How one man’s open records obsession sparked a fight over transparency and power in East Texas

Once a tool of journalists and concerned citizens to hold government accountable, open records requests have been increasingly used by political opponents and conspiracy theorists to slow down the pace of government.

Sherman school officials put trans student at center of real-life drama over “Oklahoma!” production

After Max Hightower scored a role in the seminal American musical, administrators changed their policy on performers’ gender. On Friday, they rescinded that rule, but also announced a truncated production of the show.

Merger Creates Internet Company Serving Rural Areas in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma

Two Internet service providers are merging to cover a larger area of Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, but an expert in community broadband networks cautions that consolidation can often hurt customer service.

The two former companies – 360 Communications of Durant, Oklahoma, and 903 Broadband of Leonard, Texas – were roughly the same size, which means the combination is a doubling in size for both. Upon the merger in August that became 360 Broadband, the new company had nearly 16,000 subscribers and 88 employees across 10,000 square miles and 30 counties: 20 in Oklahoma, six in Texas, and four in Arkansas. The company’s services are provided via a hybrid network containing both fiber elements and almost 250 wireless towers.

Drew Beverage, chief strategy officer for 360 Broadband, said it seemed smart to combine the two companies for funding opportunities.

“At the federal level, at the state level, it makes sense for the two companies to come together to combine resources to be able to play in that arena,” he told the Daily Yonder. “And not only provide better customer service, give us better options to be able to go after some of that federal money to build out more resources to build out more rural space. And we’re talking about the most rural of towns.”

Christopher Mitchell, who runs the Community Broadband Networks program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said in general, he is concerned about consolidation and the impact it has.

“We worry that local customer service will be harmed, and get worse,” he told the Daily Yonder. He added, however, that he knows there is a high cost of building and operating compared to many other businesses.

“And so, if you don’t have 5,000 to 10,000 subscribers, it can be hard to be able to grow the network in ways that you would like. And so it’s kind of expected, I feel like for some ISPs to grow through mergers,” he said. “As they get bigger and bigger, we really worry about their ability to meet all of the local needs.”

Beverage served on the Oklahoma Rural Broadband Expansion Council for one year. He said making sure people know about the Affordable Connectivity Program is important. The program provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward Internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. 360 Broadband will now cover Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, Beverage added.

“If nobody has ever been around someone that builds broadband, they might not know that that is offered to them,” he said. “But I think it will have a huge impact for the small communities, the more we build, to be able to get reasonable, reliable broadband service.”

Mitchell said that it’s important for a new company from a merger to try to remain rooted in the communities they are serving.

“We find that when an ISP is rooted in the community, with its technicians, and its ownership – all being within a community – that they tend to make more investments in higher quality services, and they provide better customer service,” he said. “As they spend less time in the community – as they become a larger, more regional ISP – they may not put as much attention into the community that they previously had.”

Beverage said they hired locally from the communities they serve,

“I think it’s a lot of buy-in from our staff, knowing that we’re bringing Internet to their family members, loved ones, the community that they grew up in,” Beverage said. “And so I think there’s a big difference there: the money is not in rural Internet, the money is where there’s a population that can give you a better ROI. But we have a passion to serve rural communities.”

Mitchell said it’s also important to keep in mind who is operating and running a combined company.

“If it’s still a company that is owned by a few people who are deeply committed to providing high-quality internet access, that may still be able to provide a high quality service,” he said. “If it’s owned by private equity, which is focused on a long-term, maximization of profits or even a short-term maximization of profits, then the experience is less likely to go well for the customers.

The post Merger Creates Internet Company Serving Rural Areas in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Stephens County Commissioners vote to evict Thomas the Courthouse Cat, prompting County Treasurer’s resignation

By Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan

Stephens County Commissioners voted unanimously this morning to ban all animals, except for those they are legally required to admit, from the courthouse, effective today, a move that was immediately followed by the resignation of Stephens County Treasurer Sharon Trigg, the caretaker of Thomas the Courthouse Cat.

Her verbal resignation to County Judge Michael Roach led to an emergency meeting in the commissioners’ office at 3 p.m. today, Monday, Oct. 23, for the commissioners to discuss appointing someone to fill the treasurer’s office until a special election can be held next year.

Sharon Trigg, Stephens County Treasurer, packs up her office after resigning from the position on Monday, Oct. 23, following the passage of a new county animal policy that will evict Thomas the Courthouse Cat, seen on his pet bed on the left. (Photo by Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan)

After deciding that they needed more time to appoint someone to the treasurer’s position, the commissioners postponed that vote until Monday, Oct. 30, and appointed District Clerk Christie Coapland to assist with the payroll and some other duties until the new appointee can be installed.

At the emergency meeting, County Attorney Gary Trammel advised the judge and the commissioners in attendance — Will Warren, Mark McCullough and David Fambro — that the person appointed to help with the payroll has to be an elected official. Roach recessed the meeting for about five minutes while he went upstairs to the district courtroom to ask Coapland if she would agree to the temporary appointment. She accompanied him back to the meeting and agreed. Her duties will be limited.

According to information provided by Christie Latham, the County Elections Officer/Tax Assessor-Collector, the commissioners will need to appoint someone to serve as Stephens County Treasurer through December 2024. That person must meet the same qualifications as a candidate for the office: be a resident of Texas for at least one year; be a Stephens County resident for at least six months; and, be a registered voter with an effective date of registration on the date of the appointment.

There will be a place on the primary ballot in March 2024 for the “Unexpired Term of Stephens County Treasurer.” Whoever is elected will take office in January 2025 and serve through December 2026. The filing period for running for the unexpired term will open on Nov. 11, 2023, and continue through Dec. 11, 2023. During the emergency meeting, the commissioners discussed how it could be difficult to find someone to agree to take the position for a year, knowing that they might not get elected next year.

Coapland’s appointment was contingent on Roach receiving Trigg’s official, written resignation. Trammel told the commissioners that if her resignation letter stated that the resignation was effective at 5 p.m. today, Monday, Oct. 23, then today would be her last day. But, if there was no specified time, Trigg would have to serve another eight days. As she was packing up her office this afternoon, Trigg indicated that she would be submitting a formal resignation.

Trigg, who was first elected to the office in 2005, said after she found out this morning that Thomas wouldn’t be allowed to stay at the courthouse, she decided it was just time for her leave. “I don’t want to leave on a real bad note,” she said. “But, I just feel like it’s time to move on and let somebody else handle it.”

Thomas the Courthouse Cat

Thomas has lived at the courthouse for about 10 years, Trigg said. She explained that in 2013, someone told then-County Judge Gary Fuller that there was a kitten on the steps of the courthouse. Fuller decided to get the gray and white kitten neutered and brought him inside to live in the courthouse, Trigg said.

Fuller conferred, explaining that the cat was “skin and bones” when he first showed up, and Fuller took him to a vet for treatment. Initially, the former County Judge said, Thomas stayed outside. “And then people would let him in and then, you know, he just found a way in with everybody,” he said. “I don’t remember ever having anybody much complain about the cat being there. He was just there; he made his home there.”

Fuller also said that before Thomas and other cats were around the courthouse, the courthouse had a big problem with rats and mice.

Thomas spends most of his time in Trigg’s office, occasionally going outside to sit in the sun. Additionally, she said, Thomas likes people, including children, and enjoys it when people stop to pet him or talk to him. Trigg said she has never heard a complaint from any visitor to the courthouse about Thomas.

Now, she will take Thomas home to live with her.

Upstairs in the Justice of the Peace’s office, the staff hadn’t been officially informed of the new policy by late Monday afternoon and they weren’t sure what would happen to Justice, the year-old sheepadoodle that JP Steve Spoon had hoped to get trained as a therapy dog to help out with court cases, especially those involving children.

Roach confirmed Monday evening that Justice will not be allowed back inside the courthouse until he is trained and certified and is compliant with the new policy.

The newly enacted Stephens County Animal Policy allows courthouse employees, elected officials and visitors to the courthouse to be accompanied by dogs or miniature horses that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a disabled person. The policy is meant to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Specifically regarding pets or animals that aren’t certified therapy dogs or miniature horses, the new policy prohibits employees and elected officials from bring pets to work at the courthouse or other facilities owned by Stephens County.

Much of the policy addresses the types of dogs and miniature horses that are allowed, but the final two paragraphs of the policy detail the “pet” portion:

“The Stephens County Commissioner’s Court has weighed the considerations for employees or elected officials to bring pets to work at facilities owned by Stephens County. In considering the health and safety of employees, elected officials and visitors to Stephens County facilities, the Stephens County Commissioner’s Court finds that pets can spur allergic reaction among co-workers, invitees, elected officials and visitors which can cause interruptions to their ability to work effectively. The Stephens County Commissioner’s Court believes that work is disrupted because of the need to take pets outside. The Stephens County Commissioner’s Court states that some employees have a genuine fear of dogs, cats, and other animals or pets, which needs to be respected. The Stephens County Commissioner’s Court contacted their liability insurance carrier and was advised about concerns of liability for Stephens County should an employee, elected official, invitee, or visitor be bitten or injured by a pet brought to work.

Therefore, the Stephens County Commissioner’s Court finds after due and deliberate consideration that it is not appropriate to bring pets into the Stephens County Courthouse or other facilities owned by Stephens County, and thus, Stephens County Commissioner’s Court hereby prohibits employees and elected officials from bringing pets to work at the Stephens County Courthouse or other facilities owned by Stephens County. Violations of this policy will result in disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

Additionally, the policy includes a county ordinance that the commissioners voted on separately this morning, making it illegal for anyone “to feed or provide water to a wild animal, including but not limited to non-domestic canines, non-domestic felines, feral cats, stray animals, non-domestic rabbits, skunks, and/or raccoons, on any property owned or operated by the Stephens County Commissioner’s Court, the Stephens County Sheriff, or Stephens County, Texas.”

The policy continues: “It shall be unlawful to provide food and/or water that is left outside for animals in a free feed environment. This Free feed environment attracts not only feral cats, non-domestic cats, non-domestic dogs, but also skunks, raccoons, and possums which not only causes damage and a nuisance to the Stephens County Courthouse but also to neighboring businesses.”

According to the policy, anyone who commits such a violation will be punished by the following fee schedule:

  • First offense – $100 fine
  • Second offense – $200 fine
  • Third offense – $300 fine and and additionally $100 fine per animal found at said free feed environment or on the surrounding property owned by Stephens County
  • Fourth offense and subsequent offenses – $500 fine and a $300 fine per animal located at the area of free food environment located on Stephens County property.

Click here to read a scanned PDF of the entire Stephens County Animal Policy.

Roach said that there have been complaints by courthouse employees about scratches on their vehicles allegedly made by cats, as well as feces on the courthouse steps left by cats. “And then there’s been a flea infestation,” he said. “We just had to hire a company to come in because employees were getting bitten by fleas because they’re all in the basement, where a bunch of these feral cats are underneath.”

Regarding the indoor pets at the courthouse, Roach said, “Occasionally, when Thomas has gotten near somebody, who had an allergy, getting their driver’s license renewed, that’s a rare thing, but it’s happened. Not everybody likes a cat jumping up on them anyway, and he tends to do that because he doesn’t realize (who is a) friend or foe. But, then, with Justice, some people are scared of dogs and dogs are more vocal. So there’s been a complaint, some complaints, about that as well. And we’ve heard it in Commissioners’ Court, animal barking so. So I would say yes, there have been some complaints. I wouldn’t say they’re every day, all the time. But the other thing is, if those animals were to cause an issue, the County would be liable for it. That’s the big thing that we’re trying to avoid is liability.”

During the morning meeting, Trammel told the commissioners that they could make the new policy effective whenever they wanted to, and they chose to make it effective immediately. That means that no pets will be allowed in the courthouse and that it is illegal to feed or water cats or other animals on the courthouse lawn, beginning today.

Justice the sheepadoodle relaxes in the Justice of the Peace office on Monday afternoon, his last day to legally be in the courthouse. If Justice is trained and certified as a therapy animal, he might be allowed to return. (Photo by Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan)

Cutline, top photo: The Stephens County Commissioners Court met in an emergency meeting at 3 p.m. Monday, Oct. 23, with County Attorney Gary Trammel to discuss appointing a temporary County Treasurer after Sharon Trigg told the County Judge that she intended to resign, effective at the end of the day over the county’s new animal policy. Pictured from left are County Attorney Gary Trammel, Commissioners Mark McCullough and David Fambro, County Clerk Jackie Ensey, County Judge Michael Roach and Commissioner Will Warren. (Photo by Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan)

Tony Pilkington contributed to this story.

The post Stephens County Commissioners vote to evict Thomas the Courthouse Cat, prompting County Treasurer’s resignation first appeared on Breckenridge Texan.

Oilfield companies helped to craft Texas’ new waste rules for 2 years before the public got to see them

The effort to update the state’s oilfield waste disposal rules was initiated by Railroad Commissioner Jim Wright, one of the state’s top oil and gas regulators who has investments in the industry.

How does climate change threaten your neighborhood? A new map has the details.

If you’ve been wondering what climate change means for your neighborhood, you’re in luck. The most detailed interactive map yet of the United States’ vulnerability to dangers such as fire, flooding, and pollution was released on Monday by the Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University.

The fine-grained analysis spans more than 70,000 census tracts, which roughly resemble neighborhoods, mapping out environmental risks alongside factors that make it harder for people to deal with hazards. Clicking on a report for a census tract yields details on heat, wildfire smoke, and drought, in addition to what drives vulnerability to extreme weather, such as income levels and access to health care and transportation.

The “Climate Vulnerability Index” tool is intended to help communities secure funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate law President Joe Biden signed last summer. An executive order from Biden’s early months in office promised that “disadvantaged communities” would receive at least 40 percent of the federal investments in climate and clean energy programs. As a result of the infrastructure law signed in 2021, more than $1 billion has gone toward replacing lead pipes and more than $2 billion has been spent on updating the electric grid to be more reliable.

“The Biden Administration has made a historic level of funding available to build toward climate justice and equity, but the right investments need to flow to the right places for the biggest impact,” Grace Tee Lewis, a health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.

According to the data, all 10 of the country’s most vulnerable counties are in the South, many along the Gulf Coast, where there are high rates of poverty and health problems. Half are in Louisiana, which faces dangers from flooding, hurricanes, and industrial pollution. St. John the Baptist Parish, just up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, ranks as the most vulnerable county, a result of costly floods, poor child and maternal health, a list of toxic air pollutants, and the highest rate of disaster-related deaths in Louisiana.

“We know that our community is not prepared at all for emergencies, the federal government is not prepared, the local parish is not prepared,” Jo Banner, a community activist in St. John the Baptist, told Capital B News.

Even in cities where climate risk is comparatively low, like Seattle, the data shows a sharp divide. North Seattle is relatively insulated from environmental dangers, whereas South Seattle — home to a more racially diverse population, the result of a history of housing covenants that excluded people on the basis of race or ethnicity — suffers from air pollution, flood risk, and poorer infrastructure.

A map of Seattle's vulnerability to dangers such as fire, flooding, and pollution
A map shows a divide between the North and South Seattle, with darker tones indicating areas that are more vulnerable to environmental hazards.
The U.S. Climate Vulnerability Index; Mapbox / OpenStreetMap

Similar maps of local climate impacts have been released before, including by the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, but the new tool is considered the most comprehensive assessment to date. While it includes Alaska and Hawai‘i, it doesn’t cover U.S. territories like Puerto Rico or Guam. The map is available here, and tutorials on how to use the tool, for general interest or for community advocates, are here.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How does climate change threaten your neighborhood? A new map has the details. on Oct 2, 2023.

With no opposition in the room, a rural Texas county makes traveling for an abortion on its roads illegal

Cochran County, which borders New Mexico, joins a small group of other rural Texas counties that have passed these ordinances. Abortion-rights supporters say the new policies are not legal.

Nonprofit Shares Three National Lessons about Rural Higher Education

a bald white man sits in front of a computer at a table with a latino man wearing a black cap.

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

Across the country, rural educators are grappling with evolving workforce demands in fascinating ways.

In Florida: The Everglades are about to become a $300 million economic hub with the creation of the new Airglades International Airport … if the region can attract the 1,400 workers it needs.

In Indiana: A county whose limestone sheaths the Empire State Building and the National Cathedral is converting a prison education program into a broader adult workforce redevelopment initiative.

In New Mexico: An education collaborative founded to get Taos students better internet during the COVID-19 pandemic is working to create more career opportunities outside of just tourism for its diverse Latino and indigenous populations.

These are three of the five communities that CivicLab — a Columbus, Indiana-based education nonprofit — has been working with in an effort to increase educational capacity in rural areas.

The project began two years ago, with a $750,000 grant awarded by Ascendium Education Group.

Full disclosure: Ascendium sponsors my work here at Open Campus. I was not asked by Ascendium to report on CivicLab’s work, and you can read more about our editorial independence policy here.

The lessons from each of these communities are compelling, and we will explore some of them in future editions of Mile Markers.

However, after recently speaking with Dakota Pawlicki, director of Talent Hubs at CivicLab, it was clear that there are several national trends about rural higher ed worth spotlighting in today’s edition.

1. The role of unlikely champions

Pawlicki further expanded my understanding of the types of champions rural areas can lean on. For example, a local county judge was a key partner to getting justice-involved individuals into workforce retraining programs in rural Duval County, Texas, nearly two hours inland of Corpus Christi.

Regular readers of Mile Markers may not find this to be a huge surprise — : after all, we’ve spotlighted the ways surprising mentors can make a huge difference in rural spaces, from Kansas to California and Colorado.

“In a lot of urban and suburban areas, you have to refer to institutional organizational leadership to spur change,” Pawlicki says. But in rural communities, folks wear a lot of different hats, creating a different set of trust and reputational factors.

“One of the generalizable pieces of advice is to think of a broader set of stakeholders when going about doing this work,” Pawlicki says. “We are constantly finding unlikely champions.”

2. The notion of rural uniqueness

At a lot of national organizations, there is a persistent perception that rural colleges and communities are at a deficit, Pawlicki says. CivicLab tries to push against that with the way it approaches its community building and education efforts.

“We really focus on examining and asking what questions organizations are asking, because, oftentimes, we are asking the wrong one,” Pawlicki says. “So then it becomes about more interesting questions, like: ‘What do you have going for you, for your community?”

One example: CivicLab tries to push communities to find novel solutions within the programs that are already working in their communities, rather than starting some new initiative to reach their goals.

That attitude shines through with the work being done in Lawrence County, Indiana, where local employers were thrilled with a prison workforce retraining program … and started asking for more.

“The program was primarily for people who were currently in the justice system, or people who had recently exited. They would earn credentials tied to a job with high demand, and employers were saying “We need more of this,” Pawlicki says, before chuckling.

“Now, obviously we don’t want to send more people to jail just to get more people into this program. But what if we just opened up this existing program that’s already staffed, and start including people who aren’t in the justice system?”

That thinking led to expanding the program to other area adults who needed ongoing career education and training, a particularly valuable addition considering that there are no community colleges or four-year universities in the county.

3. How do rural communities get to define themselves?

Pawlicki used to work at the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, another funder of Open Campus. He notes that the grant requirements for national education philanthropies often come from a well-meaning place but end up forcing rural communities to define themselves not by what they have, but what they are lacking.

There are many institutional reasons why that is the case. It can be difficult to define rural, as I noted in our very first edition of Mile Markers, and that definitional challenge causes problems when trying to fund education innovation in rural areas.

“At the federal level, there are somewhere between 22 to 25 different rural definitions across agencies, and private philanthropy asks communities to prove they are rural,” Pawlicki says.

“We went about our request for proposals in a different way: We said, ‘Don’t worry about sharing all your demographic data with us. If it’s publicly available data, we’ll grab it ourselves. Instead, tell us about your place, and tell us about your people.”

That approach led CivicLab to notice a curious trend. CivicLab received 10 qualified proposals, generally from three different places: those that were “truly rural” by most metrics, those that were in a neighboring county and “rural-adjacent,” and, finally, those that were “rural-serving” but not rural themselves.

“We found that the further away you were from being truly rural-located, the more deficit-language you ended up using in your proposal,” Pawlicki notes, saying those submissions typically included more stats about poverty rates and unemployment rolls.

“Through the trends and data points were similar, proposals from truly rural places took less of a ‘here’s how poor we are’ approach, and more of a ‘here is our rich history: here are the people who came from our community.’”

For Pawlicki, that discovery made it even clearer to him that any definition of rural that does include primary data – that is, insight and information from the people within those communities – is insufficient.

It was also a reminder that rural communities aren’t often given the same opportunity to tout their special nature as urban and suburban communities might.

“As funding agencies and policymakers, we let cities do this all the time: They routinely boast their unique assets when competing for high-profile federal investments,” Pawlicki says. “We don’t allow rural America to do the same thing … or at the very least, we don’t give it the same weight.”

yellow wild flowers sit in the foreground of a mountain landscape
A view from Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. (Photo by Nick Fouriezos)

More Rural Higher Ed News

The opportunity of rural community colleges. The Fifth Federal Reserve District — comprising a district that includes Maryland, the Carolinas, Virginia and most of West Virginia — released a report analyzing the critical role of community colleges in rural communities, noting that universities and hospital systems typically receive more recognition as “anchor institutions.”

“To the extent that they play a role in ensuring opportunities and achieving efficient outcomes in rural areas, community colleges may represent an undervalued opportunity,” the report concluded.

Wyoming starts student-centered learning efforts. The Cowboy State started its push for instruction and assessments that better align with students’ needs at a kick-off event in Casper, Wyo. that included a keynote from Governor Mark Gordon.

Montana launches statewide micro-credential program. 12 Montana colleges and universities are collaborating with the Education Design Lab, local employers, and other stakeholders to create 12-20 short-term credentialing programs that lead to an associate degree or immediate employment in economically critical fields.

This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.

The post Nonprofit Shares Three National Lessons about Rural Higher Education appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Family legacies and the state’s Jim Crow past underlie a fight over mineral rights on a stretch of South Texas scrubland

Descendants of a prominent white family and a formerly enslaved couple are fighting over ownership — and the oil and gas royalties that would come with it — of an 147.5-acre tract that has bound and divided generations of their families.