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By Luke Nichols/Daily Sun sports editor 

Beatrice's Michaela Jones takes the ball to the hoop during a game against Columbus Friday night at the Ozone in Beatrice.

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BPS officials talk state test results

Beatrice Public Schools officials are pleased with recent state testing results, but still see room for improvement in some areas.

Results of the Nebraska State Accountability (NeSA) tests were released Friday morning. The tests, which BPS students took in April, focused on three main areas, English learning arts, math and science.

In math, 78 percent of third grade students were found to meet or exceed standards, while 78 percent of fourth graders, 84 percent of fifth graders, 83 percent of sixth grades, 81 percent of seventh graders and 79 percent of eighth graders tested proficient.

Statewide results for third through eighth graders were 75, 76, 76, 70, 69 and 65 percent meeting or exceeding standards, respectively.

BPS Director of Curriculum Jackie Nielsen said the math scores increased overall compared to last year.

“We did see growth with the math scores and we saw more growth towards that 80 percent proficient, which we’re excited about,” she said. “Math has been a goal that we have continued to work on. We know that is an area where students struggle.”

In English proficiency, grades three through eight in Beatrice tested at 49, 50, 68, 49, 48 and 57 percent respectively, compared to 53, 56, 51, 47, 47 and 51 percent across the state.

These figures are a sharp decline over previous years, which Nielsen said is due to a change in standards.

Previously, any student who met minimum standards was considered proficient. Beginning this year, students now must meet higher career and college readiness proficiency, a higher standard.

“Across the state, English language arts dropped, and dropped dramatically,” Nielsen said. “We have a new benchmark and we are looking at our resources and curriculum that we have in our classrooms to figure out where there are gaps and what we need to do to help out students become career and college-ready.”

Starting next year, state math tests will be evaluated the same way.

BPS Superintendent Pat Nauroth said it’s difficult to compare the English scores to past years under the new standards.

“Any time they make adjustments to an assessment, it takes a while to figure out where you’re at, and then from there, what we need to do to get better,” he said. “You can rest assured as a district, that’s what we’ll do, because our staff feel the same way. They want our kids to do as well as possible.”

In science, 79 percent of BPS fifth graders and 76 percent of eighth graders met or exceeded standards. Science is only tested at the two elementary grades.

Across the state, 72 and 68 percent of students were found to be proficient.

Nielsen said science scores of BPS students dropped slightly compared to last year, but remained similar. She added that, while the test results can be useful, they’re one of many factors that determine how a student is doing.

“We have work to do,” she said. “We have areas that we are doing very well in. Then there are areas we know we need to continue to grow. Even the areas that we are doing well in, I’m not pleased because we don’t have 100 percent of our students that are meeting the benchmarks. You could say 100 percent isn’t realistic, but we want every child to be meeting the benchmarks and succeeding in our district.”

This year also marked the first time ACT scores were collected in the 11th grade as part of the tests.

On the ACTs, 51 percent of BPS students met or exceeded standards in English, 48 percent in math and 44 percent in science. That compares to 52, 50, and 54 percent, respectively, for the state average.

Nauroth added that the district does pay attention to how other districts do on the tests, and that Beatrice Public Schools will continue to strive for the best for its students.

“There are things on the assessment and, while we don’t compare ourselves to other districts, we’re looking at how we’re doing, we do look at other districts to just say, 'are there things other districts are doing to score better that maybe we can learn from them,'” he said. “I would say, while we’re happy with some areas, there are other areas where we need to look at more.”

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Beatrice Habitat for Humanity offers hope and tax credits

Habitat for Humanity is known for lending a helping hand to those in need, and this holiday season, giving to the organization can get you something back in return.

The Beatrice chapter of Habitat for Humanity is looking to offer tax credits as a part of a program from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. When the organization receives a donation of $500 or more, they’ll submit paperwork to the Department of Economic Development for a tax credit to the donor.

“If an individual was to make a $1,000 cash donation to Habitat, they would be able to take that $1,000 off their federal income tax first,” said Allen Grell, project coordinator for Beatrice Habitat for Humanity. “Then, the state of Nebraska will award them with a state sales tax credit of 40 percent of that $1,000. So, they're going to get another tax credit from the state of Nebraska of $400. That can be applied to their state of Nebraska tax liability.”

The offer is part of a fundraising effort that aims to build a brand-new home for one of their future partners, Grell said. In the 17 years since he and his wife, Linda Grell, have been involved with Habitat, the cost of building a house in Beatrice has almost doubled, rising from about $60,000 to more than $100,000, he said.

In order to maintain Beatrice Habitat for Humanity’s status as an affiliate with Habitat International, the organization has to either build or rehab a home every three years.

Lately, they’ve been rehabbing homes, including the most recent renovation of Thomas Grosky’s Beatrice home. Working with multiple volunteers from Exmark Manufacturing, Habitat put in new siding, installed 20 new windows and performed electric work on the exterior and interior of Grosky’s house.

It’s less expensive to rehab a home than it is to build one, Grell said, but not by much.

Beatrice Habitat for Humanity was once given a house which the original owners had abandoned. They had locked the doors, walked away and never came back, leaving everything the way it was for 15 years. 

The house was later donated to Habitat and members got to work fixing it up. There was still food in the fridge, and sheets were still on the bed. If it weren’t for the dust and mold, the house looked as though someone was still living there. After gutting the house, the project cost the group nearly $75,000, Grell said. The project would not have been possible without the help of volunteers and donors.

The abandoned house, like all Habitat homes, was built and rehabbed with help from the people who would be living in them.

Habitat for Humanity turned out to be a perfect fit for Mac and Shaina Henning. Five years ago, they saw an ad at the Beatrice Wal-Mart requesting a partner for Habitat for Humanity.

The Hennings were expecting a child and they’d been trying to buy a home for a while, but kept running into issues. Both of them were young and couldn’t qualify for many homes. The ones they did qualify for required quite a bit of work. That’s when they applied for a home loan through Habitat.

“They showed us the house, and it was head and heels above what we had seen for the price,” Mac said. “When they told us it was a zero interest home loan, as well, that was really nice, considering Shaina was in school and I was working a minimum wage job.”

Friends around their age who also bought homes, he estimated, probably spent about $200 a month more than they did. When you’re working a minimum wage job, Mac said, $200 extra a month is a huge chunk of money.

“Especially since our son has multiple food allergies,” he said. “The food we had to buy was more expensive than just ramen noodles. That helped out, so we could put that money toward our kid's diet.”

About a year after they purchased the house, Mac was able to go back to school. With the money they’d saved, Mac and Shaina were both able to attend school and are now both licensed practical nurses.

The typical monthly payment is right around $450, Grell said, which covers the mortgage, taxes and insurance. None of the homeowners involved with the Beatrice Habitat program have ever defaulted he said, and they still have all but one original homeowner.

Habitat for Humanity is a Christian organization—its most recognizable face was probably former President Jimmy Carter. As such, Habitat International has a strong history of tithing, Grell said.

Ten percent of every dollar received by the Beatrice affiliate goes to support building homes in Ethiopia. They’re much different from the homes being built in Beatrice, Grell said, and most can be built for around $4,500.

Most of the homes don’t have sanitary facilities or running water, so there’s a big push to build community bathrooms at the moment, he said.

For people interested in giving to Habitat, Grell said this is a prime time to do it if donors are looking to minimize their tax liability, and the donation doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of cash.

“They could give us material, they could give us in-kind service,” he said. “We can interpret all of those as to what value they would be. We'll submit them to the department of economic development, and they'll issue out a tax credit.”

For those interested in donating, Beatrice Habitat can be reached at 402-239-3891. Anyone interested in becoming partners can call that number as well.

A lot of Beatrice Habitat partners usually come to them through word of mouth or from advertisements they’ve seen, Grell said, so they haven’t seen the level of interest they’d expect.

“It's amazing that people aren't beating our door down,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is, people are busy with their life. We have a difficult time getting the word out.”

Flynn pleads guilty, is cooperating in Trump-Russia probe

WASHINGTON — Michael Flynn, the retired general who campaigned at Donald Trump's side and then served as his first national security adviser, pleaded guilty Friday to lying to the FBI about reaching out to the Russians on Trump's behalf and said members of the president's inner circle were intimately involved with — and at times directing — his contacts.

Court papers didn't name the senior officials, but The Associated Press has confirmed that they were Trump's son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and former Deputy National Security Adviser KT McFarland, who is now up for an ambassadorship.

Flynn's plea could be a crucial development in the wide-ranging criminal investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Trump's favor because it means Flynn is now required to cooperate with federal investigators.

His plea to a single felony count of false statements made him the first official of the Trump White House to admit guilt so far in the criminal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Friday's developments don't resolve the paramount question of possible Trump-Russia coordination in the campaign, but they do show that Flynn lied to the FBI about multiple conversations last December with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Court papers make clear that senior Trump transition officials — including Kushner and McFarland — were fully aware of Flynn's outreach to Russian officials in the weeks before the inauguration.

McFarland's involvement was confirmed by two former transition officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss the matter. One of the officials confirmed Kushner's involvement.

That revelation moves the Russia investigation, which has shadowed Trump throughout the year, deeper into the White House and raises questions about the accuracy of repeated assertions by the administration that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about the content of his calls with the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.

Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner had led a transition team effort to defeat a United Nations vote referenced in the court papers, according to former U.S. officials and foreign diplomats.

Though prosecutors also had investigated Flynn lobbying work on behalf of the Turkish government, the fact that he pleaded guilty to just one count, and faces a guideline range of zero to 6 months in prison, suggest that prosecutors see him as a valuable tool in their investigation and are granting a degree of leniency in exchange for cooperation.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb sought to distance the plea from Trump himself, saying: "Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn."

Flynn, the longtime soldier, stood quietly during his plea hearing except to answer brief questions from the judge. He accepted responsibility for his actions in a written statement, though he said he had also been subjected to false accusations. He said, "My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel's Office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country."

The Russia investigation has persistently followed Trump the first year of his presidency, angering the president and repeatedly distracting from his agenda. Flynn's plea came as Republican senators labored to pass a far-reaching tax bill, which would be a significant victory for Trump.

On Friday, the president ignored reporters' shouted questions as he welcomed the Libyan prime minister to the White House, and aides canceled media access to a later meeting between the two. He did appear briefly at an afternoon White House holiday reception for the media, where he offered season's greetings and departed without addressing the Mueller investigation.

Early on in his administration, Trump had taken a particular interest in the status of the Flynn investigation. Former FBI Director James Comey, whose firing in May precipitated the appointment of Mueller as special counsel, has said Trump asked him in a private Oval Office meeting to consider ending the investigation into Flynn. Comey has said he found the encounter so shocking that he prepared an internal memo about it.

A former Defense Intelligence Agency chief, Flynn was a vocal Trump surrogate during the campaign and was known for leading crowds in "Lock her up" chants regarding Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server.

Flynn was interviewed by the FBI days after Trump's inauguration.

He was forced to resign following news reports indicating that the Trump White House had been warned by Obama administration officials that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak and was therefore compromised and potentially vulnerable to blackmail.

White House officials including Pence, who had declared publicly that Flynn never discussed sanctions, said they had been misled.

The court case Friday concerns a series of conversations that Flynn had with Kislyak during the transition period between the November election and the Jan. 20 inauguration.

Prosecutors say Flynn on Dec. 29 spoke with an unnamed senior transition team official about what, if anything, to say about sanctions that had been imposed on Russia one day earlier by the Obama administration in retaliation for election interference. Flynn then requested the Russian ambassador "not escalate the situation" and respond "in a reciprocal manner," a conversation that prosecutors say he then reported to transition team members.

If the Trump transition made secret back-door assurances to Russian diplomats, that could potentially run afoul of the Logan Act, a 1799 law that bars private American citizens from attempting to intervene in "disputes or controversies" between the United States and foreign powers without government approval.

Another conversation with Kislyak occurred one week earlier after a "very senior member" of the presidential transition team directed Flynn to contact foreign government officials, including from Russia, about a U.N. Security Council resolution regarding Israeli settlements.

In a striking rupture with past practice, the Obama administration refrained from vetoing the condemnation of the settlement expansion, opting instead to abstain. The rest of the 15-nation council, including Russia, voted unanimously against Israel. At the time, Israel was lobbying furiously against the resolution and the Trump team spoke up on behalf of the Jewish state.

Former U.S. officials and foreign diplomats said Kushner led the effort to defeat that U.N. vote.

During his conversation with Kislyak, prosecutors say, Flynn requested that Russia vote against or delay the resolution, though he admitted in his plea deal that he later lied to the FBI by saying he had not made that request.

Mueller's team announced charges in October against three other Trump campaign officials, former chairman Paul Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates, and a former campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his own foreign contacts.

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Two arrested after selling drugs to informant

Two Lincoln residents were arrested on warrants after allegedly selling cocaine and marijuana in Beatrice earlier this year.

In May, Gage County deputies conducted a controlled buy of cocaine and marijuana from 23-year-old Nicholas J. Allen.

Law enforcement outfitted a confidential informant with recording devices and provided the informant with $500 to make the buy.

Allen was contacted by the informant, and said he was bringing 24 grams of marijuana and 3.5 grams of cocaine from Lincoln to sell. The two met at a car wash in Beatrice to conduct the buy.

The arrest warrant states Allen said his girlfriend, later identified as 21-year-old Teresa M. Tremel, would be driving and they would be coming in a Dodge Dart.

Law enforcement followed Allen to the car wash and got into the informant’s vehicle.

The warrant states authorities could clearly hear the two speaking, and two minutes later, Allen left the vehicle.

Another controlled buy was conducted in June, during which an informant was provided with $800 for one ounce of marijuana and seven grams of cocaine.

Tremel was identified by law enforcement as being in the vehicle Allen arrived in.

Allen was arrested for distribution of 10-28 grams of cocaine, two counts distribution of marijuana and not having a drug tax stamp.

Tremel was arrested for two counts of aiding and abetting a class 2 felony and two counts of aiding and abetting a class 3 felony

Allen’s bond was set at $10,000 with a 10 percent deposit in Gage County Court, while Tremel’s bond was set at $7,500 with a 10 percent deposit.

Both are due back in court Dec. 8.