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Laura Singleton/The Independent  

In golden fall hues, cattails wave at Pintail Lake. Part of the Allen Severson Memorial Wildlife Area, Pintail Lake was developed in 1979 to improve waterfowl nesting, feeding, and resting habitat. Cattails, water grass, spike rush, and various sedges grow naturally in the wetlands, creating the perfect refuge for migrating birds.

School grades released

NAVAJO AND APACHE COUNTIES — The grades are out for the Arizona schools for the 2017-18 school year.

The latest effort by the state to grade schools has produced the usual winners and losers. Once again, schools with more educated, high-income families in places like Scottsdale and Paradise Valley piled up the ‘A’ ratings. Once again, schools with lots of low-income families, minority groups, single-parent homes and other challenges received lower rankings.

In Navajo and Apache counties, the biggest divide separated schools in the higher income areas of the White Mountains with the schools drawing from the reservations.

Still, here’s how the state average for each grade compared to the average grades received by Navajo and Apache county schools:

A grade; State 27 percent vs 19 percent

B grade: State 31 percent vs 30 percent

C grade: State 28 percent, vs 26 percent

D grade; State 11 percent vs 22 percent

F grade; State 3 percent vs 4 percent.

The latest state grades remain largely determined by student scores on a nationally-normed test. Overall, a worrisome number of students score well below the sought-after “proficient” or “highly proficient” rank on the AzMERIT test on which the scores are largely based. The state halted grading schools in 2015 because it had required them to adopt the AzMERIT test – a nationally-normed testing system that replaced the old AIMS graduation tests.

The districts have a few weeks to appeal their grades, so the state has so far released only overall scores – without the revealing detail on grade level testing, absenteeism, discipline problems, dropout rates and a wealth of other information. This is the third year for the new AzMERIT-based grades. Schools that have gotten their third ‘D’ are now ranked as “failing.” The state hasn’t yet settled on what that will mean for a particular school. However, the state has set aside money to reward high-ranking schools, which will ironically mostly go to schools in already wealthy areas.

On the other hand, last year the state legislature made the AzMERIT test voluntary – which means schools can choose other tests like the SAT to report to the state. It’s unclear how that change will affect the state grading system for schools in the coming years.

Statewide, Arizona lags behind the national average for subjects. One recent nation study found Arizona ranked No. 37 for math test scores and No. 38 for reading scores. The state ranks 50th for the pupil-to-teacher ratio, No. 43 for its dropout rate and No. 48 for per-student spending.

Still, the school grades do provide a way to compare schools from one community to another – and in some cases schools with similar student populations end up with very different grades.

Schools in communities with a strong presence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often had higher ratings. That could reflect the larger percentage of intact families, higher levels of family education and greater family support for education – all factors studies have shown can have a big influence on student achievement.

In the sprawling, two-county region only three high schools earned ‘A’ ratings: Round Valley High School, St. Johns High School and Snowflake High School.

Elementary and middle schools fared much better in the state rankings, which give the most weight to student performance on standardized tests in English and math. About 60 to 90 percent of a school’s grade relies on raw test scores, growth in test scores over the course of the school year or the scores of selected groups – like English Language Learners, who speak a language other than English at home.

Elementary and middle schools with ‘A’ grades included:

Capps Elementary (Heber)

Linden Elementary (Show Low)

Snowflake Intermediate

Snowflake Junior High

Taylor Intermediate (Snowflake)

Alpine Elementary.

The elementary and middle schools with a ‘D’ or an ‘F’ were once again mostly those serving reservation communities, with a few exceptions like the schools in Winslow and Holbrook. The low-scoring schools include:

Canyon Day Junior High (Whiteriver)

McNary Elementary

Mogollon Jr. High

That state also for the first time rated alternative schools, mostly small programs that take students who either got kicked out of the traditional district high school or simply decided they preferred a different style of learning. Those schools include some charter schools as well as district alternative schools, some with an online model.

The very small enrollment has posed problems when it comes to coming up with a way to assign a ranking, since the smaller the group the less the average test scores reflects anything but individual student differences. So the rating system for the alternative schools includes things like whether students are on track to graduate and whether they’re continuing to take enough classes.

At the elementary school level, test scores determined 90 percent of the grade – including improvements in scores in the course of the year and the scores of groups like students who don’t speak English at home. Non-test-based factors make up just 10 percent of the grade, including chronic absenteeism and what percentage of students with disabilities attend regular classrooms.

At the high school level, test scores – including growth – account for about 60 percent of the school grade. Another 20 percent is based on the school’s graduation and dropout rate and another 20 percent by the “college and career readiness factors.”

First court date for alleged killer

ST JOHNS—Accused murderer Dave Allen LaPorte, 54, appeared in the Apache County Superior Court last Wednesday for a probable cause hearing in front of Judge C. Allan Perkins. LaPorte was arrested on Nov. 2 on three charges including first degree murder, a Class 1 felony, concealing a dead body and tampering with evidence. He is presumed to be innocent.

On October 30, LaPorte came to the attention of the St. Johns Police Department by calling them to report that his wife, Tessy Lou LaPorte, 49, was missing. Officers responded to his residence in the 800 block of West 2nd Place North in St. Johns to a situation there that, as the police like to say, “JDLR,” or just doesn’t look right. Conversation with LaPorte and “evidence within the home,” the police say, caused La Porte to barricade himself into the home. He then apparently slit his own throat.

After the hearing on Wednesday, St Johns Police Chief Lance Spivey sat down with the Independent. He said that LaPorte was ultimately persuaded to give up and that one of Spivey’s new officers, on the job for only 11 months, de-escalated the situation by convincing LaPorte to allow the officers in, if for no other reason, to get LaPorte medical attention, and fast. He had lost a lot of blood. Spivey said that he is exceedingly proud of his team’s performance and said that the officer who did most of the talking was a former acquaintance of LaPorte from high school. It could have ended far differently, the chief observed.

The police did gain entrance, and La Porte was rushed to a medical facility in the Valley. He was released and on Nov. 5 was booked into the Apache County Jail on a $2 million cash bond. Mrs. LaPorte’s body was ultimately found “in the area,” authorities said.

The St. Johns Police Department and the many other agencies which helped out with this investigation are not releasing any further details at this point. At the hearing, lead Prosecutor Garrett Whiting explained to the judge that the case was “complex,” and that his office had yet to provide any disclosure to LaPorte’s counsel, Bryce Hamblin, but would as soon as it is ready.

LaPorte, whose wrists were chained at the waist and ankles, is a small man, with dark hair. He appeared unkempt and unshaven as he sat a the defense table with his lawyer. La Porte was dressed in jail-issue clothing, orange pants and a striped tunic, like the other detainees. Unlike the others however, was the literally ear-to-ear gash along his throat held together with about 30 bright metal staples. The hearing was rescheduled to Dec. 9.

Unemployment is persistently high

NAVAJO & APACHE COUNTIES — Unemployment in Apache and Navajo counties has dropped nearly one percentage point in the past year – but still remains far above the state and national averages.

Apache County’s unemployment rate hit 8.9 percent in October, compared to 9.9 percent a year earlier. Navajo County’s rate hit 6.4 percent, compared to 7.3 percent a year earlier.

Statewide, the unemployment rate has barely budged in the past year – standing at 4.3 percent in October. Statewide, the jobless rate dropped a tenth of a point from September to October, although with rates at historically low levels it was unlikely they’d drop further.

The national unemployment rate remained at 3.6 percent, virtually unchanged from the same time a year ago.

Moreover, the state’s wages have finally started to rise in response to the tight job market. Wages statewide rose a healthy 4.1 percent, compared to a 3 percent increase nationally. Overall, the state’s job growth remains strong compared to other states, good news for the state budget, where the reserves rose above $1 billion this year despite continued tax cuts.

Nonetheless, Apache County has the third highest unemployment rate in the state – trailing Santa Cruz at 9.5 percent and Yuma at 16 percent.

Yuma virtually always has the highest rate in the state, driven in part by the seasonal nature of farm employment as well as the poverty profile of the community. Still, even Yuma has reported a big improvement – down from 18 percent a year ago.

The unemployment rate in both Apache and Navajo counties is influenced by very high rates on the Navajo and Apache reservations, which boosts the overall average. The unemployment rate on the Navajo Nation with a population of some 200,000 remains at roughly 50 percent.

The figures did include some interesting fine print.

For instance, unemployment remains low in low-wage sectors like the restaurant business. Some business leaders predicted the state’s stepped increase in the minimum wage from about $8 to $12 would result in layoffs and rising unemployment in that sector. So far, there’s no sign of such an impact – although income has risen smartly in those sectors.

Virtually every sector showed gains, with a total increase of 30,000 jobs statewide.

The states brick and mortar stores even held their own in October, after months of losses to booming, online sales. Despite an added 600 department store jobs for the month, the sector’s still 1,400 jobs below last year.

Restaurants have continued hiring, despite the impact of the boost in minimum wage. The sector gained 4,300 jobs in October – and now stands 8,000 jobs above last year.

The construction and mining sectors also showed a big, 12 percent gain in jobs from the same time last year. Once the mainstay of the state economy, the recession devastated construction – which had been slow to recover.

The number of government employees rose 10 percent, which was one of the hardest hit sectors in the recession.

The unemployment figures do retain one darkly worrisome trend – the still high percentage of workers who have been unemployed for six months, despite their best efforts to find work.

Nationally, a third of the unemployed have been looking for work for at least six months. That number peaked at about 45 percent during the recession in about 2010. It has since declined, but not nearly as much as it normally does after a normal recession.

Prior to the 2008 recession, the share of the long-term unemployed bobbed about between 10 percent and 20 percent of those seeking work.

Economists say the shift reflects fundamental underlying changes in the economy. Essentially, there’s a rising pool of workers who employers don’t hire even when they have hard-to-fill vacancies. Studies have suggested part of the problem lies in employers’ reluctance to hire the long-time unemployed simply because they haven’t had a job in six months.

Changes in the education and skill level required by many jobs may also contribute. For instance, the wage gap between the college educated and the rest of the work force has hit record levels. High school grads make an average of $31,000 while college grads make an average of $56,000.

As a result, the persistence of long-term unemployment may be contributing to a second structural problem – the number of people simply dropping out of the workforce and relying on family, irregular employment, federal disability payments or other means of support.

About 63 percent of working-age adults remain in the workforce, compared to about 67 percent in 2000. Workforce participation plunged during the last recession and never recovered.

Ambulance dispute remains in court

NAVAJO COUNTY — At the beginning of their ongoing dispute with Show Low EMS, Timber Mesa Fire and Medical District (TMFMD) was doing business as Lakeside Fire District with a state-issued Certificate of Necessity (CON). That’s what the Arizona Department of Health Services (AHDS) calls the permit that it requires a company to have in order to operate that kind of service. The typical CON specifies a particular geographic service area. The permit was set to expire in November, 2018.

Timber Mesa not only wanted to continue doing business, but also wanted to expand its service area. Problem was, the area it wanted to expand into overlapped the area that was being served by Show Low EMS, the name that Arrowhead Mobile Healthcare, Inc. does business as (In spring 2018, the private company changed their name to Arrowhead Fire and Medical Authority).

Rightfully sensing a threat to its business, Arrowhead “intervened” in Timber Mesa’s application process and opposed it. When that happens, the dispute goes to an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who makes a recommendation to the ADHS director to either approve or reject the application.

The ALJ in this case, one Thomas Shedden, recommended to the director of ADHS not to allow Timber’s expanded CON. Thomas Shedden made over 400 findings of fact in conclusions of law, all of which supported Show Low EMS.

The director received the ALJ’s recommendation in May, 2018 but in June, concluded the ALJ was “not legally correct” and rejected his recommendation. The director approved Timber Mesa’s application to expand. Not only did the director approve the application, but she enlarged the territory in which Timber Mesa can operate. It’s a bigger area than Timber Mesa had originally applied for, making for a total service of 167 square miles.

“Timber Mesa Fire and Medical District believes that the AzDHS Director, Dr. Cara Christ, made the correct decision to grant the District an expanded CON and that she had the necessary authority to render that decision,” says TMFMD Chief Bryan Savage. “We trust that Dr. Christ has the very best interests of all Arizona communities in mind when she makes a determination about regulating ambulance operations.”

Arrowhead disagrees vehemently. They appealed the decision to the Maricopa County Superior Court, asking for a judicial review, urging that ADHS Director Dr. Cara Christ shouldn’t have granted the application, and certainly shouldn’t have enlarged it to cover more territory than Timber Mesa originally asked for.

“The court found that Dr. Christ exceeded her authority so we are back in the appeal process,” says Arrowhead CEO Jim Broome. However, electronic court records show no indication of that.

But in the meantime, Timber Mesa has its permit and continues to operate in the expanded areas. So the question has arisen: Can it operate in the approved expanded area while the case goes through the appeal process?

Timber Mesa says ‘yes’ and states that, “For more than a year now we have proudly provided ambulance response to the Show Low, Linden, Pinedale-Clay Springs, White Mountain Lake communities and a portion of the Vernon community,” says Savage. “Timber Mesa provides ambulance services at a base rate and mileage rate that is roughly 20 percent less than Arrowhead. Further, we can demonstrate that Timber Mesa has dramatically improved ambulance services to the communities of the White Mountains since the Director’s decision.”

But Arrowhead has stuck to their guns throughout the process and will not acquiesce on any point. Consequently, Arrowhead asked the superior court for a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction, and time for an evidentiary hearing, all designed to keep Timber Mesa out Arrowhead’s territory pending the outcome of its appeal.

In September, 2108, the Superior Court Commissioner Sigmund Popko ruled that the law and court rules that apply in this particular type of appeal don’t allow for injunctions or restraining orders.

There is such a thing as “stay” in that specialized area of law; however, Arrowhead didn’t meet the requirements for a stay, he said, in part because it still operates in the area in question. He denied Arrowhead’s pleas.

Although Popko denied the stay, Broome says he still ruled in favor of Arrowhead on at least one rule of law and possibly more.

Since then, not much has happened on the main issue on appeal; that is, whether the director was correct in her final decision. Court records indicate month after month, the only progress that has been made is basically coming up with a schedule for briefs (written legal arguments) oral arguments and the admission of certain exhibits, like a particular map.

The last court record available online is from July. It appears the parties did present oral arguments, but the results of their presentations do not yet appear on any court record.