Ralph D’Andrea – Silent Key

I need to pay homage to an important person from my days in Colorado, whose untimely death has left a void on a lot of fronts, most notably in media and political criticism, but also technical expertise in many areas.

I received some sad news on Tuesday afternoon with the announcement that Ralph D’Andrea had passed away suddenly last Friday. Ralph’s obituary summarized him well:

Ralph had a brilliant mind and a loving heart, desiring the best for his community and country and always willing to help those in need. A talented guitarist, he played in local bands in both Montclair, NJ and Grand Junction. Scientist, astronomer, ham radio operator, educator, computer whiz, musician, animal advocate, grandpa, family man and seeker of justice, he seemed to excel in anything that interested him.

Ralph was already trailblazing as the author of the Junction Daily Blog when I first started writing in 2006. His critical voice was often powerful, sometimes over-the-top, but always intelligent and reasoned.

Ralph was savvy enough to host his own blog instead of using a hosting service such as Blogger or WordPress, but a server crash deprived us of much of his best early writing. Some still survives, however, in places like The Huffington Post.

In recent years he moved his blog to Facebook, and maintained a Twitter feed for shorter outbursts. His apparent final post, in the late morning hours of the day he died, has an unfortunately autobiographical tone in the wake of his passing.

Ralph’s posts about fracking, which were written from the standpoint of both his career as a geological professional and his avocation as a pollster and political analyst, helped me to form solid opinions about the practice that have served me well since returning to Pennsylvania.

Ralph and I met once, in 2008 at a media workshop hosted by what is now Colorado Mesa University. He and I were often critical of the manner that the Grand Junction media reported on things..or didn’t. The media, for their part, did their best to remain civil while agreeing to disagree.

When the Daily Sentinel website went behind a subscription paywall in 2010, Ralph was adamant at the time in his refusal to subscribe, but in recent years made online story comments that are reserved for subscribers only. Perhaps there was a softening there.

The Sentinel, which has changed its paywall model to allow registered users view 12 free articles per month, published an editorial yesterday paying homage to the loss of Ralph’s “robust voice”. I was unable to read the bulk of it, however, because I exceeded my free articles for October and the paper’s servers have apparently failed to figure out it is November. I get the feeling Ralph would somehow appreciate the irony of that.

During our time as bloggers in the same area, Ralph and I both had to deal with loss; for me my first wife, for him his adult daughter. We quietly exchanged cards expressing condolences, and seemed to deal with much of our grief privately.

As a ham radio operator,  Ralph often fleshed out the DX, or distant contacts, aspect of the hobby. He often wrote about the annual field days, when contests were held to make the most contacts, often with emphasis on distance. It is a part of amateur radio that I have never explored, and I enjoyed reading about it from his perspective. Now that Ralph’s key has gone silent, I hope that his writing and enthusiasm inspires other radio hobbyists in the GJ area.

I owe Ralph credit for facilitating one of my most memorable moments while living in Grand Junction. Whenever some type of celestial body or other astronomical event was going to be visible in the local area, Ralph would post about it.

It was after one of those posts that I found myself laying face up at the clear night sky from the playground in Hawthorne Park, on the phone with Leslie while the International Space Station flew silently overhead, with a Space Shuttle following close by.

A memorial service is being held this afternoon in Grand Junction to celebrate Ralph’s life. Blessings, prayers, and condolences to Ralph’s family and friends.

May the stars shine that much more knowing that his spirit is among them.




Posted in Grand Junction, Media, Personal, Politics, Radio Hobby | 1 Comment

QV Reboots Search For ‘Crucial’ Positions

On October 9, the Quaker Valley School District re-advertised the position of School Resource Police Officer (SRO) online and elsewhere. This past August, I wrote about their efforts to find someone with the experience and temperament necessary to properly serve the diverse needs and complex situations present in the school environment.

After that post, I received an email from a candidate for the position who stated that he was “surprised” that no one had been hired from the initial group of applicants. He provided additional details about the extensive nature of the process:

There were approx. 50 applicants that applied. All applicants went through online testing, and the pool upon completion of this process was narrowed to approximately seven who had a first interview on or around June 23.  At least three had a 2nd interview on July 30.

The final three…met with three boards (A teacher / administration board, a police chief board, and a student board).  There was also a written response to a hypothetical situation.

I made additional inquiries at that time to QV’s Communications Director, Tina Vojtko, who put me in touch with the new Assistant Superintendent, Andrew Surloff.

Contacted at the beginning of October, Mr. Surloff initially stated that the process was still in place, with applicants evaluated in the spring still being considered. I then shared with him what I had been told about the process, along with some concerns about the seemingly inordinate length of time that had transpired to get the new officer on board. Mr. Surloff’s reply was frank and comprehensive:

Seemingly, such a process would not seem to necessitate so much time.  However, one delay was the significant changes to our administrative team.  Those hires were critical and took precedence over the SRO search process.  That said, we’ve been through several rounds and processes and have yet to be successful in reaching consensus on a finalist.  We need to ensure that your faculty, administration, students, local law enforcement agencies, and school board all feel as though we’ve been able to find the person to best serve in this role.  To date, we have not been able to finalize that.

Mr. Surloff also stated that a couple of finalists were not successful in the “final round” of the process. Considering the process up to this point, I have to wonder what that final round might consist of. Walking across hot coals? Or worse, a role-play scenario with a screaming parent?

Mr. Surloff concluded his remarks by stating, “We are committed to getting the right person to serve our schools and keep them safe“.  Considering the bureaucratic calisthenics that have been going on so far, I believe him. Whomever is eventually hired will have been vetted and evaluated with vigor and diligence rivaling a Cabinet position.

A review of the job listings today shows the position no longer advertised. Mr. Surloff stated in an e-mail that “We plan to screen the next group this week or next“. If the previous process is any indication, could it be well into next year before the new officer is on board?

Let’s hope it’s worth the time and effort.

That review of the district’s job listings also revealed a position whose vacancy was somewhat unexpected – the Director of Communications. An attempt to reach Tina Vojtko via her district email was replied automatically with “Please note that I have accepted a position with the Moon Area School District“.

Sure enough, Ms. Vojtko was on the job last Thursday when the [Allegheny Times reported] on the Moon district’s response to a harassing Twitter account. Ms. Vojtko’s work life will be a lively one over there, considering the district’s dispute with the Moon Transportation Authority and the beginnings of merger discussions with the neighboring Cornell School District.

In terms of the day-to-day operations at Quaker Valley, both of these positions share the same “crucial” label that has been previously applied to the Officer position. The Resource Officer is the district’s tangible face of safety and preparedness, while the Communicator is the one who assures that the district’s message is articulated, and its reputation properly managed.

Considering the amount of time being spent on securing consensus from different stakeholder groups within the district about potential candidates, as a citizen with relevant experience I feel that I am justified in weighing in with a few thoughts about both of these jobs:

  • Transparency – In my roles as a public safety professional and as a parent, I have personally witnessed multiple attempts to convey information to police and others about potential emergency situations in schools in such a way as to prevent students, parents, and especially the media from finding out about them.                                                                                                                                                                            Communication is not aided or embellished when affronts to transparency, accountability, and citizen awareness exist because of the operating philosophies of school district administrations. It is made even more difficult when public safety and other government stakeholders are complicit in those efforts to keep the daily, seemingly ‘routine’ problems quiet and hidden.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 That being said, I must recognize the willingness of QV Assistant Superintendent Andrew Surloff in communicating that nature and status of their process. His candor and accessibility is much appreciated.
  • Coordination – Communication is nearly always identified as a key improvement issue in the planning or functional exercise of safety or emergency plans, or when reviewing actual incidents in an attempt to improve response.

      Once a School Resource Officer is on board at Quaker Valley, he/she needs to directly           interface with area law enforcement and other public safety responders as a matter of           routine response to everyday incidents. This includes those who function as the first             level of coordination and information management – the dispatch center.

      Doing an ‘end around’ the dispatcher reinforces practices and attitudes that will                     not serve anyone well when the real emergency arrives.

      In 2013, Quaker Valley licensed several radio frequencies to aid in their own resource           coordination, and may be in the process of building their system out. Included with this       build-out may be equipment to assist local police and fire agencies with                                   communication inside school buildings.

      This will hopefully reinforce the concept of interoperability and unified command with       all involved stakeholders, and thus bring to life what is too often lost in a dust-covered         binder until needed in haste.

Best wishes to Mr. Surloff and his staff for a smooth and successful recruitment process.

Posted in Government, Local, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Schools | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Politics of Allergies

As a child, I was allergic to everything – or so it seemed.

I had to watch myself. My brother had it worse – if exposed to certain allergens, he would basically vapor lock and require some type of emergency treatment. His was the only air-conditioned room in our house for several years.

We both went weekly to the local pediatrician for shots until we were 12 or so. For me, the specter of allergies is now limited to those 3 weeks in mid-Spring when pollen is really flying out there, and my sinuses respond by filling with goo. That and goose down.

Some kids I knew had it worse. One or two had dangerous reactions to bee stings. I don’t remember encountering anyone with a serious food allergy when I was a kid.

For kids today, that no longer appears to be the case. CNN reported in 2010 that “the number of kids with food allergies went up 18 percent from 1997 to 2007, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 3 million children younger than 18 had a food or digestive allergy in 2007.”

The reasons for this are speculative, but one theory appears to stand out among others – the “hygiene hypothesis“. Put best into layman’s terms by the folks at UCLA:

The hygiene hypothesis states that excessive cleanliness interrupts the normal development of the immune system, and this change leads to an increase in allergies. In short, our “developed” lifestyles have eliminated the natural variation in the types and quantity of germs our immune system needs for it to develop into a less allergic, better regulated state of being.

A CDC report in 2013 added credence to this thinking:

Food and respiratory allergy prevalence increased with income level. Children with family income equal to or greater than 200% of the poverty level had the highest prevalence rates.

Does it follow that more cleanliness equals more sensitivity? The jury is still out.

In any event, Epinephrine is the first, best treatment for a life-threatening reaction. Delivery of this drug in emergency situations was simplified in the late 1970’s with the invention of the EpiPen. This device is marketed by Pittsburgh area-based Mylan.

Sanofi Pharmaceuticals manufactures Auvi-Q, an epinephrine injector with pre-recorded voice instructions.

With the increasing propensity of food allergies among children came some serious efforts at advocacy. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) is one such organization that started out as two separate groups.

FARE has done well to leverage donations and corporate sponsorship money to advance their cause, and it would seem that those supporting them are poised to reap the benefits – and that’s not limited to children with severe food allergies.

It’s not really surprising that FARE’s top two “Corporate Partners” are Mylan and Sanofi – two companies that stand to benefit the greatest from any legislative mandates concerning their products.

FARE scored a modest success a year ago when President Obama signed legislation that would give states that passed laws requiring schools to stock epinephrine injectors priority for federal grants to treat childhood asthma. Pennsylvania has taken a sort of leap toward this goal.

Last month, Senator Matt Smith (D-Mt. Lebanon) announced the passage of House Bill 803 by both the Pa. House and Senate. This is a compromise measure from Senate Bill 898, which Sen. Smith introduced and has championed for at least the last year or so. Governor Corbett signed the bill into law on October 31.

As reported by The Almanac:

 “The essential change was to allow epi-pens in schools rather than have it be a requirement. I still believe it should be a ‘shall’ rather than a ‘may,’ but that compromise allows schools to have these pens in place when a student or faculty member goes into anaphylactic shock,” Smith said.

Over the last year or so, I provided feedback to Sen. Smith’s staff about the need to make sure that Emergency Medical Services are notified whenever an EpiPen is used by school personnel to treat an allergic emergency.

Language to this effect appeared in both the House and Senate versions – the operative requirement now is that school staff, upon receiving a report of someone having an anaphylactic reaction, “shall contact 911 as soon as possible”. 

I like this simple, direct language. It’s been my experience that many schools would rather quietly notify only the parents of a medical issue, or if needed do an end around the system to keep things quiet. HB 803 now makes this illegal, not just ill-advised.

There are a couple of concerns about this legislation that need to be considered. One is whether or not all schools will choose to take the initiative to stock this medication and train their staff. If you consider the use of an EpiPen as a life-saving treatment for airway compromise, similar to using an AED to potentially reverse circulatory compromise, then to not make this treatment available may end up creating more liability in the long run.

In researching the increasing popularity of these devices, what seems to be going along hand-in-hand is a precipitous increase in the cost of these devices.

I located several posts from epinephrine users who were lamenting both the increase in cost and short half-life of the injectors. One of these bloggers provided information on a program that pays up to $100 of the insurance deductible on EpiPen. This comes from an online discount site, and doesn’t seem to be readily available as common public knowledge.

Perhaps the most inventive post came from In These Times, which chronicled two women as they tried to make sense of what they saw as price gouging, and made a Michael Moore-esque trip into Canada to prove their point. A couple of quotes seemed to do this rather well:

First synthesized in 1904, epinephrine…is now a dirtcheap generic. If your doctor prescribed it, says Vermont pharmacist Rich Harvie, you could buy a pre-loaded syringe of epinephrine for under $20. But the more foolproof delivery device—the pen in EpiPen—was patented in 1977, meaning that Mylan, the U.S. marketer, and Pfizer, the manufacturer, have a license to gouge.

EpiPens used to be cheap—just $35.59 wholesale in 1986. Harvie now pays $333 for a two-pack—the only option.

Tim Golding of Sen. Matt Smith’s staff directed me to some helpful information about programs that provide free EpiPens and training materials to school staff. Sanofi also has a similar program for Auvi-Q, and there are discount copay cards for this option available on at least one online savings site.

I should mention here the results of those ladies and their excursion north in search of cheap EpiPens, which, by the way, are available over-the-counter in Canada.

“I’d like to buy an EpiPen,” I told the pharmacist. “Have you a prescription, madam?” (the pharmacist) asked. “But I was told it was over-the-counter.” “Yes, but without [an insurance-backed] prescription, it will be so extremely expensive: US $94.”

This is yet another example of the disturbing nature of American health care, especially as it relates to pharmaceuticals. Big Pharma, with legislative assistance orchestrated by a quasi-Astroturf advocacy group, creates a market for the proprietary delivery system of a cheap generic medication, which can have life-saving effects in the pre-hospital setting. They will give the schools what they need, but maximize their profit on the backs of ordinary Americans.

There are obviously good reasons to assure that children with serious allergies have access to emergency treatment when needed. In response to increasing numbers of children with these conditions, adding epinephrine to the public arsenal is much like having an AED available in commercial buildings – or better yet, have a citizenry that takes CPR certification seriously.

As disturbing as it is to see children becoming more susceptible and sensitive to what are commonplace components of our food chain, it is of greater concern that we may never really know why this happens. The theoretical combination of culture, environment and genetics can be devastating to the families of children with serious health problems, or who lose a child to cancer or other illnesses.

It’s not much comfort that the most effective treatment has been made a commodity, at least in this country, in response to these trends.

Have a good month ahead.

Posted in Business, Health, Local, Personal, Politics, Schools | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Assorted School Updates and Silliness

As another school year reaches its stride, it is becoming populated by all manner of disagreements about issues both important and trivial, handled in ways both sublime and ridiculous.

Safety vs. the School Day

This past Monday, Quaker Valley Middle School was used as a landing zone for a patient at Heritage Valley Sewickley that needed air transport. This was the first use of the Middle School LZ since August 8, and the first in a long time during school hours.

The presence of emergency vehicles and the aircraft was apparently enough to generate some concern on the part of certain community members. After what was probably a number of phone calls to the school and district offices, QV’s Communications Director Tina Vojtko sent an e-mail list notification:

Emergency response vehicles including a helicopter are currently on-site due to a non-school emergency in the nearby area.

Students and staff continue to be hard at work in their classrooms.

It’s nice to see the process put into place in April continue to function well with all stakeholders, including those responsible for communicating with citizens.

South Williamsport vs. Monty Python

In 1977, the Quaker Valley Band traveled to South Williamsport (Pa.) High School to do a joint concert band appearance. The band director there at the time was a QV alumnus. I remember the majorettes from both schools dancing the Charleston onstage while the combined bands played a nice, jazzy arrangement, along with an overture that legendary QV band director Walter Iacobucci had composed especially for the occasion.

Apparently South Williamsport still has a robust performing arts tradition, which stirred a bit of controversy over the summer when the school principal vetoed the drama director’s choice of Spamalot for the annual spring musical, after actually paying for the rights to stage the production.

The dispute simmered over the summer months, fueled by the release of emails obtained via a Right-To-Know request, which seemed to indicate that the reversal of the approval to stage the production was due to “homosexual themes”.

As the school year was getting underway, the disagreement between the drama director, the principal, and the school board was brought to a head with the director’s dismissal by the board, and the subsequent resignation of her husband from the school board as a result.

Combined with the obvious civil liberties issue, the gay rights implications have focused much unwelcome media attention on a town whose only usual exposure to the spotlight is the annual Little League World Series. When heavies such as the New York Times weigh in, you know there’s a need for effective crisis and communication management.

With what is sounding like a standoff between a small school district and a mix of students, instructors, activists, and the commercial theater establishment, let’s hope no one entity starts looking like the Ministry of Silly Walks, or the Upper Class Twit of the Year.

West Mifflin vs. The State and Duquesne

The Post-Gazette reported last week about the West Mifflin School Board retaining legal counsel to explore the feasibility of suing both the Pa. Department of Education and the Duquesne City School District. High School age students from Duquesne attend West Mifflin and East Allegheny High Schools, and the state pays those districts tuition for those students.

The state’s payments are less than what West Mifflin estimates their cost per pupil is, and they want the difference.

Based on the amounts quoted in the story, West Mifflin is being shorted just under $1.1 Million per year, or just over 2 percent of the total district budget.

Depending upon the billable hours charged by Mr. Levin and his firm to do the research, and the additional hours and court costs required to conduct a lawsuit and any subsequent appeals of the outcome, this may or may not be a financially advantageous proposition for the taxpayers in West Mifflin. The lawyers may end up being the only ones making money from this.

Regardless of who is right or wrong, or whether or not the district has a case, perhaps it is an accounting firm or financial advisor who should be doing the research as to whether or not the end justifies the means in taking this to court.

Also regardless of any outcome, it’s apparent that Duquesne needs an exit strategy, just like Sto-Rox.

Sto-Rox vs. Propel – Round 2

In what sounds like the beginnings of a 12-round brouhaha (complete with Michael Buffer and his signature, trademarked introduction), the P-G reported yesterday on the state Charter Appeals Board denying Sto-Rox’s request for a stay of Propel Charter School’s plans to build a school that could eventually house 800 students in grades K-12.

Sto-Rox Solicitor Ira Weiss, whose firm is so prolific in its representation of school districts that he could fairly be called the Michael Buffer of school solicitors, is readying an appeal to Commonwealth Court to stop what he and his clients perceive is a “death blow” to the school district. No doubt Mr. Weiss’ meter is running as well.

A fair question for Sto-Rox voters – how much is enough? When do you say “No mas“, or negotiate a truce?

Maybe it’s just an eerie coincidence, but they face Quaker Valley on the gridiron tonight.

Easton vs. the ACLU

The above question is probably something that the Easton Area School District should have considered before appealing a court decision against them involving the placement of restrictions on bracelets in support of breast cancer. This is more commonly known as the I Heart Boobies case.

Easton appealed lower court decisions in favor of the students all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the district’s appeal. Easton is now on the hook for ACLU attorney fees to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars, money that local media is lamenting and the ACLU is defending.

The district, while also stating the payments are unfortunate, also brought up the excellent point that the costs associated with taking an intractable dispute into the courts are unreasonable, and often preclude someone with limited resources from seeking an equitable resolution.

Rather than making rich lawyers richer, perhaps we should be focused more on playing nice, and knowing when compromise makes more sense.

Moon Area School District vs…Moon Township

Thursday’s Tribune-Review contained a curious story about the Moon Area School District’s efforts to disengage themselves from the Moon Transportation Authority, which leverages shared property tax revenue to help finance transportation infrastructure to support increased development.

The school district has taken its argument directly to the public in the form of an open letter detailing its differences with both the Transportation Authority (of which 2 members were appointed by the School Board) and Moon Township itself.

It sounds as if the school district wants its money back because it feels it needs it for its first mission – to educate students. This probably has something to do with their stated desire to explore swallowing up Cornell.

The Transportation Authority is a great idea, and has performed a great service to citizens by helping to assure that responsible development is accompanied by traffic management systems and highway improvements capable of handling the impact of that development.

Despite this, perhaps their greatest work has yet to come to fruition – one is the planned redesign of the I-376 Thorn Run interchange, arguably one of the most confusing in the area. The other relates to current and future development planned for University Boulevard, and the capacity of that roadway to handle any expected increase in traffic loads as a result. I covered this at length in a post from last year.

By virtue of the recent expansion of its campus along University Boulevard and the subsequent impact on this area, Moon Area School District needs to continue to support the Transportation Authority’s efforts to improve transportation infrastructure to facilitate greater development, and with it the payoff of an increased tax base.

The $3.5 Million that the school district is insisting be returned amounts to just over 5 percent of its current $68 Million budget. If the school district truly wants to “avoid the unsightly spectacle of litigation between governmental entities” (as they state in their letter), then they’ll forget this foolishness, continue to participate, and make sure that taxpayer funds are spent in some way other than lining the pockets of lawyers and the courts.

Jefferson County School Board vs. American History

No chronicle of recent school craziness would be complete if I didn’t digress back to Colorado, and the interesting attempts by the school board in Jefferson County to establish a “Curriculum Review Committee” to review the Advanced Placement History curriculum along what appear to be blatantly political lines, modeled after similar efforts in Texas.

The protests, which have been well covered by both local and national media, are likely to continue after the school board voted yesterday to modify their attempts at review, but to proceed with the process. That doesn’t seem likely to appease the bulk of those opposed.

The most entertaining aspect of this issue has been the assault on the school board position via Twitter. Some tweets using this hashtag were downright hilarious.

Perhaps the smartest thing I read came from my former hometown newspaper, which stated in an editorial last week:

While we applaud the anti-censorship sentiments behind the protests, we want to remind these impressionable students of another important civics lesson: School board elections matter.

Groups such as the Concerned Taxpayers of Quaker Valley know this, which is one reason why the “establishment” slate of candidates for the last school board election was largely defeated.

While I’m not optimistic for a general return to civility (at least not until after the election), I believe that compromise and common sense will somehow find a way to triumph over all this posturing and expense.

Have a great October. Play nice…

Posted in Censorship, Civil Liberties, Government, Local, Public Safety, Schools, Sports | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Local Asides and Updates – Play Nice

There are plenty of little issues swirling around the area this week that garnered more than the average amount of my attention span.  Rather than dive into one and try to flesh it out for all it’s worth (as has been my usual recent practice), I thought I’d just list them here. All have a common theme.

Gridiron Glory and Life Lessons

There will likely be a little more public and media attention as Quaker Valley’s football squad takes the field vs. Carlynton tonight in Leetsdale. The Cougars’ first year head coach, Mauro Monz, resigned earlier this week after his team encountered significant hardships over the first three games of the season. Mr. Monz cited his concerns over player safety after several were lost to injury, dropping his roster to 23 players.

Coach Monz, who has been an assistant coach in many area college football programs, also cited the team’s move up from Class A to AA this season, after male enrollment at the high school creeped just over the PIAA cutoff for Class A. This makes Carlynton the smallest school statewide in Class AA.

The coach has been roundly criticized for this move. Tribune-Review columnist Kevin Gorman got down to the basics about it -

Quitting has become a problem permeating WPIAL football. Wilkinsburg had four players quit at halftime of its 86-0 loss to Clairton on Sept. 5. For a head coach to do the same sends the wrong message. Sports are supposed to teach us life lessons. First and foremost, that quitting isn’t an option.

Mr. Gorman embellished his remarks in a post the next day, recognizing Coach Monz as “a good football coach” despite throwing in the towel when other coaches have endured what Mr. Gorman felt were greater hardships.

His post also included a picture of Steeler wide receiver Derek Moye addressing the Carlynton team. This is significant in that Carlynton counts Bill Cowher among its football-playing alumni. Carlynton High Principal Michael Loughren, in a statement to KDKA, tried to put the most positive spin he could on the situation.

I believe that Coach Monz could have done better by his kids, but I also believe that his actions bring to light a disturbing trend surrounding high school athletics. They receive far too much media attention. Too much hype equals expectations that can be unreasonable, perhaps even negating the positive impact of some of those life lessons.

In any event, Go Quakers – Don’t underestimate them, and play nice.

My Charter School Ate My School District

Propel Charter Schools wants to open what will eventually be an 800-student school, eventually serving all grade levels, in the Sto-Rox School District. According to a Post-Gazette report, total enrollment in Sto-Rox schools is around 1400.

Considering the demographic of Sto-Rox and districts like it – struggling post-industrial tax base, stagnant or declining enrollment, and financial challenges related to these – it isn’t surprising that the district is trying to fight this expansion. Their solicitor equates the charter school’s establishment as “death blows” to the district.

If you follow the media reports about other school districts in the county, such as Wilkinsburg and Duquesne, and the various struggles they are engaged in to survive, I’m wondering why these districts along with Sto-Rox just won’t recognize that they may be outmatched in their efforts to provide a quality educational experience.

Some districts saw the handwriting on the wall and acted, or are in the process of acting – Monaca’s merger with Center Area to form Central Valley, and Cornell entertaining a merge offer from Moon Area are examples of this.

Cornell appears to be a healthy district that cooperates with other districts to allow its students quality opportunities in both athletics and academics. Cornell seems to have a realistic approach toward the future viability of their district, while maintaining a sense of identity and pride – despite the fact that the district doesn’t have a football team. They’re rooting for the Quakers tonight as well.

I’m trying to imagine what it must be like to be Sto-Rox in this situation, especially with the confounding nature of the way charter schools exist. I have to pay them to educate students that would otherwise attend my schools. They operate with what may be a more efficient business model than I do. They may indeed be the death of me – what do I do? Perhaps they will need to play nice with neighboring districts, like Cornell is.

As it happens, I am living something like this, only in a different arena. More about this in a future post.

Sto-Rox, along with other small struggling districts, may need an exit strategy. Distressed and/or miniscule municipalities in our area should take note.

North Allegheny – The Road Not Taken

The Post-Gazette reported Wednesday that the North Allegheny School District looked carefully at the pros and cons of dealing with Highmark and UPMC, considering that their current health benefits provider is Highmark and there are two UPMC hospitals in immediate proximity to their district.

When faced with the choice of the region’s two feuding health giants, they chose the road less traveled by – United Healthcare. The P-G story cited lesser premium increases in 2015 by this insurer over that which were forecast by Highmark.

Hopefully service provision won’t suffer – according to my doctor, insurers such as United, Cigna, and Aetna require a lot more authorizations for diagnostic testing than the local big guys.

Not wanting to leave its employees in a lurch by denying them affordable access to as many providers as possible, NA appears to have made a wise choice. I think that Robert Frost would approve.

If it works, perhaps more business groups can send a much-needed message to both UPMC and Highmark – Play nice…or else.

Progress on the “Tacky Buzzer”

In the “play nice” department, it’s good to conclude on a positive note. This week’s Sewickley Herald and the Sewickley Fire Horn Petition site both contained positive information about the manner in which the horn is utilized in the age of improved notification technologies, a subject that I covered in July.

In both accounts, Cochran Hose Chief Jeff Neff was reluctant to elaborate about exactly what hours the horn will sound and when it will not, although the Herald reported that “the horn still will function during business hours”.

I’m not an expert on updating this type of technology – colleagues have told me that other fire departments have spent thousands to rehabilitate the electronics of old sirens at their stations. Thinking in terms of the simplest possible solution, I’m guessing that a commercial grade programmable timer, similar to this, could be used to allow power to the horn only when desired.

I’ve been in the Village once in recent weeks when the horn went off – on a Sunday morning after church. Whether or not that’s considered “business hours” is not as important as how many firefighters show up when needed, something that Chief Neff has stated he will keep close tabs on.

Those behind the horn petition appear cautiously satisfied with the efforts to make Sewickley that much more of an attractive community, while not compromising the public safety system already in place. It’s nice to see the fruits of respectful discourse, even if the jury is still out on both sides as to whether the fix will be satisfactory to all.

Have a great weekend. Play nice.

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Join The Fight!

Originally posted on Old Road Apples:

Cable companies want to slow down (and break!) your favorite sites, for profit. To fight back, let’s cover the web with symbolic “loading” icons, to remind everyone what an Internet without net neutrality would look like, and drive record numbers of emails and calls to lawmakers.  Are you in?



View original

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QV Update: School Year Starts Without Resource Officer

Students and staff wait on the field of Chuck Knox Stadium while Quaker Valley High School (at right) is searched after a bomb threat on October 29, 2013.

October 29, 2013 – Students and staff wait on the field of Chuck Knox Stadium while Quaker Valley High School (at right) is searched after a bomb threat.

This past February, I detailed some of the changes in the offing for Quaker Valley Schools as the 2013-2014 school year was moving toward a close.

The new artificial surface at Chuck Knox Stadium was installed in late June and early July. It is a decided improvement over the previous surface – there is a definite grass-like feel and cushioning that will no doubt be welcomed by athletes, marching bands, and citizens alike.

Another nice touch is what isn’t there – the end zones are plain green, without any adornments such as the mascot name emblazoned in large, pretentious block letters. The only decoration is the school district logo at midfield.

The new surface appears to be a quality installation that speaks to both safety and fiscal responsibility.

There’s a new Superintendent who is a familiar face, riding on a reported groundswell of community support and a reputation for reaching toward compromise. As efforts quietly begin to build toward planning to do something of substance with the high school, this will be important as stakeholders with their own points of view, from concerned taxpayers to adjacent property owners, will undoubtedly be watching and taking action.

The new school year is in its infancy, and already in a nearby district the youngest of students has brought a gun to an elementary school.

As reported in February, QV’s Resource Officer, Robert Wright, retired at the end of the last school year. A review of School Board meeting minutes since then has failed to show any action to hire a new officer. I inquired of QV Communications Director Tina Vojtko as to the status of the recruitment, and what contingencies were in place to provide officer coverage at the high school. She replied:

 Attached please find documentation regarding the district’s agreement with the Leetsdale Police Department. This arrangement will continue until a school resource officer is hired and on-staff.

I do not have a projected hire date for the school resource officer. The school resource officer position is crucial. What’s more important is finding the right school resource officer for QV. We are re-advertising the position in order to extend the applicant pool. Until the position is filled, our local police departments will continue to provide assistance.

I confirmed this with Leetsdale Police Chief James Santucci, who added that an agreement was also in place for a police presence at other Quaker Valley facilities by the respective agencies (Edgeworth, Sewickley) that serve where those buildings are located.

I’m curious as to what the district believes is the “right” kind of resource officer. Having known Bob Wright since before I left the area in the 90’s, I know that his shoes are difficult ones to fill. His personality and disposition seems to suit the nature of the job, and he was also a part-time officer with a local department.

That kind of legacy shows to me that not every police officer has the necessary skill set to excel as a School Resource Officer (SRO). According to a guide to establishing an effective SRO program published by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, there are eight essential criteria for the selection of an SRO:

(1) likes kids, cares about and wants to work with kids, and is able to work with kids;
(2) has the right demeanor and “people skills”, including good communication skills;
(3) has experience as a patrol officer or road deputy;
(4) is able to work independently with little supervision;
(5) is exceptionally dependable;
(6) is willing to work very hard;
(7) is—or can become—an effective teacher; and
(8) has above average integrity.

While it’s unknown what exact criteria Quaker Valley is using in their selection process, chances are it’s something approaching the above. It’s important to note that the QV officer can function independently of local police, and can write citations and file criminal complaints. So within those legal requirements, QV can place greater emphasis on criteria that they value more when considering potential candidates.

Despite these differences, the arrangement works for most of those agencies with a stake in the process. A 2012 report by the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) stated the following:

The successes of interagency collaboration, in all of its applications, are well-documented, including its downstream effect on reform in other areas of law…The school safety team is an object lesson of this collaborative approach. By now, all 50 states as well as local authorities authorize–and often mandate–a version of the team approach to insure that public schools are safe, secure environments where educators can teach and students can learn.

A check of the Quaker Valley job listings page does not show the position advertised as of the date of this post. It’s possible that the district may be using other job listing services, including those that focus on public safety and police employment, to get the “right” kind of applicant pool together.

Unfortunately, in some districts these criteria may also include the officer’s ability to function effectively in an atmosphere where politics or intransigence may trump common sense – witness the incident in South Fayette earlier this year. This dovetails with misapplied confidentiality rules that are too often used to suppress effective and appropriate citizen awareness of school district operations.

In some cases the school itself is left out of the loop. The recent firing of a security guard at Franklin Regional High School, who distinguished himself during the mass stabbing incident in April despite being himself stabbed, has school district officials feeling blindsided, and the Robinson-based private security firm that fired the guard hiding behind some stone walls of its own.

Effective communication and/or cooperation is not aided or embellished when barriers to transparency, accountability, and citizen awareness exist. It is made even more difficult when public safety and other stakeholders are complicit in these efforts.

A culture of secrecy and subterfuge infects the body and soul of an institution like nothing else can, and is even less appropriate in an environment where education is supposed to be taking place.

I’m hopeful that Quaker Valley will find an excellent individual to serve as its Resource Officer. The extra time taken to do it, and the cooperative effort with local police to assure that adequate security is being provided in the interim, will hopefully pay dividends in enhanced understanding and effective coordination when needed.

I also hope that Dr. Ondek extends her stated commitment to accountability beyond the educational process, and into how a school co-exists with a community during the best and worst of times.

Have a good Labor Day weekend.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Local, Public Safety, Schools, Security | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Ambridge’s Last Picture Show? Maybe Not…

Credit: CBS Pittsburgh

Photo Credit: KDKA

I suppose it’s fitting that the 1971 film classic The Last Picture Show is playing this month on Sony Movie Channel.  Aside from the obvious, almost trite use of the title to describe the gradual decay of small-town America in the years before and since its release, there is a sad irony to the timing of finding it on TV.

Last week, the owners of the Ambridge Family Theatre announced the closure of the small, intimate, aging movie house, due ostensibly to the failure of a plastic cam on their film transport table, a component of the equipment that enables them to use one projector with multiple reels of 35mm film, and to speedily rewind the large reels of film for placement back into the cans they come in.

The Ambridge Theatre site includes a well-written history of the place. Founded in 1967, Leslie and I have been familiar with the theatre since the 70’s. I first went there with my father to see Man in The Wilderness starring Richard Harris. Leslie took her kids there several times for the family-friendly movie fare. Most recently, Leslie and I braved threatening skies on a Sunday afternoon in July to walk there from Leetsdale, to catch the latest installment in the X-Men series.

To hear owners Rick and Glenda Cockrum tell the various media that came to report on the announcement, the old projectors run just great – there are just no parts to be had to keep the rest of the works going, what with a decided push by the movie industry to convert to digital projection.

I thought about that damaged cam that drives that transport table, and wondered why in the age of computer aided drafting and design, automated machine tooling, and 3-D printing, if a functional copy of that cam could be fabricated without a great deal of difficulty. However, the more I read the local media coverage, the more I realized that little part was a metaphor for what has been largely a labor of love for the owners, in both the literal and figurative sense.

The Cockrums admitted as much in the local reporting, the best of which came from the Beaver County Times and the hyperlocal news and events site Ambridge Connection. In both stories they cited their age, health problems, and other issues with the building – particularly with the roof – as contributing factors in their decision to close. This was noticeable on our last visit, with a visibly damaged ceiling and the last few rows of seats roped off.

The public response to the closure announcement was full of encouragement toward engaging in fundraising to obtain digital projection equipment suitable to the theater’s smaller-than-average screen, along with repairs to the building’s roof.

To that end, a crowdfunding effort is under way. A group spearheaded by Ambridge Connection co-founder Felicia Mycyk has established a campaign on gofundme.com, with a goal of raising $80,000.  This effort has the endorsement of Rick and Glenda Cockrum, who re-affirmed their intentions in a post to the Theatre website:

We encourage your donations to the fundraiser. We want the theatre to continue functioning. It is an asset to the community. We want to be clear, though, that it will have to be in the hands of new owners. None of the funds donated will go to us, but to whoever is able to take the theatre over and continue it.

One question that has to be asked is what happens to these funds if new ownership does not step forward. I forwarded that question to the organizers of the effort this week – they replied that a few potential owners have stepped forward, and that whatever money raised will be used toward the desired upgrades, whether by new owners or the current ones.

I’ve followed the efforts to revitalize and support small town community theaters across the Pittsburgh region and elsewhere, especially in the wake of the film industry’s change to digital projection, and the considerable cost burdens to those facilities as a result.

Efforts are underway, continuing, or complete to create or revitalize community theaters in Sewickley, Oakmont, Mt. Lebanon, and Dormont, with at least one being transformed into a space for live performance as well. These proposed or existing facilities are seen as part of a coordinated effort to expand the existing vitality of the business districts in those communities. This is not something that is as present in Ambridge as it is in these other locations.

However, this has not impeded the continued popularity of the Ambridge Theatre, what with its movie programming that was geared toward families, and ticket and concession prices that were decidedly budget-friendly.

That’s an unfortunate difference between this little gem of a screening room and the rest of the target-marketed, business-planned iterations of the non-profit arts world. Rick and Glenda have been at the helm of a labor of love – from the sound of it, profit was important, but not the primary motivation.

Regardless of who may take it over, it will be difficult if not impossible to duplicate that kind of dedication.

Rick and Glenda have announced an Open House this Saturday. A chance to say goodbye, munch on some free popcorn, appreciate what was, and perhaps join in collective hope for a continuation of what has helped in a not-so-small way to keep a community together.

There is a post from the cartoon blog Zen Pencils that was published last year, not long after the death of the famed movie critic Roger Ebert. Using an old movie house as the setting for Ebert’s thoughts about kindness, artist Gavin Aung Than crafted something that has roots in the devotion and presence of Rick and Glenda Cockrum over these many years. It also offers what the future may hold for the foundation they helped to maintain for the Ambridge area.

Who besides God knows what is possible?

Heartfelt thanks to Rick and Glenda – we’ll miss you. Best wishes to those in the Ambridge community trying to keep a good thing going.

Updated August 22 with response to funding question, and a photo.

Gofundme page for the Ambridge Family Theatre

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Chatham vs. Alumni – An Update

In late June I wrote about the disagreement between Chatham University administration and a vocal alumni group over the university’s decision to open its undergraduate programs to men.

At that time I expressed concern over what appeared to be Chatham’s attempt to unfairly silence those alumni through a questionable trademark infringement claim. I also expressed concern for those alumni still galvanized by the university’s decision to go co-ed, but were perhaps struggling for a sense of purpose or direction with which to take their efforts. I felt this was important to the group’s relevance into the future, especially considering the university’s seeming intransigence about the finality of its decision.

Since then what started as Save Chatham, and then became the Chatham College Independent Alumni Association, has yet again re-branded itself in response to both the trademark harassment by the university, and what appears to be a well-considered need to expand beyond the boundaries of their initial mission.

In a July 28 letter to Chatham’s President and Trustees, the newly named Filiae Nostrae Society made their intentions clear:

So take the family name. Chatham, as both an institution and a brand, no longer holds real value. Your daughters are breaking ties.

The letter expands upon this separation further, in similarly blunt language. It’s worth a complete read, if for no other reason than to appreciate the continued passion and discontent present among these alumni.

The group’s new, English-friendly website, ourdaughtersourfuture.com, explains the name change as having its origins in Chatham’s motto, Filiae Nostrae Sicut Antarii Lapides. This translates to an excerpt from Psalms 144:12 (KJV):

That our sons may be as plants grown up in their youth; that our daughters may be as corner stones, polished after the similitude of a palace.

In a continuing search for feedback from interested alumni, the group received several ideas that they summarized in a blog post on July 30. These included serving as a connecting point of like-minded alumni through social media such as LinkedIn, but also to support those women-only colleges that continue to hold fast to that tradition, and to direct funding toward those institutions – and presumably away from Chatham.

So much for that symbiotic existence that I speculated about.

Disagreements about Chatham’s state of affairs spilled over into the pages of local mainstream media following a lengthy Tribune-Review story at the end of June.

The story detailed considerable turnover among university administrators, and difficulties that some had experienced with the organizational culture at that level. Chatham President Esther Barazzone, as well as current members of the Board of Trustees, declined comment for the story. The Trib also reported something that I believe is significant:

Many of the two dozen former Chatham employees contacted by the Trib…declined to comment for the record, citing a culture in academia that frowns on speaking out of place.

Two weeks later, the Trib ran an op-ed penned by three current Chatham trustees, criticizing the paper’s reporting on staff turnover, reiterating their reasons for going co-ed, and reaffirming that the university’s finances are “quite sound”. They concluded their comments by stating:

The quality of our faculty, students and programs is very high. These are the stories that should be told about change at Chatham.

Translation – The media should write about what we tell them to write, regardless of empirical and/or colloquial evidence to the contrary. The Trib included an Editor’s Note: On July 3, Standard & Poor’s Rating Services issued a negative outlook on a new BBB-rated $18 million bond issue for Chatham University.  That sounded to me like the Trib replying, “Thanks. We stand by our reporting, and we’ll report about what we want”.

To me this is the continuation of a disturbing trend among colleges and universities that attempt to frame and control the message, and try to silence those who dissent. This is an example of why the sidebar of this blog features news from FIRE, which specializes in identifying and shedding light on attempts to stifle free expression on campus.

This is not to say that I agree with everything being put forth on the other side of the argument.  I applaud the efforts of Filiae Nostrae to expand their scope of influence beyond what is probably a lost cause, but I’m still concerned about their approach.

The society’s most recent letter to Chatham makes reference to scripture as part of its criticism – specifically, the verse preceding the above verse from which Chatham’s motto is derived:

Rid me, and deliver me from the hand of strange children, whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.   Psalm 144:11 (KJV)

The letter seems to apply this as an ironic representation of what Chatham attempted to do with their threat to sue their own alumni for daring to disagree with them.

I have to wonder, however, if the alumni group’s desire to steadfastly embrace women-only colleges could be interpreted as their desire to deliver those colleges “from the hand of strange children…”, that being the presence and/or influence of men, despite whatever hard data that may be out there to justify Chatham’s position that change was inevitable to assure their viability.

With that, I have the following observations before moving on:

  • Chatham has the right to pursue whatever legal course their governing bodies see fit for the continued survival of the institution.
  • Dissenting alumni have the right to dissent, in whatever form and under whatever name that dissent may take within the boundaries of law.
  • Chatham was wrong to try to silence the alumni by threatening litigation. Their move to hastily establish trademarks is bad form for such a ‘dignified’ institution.
  • The dissenting alumni seem to be tilting at the windmills of change in the higher education world, which may render their favored business model unsustainable under any set of circumstances. They need to be prepared to accept that.
  • Institutions of higher education that take steps to stifle the free, unfettered expression of ideas are working against the very reasons they exist in a society that values freedom and self-reliance.
  • I see area colleges and universities committing more and more financial resources to marketing their institutions. Print, broadcast, billboard, and other advertising mechanisms seem to feature ads from these institutions with increasing frequency – money that is perhaps being taken away from uses such as improved online options or better pay and benefits for adjunct faculty. It seems counterproductive, and not in keeping with the values inherent in a supposedly benevolent, not-for-profit institution.

The end of summer looms ahead, and with it serious business. Enjoy it while you can.

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This Week in Personal History

Among several events being commemorated this week, there are two historical events that bring back some personal memories, and two events of comparatively limited significance to the world but of increased importance in my own personal and professional life.

Nixon Resigns – 40 Years Ago

The evening of August 8, 1974, my family was on vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Back then television and telephones were a homebound convenience, and if you wanted to watch TV there, you had to have an antenna atop about a 40 to 60 foot tall tower to pull in signals from Norfolk.

There was no TV or phone in the room at the motel we stayed at, which is not to say that it was a rustic experience. Not in the slightest – the Tower Circle in Buxton was an excellent place to stay, and apparently still is, having enjoyed a resurrection under new ownership after taking a hit from Hurricane Irene in 2011.

In the 70’s the motel office, with comfortable couches and a large old AM radio, had the only phone for guests and was thus the center of communication for those who populated the motel at any given time. I used to sit in the office with a book or magazine and listen to Bob Prince and Nellie King call the Pirates games on KDKA. I don’t care what anyone says – baseball belongs on clear-channel AM radio. This was brought home for me again last year, when enroute to Colorado we picked up the Bucs playing the Cardinals on KMOX.

That particular August evening, the bulk of the motel’s occupants were crammed into the office, listening to WCBS in New York as President Nixon announced he would resign the Presidency the following day. This was more of a foregone conclusion than a surprise to anyone in the room, although some adults were shaking their heads either in disbelief or disgust. The Watergate scandal, and the fallout that continued even after Nixon resigned, continue to resonate to this day wherever political power is misapplied or abused.

In my old newspaper collection, somewhere in an old box next to the stamps and sheet music, is a copy of the Raleigh News and Observer from the next day, with the obligatory big headline. Maybe my son will enjoy it someday.

Reagan Fires Air Traffic Controllers – 33 Years Ago

I was working at the front desk at a hotel near the Pittsburgh airport the day that controllers walked off the job. Chaotic doesn’t begin to describe the effect on the airline industry, and along with it business travelers and the hotels that depended on their business.

The hotel that I worked in had just under 150 rooms, and by the early afternoon of August 3rd over 50 cancellations of reservations had been received, because the air traffic system had been thrust into chaos by the controller strike.

By the end of the evening, those cancellations were offset by travelers stranded in Pittsburgh, which was then a major hub for what was at that time USAir, previously known as Allegheny Airlines. On more than one occasion, a quiet winter holiday was transformed into mass craziness by hundreds of passengers stranded in Pittsburgh by missing connections due to weather or other delays.

In the weeks and months that followed, things seemed to normalize from the result of the actions taken by the controllers and the President, but the airline-related chaos didn’t seem to subside until I left that hotel and went to work at another one in the North Hills. Events and people encountered there led me into a different line of work altogether.

APCO International Conference, Pittsburgh – 20 Years Ago

After venturing full-time into a career in public safety communications, one thing I tried to do was keep up to speed with what continues to be an industry trying to respond to rapid-fire change. This included active membership in the Association of Public Safety (formerly Police) Communications Officials, better known as APCO.

One event that I tried to get to as much as I practically could was APCO’s annual conference, held typically during one of the first two weeks in August. The first conference I attended was in 1986, in Milwaukee. It was definitely a no-frills trip – I took the Greyhound there, stayed in a discount motel out by the airport, and took public transportation into town. The educational experience was invaluable to a neophyte and radio geek.

I managed to attend two more conferences in Baltimore and Boston before the announcement was made that the 1994 conference would be held in Pittsburgh. The Conference Committee was comprised largely of volunteers from the state chapter where the conference was being held.

I volunteered and was assigned to handle Special Activities, which largely consisted of coordinating tour activities for spouses and children of attendees, as well as after-hours events for everyone.

A contract with a tour company had been signed early on, and a menu of tour activities around the Pittsburgh region had been published, including an Pirates night game. Pre-registration was tepid, but interest became brisk for all of the tours when people started to arrive in town.

This was especially true for the baseball game, as it was to be one of the last games of that season before the anticipated strike that eventually canceled out the rest of that year in baseball. Five busloads of attendees went to the August 10 game against the Montreal Expos.

For the entire week of the conference, my days started at 6:00 AM and didn’t end until after Midnight. Accompanying the tour groups during the day, and attending conference events in the evening kept me moving all the time.

It also didn’t leave much time to attend presentations, or peruse all of the lovely new toys in the exhibit hall. One thing that did happen at this conference was the formal establishment of the Common Air Interface for APCO’s Project 25 trunked radio standard.

This standard has shaped the development of state-of -the-art radio networks into the present day, despite not being accepted by everyone in the industry back then. I wrote a more detailed and technical post about this a little over 4 years ago, in case you’re interested in that sort of thing.

I was able to establish positive relationships with many of my peers around the state during that conference. It was my hope at the time to perhaps leverage that into career development opportunities elsewhere. Little did I know that by the following August my career would have developed me right into the Intermountain West.

A No-Hitter – 38 years ago

On August 8, 1976, my family and I attended a Sunday afternoon Pirate game. I decided that I wanted to come back the next day, and bought a ticket before leaving.

John Candelaria was pitching. They handed out little Clark Bars (made next door at the time) to everyone entering the gates at Three Rivers Stadium because “The Candy Man” was to be in action.

The rest is baseball bliss, the end of which you can see here.

Let’s hope that the current edition of the Pirates can be entertaining and competitive for years to come.

Have a great week ahead.

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