Monthly Archives: June 2013

Vallas certification debacle reveals shortcomings of education reform efforts

Only in the twilight zone or a Kafka novel would the law preclude someone who served successfully as public schools superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans from running the Bridgeport public schools, one of the worst performing school districts in the nation. Yet as is so often the case with Connecticut government, what would seem crazy anywhere else is business as usual: last week a state Superior Court held that Bridgeport Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas was ineligible to continue serving in the position because he failed to meet the superintendent certification requirements of state law.  State certification law mandates that most superintendents brought in from outside Connecticut complete a “school leadership program” at a Connecticut institution of higher education.  The Superior Court held that the custom-designed UConn “independent study” Vallas took was a “sham” that failed to meet the statute’s requirements. Vallas, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor argue that the course was not a sham and say they will appeal the ruling.  But whether or not this appeal succeeds, it misses the real point: it is absurd that the law requires someone with Paul Vallas’s qualifications -– including overseeing school districts ten times the size of Bridgeport’s – to complete courses in “school leadership” in the first place.The truth is that Connecticut superintendent certification laws have nothing to do with administrators’ qualifications and everything to do with insulating status quo bureaucracies from outside reform.  When national leaders in education reform like Vallas have to jump through pointless and time-consuming bureaucratic hoops to obtain leadership roles in Connecticut, they are likely to simply give up and move elsewhere. The same is true of Connecticut’s teacher certification requirements, among the most stringent in the country.  With a few exceptions, Connecticut law requires teachers to have a degree in education, meaning many talented people who didn’t decide to become teachers until after completing their educations have difficulty doing so.     This serves the economic interests of existing teachers and administrators by limiting competition for their jobs, but does not advance the goal of obtaining the highest quality teaching and administration possible.  As the Connecticut Policy Institute has discussed in our papers on education reform, there is no evidence linking certification regimes to teachers’ or administrators’ effectiveness in increasing student achievement.  They simply serve to limit the recruitment pipeline of outstanding educators and keep the antiquated education administration departments of the state university system in business.Structural mechanisms in Connecticut law insulating entrenched educational bureaucracies are not limited to certification. For instance, the state’s school funding structure does nothing to incentivize performance or hold failing administrators accountable.  On the contrary, because Connecticut does not have a “money-follows-the-child” school funding structure, districts that have the most students leaving underperforming schools to attend charter or magnet schools are rewarded with higher per-student budgets than they otherwise would have.  Meanwhile, certain high-performing charter schools like Amistad Academy in New Haven are forced to indefinitely leave thousands of low-income minority students on wait-lists because the schools can’t access funding to expand their operations.Governor Malloy’s 2012 education reforms were enacted with much bombast and self-congratulations.  But they did little to address these core structural problems with public education in Connecticut, all of which continue to impede low-income students’ access to high quality educational opportunities.  In fact, the “school leadership program” certification requirement for out-of-state superintendents was added to Connecticut state law in the 2012 education reform bill.Commissioner Pryor and Governor Malloy are understandably frustrated that this requirement is now being used to impede reform efforts in Bridgeport.  But they have no one to blame but themselves. With an education reform effort heavier on substance and lighter on rhetoric, they wouldn’t have found themselves in this predicament to begin with.  Continue Reading →

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Judge rules Bridgeport superintendent not eligible to run school district

A Superior Court judge Friday ruled that the superintendent of the state’s largest school system is ineligible to run Bridgeport Public Schools.”The court orders Paul Vallas be removed from his office,” Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis ruled Friday afternoon.Vallas — who was introduced to the Bridgeport Board of Education by state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor — said during a phone interview Friday night he plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.”Nothing changes,” he said. “It’s not like the decision results in any immediate action. We are going to appeal.”State law requires all superintendents in Connecticut to be certified by the State Department of Education, which requires that a candidate has a master’s degree, 30 credits in courses related to becoming a superintendent and eight years of teaching or administrative experience. These requirements can be waived for up to one year by the state’s education commissioner while the candidate completes an “educational leadership program” approved by the State Board of Education.In April, the state board approved an independent study created for Vallas by the University of Connecticut as a valid program. But the judge said Friday that the short, independent study he completed in May at UConn was merely a simulation.”There is no doubt that Vallas received preferential treatment,” the judge wrote in her 27-page decision.Vallas is in his 17th month of leading the 21,000-student school system.The judge also noted that Vallas lacked the required prerequisites to enroll in the regular UConn program in the first place, and that such an independent study hadn’t been approved for anyone else in the last decade. Additionally, the university’s governing board had never approved an independent study program.”Ultimately, the course standards were reduced,” the judge wrote. Continue Reading →

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Obama’s clean air move no help to McCarthy nomination

Washington –- President Obama’s decision to press for new clean air regulations this week dealt another blow to the already troubled nomination of former Connecticut environmental chief Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency.Senate Republicans have already blocked McCarthy from a confirmation vote. Their opposition makes it tough to find the 60 votes needed to move the nomination forward.Now Democrats from coal-producing states are under pressure to abandon McCarthy, too.The reason: Obama this week said he would use executive powers to limit the carbon dioxide that power plants could emit, and he ordered the EPA to draft tough new emission regulations.“By announcing imminent restrictions on carbon emissions from power plants … this administration will impose bureaucratic mandates with no regard for the people and communities of West Virginia that depend on coal and the inexpensive energy it creates for their very existence and survival,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.In his speech on the dangers of climate change, Obama also urged the Senate to confirm McCarthy.“It didn’t help,” said Jonathan Kott, communications director for Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.Jason Bostik, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, also said the president’s actions this week “certainly did not help [McCarthy] at all.”The coal industry is lobbying Manchin; Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.; and other Democrats on the issues of climate change and McCarthy.This is just the latest bit of trouble for the prospective appointee.For weeks her nomination has been held up by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who says he’ll block the nomination until he gets an update on an Army Corps of Engineers project to repair a levee on the Mississippi River system.Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has also threatened to put a hold on the nomination because he says McCarthy has not fully addressed questions he posed to her during her nomination hearing in April.Republican Sen. John Barrasso, whose home state of Wyoming produces the most coal of any state in the nation, suggested  McCarthy had lied during  her confirmation hearing in April about the agency’s plans to regulate existing power plants.”The agency is not currently developing any existing source of greenhouse gas regulations for power plants,” McCarthy said several times.Barrasso said, “either she was ignorant about what’s going on at EPA, a place where she’s been an assistant director for the last four years, or she is arrogant. Either way, I think this tarnishes her chances of being approved by the Senate, tarnishes her nomination.”But McCarthy could have been correct. The EPA may not have been told by the White House at that time it was ready for the agency to develop greenhouse gas regulations.As Connecticut’s environmental chief during Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration, McCarthy helped create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which allows power companies in New England and the Mid-Atlantic to sell emissions allowances if they invest the money from those sales in clean energy.Before working for Rell, McCarthy held key spots in the administration of another Republican, that of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.Her bipartisanship would have, under normal circumstances, helped her.But after she was confirmed in 2009 as the EPA administrator in charge of air quality, McCarthy shaped some of the agency’s most contentious rules, including emissions regulations for new cars and power plants and air pollution standards for oil and gas drilling.Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said Obama moved forward on the new clean air regulations without regard to how it would impact McCarthy.“He felt Gina’s nomination was not a reason for delaying the decision,” Roy said.He said he believes the president decided in the last few weeks to address the issue. Obama was under pressure by an April notice from 12 states, including Connecticut, that they intended to sue the EPA for its failure to develop new clean air regulations mandated by the Clean Air Act and a Supreme Court decision.If McCarthy is not confirmed, it would be the first time in the EPA’s 40-year history that a nominee to head the agency was shot down.Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has not set a date, but Roy thinks a confirmation vote will be scheduled in July.He said votes against the nominee would not be personal.“She is an excellent administrator of the president’s agenda,” Roy said. “The votes against her will be, for the most part, people voting against the president’s agenda.” If McCarthy’s nomination fails to get the required 60 votes, it would likely be rescinded by the White House. Continue Reading →

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Farm bill’s defeat — A lost opportunity for food security and farms

More than 100 amendments were introduced to the farm bill that was defeated this month in the U.S. House of Representatives. One amendment would have reduced annual funding for the federal food stamp program — known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — by $2 billion a year, and removed up to 2 million unemployed, low-wage and poor people who use their SNAP/EBT card to buy food and eligible non-food items. Another amendment would have allowed states to require food stamp applicants to submit to drug testing as part of the SNAP application process.The Senate version of a farm bill had passed two weeks earlier, and it also reduced funding for the food stamp program by $400 million annually. The bill would have also instituted reforms in both SNAP and the farm industry. Direct payments to farmers would be eliminated for crops they do not actually grow, and participating SNAP retailers would be required to stock more fruits and vegetables to be available to SNAP recipients. More grants and loans to both urban and rural “food deserts” would become available, to expand offerings of healthful food.The one amendment that finally killed the bill (the House version) would have added a work requirement that food stamp recipients have to be looking for work or working In order to receive SNAP benefits.In this economy?At this point, neither bill will pass, and a one-year extension of the 2008 Farm bill (the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act) —  will expire in September. Continue Reading →

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Farm bill’s defeat — A lost opportunity for food security and farms

More than 100 amendments were introduced to the farm bill that was defeated this month in the U.S. House of Representatives. One amendment would have reduced annual funding for the federal food stamp program — known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — by $2 billion a year, and removed up to 2 million unemployed, low-wage and poor people who use their SNAP/EBT card to buy food and eligible non-food items. Another amendment would have allowed states to require food stamp applicants to submit to drug testing as part of the SNAP application process.The Senate version of a farm bill had passed two weeks earlier, and it also reduced funding for the food stamp program by $400 million annually. The bill would have also instituted reforms in both SNAP and the farm industry. Direct payments to farmers would be eliminated for crops they do not actually grow, and participating SNAP retailers would be required to stock more fruits and vegetables to be available to SNAP recipients. More grants and loans to both urban and rural “food deserts” would become available, to expand offerings of healthful food.The one amendment that finally killed the bill (the House version) would have added a work requirement that food stamp recipients have to be looking for work or working In order to receive SNAP benefits.In this economy?At this point, neither bill will pass, and a one-year extension of the 2008 Farm bill (the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act) —  will expire in September. Continue Reading →

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Farm bill’s defeat — A lost opportunity for food security and farms

More than 100 amendments were introduced to the farm bill that was defeated this month in the U.S. House of Representatives. One amendment would have reduced annual funding for the federal food stamp program — known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — by $2 billion a year, and removed up to 2 million unemployed, low-wage and poor people who use their SNAP/EBT card to buy food and eligible non-food items. Another amendment would have allowed states to require food stamp applicants to submit to drug testing as part of the SNAP application process.The Senate version of a farm bill had passed two weeks earlier, and it also reduced funding for the food stamp program by $400 million annually. The bill would have also instituted reforms in both SNAP and the farm industry. Direct payments to farmers would be eliminated for crops they do not actually grow, and participating SNAP retailers would be required to stock more fruits and vegetables to be available to SNAP recipients. More grants and loans to both urban and rural “food deserts” would become available, to expand offerings of healthful food.The one amendment that finally killed the bill (the House version) would have added a work requirement that food stamp recipients have to be looking for work or working In order to receive SNAP benefits.In this economy?At this point, neither bill will pass, and a one-year extension of the 2008 Farm bill (the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act) —  will expire in September. Continue Reading →

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Congress stumbles over student loan problem

Washington –- A deeply divided Congress has failed to meet a deadline to stop a sharp spike of the interest rate charged on a popular college loan, ensuring that interest on those loans will double on Monday.“Unfortunately, this is just another instance of partisan gridlock in Congress,” said Abe Scarr, director of ConnPIRG, a public interest group lobbying to keep college loan rates low.The rate of the subsidized Stafford loan, used by more than 73,000 Connecticut college students to help pay tuition, board and other college costs, will jump from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent July 1, the day a law that kept the rates low expires.ConnPIRG estimates the hike will increase the cost of new loans for Connecticut students by $68.4 million. That translates into a $937 increase in debt per student, per loan.There is no shortage of proposals on Capitol Hill that would reverse Monday’s doubling of the interest rates.Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, sponsored one of them, a proposal that would keep the current rate frozen for two years.To force Republican House leaders to put the bill on the floor, Courtney has gathered 195 signatures, all from Democrats, on a “discharge petition” that would force a vote. But 218 votes, a majority of the House, are needed.Republicans say freezing the interest rate again would cost the federal government money.But Courtney said it’s “not a budget buster.”The House GOP approved a bill in May that would allow student loan rates to rise or fall from year to year with the government’s cost of borrowing.But Democrats, including Courtney, say that would keep interest rates high.Courtney conceded that solutions to the student loan problem aren’t imminent.“Whether or not there’s a sweet spot here to move a bill, that’s the question,” Courtney said.Two groups of senators on Thursday unveiled competing bills aimed at reversing Monday’s a spike in the student loan rate.Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Angus King, I-Maine, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced legislation that would tie the interest rates on student loans to the 10-year Treasury note, then add an additional 1.85 percent.“We’re tired of this being a political football,” Burr said. “This is a responsible program from the standpoint of the American taxpayer.”Meanwhile, another group of senators, all Democrats, introduced a bill that would freeze the existing loan rate for a month to give Congress time to find a permanent solution, preferably as part of the reauthorization of a higher education bill.“We have fallen. Continue Reading →

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U.S. Senate approves historic immigration bill

Washington – Despite a warning by Vice President Joe Biden, a group of immigrant students known as Dreamers chanted, “Yes we can,” as the Senate approved a sweeping immigration bill Thursday.The 68-32 vote was bipartisan. But challenges loom in the House for comprehensive reform that would provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., helped shape the bill. “I hope my colleagues in the House give this bill the respect that it deserves by maintaining or improving upon its strengths,” he said, adding, “This bill is not perfect, but we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”He was able to include into the bill a ban on immigration raids on sanctuary areas like churches and schools and measures that would combat human trafficking and abuses of immigrant detainees.Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who, like Blumenthal, championed the bill, said, “Our current immigration system hurts businesses across Connecticut, hinders law enforcement and tears families apart.”“Immigration reform used to be untouchable in Congress. But today, we can celebrate how far we’ve come…,” Murphy said.Besides providing legal status and a 13-year path to citizenship for millions of  unauthorized immigrants in the United States, the Senate bill would implement tough border security provisions that must be in place before any immigrants could gain legal status.It’s been 20 years since Congress approved a major immigration bill, which was not lost on the White House as Biden presided over the vote. Happy “Dreamers” — immigrant youth brought to this country by their parents without documentation — witnessed the action in the Senate gallery.But the mood was much more somber in the House, where advocates of reform worry that the GOP-controlled chamber would kill an opportunity for change.Several tough enforcement–only bills sponsored by Republicans will be voted on in the House. Continue Reading →

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Governor 2014? It’s a no go for Cafero

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said Thursday he will not run for governor in 2014, leaving until another day the question of whether he will continue his 21-year career as a legislator.“People have the right to know who’s in and who’s not. I hope that anybody who’s contemplating running for governor takes that very, very seriously,” said Cafero, standing outside the Hall of the House.The main beneficiary of Cafero’s decision is likely to be Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, who promises to make his own announcement this summer about whether he will seek the nomination to oppose Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat.Cafero and McKinney, who each have tried to act as the voice of the GOP, a party with no statewide or congressional officeholders, share similar political and geographic bases as fiscal conservatives who supported gun control measures after Sandy Hook.Tom Foley of Greenwich, the 2010 nominee who lost to Malloy by 6,404 votes, also is expected to seek the nomination. He will do so having kept his distance from a gun-control issue that divides GOP voters, while positioning himself as a Hartford outsider.Cafero’s decision removes from the race a polished legislative debater who enjoys the limelight and has shown a knack for provoking Malloy, while highlighting the difficulty of a legislator making the jump to becoming a credible statewide candidate.A June 19 Quinnipiac University poll showed Foley leading Malloy by 3 points, with McKinney, Cafero and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton trailing by 7 points. Only Foley was known well enough for more 25 percent of voters to express an opinion.Connecticut’s last six governors were elected either on their second try for the office or after holding other statewide office. Two of them, William A. O’Neill and M. Jodi Rell, were lieutenant governors who took office after the resignations of a governor.Ella T. Grasso held the statewide office of secretary of the state before her election to Congress. Continue Reading →

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UConn budget already millions in the red

The governing board for the University of Connecticut adopted a $1.1 billion budget Wednesday that officials say already has millions of dollars in red ink that will quickly need to be erased.The projected deficit became apparent earlier this week after the state’s comptroller informed UConn and other state agencies that they will need to contribute more than they did this fiscal year to cover current and retired employees’ health and pension benefits.In the fiscal year ending June 30, UConn was required to put aside 46 percent of its payroll to cover these costs. Next year, the university must set aside 54.7 percent. This means for each $1,000 in salary and wages, UConn currently pays another $460 for fringes, and this will rise to $547 in the next budget.This increase is primarily the result of a long history of the state’s underfunding its pension obligations. Union employees are slated to get a 5 percent pay raise and non-union staff 3 percent next year, which will also contribute to increases in required pension contributions.”This will create a budget problem very early on,” Lysa Teal, the university’s vice president of finance and budget, told the Board of Trustees.UConn was already slated to spend almost $200 million to pick up the fringe benefits for the employees the state does not pay for, which is about one out of every six dollars spent by UConn.“All the assumptions we made were way wrong” about pension costs, Teal said after the meeting. “I don’t know how we are going to resolve it.”So just how much of a deficit does this create for UConn?Teal said she will have that figure early next week, but it is easily in the millions.And with UConn having already tapped $18.7 million from its reserves just to balance its budget for this year, officials say that’s an approach they hope to avoid using again.“We certainly don’t want to add to that,” Teal said. “There were plans for some of this money… It’s like taking out of our savings account.”The Storrs rainy-day fund currently has $71.8 million, enough to keep the system operating for 27 days.The Office of the State Comptroller reports the higher contribution rate was necessary after it totaled costs for the coming year — $1.4 billion statewide for regular employees on the traditional pension system — divided by the amount in salaries that would be paid out. Continue Reading →

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Williams reconsiders Casablanca. And no, he wasn’t misinformed about the waters.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, has canceled his trip to Marrakech and Casablanca, Morocco. A spokesman said a family health issue has prompted the cancellation.He was to leave Friday for a weeklong trip sponsored and paid for by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation.No immediate word on who is getting the letters of transit. Continue Reading →

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State launches website to promote long-term care options, jobs

The state has launched a website and media campaign to increase awareness about the choices Connecticut residents have for receiving long-term care and the career options for caregivers.The campaign, called My Place CT, is part of an effort to expand the ability of seniors and people with disabilities to live in communities, rather than institutional settings like nursing homes. The move to reshape the state’s long-term care system also includes trying to help the nursing home industry broaden its business model to serve the needs of people living outside their facilities.One of the major challenges in expanding the use of home and community-based long-term care options is a shortage of workers, and the My Place CT campaign is aimed in part at promoting the home care field.“Making choices about long-term care and support just got easier,” Social Services Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby said in a statement. “In fact, the online resources and campaign are based on the theme of personal choice across the full spectrum of care — from the many options for staying healthy at home to receiving skilled nursing facility care.”In addition to the website, www.MyPlaceCT.org, the campaign will include print and radio advertising, billboards and signs on transit shelters, and video presentations in medical offices. The campaign is funded by the federal government.A 2007 study of the state’s long-term care needs by UConn researchers suggested that people in the state don’t have information about their options, and the website is intended to provide standardized information so people can make informed decisions, Anne Foley, an undersecretary in the state Office of Policy and Management, said in a statement.The need for long-term care services is expected to grow dramatically in the next 15 years as the state’s population ages. Continue Reading →

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Historic day ends with celebration

Members of Connecticut’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and their supporters, gathered at Real Art Ways in Hartford Wednesday night to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. Below is a photo gallery of some of the couples reveling at the party — young, old and in-between.First, though, is a clip of the party’s fan favorite, a band singing their version of “At Last,” a song made famous by Etta James.  Continue Reading →

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Malloy vetoes bill loosening requirements on bail bondsmen

 Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed a bill Wednesday that legislators passed unanimously, despite a warning from the Department of Criminal Justice that it would have undermined the integrity of the bail bond system.One of the bill’s provisions would have let bail bondsmen off the hook for defendants who fail to answer a court date, so long as they show up sometime in the following six months.“The objective of a bail bond is to ensure that an arrested person appears in court as required by that bond,” Malloy wrote in his veto message.The bill was opposed at a public hearing before the Judiciary Committee by the state Insurance Department, the Judicial Department and the Department of Criminal Justice. The panel approved the bill, 44 to 0.The governor also vetoed a bill Wednesday that would have added four legislators or their designees to the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, which Malloy saw as a legislative imposition on a criminal justice agency.The bill would have given commission seats to the two co-chairman and the two ranking members of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.“It would be inappropriate for legislators to sit on the commission as full voting members,” Malloy wrote in his veto message.On Wednesday, as expected, Malloy signed a law that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods if nearby states with an aggregate population of 20 million adopt a similar requirement. Malloy’s office took no note of the signing, other than to include it in a list of signed bills.The Democratic leaders of the House and Senate did issue statements.“I have heard from local organic farmers and individuals from across my district about the effects of GMO’s,” said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn. “Connecticut families deserve to have all the information they need to make informed, healthy choices when feeding their families.”“I’m proud that Connecticut is the first state in the nation to pass GMO labeling legislation while protecting consumers from cost increases,” said House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. “Our legislation should spur our neighboring states to join us in this effort. Continue Reading →

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