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Thursday, August 31, 2006

North Dakota in the news

Bruce Gjovig, director of the Center for Innovation at UND, forwarded three items that deserve a wider audience. The first is this report in USA Today, titled "Are out-of-state students crowding out in-staters?" Note the chart on the left, which shows that UND has the third-highest percentage of out-of-state first-year students (at 54.2 percent) among the 43 state universities that responded to a survey. The University of Vermont is highest at 72.7 percent, and Michigan State is lowest at 12.1 percent.

This table, also in USA Today, shows that UND's in-state tuition and fees is right near the median or the halfway point among "75 public flagship universities in 50 states," as the table puts it. Hmm ... I would have expected the university t0 rank closer to the low end of the scale; my guess is, the "low end" was where it ranked throughout the 1990s and earlier. If that's the case, then the university still is a bargain, but measurably less of a bargain than it used to be.

The last and most important item that Gjovig forwarded is a column in today's Wall Street Journal that describes North Dakota in extremely flattering terms ... in fact, it may be the most upbeat article about the state's prospects to appear before a national audience in decades.

I can't link to the column, because it's behind the Journal's subscriber-only firewall. (But I will watch the newspaper's free site, opinionjournal.com, for a few days to see if the column appears there, and will provide the link if it does.) But here are a few telling quotes:

Headline: The Great Plains
By JOEL KOTKIN

"BISMARCK, N.D. -- At a time when the much-celebrated coasts creak from rising interest rates, faltering income levels and soaring energy prices, this windswept, energy-rich city of 57,000 on the western edge of the Dakota plains is experiencing the best of times. Cities like this one out in the far-off hinterland -- Iowa City, Sioux Falls, Fargo, Grand Forks, Rapid City -- now are enjoying job growth rates that, if they don't rival Las Vegas, certainly put to shame those of most major metropolitan areas. Unemployment is negligible and wages are rising across virtually all job categories. ...

"Behind the good times are numerous factors, such as an Internet-enabled shift of technology and business service firms into the region, and a growing migration of downshifting boomers and young families. But perhaps the most dramatic change has come from an upsurge of energy prices that is turning places like North Dakota into a Nordic Abu Dhabi. ...

"The portraits of a dying region are increasingly dated; last year North Dakota gained population while Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia all lost people. More to the point, although some parts of the Plains, particularly small towns, continue to lose people, others are enjoying growth in jobs, population and income -- in many cases more so than parts of urban, coastal America. ...

"This resurgence has its basis in some often underestimated assets that are reasserting themselves in the Great Plains. ... (including) such often underestimated factors like good schools, reasonable housing prices (the median home price is under $150,000), short commutes, the nation's lowest crime rate and ample outdoor recreation."

So, North Dakotans, how does it feel to be living in Boomtown USA?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Katrina, one year later

Lots of really interesting stuff about Hurricane Katrina on the Web today, and almost all of it with special relevance to people in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.

For the editorial in today's Herald, I took a look at the paper's coverage of the GF-EGF flood anniversary in April 1998. Already, the mood was upbeat and the outlines of the reconstruction were in place.

And, I predicted that the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune would not echo Herald editor Mike Jacobs' assessment from April 1998: "For all of us - the community - progress has been remarkable, considering the situation as it existed a year ago."

I was right about that, to the best of my knowledge. But I was wrong to also assume that the words wouldn't be found anywhere in the Gulf Coast region. Because here's Stan Tiner, the editor of the Biloxi (Miss.) Sun-Herald, in his column today: "Twelve months later, remarkable progress has been made, yet there is so much to do... literally years of toil ahead."

Biloxi and New Orleans are two different cities with two different cultures that endured two different disasters a year ago. And for those and other reasons, Biloxi seems to be way ahead as far as recovery goes.

The Times-Picayune does have a fascinating before-and-after slide show that's well worth viewing (click on the "Then and Now" link below the big photo on the left) ... Here's a well-done column that blames New Orleans' flood-protection infrastructure for the disaster. It includes this paragraph, which ought to make city engineers (and residents) in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks bolt upright and take notice:

"Some levees, in particular the massive earthen fortresses with wide foundations, performed well, withstanding days of water pressure with little erosion. But floodwalls designed as narrow vertical walls driven into the ground—they look like the walls built on highways to block out the noise—performed abysmally." (emphasis added)

Hnm. So in GF and EGF, exactly how well do our own floodwalls measure up, I wonder?

Here's a Washington Post column that says the New Orleans of old is gone for good. (Hat tip for the previous two links: My favorite Web site, Real Clear Politics, www.realclearpolitics.com.)

Here's a column that blames New Orleans' absurdly inefficient city government for the tragic lack of progress there. And here's a fellow who says the National Weather Service should look seriously at seeding hurricanes with a super-water-absorbing substance called Dyn-O-Gel in an effort to slash the big storms' power. Hey, I don't think it would work either, but the column's a good read ... and who knows? Maybe the stuff's worth a look.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

UND makes the grade ...

... but exactly which grade is a little less clear!

The Princeton Review company offers test-prep courses for the SAT, ACT and other college and grad-school entrance exams. The company also publishes a popular guidebook to colleges; and the guidebook's annual "Best 361 Colleges" ranking came out this week.

So, UND appears on two of the Princeton Review's lists. The first is Best Midwestern Colleges, along with Jamestown College and Mayville State.

The second lists the schools of which it can be said, "Their students (almost) never study" .

Who knew that the Chinese concept of yin and yang would find such perfect expression in North Dakota? ;-)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Mill Levy Deduct

Ah, the Mill Levy Deduct. Do you perk up and think, "Wow! At last, a topic that's close to my heart!" when you see those words?

Hey, neither do I. But stifle any yawns just for the moment, because "mill levy deduct" promise to be three of the more important words in North Dakota's upcoming legislative session. And because the bills that result will rewrite statewide school-financing formulas, they'll influence life in North Dakota for many years to come.

The mill levy deduct -- call it the deduct for short -- is the method North Dakota currently uses to shift some wealth from "property rich" districts to "property poor" districts. It's important because the Commission on Education Improvement wants to eliminate it, and that proposal likely will be a source of great debate during the session.

In fact, the success or failure of the commission's plan could depend on it.

Currently, North Dakota figures out a "state entitlement" for each district based on factors such as the district's size. Then, it "deducts" or subtracts an amount that depends on the district's taxable value, which is a measure of its property wealth. The amount that's left over after the subtraction is the payment that the district gets from the state -- its "state aid."

So, property rich districts get a big deduct taken out of their state entitlement, and a smaller proportion of state aid than their student population alone would entitle them to. Likewise, property-poor districts get a bigger share of the state aid.

The commission wants to eliminate the deduct. Instead, it would establish a beefed-up "equity payment plan" that simply would direct extra money to property-poor districts (in addition to their state aid), but without cutting into or deducting from the state aid that property-rich districts get.

As a source of money to do those two things, it would use the additional $60 million promised by the governor.

Why is this likely to be controversial? Because Grand Forks and Minot both are "property average," it turns out. And being neither property-rich nor property poor, they'd get little new money out of the $60 million in new spending, according to the commission's plan.

Here's the bottom line. Should state aid be means tested? In other words, should "rich districts" and "poor districts" alike get state aid, with poor districts then getting an equity-payment bump? Or, should the aid be more graduated or "progressive," with rich districts -- which, presumably, are better able to pay for their own schools -- getting comparatively little from the state while poor (and average) districts get significantly more?

Like I said, it promises to be a great debate.

My initial take on the politics is that Grand Forks and Minot have an uphill struggle ahead of them if they want North Dakota to keep the mill-levy deduct. By directing substantial gains to both property-rich districts and property-poor districts, the education commission pleased a majority of districts in the state; Grand Forks, Minot and the other districts in the middle will have a very tough time fighting that majority.

To succeed, I think the "middling districts" will have to show the property-poor districts how much more they'd have to gain under a more progressive school finance plan. In other words, the commission's plan pits property-rich and property-poor districts against property-average districts; Grand Forks and Minot probably hope the alliance can shift to property-average and property-poor vs. property-rich.

As background, here is a link to a report Mike Jacobs referred to in a recent column. It's a long but very useful explanation of North Dakota's school-finance system, called, appropriately enough, "Understanding School Finance." It was written by, among others, faculty members at UND's College of Education and Human Development, and does a very good job of taking the reader step-by-step through our complicated system of paying for public schools.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

N.D. census news

Two points: First, what a treasure Grand Forks Life has in the postcard of downtown Grand Forks, circa 1946. I wonder if there's a way of getting the photo blown up and turned into a wall poster? I'd spend a couple of bucks on such an item, and I'm guessing some other residents would, too. It's a gem.

If memory serves, the WPA Guide to North Dakota (which was written during the Depression in the 1930s) describes Grand Forks' southern boundary as being 13th Avenue South, near the "new" Lincoln Park. So, by 1946, would the southern edge have dropped down to, say, 17th Avenue South? Probably not; Red River High School on 17th Avenue South opened in 1967, and people say the school practically was in the countryside then (as South Middle School is today.) In any event, it's fun to look at the postcard and remember that in 1946, the entire city limits of Grand Forks didn't extend very far beyond the edges of the photo!

Now, about the census: I can add to the discussion of the North Dakota census taking place here and here. The Herald editorial board met with U.S. Bureau of the Census director Charles Louis Kincannon on Monday; he visited along with some members of Gov. John Hoeven's staff. Kincannon is in North Dakota because Hoeven and other state leaders have protested so strongly about the annual census updates, which are issued using information provided by the State Data Center at NDSU. "If a state shows that much interest in the census, then we're interested in that state," Kincannon said (that's a paraphrase, not an exact quote).

The basic problem is shown by these figures, which Dale Wetzel of the Associated Press reported on the other day:

"The agency pegged North Dakota's population at 633,666 on July 1, 1999. In the census count the following year, it jumped to 642,200, an increase of 13.4 percent. However, in 2001, the population estimate showed a steep decline, to 634,448."

What's important is that the middle figure -- 642,200 -- represents the actual count, the 2000 census that's taken by everyone to be authoritative. Or is it? Because when tracked against the state Data Center's estimates as shown here (for the 1990s) and here (for 2001 and beyond), the actual count in 2000 is a spike, one that almost seems to have been dismissed by the center in its insistence on holding onto its estimating methods.

The state is taking two actions to try to make the annual estimates more accurate; Kincannon raised no objection to either of them. The first is a law passed a session or two ago to send some drivers license info to the IRS, in order to find out how many snowbirds call N.D. their home of record (on their drivers license) while filing their federal tax returns in, say, Arizona.

"Ron Raushenberger, Gov. John Hoeven's deputy chief of staff, said federal tax return data counts about 12,000 fewer resident North Dakota filiers than state data shows," The AP reported.

"'It's not a small difference,' Rauschenberger said."

North Dakota -- the only state to have passed such a drivers license/IRS law, by the way -- now has sent the relevant info to the Census Department, and the department should release its findings in a few months.

The second effort was the creation of the North Dakota Census Committee, which Hoeven set up as a direct result of his unhappiness with the Census Bureau's annual estimates. The committee is meant to provide more input to the State Data Center. The center, in turn, will send better numbers to the Census Bureau, and the bureau will offer up more accurate official estimates as a result.

The five-member committee includes officials from the state Office of Management and Budget, Tax Department and Job Service; State Data Center Director Richard Rathge; and Rod Backman, the former OMB director who's now a private consultant. For my part, I don't see the committee's influence turning up yet in the census estimates, but over time I expect to.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Shared Parenting Initiative takes a hit

My estimate of the North Dakota Shared Parenting Initiative's chances of passing in November just went from slightly favorable to markedly unfavorable. That's because of this op-ed in today's Herald by Carol Olson, executive director of the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

Olson is unequivocal: "If the measures pass, the state could not certify that its programs meet federal requirements, and North Dakota would lose about $71 million in federal money for those programs during the 2007-2009 biennium."

Olson refers to "the measures," but the only measure that has garnered enough signatures to likely make it onto the ballot is Mitch Sanderson's (www.ndspi.org). Here is Clause # 3 of the initiative, whose full text is available at the above Web site:

"Child support payments and allocation of child support obligations will be determined according to the parenting plan, and will not be greater than the actual cost of providing for the basic needs of the child(ren)."

That's the problem, Olson says. The idea behind the clause is to make child-support payments depend more on what the child needs and less on what the non-custodial parent earns. But "federal law requires courts or administrative agencies, as neutral third parties, to determine child support using state guidelines that must be based, in part, on a percentage of all of a noncustodial parent's income," Olson writes.

Then she offers this quote: "Due to the gravity of the consequences that may result, we urge you to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that initiated measures are not enacted that would render the state's statutes out of compliance with the federal law." That's from a letter to a North Dakota state senator by Thomas Sullivan, regional administrator of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Will North Dakotans approve a measure that would result in such a big cutoff of federal funds? I don't think so ... and I'm guessing the initiative's supporters are preparing a response even as you read this. They'll need a good one.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Higher ed news

Hello all!

Great to be back in the blogging world. I picked up two higher-education tips today in Phi Beta Cons, National Review Online's higher-education blog. The first is this item which reports that "Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) quietly has begun an investigation into six years of earmarks won by more than 100 colleges and universities, a sector that has collected billions in federal awards in recent years."

I wonder if UND and NDSU are on the senator's list, given all of the effort they've put into winning federal research grants? Efforts that I entirely support, by the way ... I think college towns are the growth centers for the 21st century in America, and that drawing research dollars is a smart strategy for economic development. As long as the efforts don't include what Coburn describes as "corruption (and) spending mismanagment," that is.

The second item points to this PDF document that claims a) that there is no shortage of engineers in the United States, and b) that reports of China and India's production of engineers have been greatly exaggerated. Interesting reading, if you're interested in curriculum issues facing UND and other schools with engineering programs.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Blogger's away

I'm out of touch for a few days and will be back to blogging on Monday, Aug. 7. (At least, I think it's the 7th; I'm away from a calendar, too.)

See you then!