on insurance either. I want to find ways to address those issues. 

And, of course, this is history, but I was concerned about fracking oil. Just recently our state legislature voted to allow fracking oil and banned local governments from doing anything to regulate fracking. Those are some of the things of the concerns here.

I just want to address these issues, to find more efficient use of land, deal with infrastructure and give people affordable choices.

08/31/2015 at 9:09am

Lea Marquez-Peterson, director of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, talks about expanding business with Mexico at the Arizona Rural Policy Forum.

The story of the Verde River cleanup in Arizona, which helped spur growth in the recreation economy there, could show other rural leaders in Arizona how to work collaboratively on community projects, said a participant in a statewide meeting on rural policy.

Royce Hunt, the director of a nonprofit in Safford, Arizona, said she thinks the lesson of the Verde Valley could help her community located two hours to the southeast.

“Seeing [the Verde River project] work here really encourages me to go back home and see what we can do to copy this example and have the same level of success that they’ve had here,” Hunt said.

Sharing stories of success is one of the goals of the Arizona Rural Policy Forum. The annual forum, held for the last nine years, is sponsored by the Arizona Rural Development Council, an initiative of the Local First Arizona Foundation. The event gathers hundreds of rural economic development professionals, nonprofits, community leaders, business owners, and other rural stakeholders who are interested in sustaining rural communities.

“Our goal with hosting the Arizona Rural Policy Forum is to hear strategies from national experts as well as learn about success stories around Arizona that will give our rural leaders the tools, resources and relationships they need to face current challenges,” said Kimber Lanning, director of the Local First Arizona Foundation and the Arizona Rural Development Council. “We want Arizona’s rural communities to learn best practices form each other in order to build real prosperity for all.” 

Forum attendees took field trips, like this train ride through the Verde Canyon.

This year’s forum drew over 200 attendees from every corner of Arizona to the small town of Clarkdale, a former mining town located in the Verde Valley about 90 minutes north of Phoenix. Arizona isn’t just all desert and saguaros; the Verde Valley sits at over 3,000 feet and is home to one of Arizona’s burgeoning wine regions. Some attendees enjoyed special excursions outside regular forum programming, including a tour of the Verde Valley aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad, touring the historic downtown and local businesses, plus dinner and a show with the cowpokes of Blazin’ M Ranch.

Every year, the Forum explores an array of topics relevant to rural communities across the state. Many of the sessions this year focused on how rural communities can build wealth for themselves. Participants explored a variety of strategies that rural towns across the country could employ to build wealth and prosperity for their communities: 

08/28/2015 at 2:21am

Video directed by Joel Cohen/Semaphore Media and produced by the Center for Rural Strategies.

 

It was a lousy time. The coast was wrecked. The houses were flung like match sticks and families were flung like houses, just farther. The institutions that we look to for help in disasters – the government, Red Cross, private foundations – were at best dysfunctional and at worst perfidious. Katrina, then Rita, left a 300-mile wound across the Gulf Coast. The healing would not come painlessly.

I was in Australia when Katrina hit, there to give a speech, lay around the pubs, and frolic on the beach. But the storm back home made for compulsory TV viewing, and I sat to watch it all, listening to the foreign-service journalists sputtering out questions about why America couldn’t, wouldn’t take care of her people.

Guys like me who grow up in the South think of New Orleans as the other place they need to get back to, a universal Plan B. I’ve never met anyone who longs for Atlanta, or Charlotte, or Lexington for that matter. As Tom Waits sings: “Well I wish I was in New Orleans, I can see it in my dreams.”

When I got back to the U.S., I flew to Memphis (New Orleans was shut) for a meeting of national and regional funders to strategize their disaster response. With $60 billion dollars of federal money on the table for recovery and rebuilding, the assembled program officers took that moment to squabble about which plan-of-action/theory-of-change was best for the Crescent City and for the Gulf. Some wanted to fund ACORN, others community foundations, still others community colleges, universities, and the list went on. The director of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Community Foundation stood up and said she had just been speaking to a colleague who had come to advise them. He had witnessed the Indian Ocean tsunami of the year before (the one that killed 228,000). She said he told her that Katrina was like their tsunami, just worse: that when the tsunami came, it brought the garbage in, but it took the garbage back out to sea when it left. Katrina, he and she agreed, had brought the garbage in and left it. She then talked about missing all the porch pots of flowers she saw before the storm. I wanted to puke.

Whatever chance foundations had to leverage the Bush administration’s billions to a more inclusive, thoughtful, or greener redevelopment was soon washed away like garbage after a tsunami. The billions in contracts went to big concerns like Haliburton, which subcontracted work to smaller outfits. And instead of the federal government lining up to support a common agenda for the region, the administration funded hand-picked cronies and propped up political allies like New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who had hidden in an undisclosed location while his people were on rooftops waving to the skies for rescue.

08/27/2015 at 10:11am

Because we lack dependable national data on broadband access, we may never know the answer to a pressing question:

Are residents of Polvadera, New Mexico, less likely to try to cheat on their spouses than residents of Nikolai and Perryville, Alaska – or anywhere else, for that matter?

All week long, data hounds have been poring over the AshleyMadison.com user data leak to find public figures and high-profile hypocrites. But this is Big Data; there are always larger questions to explore. Geographic distribution, for example.

Out of all the Zip codes in the United States, only three lack any accounts on Ashley Madison, according to Gabrielle Bluestone of Gawker, a site noted for its gossip reporting, if not for data analysis.

All three of these Zips are decidedly rural.

The question is why?

Let’s look at what the data have to say, but first two caveats:

  • The Daily Yonder has not independently reviewed the data to verify Gawker’s findings. This is not best practice. But do you really want to open a file that has been shared around the Dark Side of the Internet? 
  • Second, there’s the question of that data’s validity. These user accounts were created by would-be marital cheaters. Cheaters lie. That's how they got to be cheaters.

Assuming Gawker is correct, and assuming cheaters don’t lie (admittedly, large assumptions), there’s still not much to say about rural values and the Ashley Madison user data.

There are those who will use this data to support claims of rural moral exceptionalism. These are the folks who say rural people are nicer, kinder, more wholesome, more honest – that sort of stuff.

But as tempting as it might be to argue that rural values are the reason, other data sets containing information on rural morality contradict that conclusion. Count the country-music Top 40 songs about infidelity, for example. There are an awful lot of cheating hearts, boots under the wrong bed, and folks taking their love to town.

So maybe it’s connectivity – the virtual kind, I mean – that limits the search for low-rent rendezvous in these rural places.

08/26/2015 at 10:01pm

Photo by Vince Crunk Everton Elementary School in Everton, Missouri, gets a new roof. The school district covers five days' worth of instruction in four days as a way to contain transportation and utility costs.

As the new school year begins, students across the country are gathering their supplies and lining up for the bus.

But young people in the southwest Missouri town of  Everton won't be in class this Monday. Or any Monday.

Two years ago, the Everton R-III school district's board voted to switch to a four-day-a-week schedule, as allowed by a change in Missouri law. Students get the same amount of instruction, but the time is scheduled into four school days instead of five.

The board reasoned that closing the school one extra day a week would save enough money in utilities and transportation costs to more than make up for disrupting the time-honored Monday-through-Friday schedule.

Cost savings is a big consideration for the small district, which has fewer than 200 students in grades K-12, according to Education.com. With a tight budget that has been frozen for years, the change gave the district a little breathing room, said Vince Crunk, vice-president of the local school board.

With two kids in the Everton system, Crunk also knows what it's like to be a parent of children who are in class Tuesday through Friday each week.

We asked Crunk how the schedule is working for his rural district. He said the district made the change carefully, and the results have been good. In fact, nearby districts are switching to the four-day schedule this year, as well. 

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Daily Yonder: How and why did Everton adopt the 4-day school week?
Vince Crunk: In 2009 the school successfully passed an operating levy increase for the school. But as time and years passed, prior decisions made on major purchases and insurance, among other things, left the school with a squeaky tight budget. It should be noted that even though Everton R-3 is considered a “hold harmless” district, which protects funding levels from falling below those of the 2005-06 school year, the funding levels for this formula haven’t increased above the 2005 levels.

By 2013, new Superintendent Dr. Karl Janson, who began with the 2012-13 school year, and the board began looking for other options to reduce costs.

In 2009 the Missouri Legislature passed SB 291, which among other things granted local school boards control of the school week format. As the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri’s website notes, “This option is desired by many rural school districts that seek more flexibility, lower transportation costs and the ability to implement innovative ideas.”

Superintendent Janson had been following Lathrop, Missouri, a northern suburb of Kansas City, which implemented a 4-day-week in 2009, the same year as the enabling legislation permitted.

Based on information from Lathrop’s website they have seen some improvement in scores and testing but some areas of concern as well. Attendance figures have improved. From a dollars-and-cents perspective, they have seen actual savings of 1.3% of their budget.

After conducting surveys of staff, students and parents, in 2013 the Everton School Board voted to adopt a 4-day-week. As with any change, there were concerns but also some positive feedback as well. More than 80% of Everton parents supported the change. Student support was even higher; at least 95%. Concerns expressed included the expected question about daycare, with working parents now having to consider what to do with younger children when there is no school. Like a snow day every week.

At this stage, only two full years in, Everton has not compiled enough data to prove things one way or another. But anecdotal evidence indicates the experiment is successful. Days are longer. Discipline issues seem to be down somewhat. As Janson has noted, “Tuesdays do not feel like a Monday!”

08/26/2015 at 4:02am

Sarina Otaibi

A temporary job attracted Sarina Otaibi to move to Granite Falls, a town of about 2,900 in southwest Minnesota.

She expected to stay about 10 months.

Three and a half years later, Otaibi is permanently employed by Clean Up the River Environment (CURE), an environmental organization that focuses on climate, energy and water issues. In her spare time, she won a seat on the city council, got elected president of the local historical association, and serves on a statewide preservation organization.

And she also bought a decommissioned church that she plans to convert to community use.

The progression from visitor to resident seemed natural to Otaibi.

“I just became more a part of the town, involved in different organizations,” she said.

Otaibi had a head start in putting down roots in Granite Falls. Her mother grew up in the prairie town. But Otaibi was raised in Saudi Arabia and was living in Washington, D.C., before her move to Minnesota.

Part of a series of interviews with people who will be participating in the National Rural Assembly, September 9-11, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Read the first part of the series, a talk with Timothy Lampkin of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

With a passion for community and historic preservation, Otaibi said she thinks rural people have a harder time keeping their issues in front of funders and policy makers because of distance. She hopes her second National Rural Assembly (she attended the 2013 Assembly) will help her connect with like-minded rural advocates.

Otaibi hopes to convert a decommissioned church into a community meeting space.

What is your part of rural America like, and what are the key issues there?
Our region of Minnesota is kind of a lot of small towns. It’s prairie, with amazing river valleys. I’m lucky enough to live in the Minnesota River valley. When you get up out of the valleys you see a lot of corn and soybeans. …

My world is environmental work. [Water contamination] is due to big agriculture, and their relationship to water. Everyone would point to different [water] issues I guess…. There is an article in City Pages that does a great job at capturing the issue thoroughly, in case folks would like to learn more.

Another issue I would identify here is empty storefronts in the small downtowns. And old downtown buildings get torn down because of lack of money or use or capacity to save them… I’m a preservationist. But I don’t really like to focus on the negatives a lot. I don’t like to say we’re in a population decline. I don’t think that’s true. I think small towns look different as the world changes in general.

08/24/2015 at 9:41pm

Photo courtesy Co-Mo Electric Cooperative Workers roll out fiber-optic cable to hang on Co-Mo Electric poles as part of the fiber-to-the-home Internet, TV and telephone project.The electric co-operatives ought to be a biggter part of efforts to provide broadband to harder-to-reach rural areas.

Once upon a time, telegraphs and kerosene lamps were state of the art.

Telephones and 110-volt wall outlets were the next big thing.

Now we have the Internet.

Costs of hard-wired improvements are just too high for profit-driven development in rural America, but Missouri has been a hotbed for rural electric co-operatives. Our abundant underground supply of coal made us a natural for coal-fired electricity generation. Power plants were built conveniently on top of coal beds.

Those co-op jobs were good for rural Missourians, a lot of whom were farmers who gained electricity in the bargain. 

The whole thing was turned on its head when someone figured out our high-sulfur coal was bad for the planet. Now we generate about 83% of our electricity needs from coal hauled in by rail from Wyoming.

But co-ops are still at the seat of power in Missouri because they hire local people to keep up electrical grids across the state. They have a reputation for service as they preserve cooperative principles and leave the door open for the next big thing in rural America.

I'm talking about fiber – not dietary fiber from farm-raised fruit and vegetables, but fiber optics capable of moving rural Internet connections at the speed of light.

That's what's happening at one Missouri electrical co-op where they've turned part of central Missouri into its own hotspot.

CO-MO Connect, a holding company of CO-MO REC headquartered in Tipton, Missouri, provides Internet and cable TV service to 42 Zip codes and over 38,000 people in central Missouri – towns like Tipton, Versailles, Sunrise Beach, Gravois Mills, and Warsaw.