8 months ago

Del Marsh vows to ‘protect,’ ‘increase’ Alabama Accountability Act — ‘I will fight to the end’

Despite recent attacks by the Alabama Education Association (AEA) on the Alabama Accountability Act, State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) wants to make it clear that the staple of school choice in the Yellowhammer State is not going anywhere, vowing to “fight to the end to protect” and even increase funding for the legislation.

As Alabama celebrates School Choice Week, it is hard to forget AEA-backed moves in 2018 by the respective public school boards of Montgomery, Mobile and Baldwin Counties calling on the state legislature to repeal the Accountability Act during its coming regular session, which begins on March 5.

However, when asked by Yellowhammer News in a recent interview whether he saw the attacks on the legislation carrying over to the legislature, Marsh left no room for doubt.

“No, I don’t see it. I can tell you in the Senate no one’s going to have a repeal of the Accountability Act,” Marsh responded.

He continued, “And I’ve had this argument over and over again. I’m nothing but proud of the Accountability Act. The reality is this: you’re taking less than one-half of one percent of the entire [Education Trust Fund] budget for school choice. And school choice – to parents and kids who are in failing systems in most cases, who have no other choice, they can’t go to a private school [because] they don’t have the money to get out of that trap – it is the only piece of legislation that drives accountability to the public sector.”

“The public sector, if they have a failing school, what’s the consequences?” Marsh said. “None.”

Marsh sponsored the Accountability Act when it passed the state legislature in 2013. While dedicated to improving opportunity in education across the state, Marsh saw firsthand in his district why school choice is needed.

“I’ve had a failing school in Anniston for years and we can’t get the board to make changes to come out of a failing status,” he advised.

However, the Accountability Act provides a safety net for families and kids otherwise stuck, allowing students below a certain income level or transferring from a failing school to transfer to another public institution or a private or parochial school through tax credit scholarships and educational tax credits.

“[I]t is the only mechanism out there of giving parents and kids hope that are in those situations and the only mechanism driving change,” Marsh advised.

Other school choice options that he and fellow pro-growth conservative leaders have championed (like public charter schools) are designed to do the same thing: provide increased opportunity and hope. Marsh advised that the goal is “trying to find ways” to do this whenever possible.

“Public charter schools, which we worked together to pass, same thing – trying to find ways,” Marsh outlined.

He also emphasized that this – from his viewpoint – is not a battle between public schools and everything else. In fact, he believes that the “accountability” provided by the Accountability Act should be pushing failing public school systems to change for the better.

Marsh explained, “We believe in the public school system. We want it to be successful. But we, at the same time, cannot sit back and accept these low test scores and then say everything is okay. Show us where the change comes from.”

While the legislation may have its detractors nonetheless, the Accountability Act is not going anywhere anytime soon. Indeed, if Marsh gets his way as the powerful pro tem of the Senate, the annual tax credit scholarship cap of $30 million could be raised.

“The Accountability Act – as far as I’m concerned, I will fight to the end to protect the Accountability Act. In fact, I’ll do all I can to increase it to make sure it maintains its status in the state to provide that choice for those kids and those parents,” Marsh concluded.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

5 mins ago

VIDEO: Democrats whiff on Kavanaugh again, 2020 Alabama primary drama, A&M/UNA allegations and more on Guerrilla Politics …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Dr. Waymon Burke take you through this week’s biggest political stories, including:

— Should Alabama’s junior U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) have waited for more information before calling for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh?

— Will Alabama be able to hold a Democrat primary in 2020?

— Should there be an investigation into allegations of racism with at the University of North Alabama?

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Jackson and Burke are joined by Alabama State House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville) to discuss issues between Alabama Democrats and the national party, as well as opposition to tolls.

Jackson closes the show with a “parting shot” where he explains how there is no way to argue that anyone alive today doesn’t know blackface is offensive.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN.

2 hours ago

University of Alabama creates pediatric fellowship for family medicine physicians

The University of Alabama’s College of Community Health Sciences has created an innovative fellowship program to provide comprehensive instruction for family medicine physicians seeking additional skills in pediatric care.

The year-long pediatric fellowship will offer a variety of transformative experiences in both primary and tertiary care settings. Fellows will also receive research time and financial support for continuing education activities.

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“Many family medicine physicians are not comfortable taking care of extremely ill children because they don’t get a ton of exposure to pediatrics during their residency,” said Dr. Sara Phillips, assistant professor of pediatrics at the College and fellowship director. “The new program will provide fellows with ample opportunities to hone their pediatric skills.”

According to Phillips, most of the children seen by medical residents don’t have chronic illnesses or genetic disorders. Through the new program, fellows will get to treat neonatal intensive care unit patients and manage care plans for those with complex pediatric conditions.

In addition, the fellowship will equip family medicine physicians to care for chronically ill children in rural areas that may not have pediatric physicians.

“Family medicine doctors are the frontline care for kids in rural areas,” said Phillips. “Our program participants will have the advantage of seeing what children experience in the NICU and emergency room settings.”

Interviews for the program will begin in the fall with the fellowship starting in July 2020. For more information about the program, contact Dr. Sara Phillips at sbphillips@ua.edu.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 hours ago

Alabama’s newest ‘Smart Neighborhood’ to be finished in 2020

Holland Homes, builder of the state’s next “Smart Neighborhood,” says construction of the subdivision’s 51 homes will be complete by the end of 2020.

The builder hosted media outlets Monday at the model home in the Northwoods subdivision in Auburn. Owner Daniel Holland says seven of the 51 lots have been sold and plans to have the other 44 complete by the end of next year.

“Things are going good and going quick,” Holland said.

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Holland Homes is partnering with Alabama Power to develop Northwoods as a Smart Neighborhood community. All homes will be designed to make customers’ lives more comfortable, convenient and connected through features that can be managed by smart devices and voice activation. Energy-efficiency will be a key part of the neighborhood, and each home will be built with advanced energy products.

“One of the big benefits is the financial factor — the savings each month on your energy bill,” Holland said. “A 65 HERS score rating is going to equate to a huge savings in your pocket every month from a power bill perspective.” HERS stands for “home energy rating system” and is a recognized way to measure a home’s energy efficiency.

Progress visible on Alabama’s next Smart Neighborhood from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Jim Goolsby, a senior market specialist for Alabama Power, said the 65 HERS rating in the Northwoods homes puts them far ahead of typical Alabama home as far as energy efficiency.

“The average home is 130 on the HERS score, so these homes are going to be an average of 50 percent more efficient than an average home in Alabama,” Goolsby said. “In order to do that, we have to protect the house thermally with things like spray-foam insulation on the roof deck, advanced air ceiling to eliminate air infiltration of the home and double-pane Low-E windows.”

Goolsby said these materials make it easier to cool your house in the summer and warm your house in the winter.

“We’ve got a tremendous amount of materials that thermally protect the house so that we don’t have to run those mechanical systems as often,” Goolsby said. “We’re ahead of the game because we’ve built a better box.”

The Northwoods subdivision is the state’s second Smart Neighborhood and the first to be built under Alabama Power’s new Smart Neighborhood Builder Program. Each smart home in the neighborhood will feature:

  • Google Home smart speakers for voice control of the home.
  • Nest Learning thermostats to help save energy and provide more control over the home’s temperature when the owner is at home or away.
  • Advanced energy-efficient building features, including improved insulation, high-efficiency heat pump and water heater and Energy Star appliances.

In addition to Holland Homes, two additional builders are planning Smart Neighborhood developments this year. Harris Doyle Homes will build another community in Auburn and Curtis White Companies has one planned for Leeds. To learn more about those projects and Alabama Power’s Smart Neighborhood Builder Program, visit www.apcsmartneighborhood.com.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 hours ago

Discovery of an endangered species in a well-known cave raises questions

You’d think there’d be no way someone could newly discover an endangered species hanging out in Fern Cave in the Paint Rock River valley of Jackson County, so close to Huntsville, home to thousands of spelunkers exploring every cave, nook and cranny.

But Matthew Niemiller and colleagues did.

In a discovery documented in a paper in the journal “Subterranean Biology,” Dr. Niemiller, an assistant professor of biological sciences at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), found a specimen of the Alabama Cave Shrimp Palaemonias alabamae while doing a biological survey of Fern Cave in summer 2018 as part of a team of four.

The endangered shrimp had previously only been discovered in six caves in four cave systems in Madison County.

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“Fern Cave is the longest cave in Alabama, with at least 15 miles of mapped passage and five to seven distinct levels,” Dr. Niemiller says. The cave features a 437-foot deep pit and exploring most of its lower levels is reserved only for the very fittest, since the trip involves an arduous journey including drops to be rappelled.

Dr. Niemiller and team’s route to their discovery was no easy feat, either. The team entered the cave’s bottom level via the Davidson Entrance at the base of Nat Mountain on the Fern Cave National Wildlife Refuge. The section of Fern Cave is only dry enough for exploration without scuba gear at the height of summer. Otherwise, it takes a dive to explore its flooded passages.

“You go in that entrance, and immediately you are in water up to your chin,” Dr. Niemiller says. From there, the journey twists and turns through tight spots and chambers, and the team sloshed through plenty of water at times.

The biological surveys of Fern Cave are part of a two-year project funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that has involved over 20 biologists, hydrogeologists, and cavers to date from several organizations, including USFWS, UAH, U.S. Geological Survey, The Nature Conservancy, Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc., Kentucky Geological Survey, Huntsville Grotto and Birmingham Grotto.

The scientists relied on the knowledge and expertise of Steve Pitts who has mapped much of Fern Cave and is its guardian for the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc. “He has visited the cave more than any person alive, more than 450 times. Without Steve, this project wouldn’t be possible,” Niemiller says.

“We went there to look for everything,” Dr. Niemiller says. “It’s the biggest cave in Alabama, but really, we didn’t know much about it from a biological perspective.”

The cave houses the largest winter colony of federally endangered gray bats (Myotis grisescens), and there are other commonly found cave dwellers, like salamanders and millipedes.

“We were working on documenting any life we could see,” Dr. Niemiller says. “We’re looking at the ceiling, in the water and on the floor to see what we could find. We’re looking under rocks and into crevices, as well – every nook and cranny.”

Team members meticulously documented their findings in notebooks and took photos of specimens. In cases where the species was not readily identifiable, they collected voucher specimens for later study.

“We came up on this passage where we could see there was a muddy bank, a place that maybe at other times of the year you didn’t want to be, an area that was clearly underwater for most of the year,” Dr. Niemiller says.

At this spot there were vestigial pools, left when the water receded in the dry summertime. Dr. Niemiller peered into one.

“We are finding cave crayfish, cavefish and sculpin in this pool. Then I looked down and saw this weird thing, this little white crustacean swimming toward me, and I said, ‘That’s a cave shrimp!’”

The team collected a live sample because at the time it was unsure if the specimen was actually the endangered shrimp or possible a new undescribed species. After leaving the cave, Dr. Niemiller called USFWS and got permission to retain the specimen, which is now housed in the Auburn University Museum of Natural History.

But there’s more. The team found three other cave shrimp on that day in August 2018 and observed another two on a return trip in July of this year. The little animals pose some interesting questions for science.

First of all, there’s the Fern Cave location, in the Paint Rock River watershed, which led Niemiller to wonder if the shrimp was an undescribed species. However, the shrimp found at Fern Cave have been morphologically and genetically linked to those found in Madison County, a different watershed area.

“Fern Cave is in a different county and a different location than the other caves where this species has been found,” Dr. Niemiller says. How did the Alabama Cave Shrimp make it there?

Little is known about the shrimp’s ecology. How does it breed, what is its lifespan, how does it survive and what foods does it eat? And why and when did the shrimp lose its eyesight and live in caves?

“Does this species represent something that went underground a million years ago? Two million? Five million?” Dr. Niemiller asks.

What are its closest relatives? “We need to explore the genetics of the species in more detail to find that out.”

Perhaps the most interesting question is, what is the actual range of the shrimp, since it was newly found in a distinct watershed.

“We have to get a better understanding of the distribution of the shrimp,” Dr. Niemiller said. “We’re hoping to get additional funding to survey other sites in Alabama for the presence of the cave shrimp and other cave species of conservation concern.”

After all, perhaps the Alabama Cave Shrimp is doing better than scientists think, even though a population has disappeared in one cave in Huntsville where it was seen in the early 1970s.

Caves in this region of the country are far more extensive than they are amenable to human exploration, and here the tiny shrimp has had scientific impact. Dr. Niemiller’s team has developed a genetic assay that uses the shrimp’s environmental DNA. Shed in the normal course of living, this DNA could be detected in water samples taken from caves and springs by the assay, allowing science to peer into inaccessible areas in search of Palaemonias alabamae.

In northern Alabama and southern Tennessee, cave systems often are so extensive that anyone could be standing atop a habitat for the Alabama Cave Shrimp and not even know it.

“It could be right under your feet,” Dr. Niemiller says. “It could be in a cavity, a well or a cave system underground.”

Tiny cave passages too small to explore link together with underground gravel deposits flowing with water to offer lots of species habitats and opportunity for dispersal, and most of them science as-yet knows nothing about. In this respect, biological cave exploration is much like exploring the deepest recesses of the oceans.

“That’s what draws me to it,” Dr. Niemiller says. “Every cave is different, and differently populated. We’re making many new discoveries.”

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville)

7 hours ago

USA leads $1.3M fight against opioid addiction

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people in the United States die every day after overdosing on opioids. This national crisis includes the Gulf Coast, but a new program at the University of South Alabama will help address this problem.

USA’s College of Nursing has received a $1.3 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration to recruit and train psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners, students, nurse professionals and other professionals. It will focus on opioid and substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery services in high-need areas in this region.

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“We are in the process of creating the program, which will include three interdisciplinary online courses and stipends to start in January 2020,” said Dr. Kimberly Williams, associate professor of nursing and project director for the grant. “We have created an interdisciplinary team to support this program, which will help underserved and rural communities.”

Overdose deaths more than doubled between 2016 and 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 19.7 million people who are age 12 or older had a substance abuse disorder in 2017, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

“The students and professionals will have a better understanding of opioid and substance use disorders care involving integrated behavioral health settings through this experience,” Williams said. “By positioning psychiatric providers such as psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners within these medical facilities working alongside medical providers, it allows direct access to mental health services that may not otherwise be available. The direct service can reduce morbidity and mortality associated with illness through timely referrals, assessments and treatments.”

Dr. Heather Hall, dean of USA’s College of Nursing, said the award provides nursing faculty the opportunity to advance nursing education and practice. “The grant team will serve in key roles to expand the Gulf Coast region’s opioid workforce and substance use disorder workforce serving children/adolescents in areas with high mortality rates and high mental health provider shortage. We are proud to have an interprofessional team of faculty and health care providers collaborating to provide additional education and training to develop opioid and substance use disorder prevention, treatment and recovery specialty courses.”

The USA interdisciplinary team is also planning to connect with Project ECHO, the Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes, which is part of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Project ECHO is considered a collaborative model connecting healthcare professionals to discuss complex conditions and issues via video conferencing.

“Project ECHO encourages connections of interest through building ECHO hubs throughout the country and the world.  Williams said, “According to Project ECHO, this is a lifelong learning and guided practice model with an aim of strengthening local resources to provide evidence-based care for underserved patients within the U.S. and worldwide.”

The USA interdisciplinary team is also planning to connect with Project ECHO by creating their own ECHO hub. “We will recruit healthcare professionals from the three targeted areas to join our ECHO hub,” Williams said. “The use of this model will enhance prevention, treatment and recovery for persons with substance abuse disorders and other complex conditions.”

The team members for this grant along with Williams are:

  • Dr. Casey Elkins, co-project director, College of Nursing
  • Dr. Candice Selwyn, co-project director, College of Nursing
  • Dr. Kirsten Pancione, College of Nursing
  • Dr. Melanie Baker, College of Nursing
  • Dr. Brandon Browning, department of professional studies, clinical and mental health counseling, College of Education and Professional Studies
  • Dr. Stephen Young, department of social work, College of Arts and Sciences

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)