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Looking ahead: What 2020 will mean for Cowboy State

in Bill Sniffin/Column
2020
2628

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

I can see clearly now – the year 2020 will emerge as one of the most important years in Wyoming’s history as various trends emerge.

Like the perfect score on an eye test, 2020 has the makings of perfect vision when it comes to trying to identify issues important to the state. But wait; there is both excitement and dread. Is this the year for some exciting innovations to catch hold in the state?  Is this the year when our spending excesses catch up with us?

State leaders are looking for some home runs in job development.  Maybe more firearm companies will move here. Can we slow down the devastating blows to the fossil fuel industry, especially for coal?

The Legislature meets for its biennial budget session on Feb. 10 and you can bet some hellfire rhetoric will be heard about how “robbing our rainy day fund” is driving the state to the poor house.

Yet the facts will show we have over $1 billion in that fund and some $20 billion in other funds stashed in various coffee cans from the permanent mineral trust fund.  Going broke?  Compared to other states, Wyoming is a beacon of good financial governance.

Gov. Mark Gordon is not one of the shrill voices as he suggests austerity will be with us for a while. Rather than across the board cuts, he likes each agency head to adjust his or her budget in ways that make sense to it and to the state.  Tough decisions are expected to be made and some folks will lose their jobs. 

I am looking forward to covering the Legislature in its brand new remodeled digs.  State Sen. Eli Bebout reminded me that I was wrong in my last column about how much was spent on the remodeling. The correct number is $301 million, or $500 for each man, woman, and child in the state. By the looks of the place, the future will show that it was a good investment.

Looking ahead to 2020, I hope the statues of Esther Hobart Morris and Chief Washakie are placed back outside by the entrance of the building, where they belong.

Some 300 miles northwest of Cheyenne, the huge National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois will open in May.  Dan Starks has created Wyoming’s newest great museum.  Folks, this is going to be a treat. You have no idea just how big and how impressive this museum is going to be. It is a game changer for tourism in the western part of the state.

Commercial air service made some big changes when Sheridan, Riverton, Gillette, and Rock Springs all became aligned with United-SkyWest.  We have seen some amazing experiments in state and federally subsidized air service in these communities over the past ten years.  This new plan should be helpful for everyone.

The national election in 2020 will have ramifications in Wyoming. A Donald Trump reelection could provide an economic boost through his support of fossil fuels and his reducing anti-fossil fuel policies from taking effect. Trump’s efforts to improve Ag trade with China would be welcome, too.

In Wyoming, we will elect a new U. S. Senator. The assumption is that current U. S. Rep. Liz Cheney will run.  Former U. S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis is already running hard.  Former Gov. Matt Mead says he is not and Jackson GOP Megadonor Foster Friess says he is weighing his options.

If Liz Cheney moves up to the Senate race, the race for her House seat could be one of the all-time donnybrooks in Wyoming election history.  For political observers, this will be an exciting year in Wyoming.

Two big important jobs will be filled in 2020. The University of Wyoming will hire a new president after trustees did not renew Laurie Nichols contract in 2019.  Also, the Wyoming Business Council will be seeking a replacement for Shawn Reese.

The move toward more transparency (like 2020 vision?) will soon be getting one of its first big tests.  State Sen. Tom James (R-Rock Springs), has requested a list of every Wyoming school employee and his or her salary as he goes into the Legislative budget session.  Lots of folks are complaining and do not want that information out.

Some years ago, the Casper Star Tribune annually published a list of the highest paid state employees showing his or her wages. This request by Sen. James opens the door for some media outlet to also disseminate the list. 

Gov. Gordon and State Auditor Kristi Racines have both showed initiative when it comes to transparency. Will 2020 be the most open year yet?  Let’s hope so.

I am a big fan of the Rachel’s Challenge program, which works with schools to prevent bullying, teen suicides, and school shootings. It looks like 2020 will be a banner year in Wyoming as more schools sign up for the program.

There will be a push to have Wyoming join the federal Medicaid program, which will save the Cowboy State millions of dollars and provide needed medical service to many needy people.  Also on the medical front, there will be efforts to have medical facilities be required to publish their “cash/self-pay” prices for procedures and medical drugs.

Gov. Gordon is also leading an effort in 2020 to have the Public Service Commission investigate Rocky Mountain Power’s new plan, which will close most of its coal-fired power plants sooner than expected. 

Gordon is also working hard to open some ports somewhere where Wyoming coal can be shipped overseas.  Again with a Trump administration, there is promise for this development in 2020.

Also on the energy front will be the development of thousands of new giant windmills, as we see the state slowly transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources in 2020.  The state’s biggest solar project is also due to be expanded, north of Interstate 80 in SW Wyoming.

Figuring out a way to pay for all the maintenance on Interstate 80 will see the beginnings of exploring a tolling system.  Meanwhile, it is hoped that Wyoming drivers pay better attention and fasten their seat belts more in 2020. The 2019 year was deadly on the state’s highways.

We can’t write a column like this without mentioning musical superstar Kanye West and what he is doing in Park County. Now that will be an interesting story in 2020 as he continues to expand his businesses there.

Let’s hope that with a year named 2020, we can maintain a clear vision for Wyoming’s future that improves the lives of its 580,000 citizens.

Happy New Year!

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

Resolve to Childish Rules

in Column/Range Writing
Determination
2615

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

With the ringing-in of a new year, it’s that time when we feel the need to make resolutions, most of which are quickly broken. I know, I know; this time it’s going to be different. Really? I’m of the mind that rather than making new resolutions, we adults need to revisit and relearn some of the vital lessons of childhood. 

You know the basics: make your bed when you get up, bathe often, brush your teeth, wear pants if there is company, and don’t bother an adult until that adult has had coffee. Don’t pick up snakes. Don’t throw fits, or rocks, or call people names.

Share and take turns, and no fake crying. Chew with your mouth closed, and introduce yourself first when making a phone call before asking who is on the other end of the line. Don’t ask if we’re there yet. Sit down to eat your dinner. Try not to break anything.

Use your manners: say please and thank you, and take your hat off when you enter a building. Look people in the eye when you’re talking to them. If you make a mess, clean it up. Hold the door open for others.

If it’s none of your business, don’t ask. If it’s not right, don’t do it. If it’s not yours, don’t take it. Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t cheat. Remember that just because someone else is doing it doesn’t make it okay. Don’t talk about poop at the table.

Treat others how you wish to be treated. When you’re wrong, apologize. Forgive each other. Work hard, try new things, ask questions, make mistakes, and learn. No, you can’t beat your brother/sister/person with a stick. Insults don’t win arguments. Try not to hurt others. When you’re mad and frustrated, try not to yell too much. Work on using your inside voice. 

Plant a seed and water it. Skip rocks. Play fair. Be kind to animals. Be respectful and honest. Do it if it makes someone happy; don’t do it if it makes someone sad. Get dirty and have fun. Know that meanness is ugly, and kindness is beautiful. Watch the clouds float by. Marvel at stars at night.

Do hard things. Eat dessert first. Respect others. Take naps. Dream big. Treasure friendships. Root for the underdog. Don’t be a bully. Stand up for yourself, and for others. Do your best, and help each other.

Find time to play. Dangle your toes in a pond, creek, lake, or ditch. Sing in the car. Dance when you feel like it. Laugh often. Hug often. Stay awake reading a good book; fall asleep reading a good book. Make a snowman. Believe in yourself. Do good works, even when no one is watching. Be grateful for good things.

May the new year be your best year yet. And try not to bite anyone.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Increased beer tax puts burden for service where it belongs

in Column/Ray Peterson
2611

By R. Ray Peterson

Recently, the Legislature’s Labor and health Committee voted down a proposed increase to the malt beverage tax.  This tax has not been increased since 1935!  

The tax on malt beverage in Wyoming is still at 2 cents per gallon or less than two-tenths of a cent per 12 oz. can.  Wyoming ranks 50th — last of all the states — with the lowest tax on malt beverage products.  All other states around us tax beer at an average of 20 per gallon.  

So why are we so reluctant to raise this tax?   There seems to be a disconnect from the costs incurred by the state from this market and what we charge in tax to help meet those costs.  

Here are some figures that might surprise many.  The direct cost that our state incurs from the abuse of alcohol is projected at around $27.6 million, (WYSAC 2010 study). 

The current tax on beer at 2 cents per gallon generates about $265,000 annually.  This leaves the state having to come up with $27.3 million to pay for the services we provide that are associated with alcohol abuse, for treatment centers, law enforcement, court costs, emergency services and correctional facilities.  Indirect costs, such as lost productivity, associated with alcohol abuse was estimated to be in the area of $800 million dollars.

The arguments against raising the beer tax in the past have been that it would only raise $2.3 million in additional revenue, which would not come close to meeting the $27 million costs to the state.  Another was that we would have many of our citizens driving to surrounding states to buy their beer and that it would put many of our beer retailers out of business.

First, if the tax was comparable to surrounding states, such as the 20 cents per gallon amount, there would be no savings by driving to another state to make your purchase.  The tax would need to be competitive with surrounding states eliminating that concern.  And second, $24 million in subsidies is better than $27.3 million.  

We seem to not have a problem with raising the tobacco tax over the years to help meet the costs associated with tobacco use as well as persuade folks to reconsider the health risks, but alcohol seems to be thought of differently.  Perhaps we don’t really associate these estimated costs to the abuse of alcohol.  Or maybe that alcohol abuse is not considered to be a health risk.  

What ever the disconnect is, or has been, the end result is millions of dollars over the years have been spent from the general fund to cover the costs that are directly related to alcohol abuse.        

This question should be asked if this money could be spent or used for things that could serve our state better?  These funds could be used for local government distributions, K-12 education funding, senior citizen centers, libraries, streets, bridges, recreation centers, ball fields, parks, tourism, economic development and on and on.   

For the last 84 years, Wyoming has chosen to subsidize the beer drinkers with a portion of the excess revenues we’ve enjoyed.  Now those excess revenues are diminishing and yet, we still can’t quite bring ourselves to the reality that services cost money, and now, with money that we don’t have.   But, for some odd reason, we take pride that we have the lowest beer tax in the nation.  Perhaps we have some that are looking at this as economic development by attracting more drinkers to our state by keeping the tax on beer low.  We even had serious attempts to do away with the sales tax on beer completely because it just did not generate any large revenue.  I don’t think I need to look up the definition of stupid.  

But not to worry folks, a healthy dose of reality is knocking at our door in the Cowboy State and our leaders will be forced to come to grips of making every dollar stretch. You can bet on one thing as we keep the tax on beer the lowest in the nation, that the costs that we all incur from the effects of alcohol will continue to increase, making the figures even worse with each passing year.  

For me, while I served, it was a matter of being practical with our state’s revenue as well as the fairness of the issue.  I made two attempts at raising the beer tax in Wyoming and was overwhelmingly defeated both times in the house, where all taxing bills must start.  I compare this issue with how we fund our highways.  Those that use our highways pay a tax for having a vehicle in licensing, registration, sales tax and fuel tax.  With the beer industry and our drinkers, they want nothing to do with helping pay for the expenses that are created by them.  Same old story: Let someone else pay for my expenses both now and in the future.  

My final thought on the subject.  I would be OK with eliminating the malt beverage tax and the alcohol tax in Wyoming as long as we eliminate all services that are provided for those who choose to use or abuse alcohol.  Wait, what?  How cold is that?  Funny how drinkers don’t recognize the costs associated with drinking but how dare we cut or eliminate the services they receive when they’ve had a bit too much to drink.  

When will we recognize that everything has a cost and who better to meet that expense than those that create the cost in the first place.  Now it should be understood that I don’t have a problem with the drinkers of Wyoming.  My problem rests with the state’s failure to properly tax those who create the tax burden.  As I served as the Senate Revenue Committee Chairman, I always tried to be fair and equitable in sharing the tax burden, as we considered each tax proposal.  In this particular case, it certainly is not fair to under-tax the users while expecting others to pick up the tab.  The one comforting thought I have in this matter is that state revenues are shrinking and as the money for budgets disappear, we will be forced into making these so-called tough decisions that we have put off 84 years.

Cheers everyone!

R.Ray Peterson is a Cowley resident who served as a state senator from 2005 to 2018.

Just how wintry is it? Some of Wyoming’s coldest stories

in Bill Sniffin/Column
Wyoming cold winter
2609

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

An old joke about the weather:

         “My feet are cold.”

         “Well, all you have to do is go to bed and have a brick at you feet.”

         “I tried that.”

         “Did you get the brick hot?”

         “Get it hot? It took all night just to get it warm.”

As I write this, it is 1 degree out and fog has enshrouded our town. It is pretty darned nippy out there. But it has not been nearly as bad as it could be or has been here in Wyoming.

Since getting dumped on over the Thanksgiving holiday, much of Wyoming has shivered and we all took a little consolation over having a white Christmas.

This got me thinking about what were the coldest temperatures in Wyoming’s recorded history?  Many folks sent me anecdotal stories, which I will mix here with a few facts.

Personally, I recall the winter of 1978-79. Again, here in Lander, the entire month of January was below zero, according to local radio legend Joe Kenney. Amazingly dangerous and bitter conditions.

What is the official coldest temperature ever? Historian Phil Roberts of Laramie says: “I think the record is still -66 recorded Feb. 9, 1933, at Moran. I heard the temperature was actually colder, but the thermometers didn’t have the capacity to register a lower reading!”

The late Clay James, who operated Jackson Lake Lodge at Moran for decades, recalls -54 one cold winter day in the mid-1970s. “Thankfully we woke up as the power went off.  We called all of our employees to turn on the faucets and start the fireplaces.  The power was off for several days.  Never have I been so cold,” he recalled.   

Former Cheyenne, Torrington and Sundance publisher Mike Lindsey recalled the blizzard of 1949, which history generally considers the worst ever in the state.   

“Up in Sundance, cattle froze standing up. Wind blew drifts into buildings through keyholes in doors. Machinery would not start. Kids who stuck their tongues to the door handle did not get thawed until their junior year!” Not sure about that last fact, which was reminiscent of the famous scene from the movie A Christmas Story.

Jim Smail of Lander recalled snowmobiling with a group that included Charlton Heston at Togwotee Lodge in 1964 where the mercury dipped to -64.  No, they did not go snowmachining that day.

Former Wyoming Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau of Gillette recalls playing Laramie in football when the wind chill was -65. 

Dewey Vanderhoff of Cody recalls: “It was New Year’s weekend of 1979 when Jackson Hole went -60. Friends from Meeteetse had gone to ski there but came back with horror stories of busted pipes, bone-cold motels, blackouts, everything closed, no skiing opportunity at all. Nothing fun except sharing beds for warmth and drinking a lot. Consolation prize I suppose. Was there a spike in babies born in September-October?”

Jody Coleman of Riverton says about that same ski trip: “I was in Jackson that New Years of 1979. The power was off and we woke up at the Antler motel with the walls inside covered with frost. We went outside and started our pickup every hour. The next day we spent the day jump-starting other people’s cars. My mom bought me a ski suit. But urged me to move home to California.”

The late Ken Martinsen of Lander was also in Jackson on that cold holiday. He recalled people going to convenience stores and buying charcoal grill packs, which they would put under the engines of their pickups and SUVs and set them afire to thaw out the engines.

 Worland can get pretty cold. Former resident Debbie Hammons recalled: “That super-duper cold winter of 1978-79 was when the weather was sub-zero.  I moved home to Wyoming in September 1978.  Best New Year’s Eve ever was Jan. 1, 1979.  All the young singles in town packed into the Three Bears Bar downtown and kept their cars running into the New Year. We knew if we shut off our vehicles, we might not be able to start them again until March!”

When Pat Schmidt was publisher of The Lovell Chronicle, folks there arranged a hay bale mission to rescue the poor wild horses in the Pryor Mountains. “The BLM and others organized a hay drop from a helicopter to bands of horses stuck on mountain ridges. I recall taking a picture with one hand as I was dropping a bale with the other. The effort only compounded the problems, we learned later, as the horses’ digestive systems were not used to the protein in the hay. Their systems compacted, causing death. Only 75 survived.”

These are some of my favorite “how cold is it” stories. What about yours?

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

Deadly highways, new capitol, coal collapse, new governor & UW president forced out

in Bill Sniffin/Column
Cowboy State 2019
2596

By Bill Sniffin, My Wyoming columnist

The year 2019 will go into the Cowboy State’s history books for a great many reasons – many of them not very pretty.

One big example was Wyoming’s normally benign highways turned deadly in 2019, as a nearly all-time record was set for people killed in traffic accidents.

As of this Dec. 15, some 142 people had died compared to 111 for the entire year of 2018. And getting close to previous all-time record of 150 set in 2014.

Worst economic news came with the bankruptcies of coal companies and the human toll that resulted from them.

In Gillette, companies are still sorting out the aftermath of the Blackjewel companies’ financial demise.  Two huge mines, the Belle Ayr and the Eagle Butte, were shut down by that financial fiasco by the national coal company giant, idling 600 workers.

On the bright side, it looks like many of the Gillette area jobs will be preserved for the near future.

A worse situation is in the small towns of Kemmerer and Diamondville, both a coal mine and a power plant are in the process of being shut down, leaving 300 workers idled. And even long time retirement benefits are threatened because of the bankruptcy actions.

On a bigger statewide picture, the Rocky Mountain Power Co. says it will be closing down giant power plants in Rock Springs, Glenrock, and Gillette sooner than previously expected. 

The demise of the fossil fuel industry both nationally and locally could be welcome news to folks who believe that industry causes climate change, but the harsh reality to Wyoming citizens is that this will be a cold, hard reality check to thousands of people relying on paychecks from that industry.

The Donald Trump presidency has seen the elimination of some onerous regulations such as one rule that resulted in a fine to a Wyoming rancher of millions of dollars for building a small pond. That rule was eliminated and the rancher was saved.  

Bad news hit the ag community when a major canal collapsed near Torrington during prime irrigation season.  High summer temperatures almost ruined crops before repairs were made and the water flowed again to 488 producers in two states.

As of the country’s most windy state, the good news is that thousands of huge turbines continued to be developed in 2019.  Plus there are more on the drawing boards. 

Squabbles over how, or whether, to tax these whirling behemoths will be a continual bone of contention going forward.

The year saw the installation of a new governor, Mark Gordon, who is arguably the most prepared person for the job we have seen in the last 50 years.  He had been the State Treasurer.

Our biggest state institution, the University of Wyoming, sustained a big shock when the trustees failed to renew the contract of President Laurie Nichols. It was all done in secret; no reasons were ever given. She has moved on to Black Hills State in Spearfish and UW is on the hunt for a new president. Lots of controversy swirled around that situation, including efforts by state media to learn the rationale behind the dismissal, but at this time, still no answers have been forthcoming.

In 2019, Wyoming citizens saw their state capitol building turned into a treasure. After fours years and $337 million ($581 for every man, woman, and child in the state), this amazing edifice opened in mid-summer to rave reviews. The facility rivals any museum or attraction in the state, according to former Thermopolis publisher Pat Schmidt, who now lives in Cheyenne.

Longtime geologist Ron Baugh of Casper has a dim view of our energy future: “The first thing that comes to mind about the high (low) points of the last year is the continued demise of the coal industry and the continued shrinking of Wyoming’s tax base,” he says. “This will have a continued negative impact on every person, town and county in the State. If not felt individually, it has and will continue to be felt collectively.” 

“I believe that Wyoming is on the brink of major changes the likes of which we old timers have not seen in our lifetimes. I hope that Wyoming can make the changes and still be Wyoming,” he concludes. 

Also in 2019, moves were made whereby the state’s seven community colleges can start offering four-year degrees in some fields. This was heralded by Brad Tyndall, the president of Central Wyoming College in Riverton.

Wyoming was founded because of the railroads. In 2019 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the construction of the rails across the country. Wyoming and the nation celebrated the driving of the golden spike in Promontory Summit in Utah Territory on May 10, 1869.

 In commemoration of that, the biggest steam locomotive ever, the newly-restored #1404 Big Boy, left Cheyenne and traveled west and back again to celebrate the event, delighting crowds wherever it went.

And perhaps the biggest surprise of the year was Kanye West adopting Wyoming as his new home. The musical superstar bought ranches near Cody and Greybull and is planning on moving some of his business interests to the Cowboy State.

And finally, we all celebrated the 150th anniversary of Wyoming giving women the right to vote.  What a wonderful milestone that only Wyomingites can celebrate! It can be argued about the why and how it came into being way back when in 1869, but the fact remains it happened here first and it was real.

Next: Looking ahead to 2020.

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

O’ Holy Night

in Column/Range Writing
O Holy Night
2589

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth”
- Adolphe Adam, 1847

It’s the holiest of days and nights, with believers of different faiths around the world sharing in celebrations. While our family honors the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger, others will observe Hanukkah, Posadas Navidenas, Ashura, Kwanzaa, and other religious holidays. 

We live fairly far out in the rural countryside and since we tend to sheep as part of daily life, Christmas brings reflections on the birth of a baby in a manger, and the lessons set forth by the Good Shepherd.

While our small household no longer participates in shopping-and-Santa outings, we celebrate the season with other traditions – some old, some new. Our treasured gifts are books and wool socks (because there is nothing more luxurious than wool socks and a good book). And food, generous food gifts sent by thoughtful friends and loved ones: cookies and candies made by messy little hands under the cheerful supervision of young parents; steak or fish sent by friends from afar who we think of and talk about as we prepare these family meals; boxes of luscious chocolates crafted by bakery artisans and sent from fellow natural resource advocates; and buttery cookies from grandma.

We enjoy reading and displaying cards and letters that arrive in the mail, setting out festive decorations, making donations, cooking and drinking together, writing thank-you notes, collecting pinecones into small bowls, and placing juniper branches in glass vases.

We make snowy treks to chop down a tree or sagebrush, enjoying the earthy smells brought into our living room. We place a string of small white lights, add handcrafted wooden ornaments and sheep bells, and our Sherpa/Shepherd Santa graces the top of the tree. The tree is firmly tethered upright by strong cotton yarn so that the wild kittens we adopted a few months ago don’t pull it down in their nighttime escapades. Hud, our bearded collie herding dog, especially seems to enjoy the atmosphere of the festive tree in a darkened room on a cold winter night. Carrying the sign of the cross on their shoulders, the burros nudge through our coat pockets, seeking out the gingersnaps they know hide there. The animals seem to understand the changing ambiance of the season, the change from long darkness to light. Of course, the animals understand; the animals have always understood.

I play Elvis Presley’s Christmas songs on Christmas morning, and Jim and I usually end up dancing across the living room. The outside ranch chores are still first priority, and we heap extra feed to the flock. Hud finds a new stuffed toy, and all the working dogs get full bellies with warm treats. Although we don’t prepare any special feast for the day, after the chores are done, we often find friends and neighbors resting their elbows on our kitchen table, breaking bread with us – whatever form that bread happens to take any given year. We prepare and deliver food for other friends living or working alone nearby.

Our thoughts turn with fond remembrance to those who have left their earthly confines but still share our lives and hearts. And mostly importantly, we pray for comfort and refuge for those who are suffering from illness, or loss, or loneliness, or from whatever harsh darkness shrouds them.

Each beautiful winter morning serves as our reminder to show gratitude, and love, as we look out across the quiet beauty of a wild Wyoming landscape. As we set out feed for the flock, we celebrate this special season through traditions of shepherds before us, fully aware that from the humblest of places comes the greatest of joys.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Cameras in classroom would increase school accountability

in Column/Education/Ray Peterson
2583

By R. Ray Peterson, Cowley, WY 

Accountability from our schools has been an ongoing concern for years as the Legislature has struggled to understand how much the state spends for the results received. I remember a bill I sponsored years ago in an attempt to address this issue. 

The measure was nicknamed the “camera bill,” but its actual title was “Improving Teacher Evaluations.” It passed introduction, only to fail in the Senate Education Committee by one vote. Simply put, it was a concept for a pilot program to put cameras in the classroom to use for evaluations and provide security for both teachers and students. 

I thought it was an ideal time to implement the concept as we were building schools at a fast pace. The pilot program was to involve four schools, each of a different size, around our state. The program would continue for one year and a report on its effectiveness would be given to the Legislature.

The nexus of this concept came when I asked a few retired teachers how they were evaluated over the many years they had taught. Their answers were varied and inconsistent, which led me to believe that teacher evaluations across our state were somewhat of a “hit and miss” process. Stories of teachers suing school districts for wrongful termination or superintendents being reluctant to fire teachers with guaranteed contract status because of the personal hits they took led me to take a serious look at the evaluation process or how we might improve the process to address these concerns.

Think of it! The student and teacher would never know if the principal or instructional facilitator were watching! This alone would have a positive affect for both the student and the instructor. 

I only wish that every citizen from our state could have seen my presentation of this bill to the Senate Education Committee. Many certainly would have been entertained while listening to the point/counter-point between the Wyoming Education Association representatives and myself. It was classic. Perhaps this is where I made myself an enemy to these folks. 

Anyway, this idea was meant to be an additional tool an administrator could use to evaluate teachers. No disruption of the classroom with personal visits, no tip-off to give the teacher a chance to prepare. And the best part? Now a recording could be reviewed by the teacher, principal, the instructional facilitator and one of the parents of a student. 

Wait, a parent? How dare we suggest such a thing! Hold on, let me explain. The parent was to attend the viewing and submit a simplified evaluation form. Did the teacher seem prepared? Did he or she seem to maintain class discipline? Simple and basic questions. Then the parent representative would be asked to leave. Then the three people remaining in the room would get down to business while making recommendations and assignments for improvements as needed. The instructional facilitator would be assigned to work with the teacher in certain areas and all three would be required to sign off on the evaluation report. A work plan for improvement would be made, assignments given and a follow-up visit would be set to re-evaluate for these areas to be worked on. Think of the effect this would have on wrongful termination lawsuits. Or more importantly, how the schools could address the strengths or shortcomings of a teacher or administrator!

So why the parent involvement? In order for this to work, we must first, insure that the evaluations are happening. The parents group representative attends the monthly school board meeting to report on how many evaluations parents have participated in that month. Now everyone is on the hook! Not just our teachers and students but everyone from parents to administrators. No personnel problems or employee confidences are threatened. Just a quick report on whether the evaluations are happening to the school board and superintendent. 

Make no mistake, evaluations are the hardest part of school administration, but also the most critical. New school buildings and curriculum have less to do with a student’s education than a teacher’s desire and ability to teach. I would encourage parents around our state to ask their school administrators how teacher evaluations are performed in their own school districts. How often they are performed? How is the follow up performed? Who is involved in carrying out the improvement plans for an under-performing teacher? What you may find out could surprise you. It is as varied as you could imagine, from no evaluations to some. 

When I asked for myself, I was surprised to find out that the teacher was asked by the principal if the principal could attend a class sometime in the future. The time was set by the teacher and I’m sure the preparation began. I’m sure everything went to plan and the evaluation was deemed a success. I thought to myself, ‘How many things were wrong with this type of an evaluation?’ From reporting the evaluation to the effectiveness of the actual evaluation. Where was the hook or accountability for any of the players that we deem critical to our child’s education?

Second, we would reduce the wasteful wrongful termination lawsuits. Not only would we have documentation of the evaluations signed by all parties, but also from the instructional facilitator. This person is the best qualified teacher in each district, assigned the task of assisting other teachers become better instructors. The principal and the instructional facilitator would both work at improving the quality of teaching in our schools. This would also reduce concerns of personal attacks, inconsistent evaluations, new administration, personality conflicts and surprise terminations. Proper and consistent evaluations should remove all of these concerns.

Third, this proposal would involve and make more players accountable than just our teachers. Parents need to be more involved. How could a principal use the recording of a parent’s child struggling in one of their classes? How could parents reporting to the school board each month help improve the performance of our principals in conducting regular evaluations? If I were serving on a school board and the parents reported to us that they had been invited to only one evaluation that semester in a school with more than 20 teachers, I would think that we have a problem in evaluating our teachers consistently and properly.

Finally, this program would focus the efforts of not only our teachers and students but also our instructional facilitators, principals, parents, school board members and superintendents on educational excellence. If we really believe that education is the most important thing we do in this state, then I would ask the question, what is wrong with this concept? These are public institutions of learning and we have the technology to improve our efforts, so why not implement a pilot program to see what the effects might be? 

As a closing thought, having cameras in most parts of a school would only add to the security of our students and faculty. Bullying would be handled properly with video evidence being used to show all parties involved. 

Throwing additional money at a problem does not always solve the problem. Sometimes more effort is required. Maybe some courageous legislator can blow the dust off of my old bill and introduce it again. But beware of those that want nothing to do with accountability in our schools because they will come out in droves in opposition to this effort. More money is what they want.

I remain convinced that if implemented, this one improvement could do more for the quality of education in this state than anything else we could possibly do. More so than additional money or higher salaries, new buildings, more activities or even improved curriculum. This one effort to improve evaluations in our schools would hit the bullseye for boosting the quality of education in Wyoming. It would certainly eliminate the wrongful termination lawsuits. It would blow a hole through the guaranteed contract status of teachers and would provide the proper incentive to continually improve education efforts in schools. 

I’ve always believed that if evaluations were done correctly, we would have better teachers, happier teachers, accomplished teachers and better test scores for our students. Is it any wonder why our friends at the WEA were opposed to this concept? It did not fit with their desire for higher wages, guaranteed positions with less accountability. Perhaps it’s time for a new organization that puts our students first. W4E. Wyoming For Education. I would hope that such an organization would not fear innovation, technology, accountability, and responsibility.

Now who is serious about educating our children?

Ray Peterson served as a state senator for 13 years, from 2005-2018. He lives in Cowley.

Future Proofing our Kids for Tomorrow

in Column/Technology
Microsoft
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By Dennis Ellis, special to Cowboy State Daily

It’s been amazing to watch Wyoming become a national policy leader on growing computer science opportunities for our kids, enriching their education and giving them skills to compete in the future.

It’s no surprise that computing jobs are the number one source of new wages in the U.S. and that nine out of 10 parents want their children to learn computer science. Many even suggest that 70 percent of students will work in jobs that don’t even exist today. Technological change, economic turbulence and societal transformation are disrupting old career certainties and it is increasingly difficult to judge which degrees and qualifications will be a passport to a well-paid and fulfilling job in the decades ahead.

You can bet your paycheck I want my kids to have at least a basic fluency in computer science so they can be more impactful in whatever career they choose, as nearly every job becomes a technology-driven job, and future proof their careers. Our kids need to move beyond just consuming technology, and begin to learn how to create technology.

For Wyoming to continue to make leaps in giving our children a bright future in the face of such uncertainty, it takes a strong commitment from our policymakers, education system, business community and parents. Here are some great examples of this commitment I see around the state:

Governor Gordon signs a 2019 Computer Science Week Proclamation with Array School students on hand
  • Governor Mark Gordon recently signed a proclamation declaring Computer Science Week, recognizing the importance of providing our students new opportunities.
  • In 2018 Governor Matt Mead signed seminal legislation requiring each school to include computer science and computational thinking opportunities for all Wyoming students.
  • The State of Wyoming is developing K–12 computer science standards, blazing trails on how to provide professional development and micro-credentialing for in-service teachers to bridge the gap in teaching capacity.
  • Last year 60 percent of Wyoming high schools taught at least one computer science course. That’s the third highest rated state west of the Mississippi River and eighth best in the country!
State by State offerings for Computer Science in High School

Addressing the STEM Gap

Because I have two daughters, I’m highly concerned about the gap in STEM and computer science participation for females. We all should be.

Alarmingly, in 1995 just 37 percent of computer scientists were women. Today, only 24 percent of women. If we do nothing, in ten years the number of women in computing will decrease to just 22 percent. We can and must do better. 

No alt text provided for this image

Fortunately, for the sixth year in a row, the percentage of female AP Computer Science exam takers rose, steadily chipping away at the gender gap in high school computer science. Closing the participation gaps in computer science will take years, but there are clear signs that states are on the right path. Wyoming has already launched five Girls Who Code chapters to close the gender gap in technology and to change the image of what a programmer looks like and does.

Microsoft recently partnered with the Array Foundation, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and Girls Who Code to launch Cheyenne’s first chapter. The chapter will enable girls to learn computer science from a female role model in the tech industry. Research shows that 31 percent of middle school girls and 40 percent of high school girls believe that jobs requiring coding are not for them. Increasing the amount of female role models can play an important role to shift these perceptions.

Girls Who Code Chapter launch with Array Foundation

Anyone interested in bringing Girls Who Code to their town, or get engaged in other areas of building a strong ecosystem of computer science in your community, contact me or the Array School of Technology and Design and we can help show you a simple playbook to help shape a bright future for Wyoming!

Tracking Wild

in Agriculture/Column/News/Range Writing/wildlife
Good deer
Researchers use radio collars to track mule deer migration through the Wind River Mountains. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

There are probably thousands of tracking devices installed on wild animals in Wyoming.

From collars or eartag transmitters placed on big game animals and large carnivores like wolves and bears, to backpack harnesses or neck bands installed on a variety of bird species, and the surgical insertion of devices into fish, the amount of wildlife tracking conducted every year in Wyoming is astounding.

The collar on this migrating mule deer in May 2019 was too loose, rubbing the hair off the animal’s neck and hitting it in the head when the animal grazed.
The collar on this migrating mule deer in May 2019 was too loose, rubbing the hair off the animal’s neck and hitting it in the head when the animal grazed. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

But the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WG&F) can’t tell you how many animals are wearing these devices. I know that because I asked: first informally, and when that didn’t yield any information, I was instructed to submit a formal request, which I did. The response noted “there is not an easy way to show how many animals actually have collars on them at this point.” I was told that “it would take quite a few hours to go through each permit report” to see how many animals were actually collared under each permit issued by the department even in a single year, but if I wanted to pursue the matter, the agency would send me a cost estimate for that effort. I declined. 

I had naïvely assumed there must be a central electronic location accessed by wildlife biologists to see the status of monitored animals, but that is not the case. Even the University of Wyoming’s Wildlife Migration Initiative’s Migration Viewer provides simple summaries of ungulate movements. WMI notes in bold type that “the raw location data can only be obtained by contacting the original data owner,” and “This allows us to share ungulate movement data with a broad range of users, while protecting the integrity of the datasets and the proprietary study or project needs of the many researchers that collected and own the data.”

This bison in Yellowstone National Park had its radio collar tangled in its horn.
This bison in Yellowstone National Park had its radio collar tangled in its horn. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Some of the tracking devices placed on wild animals in Wyoming are conventional, very-high-frequency (VHF); others provide satellite tracking; and still others make use of the global positioning system (GPS). But all wildlife research in Wyoming that requires live-handling of animals to attach tracking devices begins with obtaining a permit from WG&F. Although wildlife researchers have until January 1 of the year following their permit expiration to file a detailed report with the agency, it’s unfortunate that data-sharing with our state’s wildlife managers is limited to by-then dated information.

When the Teton County Planning and Development office contracted with Biota Research and Consulting, Inc., to identify, describe, and map important habitat features for a range of wildlife species as part of its county comprehensive plan process, Biota worked to develop GIS overlays for all wildlife species in the county. That process required identifying all available datasets in existence, held by both private and public entities conducting wildlife research. Biota ended up developing unique data sharing contracts “in the interest of meeting the various concerns about misuse of data from each of the project contributors.”

“Although some potential collaborators willingly shared their data, other potential collaborators in both the private and public sector clearly articulated their unwillingness to share data, or failed to provide data that they agreed to share,” Biota noted.

What prompted my interest in the issue was the appearance of radio-collared mule deer and pronghorn antelope on our place, and some of those collars were not properly fitted. Since some of the mule deer have an easily-read bright numbered tag attached to the outside of the collar, I assumed our local WG&F biologist would be able to provide information on when the collar was placed, and to what end (the goals of the research project). Alas, that is not the case. The public or private entity conducting the research retains the real-time specifics, while WG&F has more a general knowledge of what research projects are taking place, and can access the annual reports from those research projects.

Research on the impacts of natural gas development on the Pinedale Anticline resulted in the collaring of this pronghorn antelope which was getting rubbed raw by its loose collar during frigid winter temperatures.
Research on the impacts of natural gas development on the Pinedale Anticline resulted in the collaring of this pronghorn antelope which was getting rubbed raw by its loose collar during frigid winter temperatures. (Photo: Cat Urbigkit)

Open sores and hair loss are frequent adverse effects from the use of radio-collars and other telemetry devices, as are animal entanglements in the collars themselves. Ill-fitting collars cause wounds and infections, and too tight a collar can restrict air flow and swallowing. As some researchers have pointed out, “ill-fitting collars and problems associated with them clearly influence research results and have implications for ethics within the wildlife profession.”

Behavioral impacts from the use of radio-collars are often discounted as insignificant, but there has been little research into this issue. Still, some research has revealed that collared moose in Norway keep in groups separate from non-collared moose. Brightly-colored collars on deer have resulted in higher harvest rates by deer hunters able to see these colors from a distance. Water and ice build-up under and around collars has been an issue for young ungulates. Other research has found impacts to a broad range of species, from voles to penguins.

There is no doubt that telemetry is an important tool in the research and management of many wildlife species. It’s my hope that researchers will strive for a better understanding of the potential negative consequences of strapping telemetry devices to wild animals (altering behavioral patterns should be a significant concern). And as science and technology advances, agencies like the WG&F may have to put in place better data-sharing mechanisms for the information harvested from wild animals in Wyoming.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Cowboy State-oriented gifts perfect for this year’s Christmas

in Bill Sniffin/Column
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By Bill Sniffin

So many gifts – so little time.

I reached out to my network of friends about their ideas for the best Wyoming-oriented Christmas gifts and it was an inundation!

Wow, what a great selection.  Let’s hope I can do them justice by listing a bunch of them here.

Books were mentioned a lot with Cheyenne’s Steve Horn having a new Sam Dawson mystery out that is getting rave reviews. Two former colleagues of mine published books.  Charlotte Dehnert published Lester Callaway Hunt, which started as a series she wrote for the Wyoming State Journal back in the 1970s.  Gail Schilling wrote a wonderful book called Do Not Go Gentle – Go to Paris, which has the great tagline “Travels of an uncertain woman of a certain age!”  Jean Haugen is pushing Sara Wiles’ new books about the Arapaho Tribe called The Arapaho Way. These are great gals and great books, too.

Jim Hicks of Buffalo touts products from Mountain Meadow Wool Mills in his hometown.

Also hailing from Buffalo is a State Poet Gene Gagliano, whose great book C is for Cowboy is promoted by Paul McCown, who says it was great for his kids and for him, too, since he is a newcomer to the Cowboy State. Susan Guy’s artwork is splendid. 

Thanks Paul for also suggesting people buy some coffee table books by some local named Sniffin.  Eric Molvar also touts his coffee table book called Red Desert, which is splendid. Lauren Throop suggests Wyoming Migrations, a terrific book that tells the stories of the work involved in discovering migration routes of Wyoming native animals 

A truly great book with international historical significance is From Fidel Castro of Mother Teresa by long-time AP reporter Joe McGowan, who served Wyoming for a long time.  Incredible adventures of our own.

Ray Hunkins’ new coffee table book is a great read, too. It is called The View from Thunderhead.  The Louisa B. Swain Society published it. She was the first woman to ever vote in an organized election, in Laramie 150 years ago.

Of course, any books by Ron Franscell, Craig Johnson, and CJ Box make wonderful Christmas presents.  Pete Illoway of Cheyenne also touts Doug Chamberlain’s new book Bury Him: A Memoir of the Viet Nam War. Chamberlain is a former Wyoming legislator.  Another terrific book about Vietnam is from former Wyomingite Bill Jones, called The Body Burning Detail. Riveting.  Former Wyomingite Scott Farris wrote an amazing book called Inga: Kennedy’s Great Love, Hitler’s Perfect Beauty, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Prime Suspect. He also wrote a great book about early Wyoming filmmaker Tim McCoy. 

Candy Moulton’s latest book is The Mormon Handcart Migration. Well received. A timely new book here during the state’s 150thanniversary of women suffrage is Esther Hobart Morris by Kathryn Swim Cummings. It is published by Nancy Curtis’ High Plains Press of Glendo. 

The recent blizzard reminds us of the Snow Chi Minh book by John Waggener, a true history of why Interstate 80 is built in such an awful place.  Jerry Kendall of Hudson is promoting his book Wyoming Treasures. A timely book is A History of the Wyoming Capital by Stanley Talbott Thompson and Linda Graves Fabian. 

Tammy Green of Lander promotes all good people, all good projects, and all good things.  Among her favorites are works by Joy Woods, Chris Hulme, Verna Burger Davis, Tina Brown Jones, Shawna Cargile-Pickinpaugh, Lennie Poitras, Bill Yankee, Lane Nelson, Scott Robison, and all the folks at Alchemy in Lander. 

Robb Hicks is promoting Margo’s Pottery and Fine Crafts in Buffalo. Bonnie Cannon loves mywyodesigns.com, based in Riverton. 

Nancy Ebbert raves about Sweetwater Studio with Jenny Reeves, Noelle Weimann Van Dijk, and JC Dye.  Christine Marie endorses Brown Sugar Coffee of Riverton.  

One of the state’s finest photographers Daryl Hunter of Jackson promotes lots of wonderful gift retailers from his web site fineartamerica/packstring-wyoming. 

Marsha Redding of the famous Spanky’s in Evanston touts Samantha Hartman on all her hand made items. 

Ron Gullberg of the Wyoming Business Council suggested you could always refer people to Made in Wyoming too: madeinwyoming.org. He also reached out to their regional folks who came up with this list: 

– Surf Wyoming-Big Horn Designs in Sheridan fulfills several Wyoming companies with logo apparel (and Big Horn Designs recently opened a shop in Cheyenne too).

– Bison Union in Sheridan roasts their own coffee beans and sells locally made gifts. Also Merlin’s Hideout in Thermopolis. 

Creativity-cards in Wright makes fun, snarky greeting cards and coasters on an antique paper press.

– Sheridan Soap Company sells locally made products, EK Jewelers in Gillette sells beautiful handmade jewelry, PDB Bear Pottery Art in Buffalo, Fish fossils from Kemmerer, and Casull firearms from Freedom Arms in Freedom.

Many craft brewers now around the state. Also craft distillers such as vodka from Cowboy Country Distilling, Jackson Hole Stillworks, and Backwards Distilling.

And finally, we need to support all our local merchants in our Wyoming cities and towns this season. I love the attitude taken by Central Wyoming College President Brad Tyndall: “I feel my broader family includes all the great folks in our county with small shops. It’s fun to try to make it to as many as I can to buy a thing or two for presents and stocking stuffers. In going up and down main streets in Riverton and Lander you can find so many good things that are either from Wyoming or our Fremont County neighbors.”

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

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