‘Wisconsin does not, and should not, have secret police’ – The Badger Project sues state DOJ for full list of law enforcement officers

Along with co-plaintiff the Invisible Insitute, The Badger Project is seeking the records to continue its work on wandering officers.

‘Wisconsin does not, and should not, have secret police’ – The Badger Project sues state DOJ for full list of law enforcement officers
The Risser Justice Center in Madison houses the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Photo: Peter Cameron.

By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT

The Badger Project filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Department of Justice Thursday after it again refused to release a list of all certified law enforcement officers in the state.

The suit was filed jointly with the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit public accountability journalism organization based in Chicago.

The state DOJ had already rejected a similar open records request from the Invisible Insitute earlier in 2023. In November, along with The Badger Project, it again requested the records. Five months later, the state DOJ responded with a letter denying the request for the full list of officers and their working histories.

More than 30 states — including Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa — have released the full list of their officers to a nationwide reporting project, which includes the Invisible Institute and The Badger Project.

The lawsuit is being funded by The National Freedom of Information Coalition, through a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and from the Society of Professional Journalists, through a grant from its Legal Defense Fund.

In his denial letter, state DOJ attorney Paul Ferguson argued that releasing the full list could “endanger” undercover officers. The state DOJ is not able to identify those officers and redact them, he wrote.

Ferguson also wrote that even for non-undercover officers, releasing their identities and employers “would have an adverse effect on the safety and privacy interests of the officers and their families.”

The Wisconsin Transparency Project, a law firm dedicated to strict enforcement of the state’s Open Records laws, and the University of Illinois First Amendment Clinic filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs.

“Courts have ruled time and time again that speculative fears of harm do not justify withholding government records from the public,” Tom Kamenick, president of the Wisconsin Transparency Project and the lead attorney in this case, said in a statement.

“Government officials must do more than merely claim that, hypothetically, something bad might happen if the records are released,” he continued. “Rather, they must show that harm is likely to occur and sufficiently serious to overcome the presumption of access to government records.”

Kamenick has represented The Badger Project in other public records lawsuits.

In responding to the records request, the state DOJ did release its list of “flagged officers,” those who lost their jobs due to termination, resignation in lieu of termination, or resignation prior to completion of an internal investigation.

But that list only consists of law enforcement officers from within the state, which The Badger Project has used to report on wandering officers. That list does not include those who were fired or forced out from law enforcement jobs out of state and then came to Wisconsin.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

Officers from at least one neighboring state have been moving to jobs in Wisconsin. After Illinois passed some law enforcement reform measures in 2021, some police started transferring to agencies in “more conservative states,” including Wisconsin, Kenny Winslow, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, told the Washington Post last year.

The Invisible Institute and The Badger Project are asking the court to force the release of the full list of law enforcement officers in the state as well as their work histories. When judges rule that public agencies have illegally refused to release records, that agency is forced to pay the requester’s legal fees, according to state law.

“The state of Wisconsin does not and should not have secret police,” Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, wrote in an email. “And it should not require a lawsuit to establish that.”

DISCLOSURE NOTE: As president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Bill Lueders supported the plaintiffs’ grant application to the national NFOIC. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also contributed financially to the lawsuit.

Sam Stecklow of the Invisible Institute contributed to this story.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.


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The post ‘Wisconsin does not, and should not, have secret police’ – The Badger Project sues state DOJ for full list of law enforcement officers appeared first on The Badger Project.


‘Wisconsin does not, and should not, have secret police’ – The Badger Project sues state DOJ for full list of law enforcement officers was first posted on May 24, 2024 at 6:13 am.

Most of Coastal Georgia skipped May primary election

"I'm a Georgia voter" stickers.

Voter turnout is highest when a future president is on a November ballot and is consistently lower for all other elections. 

The Current is an inclusive nonprofit, non-partisan news organization providing in-depth watchdog journalism for Savannah and Coastal Georgia’s communities.

Rural Schools Look for Ways to Bring More Multilingual Education into the Curriculum

Throughout rural America, non-native English speakers are less likely than their urban peers to get proper support in school, sometimes leading to a lifetime of lower educational attainment. But some rural schools are developing multilingual education strategies to rival those found in urban and suburban districts.

In general, it’s easier to fund more diverse course offerings in bigger schools. From Advanced Placement U.S. History to Spanish immersion, more students means more funding. But in rural DuBois County, Indiana, administrators are prioritizing English-learner education. There, students have access to “gold standard” multilingual programming, a hard-won achievement for any U.S. school, but especially for such a small district.

“We are the only school in the region who started a dual language program,” said Rossina Sandoval, Southwest DuBois County School District’s director of community engagement, in an interview with the Daily Yonder.

To meet the gold standard, students in the dual language immersion program receive 50% of their instruction in English and 50% of their instruction in Spanish. Fifty percent of the program is made up of students whose native language is Spanish and the other half is made up of native English speakers. The program is currently offered from kindergarten through third grade, with plans to expand to fourth and fifth grade.

By developing a program with 50/50 language instruction and 50/50 student enrollment, students are able to not only learn both their native and target language from their teachers, but they are also able to learn from each other, Sandoval said.

“That has proven to be the most effective way to develop language skills,” she said.

When the program was first introduced, the school received pushback from both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking families. Spanish-speaking families felt the school should prioritize English learning, given that their children already speak Spanish at home. And English-speaking families worried that they wouldn’t be able to help their children with Spanish homework.

To address family concerns on both sides, the school shared information about the benefits of formal bilingual education. In addition to maintaining their conversational skills, Spanish-speaking students receive instruction in grammar, spelling, and reading in their native language. This approach helps students who already speak another language read and write in another language, too.

Second-grade students in Clinton County’s Bi-Literacy program learn about fruits and vegetables in Spanish. (Photo by Esmeralda Cruz)

Learning two languages does not hurt a student’s ability to master either one. Bilingual children are shown to have better focus and logical reasoning, and – according to Sandoval – will be suited to a wider range of opportunities in the workforce.

“It’s natural, we want the best for our kids,” she said. “The best we can do is educate the community as a whole that this is the best method to develop multilingualism, this is the best method to enhance global skills and produce global citizens.”

Intersecting Problems

The Latino population in DuBois County has been expanding for decades. Today it sits at 9.5%,  which is approximately half the national percentage. But in Southwest DuBois County schools, more than a third of students identify as Latino. (The disparity in those numbers reflects higher birth rates within the Latino population and the uneven distribution of those families within the county.)

The demographics of rural schools have been changing nationwide. According to a recent report from the National Rural Education Association, 80,000 more English-learner and multilingual students were enrolled in rural districts in the 2021 school year than in 2013.

Historically, rural school districts have struggled to provide high quality education to non-native English speakers. When English-learner populations are small, it can be difficult to fund robust bilingual programming and easy to overlook their necessity.

Rural English learners sit at the intersection of overlapping structural problems in public education. The national teacher shortage is worse in nonmetropolitan places, and it’s most problematic in racially diverse and high-poverty rural schools. Nationally, there aren’t enough bilingual educators, or educators certified to teach English as a second language (ESL).

According to recent research, while English-learner populations are growing in rural places, rural multilingual learners are less likely to receive instruction in their native languages. And while federal guidelines require that all non-native English speakers receive specialized instruction, in rural places only a little more than 60% actually do.

DuBois County’s top-tier bilingual education program should be used as a model in other rural school districts, Sandoval said. “As an immigrant, as a U.S. citizen, I feel very proud… because this can be replicated in communities that look like ours.”

Support for these programs must be built inside and outside the schoolhouse, Sandoval said. “There has to be a degree of openness toward bilingualism or multilingualism.This is an effort that’s not just made by me, it’s made by the school and by the community.”

A third-grade student in Clinton Country’s Bi-Literacy program reviews a lesson about the universe by playing bingo. (Photo by Esmeralda Cruz)

Programs that increase accessibility and trust with parents include “Cafe en el Parque,” a parent meeting held in Spanish that draws in over 100 families each month, and the “Emergent Bilingual” program, which meets after school and on weekends helps new immigrant students and families learn more about how the American education system works.

Programs that help establish community support and participation include “Fuertes Together,” a partnership with the public library where families can hear stories in Spanish and English and engage with cultural music, dance, and art. And a new program, “Bilingual Village,” helps bilingual students identify speaking partners in the community who can converse in the student’s new language.

A Wide Range of Strategies

When Esmeralda Cruz was a child in the 1990s, she immigrated with her family from Mexico to rural Clinton County, Indiana, where she lives and works today. “Back then,” she said, “there were not a lot of Latino families in the area. In my first grade classroom I only had one classmate that was bilingual.” This posed major challenges to her education: Esmeralda said that, instead of receiving proper language instruction, she was placed in classes meant to address learning disabilities.

Cruz’s experience is not unique, according to Maria Coady, professor of multilingual education at North Carolina State University. In places that aren’t accustomed to supporting immigrant populations, she’s seen English learners sent to speech therapy in place of proper ESL classes. “Schools might think that all these kids have special learning needs because it looks like they’re not learning,” she said, “when in fact, they’re just learning the language.”

As immigrant populations grow throughout the rural U.S., newcomers often find themselves in Cruz’s childhood position – navigating school districts unaccustomed to educating non-native English speakers.

Today, Cruz works as a Hispanic community engagement director for Purdue Extension. Prior to that, she was the health and human sciences educator at Purdue Extension office in Clinton County, Indiana.

According to scholars of rural multilingual education, schools that do have ESL or bilingual systems in place exist across a broad spectrum, from gold-standard bilingual education programs like the one in DuBois County to ESL sessions that require students to miss part of the school day and provide no native-language instruction.

Hilda Robles instructs fourth-grade students during a lesson in Clinton County’s Bi-Literacy program. (Photo by Esmeralda Cruz)

In places with very small English-learner populations, Coady said, schools might pool resources and “bring in an itinerant teacher – that is, a teacher who might travel between several rural schools to provide ESL services.”

This is the least effective method of multilingual education for two reasons, Coady said: it’s disruptive to pull students out of class, and ESL teachers are only able to offer very limited amounts of time to individual students.

Where to Begin?

In rural places, small expansions in local industries that rely heavily on immigrant and migrant labor can create major shifts in student populations, said Holly Hansen-Thomas, professor of bilingual education at Texas Woman’s University. “And these teachers may not have the experience or the background to serve these emergent bilingual families that keep coming to work and to support the industry.”

For rural school districts inexperienced in providing multilingual education, said Hansen-Thomas, professional development is the place to begin.

Federal grants are available to support multilingual certifications for teachers and administrators. For instance, the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition offers a National Professional Development Program, which makes grants to colleges and universities to fund work on multilingual teaching skills for local educators. Hansen-Thomas also points to the U.S. Department of Education’s “Newcomer Tool Kit,” a resource for rural educators looking to support recent-immigrant students and families.

In Indiana, colleges and universities are attempting to build manageable pathways for multilingual educators who might not be formally trained as teachers. “Our pre-service teachers tend to be white and monolingual,” said Stephanie Oudghiri, clinical associate professor at Purdue’s College of Education. “Especially in the Midwest, as our demographics are changing, we need folks that are multilingual.”

Experts like Cruz stress the importance of listening to non-native English speakers themselves when building out these programs. “We’ve had a lot of focus groups and community conversations and I can’t tell you how many times people at the table have said, ‘Thank you for including me,’” Cruz said.

“I think oftentimes they do want to be at the table, they just don’t know how, and so we’re making sure that we’re listening to them and then going from there, rather than the other way around.”

The post Rural Schools Look for Ways to Bring More Multilingual Education into the Curriculum appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

This county is California’s harshest charging ‘desert’ for electric cars. Local activists want to change that 

A map shows the electric car charging stations that the nonprofit group Comite Civico Del Valle plans to build in California's Imperial Valley.

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Few places in California are as unforgiving for driving an electric car as the remote and sparsely populated Imperial Valley.

Only four fast-charging public stations are spread across the valley’s vast 4,500 square miles just north of the US-Mexico border, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That means if you’re Greg Gelman — one of only about 1,200 Imperial County residents who own an electric car — traveling almost anywhere is a maddening logistical challenge.

“It’s been, I won’t say a nightmare, but it’s been very, very, very inconvenient,” Gelman said on a recent afternoon as he charged his all-electric Mercedes-Benz at a charging station in a Bank of America parking lot in El Centro. “Would I do it again? No.”

California’s electric charging “deserts” like the Imperial Valley pose one of the biggest obstacles to the state’s efforts to combat climate change and air pollution by electrifying cars and trucks.

Experts say the slow installation of chargers in California’s remote regions could jeopardize the state’s phaseout of new gas-powered cars. Under the state’s mandate, 35% of sales of 2026 models must be zero-emissions, ramping up to 68% in 2030 and 100% in 2035.

Nestled in the desert in California’s far southeast corner, Imperial County ranks dead last in electric car ownership among California counties with populations of 100,000 or more, according to a CalMatters analysis of 2023 data. Only 7 out of every 1,000 cars are battery-powered there, compared with 51 out of every 1,000 statewide.

High poverty and unemployment are a major factor in the region’s slow transition to electric cars, but its lack of public chargers are a big drawback, too.

People living in rural, low-income regions like the Imperial Valley have the least access to electric car chargers, according to a state Energy Commission analysis. More than two-thirds of California’s low-income residents are a 10-minute drive or longer from a publicly available fast charger.

Luis Olmedo, executive director of El Comite Civico del Valle, a nonprofit advocating for environmental justice, has battled for years against the Imperial Valley’s unhealthy air. Now he is making a bid to become its go-to supplier of charging stations for zero-emissions cars.

Olmedo isn’t waiting for businesses or the state to make chargers a reality in Imperial County. Instead, his group has embarked on a $5-million, high-stakes crusade to build a network of 40 fast chargers at various locations. It’s an open question whether his somewhat quixotic endeavor will succeed.

Electric car chargers “are an opportunity for us to be able to breathe cleaner air,” Olmedo said. “It’s about equity. It’s about justice. It’s about making sure that everybody has chargers.”

Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico Del Valle, shown at a charging station in Calexico, is trying to build 40 fast chargers in the Imperial Valley. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters

Esther Conrad, a researcher at Stanford University who focuses on environmental sustainability, said getting chargers in places like Imperial County is critical to California’s effort to transition to electric vehicles in an equitable way. Apartment dwellers and others who don’t have charging at home need nearby and reliable places to charge. 

“When you have a rural community that’s low-income and distant from other locations, it’s incredibly important to enable people to get places where they need to go,” Conrad said.

Hours from urban centers

A car is essential for traversing Imperial County, which is the most sparsely populated county in Southern California.

Its neighborhoods are vast distances from urban centers that provide the services that residents need: El Centro — its biggest town, home to about 44,000 people — is much closer to Mexicali, Mexico, than it is to San Diego, which is about a two-hour drive away, or Riverside, nearly three hours. Its highways and roads cross boundless fields of lettuce and other crops that give way to strip malls, apartments and suburban tracts — and then even more crops and open desert. 

If you drive an electric car the 109 miles from El Centro to Palm Springs, your route takes you through farmland, desert and around California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, which is also one of its biggest environmental calamities.

The Salton Sea has been receding in recent years, causing toxic dust to blow into Imperial Valley towns. The region’s air quality is among the worst in the state, with dust storms and a brown haze emanating from agricultural burning and factories in the valley or from across the border in Mexicali, a city of a million people.

About 16% of Imperial County’s 179,000 residents have asthma, higher than the state average. The air violates national health standards for both fine particles, or soot, as well as ozone, the main ingredient of smog; both pollutants can trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory diseases.

More than 85% of Imperial County’s residents are Latino, and Spanish is widely spoken here. Agriculture is a major employer, and many businesses are dependent on cross-border trade and traffic from Mexico. The county’s median household income is $53,847, much lower than the statewide median, and 21% of people live in poverty.

El Centro, the biggest town in the Imperial Valley, is home to about 44,000 people. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters

Now the discovery of lithium, used to manufacture EV batteries, at the Salton Sea has the potential to transform the region’s economy. State officials say the deposit could produce 600,000 tons a year, valued at $7.2 billion, and assist the U.S. as it tries to foster a domestic electric car industry that rivals China’s. 

But Olmedo worries that when the mineral is removed from the valley, it won’t meaningfully change people’s livelihoods or their health. He points to examples in the developing world where local people have been left behind as extractive industries take what they need.

“We’re about to extract, perhaps, the world’s supply of lithium here, yet we don’t even have the simplest, the lowest of offerings, which is: Let’s build you chargers,” Olmedo said.

Chicken and egg: Too few EVs and too few chargers

Last year, electric cars were only 5% of all new cars sold in Imperial County, compared with 25% statewide. Getting chargers into low-income and rural places will become more and more important as California struggles to meet its ambitious climate targets.

The Energy Commission estimates that California will need 1.01 million chargers outside of private homes by 2030 and 2.11 million by 2035, when more than 15 million electric cars are expected on the roads. So far the state has only about 105,000 nonprivate chargers. 

Edgar Ruiz, air control technician, and José Flores, research and advocacy specialist with Comite Civico Del Valle, demonstrate how electric vehicle charging stations will work when installed in the Imperial Valley. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters
First: New electric vehicle chargers in Calexico. Last: Components of an electric vehicle charging station. Photos by Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters

Nick Nigro, founder of Atlas Public Policy, which researches the electric car market, said charging companies won’t locate chargers in regions with few electric vehicles.

“You need revenue, and if the EVs aren’t there, then your customers aren’t necessarily there, so you do have a legitimate chicken and egg problem,” Nigro said. “We have to look to public policy to help that market failure.”

The Biden administration will invest $384 million in California’s electric car infrastructure over five years. And state officials are investing almost $2 billion in grants for funding zero-emission vehicle chargers over the next four years, including some special grants in rural, inland areas for up to  $80,000 per charger.  Olmedo says the funding has been insufficient so he’s had to turn to donations and other sources of funding.

Patty Monahan, one of five members of the California Energy Commission, said “it’s particularly important that we see chargers” in the Imperial Valley and other low-income counties with poor air quality.

Imperial Valley has only four fast-charging stations open for public use, where chargers are capable of juicing batteries up to 80% in under an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Three are in El Centro, with one exclusively for Teslas; another is in the border town of Calexico and was recently installed by El Comite. Six other stations offer only slower chargers.

Olmedo envisions a network of 40 publicly accessible chargers throughout the valley. El Comite is expecting funding from the California Energy Commission, and has received donations from Waverley Streets Foundation, the United Auto Workers and General Motors. The group is seeking more state funding.

Olmedo acknowledged that he is facing a slew of challenges with his project, including some local opposition and the high cost of installation and maintenance.

At a warehouse in the city of Imperial where El Comite stores the chargers, Jose Flores, project manager for the group’s charging initiative, said he and three colleagues spent four days in Santa Ana, about 200 miles north, at a facility managed by BTC, the company that makes the chargers that El Comite is installing.

They received training on installation and maintenance techniques, and discussed how not all chargers can be used by all electric vehicles. He learned about payment and cooling systems, and that the chargers might need more frequent maintenance because of Imperial Valley’s harsh desert conditions.

“We’re like a testing ground because we have poor air quality here due to the Salton Sea and being in a desert,” he said.

Chris Aldaz, of Calexico, charges his car at an Electrify America charging station in El Centro. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters

El Comite installed its first charger at its Brawley headquarters in 2022. Last December, El Civico pressed ahead with a more ambitious project: Four of their fast chargers are now operating in a park in the border town of Calexico.

Chris Aldaz, 35, a U.S. Postal Service worker who lives in Calexico, charges at home, but at times uses chargers at the group’s Brawley headquarters that people can use for free. It is a Level 2, which can take several hours to charge.

“The reason why I wanted to get an EV was that it was cheaper,” Aldaz told CalMatters. “I don’t want to be spending all this money on gas, and on maintenance, and it was better for the environment.”

Nevertheless, Olmedo’s electric car chargers have become a local political issue.

Maritza Hurtado, Calexico’s ex-mayor, and coordinator of a City Council recall campaign, said it was inappropriate for El Comite to have built four electric car chargers in a downtown park. The chargers were a distraction “from our police needs and our actual community infrastructure needs,” Hurtado said at a public hearing at the county’s utility, the Imperial Irrigation District, in January. She declined to speak to CalMatters.

“We had no idea they were going to take our parkland,” Hurtado said at the hearing. “It is very upsetting and disrespectful to our community for Comite Civico to come to Calexico and take our land.”

Olmedo hopes that the chargers ultimately will be something the county’s Latino community takes pride in.

“Put this in perspective: It’s a farmworker-founded organization, an environmental justice organization, that is building the infrastructure. It’s not the lithium industry. It’s us, building it for ourselves.”

Data journalist Erica Yee contributed to this report.

This county is California’s harshest charging ‘desert’ for electric cars. Local activists want to change that  is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

The story of how one college abruptly closed — and kept everyone in the dark

The students were the last to know.

On April 29 – just a week before finals – Wells College announced that it would close. The last-minute decision by the 156-year-old liberal arts college in upstate New York sent students rushing to find new colleges for the fall. And it threw newly accepted students, who had already put down deposits, into a frantic scramble to see if the colleges they had turned down would take them back. Faculty members, having missed the academic hiring cycle, were left facing unemployment.

But there is mounting evidence that Wells administrators knew for months that the college would close, even as they made public assurances that all was well.

Wells quietly made student transfer arrangements with another college last fall, according to Wells’ accreditor. And Wells agreed earlier this year to convert the land-use zoning for the campus from institutional to mixed use, which would allow the buildings and land to be used, and sold, for non-educational purposes.

Wells joins a parade of colleges that have been closing this year at a rate of one per week, as enrollment dips and pandemic-era aid dries up. The process is never easy, throwing students’ lives into chaos, ending employment for faculty in a field where jobs are scarce and, in some cases, adding extreme stress to small-town economies. But abrupt closures put this process on steroids.

“What concerns me here is that there’s no accountability,” said Anna Anderson, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center and a Wells alum. “The students were given just days to pack up and leave … if an institution that’s this respected can do something that’s so horrible, what’s to stop others from doing the same thing?”

Wells has struggled with enrollment declines and budget crunches for years, but recently administrators had assured faculty and local leaders that it was in fine shape.

In late February, two months before announcing the closure, Wells president Jonathan Gibralter wrote to the board of trustees of the Village of Aurora, where the college is located, that rumors about the college shutting its doors were unfounded.

“Let me assure you that we are accepting enrollment deposits for the fall semester — our fall to spring retention rate for our students is higher than it has been in several years,” Gibralter wrote in a statement. “We are hiring staff and we are developing an operating budget for the next fiscal year. We are full steam ahead.”

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One week before the college’s board of trustees voted to close, Wells posted a message on its Facebook account encouraging new students to visit the college for an “admitted students’ day.”

Faculty members say they were never told that the college was in danger of closing, even though they asked regularly about the state of the college at monthly faculty meetings.

“When the budget was presented to us, if you looked at the numbers, it was pretty grim,” said Laura McClusky, who has been a professor at Wells for 23 years. “But if you listen to the narrative, it was, ‘We’re doing great. Retention is up, the number of applications is up.’”

The president of Wells College, Jonathan Gibralter, and the college’s board of trustees announced April 29 that the college would close at the end of the spring semester due to financial difficulties. But evidence indicates he and other administrators knew many months beforehand that this would have to happen. Credit: Wells College

Even as administrators were assuring faculty that the college was in good shape, Wells was already making arrangements as early as last November with other institutions for them to become what’s known as a “teach-out” partner. That designation signals to a student that an accreditor has approved a college as an appropriate place to continue their education when their current college closes.

“There seems to be evidence that they were preparing at that time,” said Nicole Biever, who is the chief of staff at Wells’ accreditor, Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

At the same time, the Village of Aurora’s ad hoc zoning committee was working alongside Wells administrators on a proposal that would convert most of the college’s campus from institutional to mixed-use zoning. The move would allow the use, and sale, of buildings for purposes not related to the college. The village board of trustees voted in favor of the change in March and has submitted the plan to the state for approval.

Wells officials acknowledged its previous agreements with other institutions.

“The College, over the course of many months, prepared itself should the Board make the difficult decision to close the institution,” Kristopher LaGreca, Wells vice president of marketing and communications, said in an email. “The Board and senior leadership worked out confidential agreements with other institutions to support our students in the event of a closure.”

In response to questions about the re-zoning, LaGreca said that Wells had “continuously looked to divest in non-academic properties in order to bridge gaps in annual budgets.”

He added that the decision to close was “centered on what was best for our students, our prospective students, and their families.”

“Wells College faces significant financial challenges,” Gibralter wrote in a letter announcing the closure. “We conducted a comprehensive review of the institution’s financial health and future sustainability, including an independent analysis, which has led to the necessary conclusion of closure.”

Related: Colleges are now closing at a rate of one a week. What happens to the students?

The college told faculty earlier this semester that there was a new articulation agreement with the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, which would bring in online students. But the deal collapsed and with it went the hope of an enrollment boost.

Members of the board of trustees declined, or didn’t respond to, requests for comment about why the decision was so last-minute, but the vote was not unanimous. The board has agreed to meet with faculty to explain the timeline next week, according to two faculty members with knowledge of the planned meeting.

Abrupt closures can make it much more difficult for students to earn a degree.

“You often see these domino precipitous closures, where students will go to a school that closes and then they’ll be funneled into the school that most wants their money,” said Jessica Ranucci, a supervising attorney for the New York Legal Assistance Group. “The school that most wants their money is a school that’s teetering on the brink, and then that school closes.”

Unfortunately, being an accreditor-approved teach-out college doesn’t necessarily mean an institution will stay open. Middle States had designated Wells as a teach-out school for Cazenovia College and Medaille University, both of which closed last year – forcing students who had just arrived at Wells in the fall to find a new college for the second time.

“To take on students from other places that have closed when you yourself might be closing is just horrible,” said Meghan McCune, a Wells alum and former trustee who is also a professor at Northern Michigan University. “Not to mention, faculty and staff. It’s really hard to find other positions, and it’s completely out of the academic cycle. There’s no way that most people are going to be able to find something. All the hiring is done now.”

Since 1868, Wells College has been a fixture of Aurora, N. Y., on the shore of Cayuga Lake, but it has announced it will close after the current semester. More than 300 students must scramble to find new places to enroll, and more than 100 workers are expected to lose their jobs. Credit: Wells College

Students were stunned by the announcement.

“You don’t think your school is going to close down when they’ve given you a lottery number to choose your room for next year. They’ve let you pick out your classes for next year. They’ve let you order your gowns for next year,” said Olive Blair, 20, who just finished her junior year and is the class president. “It was a shock to say the least.”

A paper proposal for a fall conference was due two days after the announcement was made and she spent the week scrambling to find another college where her credits as an art history major would transfer, not to mention ensuring that the finances would work.

Last year, 82 percent of Wells’ roughly 350 students had federal student loans and close to half received Pell grants, federal aid that goes to low-income students.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that they had to wait until the week before finals,” said Blair. “Did you just realize we don’t have enough money?  You can’t be that dysfunctional. Something must have been known prior to this.”

People with an inside track were well aware of the problems.

“It was the elephant in the room. We’ve been talking about it for 15 years,” said Bonnie Bennett, who was mayor of Aurora from 2010 until 2022. “But whenever anyone raised the issue of Wells closing, they would deny it. They would say, ‘You’re anti-Wells.’”

Related: Getting a college degree was their dream. Then their school suddenly closed.

Wells was put on probation in 2019 by Middle States, requiring that, among other things, it show evidence of “adequate fiscal and human resources” and proper financial planning. The following year, in the height of the pandemic, a letter was sent to alumni saying that the college could close if it didn’t raise money quickly. The fundraising appeal worked – alumni donated millions of dollars. The college also received $3.5 million between 2020 and 2022 from pandemic-related federal funds.

In light of the college’s financial struggles, some faculty members and students are upset about the money spent on President Gibralter’s compensation. In fiscal year 2019, just after Wells was put on probation, Gibraltar collected more than $78,000 in bonuses, bringing his total compensation to more than $386,000, according to federal tax filings. The following year, as the college was begging for donations, he took in more than $345,000 and in fiscal year 2021, the last year for which figures are available, his total compensation was more than $368,000. (The college declined to comment.)

CNYCentral first reported Gibralter’s bonuses.

Middle States took Wells off probation in the summer of 2021, despite enrollment having cratered to about 330 that year from about 420 the previous one.

An independent audit of the college in 2022 also showed that it had been dipping into its restricted endowment earnings. And it was discounting its tuition at an average of 70 percent in the 2021-22 academic year.

When asked why Wells was taken off probation, given its ongoing financial troubles, Biever said Middle States continued to monitor Wells over the next four years, sending teams to visit the college.

“In addition, the Commission required the institution to submit reports including financial information multiple times,” Biever said in an email. “When institutions submit reports, the Commission examines the evidence submitted by institutions and considers that information as part of the multi-level decision making process.”

After Wells announced it was closing, Middle States put it back on probation, citing the abrupt closure and its failure to make plans to ensure the well-being of its students. But the move will have no impact on current students or faculty.

Middle States has yet to approve any of two dozen teach-out colleges announced by Wells even though the college held a campus fair on May 3 with some of the institutions.

The New York State Department of Education said it wasn’t notified about the closure until the weekend before it was announced.

State Sen. Rachel May introduced a bill last week that would require colleges to provide notice of closure at least a year in advance, host public meetings about the decision and provide students with teach-out agreements at least six months in advance.

Students from closed schools usually don’t make it to graduation. Fewer than half of students at closed colleges end up transferring to other institutions, according to a 2022 study, and more than half of those who did transfer left their new college without graduating.

Faculty and staff are scrambling to find jobs, but at this point it’s almost impossible for them to find an academic position for next year. They will lose their health insurance coverage at the end of June (they have an option to pay a COBRA to extend the coverage). The college has said it doesn’t have the money to give them severance payments, although some faculty are wondering about the millions of dollars in assets in the property the college is sitting on.

“Someone would ask about the financial health of the college at every faculty meeting, but they never said there was any danger of closing,” said Andrew Hunt, who was a visiting assistant professor of theatrical design and technology at Wells. “That’s the complaint many of us have. You should have said something.”

This story about Wells College closing was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

The post The story of how one college abruptly closed — and kept everyone in the dark appeared first on The Hechinger Report.

Shenna Bellows talks election security ahead of June primary

Shenna Bellows and Kate Cough during a sit-down conversation.

As Mainers prepare to head to the polls, The Maine Monitor sat down with Secretary of State Shenna Bellows on Friday for a conversation about Maine’s electoral process and the work her office does to ensure that votes are counted accurately and information is stored securely. 

Monitor editor Kate Cough and Bellows discussed Maine’s new online voter registration system, threats to elections workers, the process for verifying signatures, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and more. You can watch the full conversation here: 

The state primary is on June 11, and absentee voting is already underway. 

Maine is now a semi-open primary state, which means voters who are not enrolled in a particular party can vote in the primary of their choice.

Voters who are enrolled in a party may only vote in that party’s primary. The deadline to withdraw or change party enrollment for the June primary is May 24. 

There is no in-person cut off for registering to vote — you can do so at your poll site on June 11 if needed. 

Wisconsin drops ID checks at federally funded food pantries

A person puts an item in a cart filled with milk and other food items.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Click here to read highlights from the story
  • The state Department of Health Services is changing procedures for the 265 Wisconsin food pantries that participate in The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides certain healthy foods that pantry donations don’t always cover.
  • The state previously required workers at those pantries to check IDs of every person in a household and verify the person lived in the pantry’s county. The new rules — designed to improve food access — do not allow pantries to ask for identification or verify addresses.
  • Some pantry directors support the change. Others fear they could create local food shortages. Some wonder how to accommodate a potential influx of out-of-county clients and track important demographic information.
  • State officials say no problems have been identified in the 35 other states that already lack identification requirements.
Listen to Addie Costello’s story from WPR.

Wisconsin’s emergency food pantries can now decide whether to check clients’ identification and verify their addresses. By October, the state will require them to stop asking. 

The change will improve access to a key federal program, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said. Some pantry coordinators support the changes, but others counter that it could complicate their work. They say the state has yet to answer important questions.

Several coordinators voiced concerns when the health department last month announced changes that affect 265 state food pantries that accept food from The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP. The federally funded program provides healthy foods that pantry donations don’t always cover, including milk, eggs, meat, fresh fruits and vegetables. Most participating pantries rely on the program for a significant amount of their food.

The overhaul comes as demand for emergency food surges following the expiration of extra FoodShare benefits during the pandemic. 

The state previously required pantry workers to check IDs of every person in a household and verify the person lived in the pantry’s county. While pantries made exceptions for certain vulnerable groups with less access to IDs and fixed addresses, requesting that information creates unnecessary obstacles to food, supporters of the change say.

“We want to make sure people have an equitable and dignified way to receive food and we feel like the less information gathering in that regard that’s allowable, the better,” a health department spokesperson said.

With the change, Wisconsin joins 35 other states, including neighboring Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan, where TEFAP pantries don’t ask for ID.

Some anti-hunger advocates say eliminating ID checks could create local food shortages. Others support the change but worry about how to accommodate a potential influx of out-of-county clients and track demographic information about their visitors.

‘A horrible feeling’ to be turned away

Emma Tomberlin started experiencing homelessness in Madison 10 years ago. Someone stole her ID at the time, and she couldn’t afford a replacement, she said. 

She didn’t realize a local pantry would ask for identification before distributing food and hygiene products. After coordinating a ride one day and waiting in line, she said, the pantry turned her away.

“To realize that I was not worthy of food because I didn’t have an ID, and to be told that and to be turned away hungry, is just a horrible feeling,” Tomberlin said. 

She moved into her own apartment about two years ago, but she’s still not sure she could gather the paperwork the pantry’s website says it requires.

Shelves full of bags of cereal
A shelf full of cereal is shown at the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry in Oshkosh, Wis., on May 9, 2024. Wisconsin’s emergency food pantries can now decide whether to check clients’ identification and verify their addresses. By October, the state will require them to stop asking. The overhaul comes as demand for emergency food surges following the expiration of extra FoodShare benefits during the pandemic. (Shane Fitzsimmons for Wisconsin Watch)

Under the previous state requirements, Wisconsin’s emergency pantries would still serve people without proper documentation during initial visits but, in rare cases, might block those who repeatedly returned without verifying their address. Unhoused people, undocumented immigrants and survivors of domestic abuse had additional leeway, guaranteeing service even on repeat visits without full documentation.

But perceptions matter just as much as procedure when it comes to food access, said Joli Guenther, executive director of the Wisconsin Association for Homeless and Runaway Services. She supports the eased state requirements.

Asking for an ID might discourage people most in need from showing up, Guenther said.

“We do want food pantries to be as low barrier as possible because that’s such an immediate need.”

Fears of food shortages

TEFAP makes emergency food aid available to households who make no more than twice the federal poverty level. That’s $40,880 annually for a two-person household.

Even before the latest changes, clients could self-declare their income without bringing proof. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the state required pantries to collect client signatures attesting to their eligibility. Safety concerns during the pandemic halted the requirements, although some pantries later resumed collecting signatures. 

That included Milwaukee-based Hunger Task Force, an anti-hunger nonprofit that relies on TEFAP for about half of its food bank supply. The signature requirement discouraged people from untruthfully claiming eligibility or inflating their household size — increasing the likelihood that food would go to people most in need, Hunger Task Force CEO Sherrie Tussler said.

Pantries may no longer collect such signatures under the state changes. That will make it virtually impossible to stop people from taking food they don’t need, Tussler contends.

“It’s completely ungoverned,” Tussler said. “Nobody’s answering the question, what’s really going to happen when we have food shortages?”

State officials don’t expect that to happen. The state health department found no shortages in surrounding states that lack identification and signature requirements, a spokesperson said.

A woman wearing a shirt that says "Eating FOR TWO" grabs a potato in a bin full of potatoes.
An expectant mother gathers potatoes at the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry in Oshkosh, Wis., on May 9, 2024. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says eliminating identification checks and address verification at Wisconsin’s emergency food pantries will broaden access to food during high demand. Some pantry leaders worry about unintended consequences. (Shane Fitzsimmons for Wisconsin Watch)

Channel One Regional Food Bank, which serves residents of 13 Minnesota counties and Wisconsin’s La Crosse County, has faced no issues abiding by an honor system in Minnesota, said Virginia Witherspoon, its executive director.

“This truly gets down to what you believe about people, and if you believe that people are trying to take advantage of a system,” she said. “We don’t see that.” 

Among supporters of loosened identification requirements: Melissa Larson, food access and resource program manager at West CAP, which serves seven western Wisconsin counties.

In small-town pantries like West CAP’s, workers already know their clients on a first-name basis, and ID checks only create obstacles.

“In a rural area, it’s completely different,” Larson said.

Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, which operates pantries in rural, urban and suburban areas of northeast Wisconsin and around Milwaukee, also welcomes the changes.

“We expect that the good this program will accomplish, the new enrollments and access this would facilitate, the increased ease of distribution, and the increased dignity and compassion this would provide to the participant will greatly outweigh the potential risk,” John Zhang, the organization’s director of community and government relations, told WPR and Wisconsin Watch in an email.

Expanded options for pantry clients 

Ryan Rasmussen, executive director of the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry, doesn’t expect people to start taking food they don’t need. 

“We get this question asked a lot about, ‘How many folks do you think are actually taking advantage of your pantry?’ And quite honestly, my response is zero,” he said.

But Rasmussen worries the revised guidelines will increase visits from outside of Winnebago County.

The federal government distributes emergency foods to pantries based on local poverty and unemployment rates. New state rules will allow clients to regularly visit any pantry statewide — even if it lies outside of their home county.

Rasmussen sees the potential for mismatches between resources and demands on some pantries during a time of growing demand.

Ryan Rasmussen looks at and types on a laptop on a desk.
Ryan Rasmussen, executive director of the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry, seen on May 9, 2024, doesn’t expect people to start taking food they don’t need when the state eliminates identification checks at pantries participating in The Emergency Food Assistance Program. “We get this question asked a lot about, ‘How many folks do you think are actually taking advantage of your pantry?’ And quite honestly, my response is zero,” he says. (Shane Fitzsimmons for Wisconsin Watch)

While health department officials see no evidence that the new guidelines will spur a spike in cross-county visits, they will explore other food distribution models if issues arise, a spokesperson said.

Oshkosh Area Community Pantry saw a 70% increase in usage between 2022 and 2023, Rasmussen said. The pantry last year served 800 households from outside of Winnebago County. Workers then could refer those clients to options in their home county for future visits — easing demands on local resources, Rasmussen said. 

“The need is definitely growing and it’s definitely great,” Rasmussen said. “We’re doing all that we can to make sure that we stay ahead of it.” 

For Kenneth Tackett, two monthly visits to the Oshkosh pantry cover most of his needs, and there’s no reason to visit other pantries. 

“It’s where I get my bread, vegetables, potatoes, meat,” he said. “I feel blessed to have the availability to be able to do something like this.”

Kenneth Tackett, wearing a green Wisconsin sweatshirt and jeans, puts an item in a cart next to shelves filled with food.
Kenneth Tackett of Oshkosh feels “blessed to be able to do something like this” as he visits the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry in Oshkosh, Wis., on May 9, 2024. Tackett relies almost exclusively on the local pantry for bread, meat and vegetable needs and sees the benefit of increasing accessibility. (Shane Fitzsimmons for Wisconsin Watch)

Federal aid important for many pantries

Most pantries rely on a mixture of TEFAP, food banks, grocery stores and donations. The federal program was an important source of food for 89% of pantries participating in the program, according to a state health department survey. 

Nearly a quarter of participating pantries get most or all of their food from the federal program, the survey showed. Most participants call the program’s food “very healthy.” 

The state health department says loosening restrictions for pantry visitors might expand pantry participation. Most pantries that don’t participate have “quite a bit” or “a great deal” of concern with program requirements and associated paperwork, survey responses show.

Most participating pantries reported no issues with requirements and reporting, and multiple pantry directors worry about losing mechanisms to collect information needed to apply for funding. 

People sit in rows of chairs near an overhead sign that says "Registration." To the right is an Oshkosh Area Community Pantry sign with hours of operation.
Visitors wait to register at the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry in Oshkosh, Wis., on May 9, 2024. The food bank currently serves 2,300 families per month, up from 1,300 two years ago. It’s one of 265 Wisconsin pantries that accept food from The Emergency Food Assistance Program, funded by the federal government. (Shane Fitzsimmons for Wisconsin Watch)

The Sharing Center, a rural food pantry in Kenosha County, gets about 90% of its food from donations, with 10% coming from TEFAP, said Sharon Pomaville, the organization’s executive director.

Donors often question whether the pantry is “a free-for-all” that doesn’t scrutinize who receives assistance, Pomaville said.

Pomaville added in an email that she expects her organization to opt out of the federal program “because it’ll gut our pantry, and not allow us to collect data that allows us to secure critical programmatic grants for seniors, children, and veterans.”

State officials say pantries can still collect data, such as the ages of their clients, for food not associated with the federal program. But workers must clarify the questions aren’t required for TEFAP foods — potentially requiring pantries to adopt different procedures for different types of foods.

Some pantry leaders feel out of the loop

Some pantry leaders say they felt excluded from the state’s decision-making process, and they were surprised to find an updated TEFAP client form on the health department website before officials told them about the changes directly. 

The pantry directors currently lack access to an updated procedure manual, which the health department plans to publish in October.

People look at and reach for food items past open glass doors. Above is an image of pizzas between the words "Dinners & Desserts" and "Froz."
Visitors to the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry in Oshkosh, Wis., gather frozen items on May 9, 2024. The Emergency Food Assistance Program, funded by the federal government, provides participating food banks with essentials like milk, eggs, meat, and fresh fruits and vegetables. (Shane Fitzsimmons for Wisconsin Watch)

A spokesperson said the health department asked regional TEFAP coordinators in November for feedback on the changes but heard little criticism until the department announced the changes in April.

“If the whole state would have come back to us with challenges, I think we would have had to look at this a lot closer,” the department spokesperson said.

Shane Fitzsimmons contributed reporting. This story comes from a partnership of Wisconsin Watch and WPR. Addie Costello is WPR’s Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow embedded in the newsroom of Wisconsin Watch.

Wisconsin drops ID checks at federally funded food pantries is a post from Wisconsin Watch, a non-profit investigative news site covering Wisconsin since 2009. Please consider making a contribution to support our journalism.

Seventh tribe bans South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem

A seventh tribe in South Dakota, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, banned Gov. Kristi Noem on May 14.

During a Tuesday meeting, the Crow Creek Tribal Council voted unanimously to ban Noem from entering its central South Dakota reservation.

The decision comes on the heels of the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s decision to ban Noem on May 10 and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate’s banishment on May 7.

These bans have been made following the governor’s accusations that Mexican drug cartels are operating on tribal land in South Dakota. Noem also accused tribal governments of benefiting off of the alleged cartel presence and of failing their people, particularly youth. 

Tribes are now exercising their sovereignty by indefinitely banning the governor from tribal lands in the state.

As sovereign nations, tribal governments are allowed to ban anyone from their lands. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribes possess the right to regulate activities within their jurisdiction, which includes the banishment of persons, Native or non-Native.

Previously when questioned about being banished from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in early April, Noem’s Communication Director Ian Fury said Noem encourages tribes to banish cartels from tribal lands. 

The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe’s decision leaves the governor only able to enter two of the nine reservations in the state, the Lower Brule Reservation in central South Dakota and the Flandreau Santee Reservation in eastern South Dakota.

The governor’s communications director did not respond to a request for comment about her recent banishments. 

The Crow Creek banishment came moments after Noem announced the creation and appointment of a tribal law enforcement liaison.

Algin Young, the former police chief of the Oglala Department of Public Safety, was announced as the tribal law enforcement liaison on May 14. Young left his position on April 21 after his contract with the Oglala Sioux Tribe expired, interim police chief John Pettigrew said in an interview with ICT and the Rapid City Journal. 

The post Seventh tribe bans Kristi Noem appeared first on Buffalo’s Fire.

100-year-old basket returns home to the Modoc Nation

The Modoc Nation celebrated gembli — meaning coming home in Modoc — after leaders from the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma returned a culturally significant basket.

As Ohio clamps down on clean energy, recent changes make it easier to force landowners to allow oil and gas drilling

Overhead photo of a natural gas drilling operation amid rolling hills in rural Ohio.

Ohio has seen a big jump in the number of agency orders forcing property owners to allow oil and gas development on their land, whether they want it or not. 

The number of so-called “unitization” orders issued by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has surged in recent years, peaking at 112 in 2022 and continuing at nearly 100 last year, according to data obtained from the agency by the Energy News Network. 

The practice is common, with rules varying by state. In Ohio, lawmakers began working to streamline the process for oil and gas companies in 2019, coinciding with a decline in the state’s gas production after a seven-year fracking boom.

Those changes run contrary to other efforts in Ohio to restrict energy development in the name of neighbors’ private property rights, including strict wind farm setbacks passed in 2014 and a 2021 law allowing counties to block new wind and solar projects.

Under Ohio law, companies must meet several conditions before initiating unitization, including a showing that at least 65% of property owners in a project area consent to drilling. 

Critics say the process was already tilted in the companies’ favor, and that the recent changes will make it even harder to block drilling or negotiate concessions.

“All the cards are stacked against us,” said Patrick Hunkler. In 2018, ODNR issued an unitization order for property he and his wife, Jean Backs, own in Belmont County, which is one of the state’s top-producing counties for oil and gas. The developer later canceled the project, so the order was revoked. More recently, Ascent Resources had tried to lease their land before backing out.  

The legal process known as unitization has been available to Ohio oil and gas companies since 1965 but was rarely used until about a decade ago, after advances in drilling technology made it profitable to tap into harder-to-develop pockets of petroleum.

“The unitization process exists to protect the rights of those … who want to lease their minerals for development,” said Rob Brundrett, president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, “so that a small minority of owners … cannot stop everyone else from realizing the full potential of their property and minerals.”

For petroleum companies, the process has also promoted efficient oil and gas extraction. Otherwise, reduced pressure from too many wells could reduce the total recovery from an area.

Companies must show they have consent from owners of 65% of the area above a common oil and gas deposit before they can seek a unitization order. Companies also must show they tried to reach an agreement with holdouts, and that drilling under those properties is necessary to substantially increase the amount of oil and gas recovered. Any added value must also exceed the related costs.

“Our experience at the unitization hearing was that oil and gas runs the show,” Backs said.

Hearings don’t consider environmental impacts or other reasons landowners might not want drilling and fracking. “It’s just not part of the evaluation,” said Heidi Robertson, a Cleveland State University law professor who has written about unitization. Rather, she said, the basic question is: “Will adding this land to the unit make it easier for the developer to more efficiently and more profitably get the oil and gas out of the ground?”

The answer is almost always yes. 

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has denied only one unitization application since 2012, according to spokesperson Andy Chow. Meanwhile, it has approved more than 500 applications, with more than half the orders issued after 2020. The agency hired an additional employee in 2021 to deal with an increase in applications, Chow said.

Owners whose property is unitized won’t have pads or roads on their property, but they still get royalties and other payments. Ohio law requires “just and reasonable” compensation for landowners.

In most cases that compensation starts with a 12.5% royalty. Additional payments are adjusted for the developer’s expenses and other factors and the compensation is often smaller than that for voluntary participants. Orders typically have let companies recoup twice those amounts before unitized landowners can get payouts beyond royalties, said attorney Matthew Onest, whose firm has represented multiple landowners in oil and gas matters. 

In some cases, property owners must wait even longer. At a March 27 hearing, for example, drilling company EAP Ohio asked for a “500% penalty” for owners who did not agree to a lease. Anna Biblowitz, a negotiator for Encino Energy, claimed the higher penalty was justified by the developer’s risk and “as a motivator for other working interest owners to participate.” A ruling in the case is due this month.

Why are there more orders?

Some property owners, including Backs and Hunkler, worry about climate change and other environmental impacts. They said companies wouldn’t agree to requested lease terms for no flaring, methane monitoring and monitoring of the spring on their property.

“These oil and gas companies aren’t addressing the important issues of our environment,” Hunkler said.

Other landowners may hold out because they want more money, said Onest. “They kind of dig their heels in,” he said.

Industry experts said market forces could partially explain the rise in unitization cases. Property owners could hold out more often because they want higher payments like others got early on in the state’s fracking boom. Or, higher oil prices might be motivating companies to pursue projects that once seemed too complicated to be worthwhile. 

State officials have made the process easier, too. In 2019, lawmakers added language about how to calculate the 65% threshold, tucking the terms into a 2,600-page state budget law. Matt Hammond, who was then president of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association, told lawmakers the added language was meant to “clarify” the law. 

In practice, the change likely lowered a barrier for companies to use the tool, according to Clif Little, an Ohio State University Extension educator in Old Washington, Ohio. “If you’re seeing actually more [cases] for forced unitization, that would be a significant player in that,” Little said.

Another law passed in 2022 requires the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to hold hearings on unitization applications within 60 days. The agency must rule within 60 days of the hearing, and also let companies know in advance if an application is incomplete.

For industry, the primary benefit from the 2022 law change was to get certainty about timing. “This impacted how a producer was able to plan their drilling schedules,” said Mike Chadsey, director of external affairs for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources also changed its guidelines last year to standardize unitization applications. The agency’s website said the changes were “aimed at streamlining the review process” and that applications would include fewer documents.

Among other things, companies don’t need to file testimony from engineers, geologists and landmen in advance of hearings — something they had generally done in the past, said Robertson at Cleveland State. In her view, that further limits any dissenting landowners’ ability to prepare challenges to such testimony when the hearing does take place.

The Covid-19 pandemic also affected unitization hearings, which are now generally held via Zoom. “Allowing these meetings to be held via Zoom is a benefit to all parties involved,” Chadsey said, adding that it’s more convenient for landowners.

Folks in “suits and ties” had to come from out of state when ODNR held the unitization hearing for Hunkler and Backs’ property back in 2017. With a remote format, though, the hearing panel and company personnel “don’t have to look at you in person,” Hunkler said.

Oil and gas companies said they take every step to avoid forced leases, but that unitization is an important tool when that is not possible.

“When those means are exhausted, which often includes situations of poor record-keeping or the inability to locate an owner, unitization can be a tool to ensure property and mineral rights are realized by all stakeholders,” said Zack Arnold, president and CEO of Infinity Natural Resources.

Jackie Stewart, vice president of external affairs for Encino Energy voiced a similar position. “Encino makes every attempt to lease all landowners in each unit and only utilized unitization after all leasing efforts are exhausted, so the property rights of Ohio’s landowners can be realized,” she said.

“This isn’t something any lawyer can handle. You have to be an expert in this stuff,” Robertson said. “And all the experts are on the other side, because that’s where the money is.”

Robertson is unaware of any legislation to make matters fairer for landowners who don’t want to lease their land. And gerrymandering makes it unlikely such bills will be passed anytime soon. As she sees it, the process is “stacked against the dissenting landowner.”

As Ohio clamps down on clean energy, recent changes make it easier to force landowners to allow oil and gas drilling is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.