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Commentary: The parable of the Bambino

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Virginia Board of Education President Daniel Gecker, a former Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointee, listened to a presentation by Jillian Balow, superintendent of public instruction, at the November 17 Board of Education business meeting. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

Babe Ruth’s home run record was sure to fall sooner or later. Roger Maris broke Ruth’s 60-homer single-season record with his 61st home run of the 1961 season. Hank Aaron broke Ruth’s career homer record of 714 in 1974 with his 715th career dinger. Now, those broken records have been surpassed.

Somehow, though, Ruth remains distinct and immortal. Here’s one reason why.

It was the fifth inning of game three in the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field, with the Yankees and Cubs tied 4-4. Ruth had taken two strikes, and the Chicago crowd roared as the Cubs dugout taunted him. The Babe pointed to the flagpole beyond centerfield. On the next pitch, a curveball, he hit it exactly where he had pointed – an estimated 50 feet beyond the centerfield fence 440 feet away.

Ruth made good on his gesture. The Yankees swept the series in four games.

But the Babe didn’t crawl out of the cradle, knocking baseballs out of the park. He had the physical gifts, yes, but he took the time to learn the fine points of the game and perfected his ability to terrorize pitchers on the mound 60 feet, six inches away. Maybe there’s a lesson in this for the governor, even though he’s a basketball guy.

Youngkin, a Republican, won the 2021 governor’s race by positioning himself as a solutions-oriented pragmatist, apart from the snarling nationalism that became his party’s brand during former President Donald Trump’s White House years.

He picked the perfect wedge issue, too: public education. Specifically, Youngkin promised to prioritize parents’ concerns and prerogatives among those who set public school policy and curriculum. After the profound pandemic disruptions in 2020-21 and the 2020 summer of racial tumult following George Floyd’s videotaped curbside murder by a white policeman, Youngkin’s message found resonance not only in Republican rural Virginia but also with households in the centrist suburbs that for years had decisively favored Democrats.

He accused schools of indoctrinating students with “critical race theory,” a college-level academic concept that every Virginia school division denied teaching. He sided with parents who objected to accommodations that schools were making for transgender students and books with mature themes that were in school libraries or made assigned reading for students. He criticized school district requirements that students wear masks to slow the coronavirus spread when they returned to classrooms from months of remote learning.

The afternoon he took office, Youngkin opened fire on those issues in several of the 11 executive actions he signed. He proclaimed that “woke” instruction was doomed and that teaching “inherently divisive concepts” would end once his appointees took over the State Board of Education and could promulgate new curriculum standards.

All of which His Excellency had an absolute right to do. Elections have consequences, and to the victor go the spoils. But a little humility and even more listening and learning go a long way for a layman about to swagger into a minefield as important and complex as statewide education policy.

Over the past two weeks, as the Mercury and other outlets have reported, the governor’s education team has barged into the public school policy arena with hastily drawn revisions to the state’s history/social sciences guidelines and all the grace of an agitated moose in an antique glassware boutique. It hasn’t gone well.

The backstory goes like this. Every seven years, the State Board of Education is required to update the minimum expectations for what K-12 public students should learn in documents known as the Standards of Learning. The ponderous, drawn-out process for updating the history standards, begun during the term of Democratic former Gov. Ralph Northam, yielded a 402-page tome that the board, once Youngkin’s appointees took charge, returned to state Superintendent Jillian Balow in August for additional work. That revision, guided by an outside education consultant, was just 53 pages.

All hell broke loose when it was presented to the board last week. In a long public input session during the nearly eight-hour meeting, the new Cliff’s Notes draft was pilloried by teachers, parents, community groups, and historians as a “whitewash” of history that glosses over the nation’s fraught racial past and minimizes the contributions and perspectives of marginalized and Indigenous people (euphemized as “America’s first immigrants”) and communities of color.

Conservatives and parents’ rights advocates warmed to the brief version for its promotion of free market precepts and limited government. But not even the Youngkin-friendly new board was on board.

According to the Washington Post, Youngkin appointee Andy Rotherham moved to postpone reviewing the new standards, noting apparent lapses on some historical topics, including the anti-slavery abolition movement. Two-term Democratic appointee Anne Holton, a daughter of a Republican governor and wife to a Democratic one, called the November rewrite “a disaster.” She also noted that President Ronald Reagan is referenced six times in the new draft, yet the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, is not mentioned.

“Where we sit today, we are so far away from an established process that I am concerned that we’ve lost our way — quite candidly as a board — in terms of directing what’s supposed to be going on,” Daniel Gecker, the board president, said during the meeting.

So now, the board has tasked Balow, and the Department of Education with re-revising the latest revision, restoring some content dropped from the voluminous August draft, correcting typos, omissions, and inaccuracies, and assembling a “crosswalk” document that compares and correlates competing drafts. (The Post already published such a comparison.)

Since then, the contretemps has escalated. An author of books about education who had been a College of William & Mary instructor objected so deeply to being characterized as an expert who had been consulted on the latest standards draft that she took to Twitter to warn of litigation if the claim wasn’t retracted and her very limited role clarified.

There’s a serious need for comprehensive, accurate, quality instruction in history, for thoroughgoing studies into the society we share and for baseline training in American civics – how our democratic republic works. The latest SOL scores show how far our students’ knowledge of those essential American disciplines has slid.

The number of students in the past school year who passed history and social studies SOL exams declined 14% overall from pre-pandemic levels, with steeper drops for marginalized and economically disadvantaged groups. In a nation founded on the premise of an informed, self-governing electorate, there is clear urgency behind the task of restoring comprehensive, first-rate instruction for new generations.

Governor, gaining at least a baseline awareness of what you don’t know before you go to bat can spare you a lot of embarrassment.

When the Bambino stood at the plate 90 years ago in Chicago, stared down the Cubs’ pitcher, and brazenly pointed to the centerfield flagpole, he’d been there before and knew exactly what to do. The rest is baseball lore.

But perhaps some wisdom from basketball and arguably its greatest practitioner, Bill Russell, would best serve the governor: “We overreached our decision power. Sometimes our decisions have to fit the reality of the outside world.”

 

by Bob Lewis, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Is your child in middle school? Take time now to review survey being asked of our children

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URGENT Message for Parents re: 2023 Virginia School Survey of Climate & Working Conditions

Please find attached a copy of my address to the Warren County Public School Board last evening, Feb. 1, 2023. I was the ONLY public participant to address the Board and could not fully complete this message within the 3-minute limit. I politely stated that since I was the only one, could I please be able to finish? The Chair declined and said I could email them. I had the packets ready for all 5 Board members and left them with the clerk, which included:
*My address (speech)
*The letter to SMS Parents
*Superintendent’s memo #191-22
*Full survey questions (102)
*VA Code 22.1-279.8 B
*HB30 Item 135

I am a “passionate” driven individual, and I left feeling as if I failed the youth in making sure their parents were aware of this taking place, and ask you to PLEASE publish my address ASAP so parents to have still the opportunity to opt out their students if they wish to? I am aware that our SMS hasn’t taken the survey just yet, and the window is Jan. 9 – Feb. 24 (but no specific date) is being told. I, like other parents, have to make time to go online and click “links” to find out what this is all about, and some don’t have the time, but I feel if this is put out with a strong caption – they’ll be able to take notice.

Presented to the Warren County Public School Board – Feb. 1, 2023.
I am here this evening to present my concerns about the 2023 Virginia School Survey of Climate & Working Conditions that is being presented to 6th – 8th-grade students.

I am confident that this Board is aware of this survey and want to express my gratitude for receiving the parent’s letter in December from Interim Director Shamika McDonald and the school Principal providing the survey link and informing us that we will not have access to our child’s survey answers, even as parents, and gave the option to opt-out.

After reviewing the survey questions, I began a thorough online search and found the Superintendent’s Memo #191-22 from the VDOE, dated August 26, 2022.

• It states the VDOE and VA Dept of Criminal Justice Services are in partnership to coordinate the survey, which meets both VDOE’s legislative requirement and VDCJS’s mandate, but through reading the Legislative Item and the Virginia State Code listed on the memo.

• The VDOE’s legislative REQUIREMENT – Item 135-G does NOT require that students be surveyed. In fact, it makes no mention of students, only licensed personnel.

• The Virginia Code 22.1-279.8 B that the VDOE & VDCJS are using to back the “mandate” of this survey . . .is about the Virginia School and Campus Safety. It says . . . The Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety, in consultation with the Dept of Education, shall develop a list of items to be reviewed and evaluated, including incidents reported to school authorities and school inspection walk-throughs using a checklist. Each school board requires all schools to annually conduct school safety audits in collaboration with the chief law enforcement officer of the locality. Requiring a floor plan of each school building sufficiently detailed and accurate, etc.

• VA Code 22.1-279.9 C, which is not listed on the Memo, but is next in line in the VA Codes, states: the Superintendent shall establish a school safety audit committee to include representatives of parents, teachers, local law enforcement, emergency services agencies, local community service boards, and judicial and public safety personnel to review the completed safety audits and submit plans as needed to improve our schools’ safety. – Is there a Committee of such here in Warren County? What does it comprise? And is it active?

This survey is said to be a component of the annual school safety audit, and this audit itself is what is required. This survey is also said to be a tool provided by the VDOE & the DCJS to schools to help them meet their audit requirements. They claim it’s valuable information to assess student/teacher perceptions and can be used to improve school discipline and student support practices in order to maintain a safe and orderly school environment conducive to learning. I ask – has this Board looked to see if there are other possibilities out there to use instead of this survey that will help meet the audit requirements for the safety in our schools?

And the reason I ask is that this survey consists of 102 questions. It starts out positive, then takes a HUGE left turn! The following are just a few questions that are being asked of our 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade students (ages 11, 12 & 13) . . .

  • The things I learn at this school reflect multiple cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, and identities?
  • Questions 58-63 ask if students at this school are being bullied about their race or ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their physical appearance, they’re having too little or too much money or their disability.
  • Questions 81-88 – ask the student if they ever feel sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks in a row. Then ask them to rate it on a scale, then goes on to ask whether the adults in the school care about their mental health.
  • Question 90 – asks if they ever seriously considered attempted suicide in the past 12 months. If they answer yes, they get asked “how many times?” and whether they have participated in suicide prevention or mental health training.
  • Questions 98-102 asks the student to clarify themselves. How do you describe your gender? Is your ethnic background Hispanic or Latino? What best describes your race? Do you have any of the following educational plans? IEP, 504 or LEP Plan? How old are you?

This Superintendent memo states that any schools with regular education programs serving students in grades 6-8 are required to administer the student survey, but the laws they use for backing this requirement do NOT state such.

The VDOE strongly encourages schools to achieve a participation rate of 80% for both students and adults, stating that low rates may mask areas of concern and celebration. For that reason, the random sample option of the survey has been eliminated! The window dates for schools to conduct this survey is January 9 – February 24, 2023.

The Interim Director of WCPS gave parents until December 21, 2022 (right at the start of Christmas Break) to opt-out if requested. That reason alone is so the VDOE could receive back a percentile of how many students each school district is going to survey. I strongly encourage parents to make time to review this survey before your child is administered this, and should you disapprove, contact your school’s principal immediately to opt your child out.

Leslie Mathews
Warren County

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Commentary: Let’s keep the Shenandoah clean

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Paddling on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River in the George Washington National Forest. (Virginia.org)

For years, herds of cattle wading and defecating in our rivers caused pollution and rendered the waters disgusting and, in some cases, dangerous for contact by those seeking recreation and drinking water. That’s why in 2020, Virginia passed legislation providing farmers with increased funding to fence herds of cattle out of streams and a deadline of 2025 by which to complete the process. Most farmers took advantage of funding and put in exclusionary fencing, which protects public health, the health of the river, the hospitality industry, and even the cattle themselves from getting mastitis from standing in a contaminated stream.

Now, as reported in these pages, a small group of those who failed to act responsibly to put in fences using those cost-share dollars want to delay the benefits of clean water for the rest of us by extending the deadline to 2030.

This sensible legislation, passed with bipartisan support, was necessary because having cattle in our rivers and perennial streams is a trifecta of bad things. First, cattle hooves destroy the streambank and cause erosion; the resulting mud makes life difficult for critters living on the river bottom. Second, the direct deposit of cattle fecal matter in rivers adds to elevated bacteria levels. Third, the nitrogen and phosphorus from cattle manure contributes to the significant rise in algal mats we have been experiencing throughout the Shenandoah River system – dangerous enough that in 2021, more than 50 miles of the North Fork were closed to human contact because of floating mats of the stuff.

 

Algae in the North Fork of the Shenandoah in August 2021. (Matt Kowalski/Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

Those supporting an extension plead that the COVID-19 pandemic created the need for delay. However, on the Shenandoah River’s Main Stem and North and South Forks, farmers have succeeded in reducing the number of cattle herds with access to the waterways from almost 80 down to single digits; this was accomplished over a period that included the pandemic.

And the pandemic is an easy excuse – but how about evidence that it really is the basis for a needed delay? Why doesn’t the soil and water conservation district make at least a preliminary investigation to determine whether the delay is warranted? If the facts show that there has been progress but supply chain issues impeded, fair enough. But if an investigation shows nothing but inaction, we should not reward laziness with an additional delay.

Any extension is unwise and unwarranted and should not be supported. We already know that the longer cattle stay in the river, the longer the persistent problem of algae growth will go unanswered. What’s the cost of that? In addition to making the Shenandoah, one of the nation’s most attractive waterways, undesirable to be near, there is the economic impact.  River users who support the region’s considerable river outfitter economy will stay home – and who then is paying the price? The river outfitters and fishing guides. An even more dramatic and pervasive impact will result from a downturn in tourism, as those who want a day in the Valley will stay at home rather than facing the sight of disgusting mats of algae in the waters where they had wanted to wade, swim and paddle.

We also should not ignore the real health problem associated with algae in the river. In 2021, when Virginia’s Department of Health closed 50 miles of river on account of it, there were also scores of reports filed with the same authority regarding potentially dangerous algae elsewhere. Small children and pets are particularly susceptible to harm because of their enthusiasm and lack of caution; is this a worthwhile risk?

Further, the money has been allocated to support farmers to create fencing. What possibly can be gained by waiting five years when those same dollars will buy much less as a result of inflation?

To his credit, Gov. Youngkin’s current budget contains far more in agricultural cost-share dollars than any previous Virginia budget, including $81 million for Chesapeake Bay watershed cost-share best management practices, $15 million for soil and water conservation districts to provide technical assistance to farmers and $11 million to bolster operations and maintenance needs.

The Governor is also on record that Virginia will not meet the Chesapeake Bay 2025 cleanup goals, which the cattle exclusion would go some way to achieve. Pushing back the cattle herd deadline by five years will only worsen the problem. The commonwealth has no reason to sit on its hands for five years, especially when a cleaner Shenandoah River is within our sight and we have exercised the will to make it happen.

By Mark Frondorf

Mark Frondorf joined Potomac Riverkeeper Network in 2015 as the official Shenandoah Riverkeeper. Having guided on the Shenandoah and Potomac for almost twenty years, Mark Frondorf comes to the Shenandoah Riverkeeper position used to hard work and recognizing the importance of a hands-on approach to protecting our rivers. 


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Closing the Fitness Center is a poor decision – we deserve better

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Valley Health is taking away another community outreach and wellness program in order to increase the Corporation’s profit. In a letter dated Jan.16th, 2023, Valley Health’s Director of Fitness Services, Jeffery Jehren, abruptly announced that Valley Health would permanently end Front Royal’s popular fitness program, incidentally firing several trained and skilled healthcare professionals in the process.

Where are our elderly, or those of us with Parkinson’s Disease, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, and other like diseases and/or injuries, going to go to work against our declining health issues without the valuable health care benefits provided by our Fitness Center? I am 69 years old. Other local fitness centers cannot provide the same services that we are losing because of this ill-timed callous decision.

We urge you to let Valley Health know that closing the Fitness Center is a poor decision and that we deserve better treatment from our healthcare providers as a community.

Doug & Lyn Bement
Warren County

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Commentary: Credit company’s laxness jacked up my info; I got a lousy 5 bucks

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Equifax’s financial mea culpa arrived in my mailbox the other day. I eagerly tore open the envelope the credit reporting firm sent me.

Would the check be a cool $125, as the feds originally touted in helping reach the class-action settlement? Or, given the humongous number of claimants, something much, much less?

The company’s inattention to detail led to a massive data hack in 2017. The intrusion compromised the personal data of 147 million people – nearly half the U.S. population.

I had to file a claim and keep abreast of developments. It took several years for the payouts to start.

In 2019, then-Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said that, despite knowing about a key vulnerability in its software, Equifax didn’t fully patch its system or replace software that monitored its network for suspicious activity.

I was among 4 million Virginians affected. Our names, birthdates, and Social Security numbers were imperiled, though Equifax still says there’s no proof the data “has been sold or used.”

We’ll see.

Would the settlement check let me go on a mini-shopping spree? Or could I barely afford a combo meal?

Drum roll: It was a measly $5.21.

With millions of plaintiffs, class-action lawsuits like this one usually mean individuals receive negligible amounts. Besides, the lawyers representing the class get a major cut.

A $425 million consumer restitution fund was established as part of the Equifax settlement, but the “fine print” said just $31 million was being used for reimbursements. If more than 248,000 people submitted claims – a tiny percentage of 147 million – payments would be lower than $125 to each person. Folks could opt for free credit monitoring instead.

I tried reaching Kenneth Canfield in Atlanta and Norman Siegel in Kansas City, two of the attorneys representing consumers as part of “class counsel.” I wanted to know, in part, how much they received. Neither responded to my messages by Tuesday afternoon.

A legal website noted plaintiffs’ counsel often “receives 25 to 33 percent of the amount of damages as their attorney fees.”

A spokeswoman for Equifax directed me to a company statement on the disbursements and the settlement administrator’s website.

You bet I’m cashing the check.

And cursing Equifax for its cavalier and cheap response to data security.

 

by Roger Chesley, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Warren County Democrats candidate interest open house Saturday. January 28th

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As Chair of the Warren County Democratic Committee, I am excited to announce our Candidate Interest Open House on Saturday, January 28, from 10-2 pm at the Warren County Community Center. This event is designed to be a service to members of the community and not a closed-door, partisan exercise. The open house is not a place for rehashing political debates but one where interested parties can come in good faith to learn if the public office is right for them. One might ask why the chair of a Democratic committee would share helpful information about how to seek office without requiring party pledges.

One part of the answer is that our community is no place for the kind of partisan divisions and theatrics that hound Washington. We need problem-solvers who care about their neighbors more than any political party. That means providing this publicly available information to as many citizens of Warren County as possible. Too many people in recent years have tried to bring divisive drama to our School Board and other local offices, but that is not how we move our community forward.

Warren County has a long history of voting for Republican candidates, but whether you are a multi-generational native like myself or a newer resident, most people would agree that there is room for improvement in how local government meets the needs of business owners and working families. We can change the nature of our local governing body to reflect a more diverse set of experiences. Whether you studied law at a prestigious college, got a job at the local grocery store right out of high school, or like many, are still trying to find your passion, you might the person to bring a perspective to our local or state political system that helps kickstart a new era of vitality for the residents of Warren County.

Our community will only thrive when our School Board and Board of Supervisors are made up of people who are passionate about making our schools top-notch and ensuring that our growth is environmentally sustainable. People whose kids attend our schools should know how they can be a part of shaping educational outcomes. Folks living with the limitations of affordable housing and job opportunities can and must be part of how decisions are made for managed growth.

Even attendees of the event who do not decide to run for office can now leave with more information about the duties of their elected officials. This knowledge is important for holding our officials accountable.

Paul Miller
Chair, WCDC

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2023 Reassessment Notice – sticker shock

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Last week I checked the mail and found my 2023 Reassessment Notice from Warren County. While not a bill, the assessment change was up nearly 33%.

I took a hard swallow, even though I had been forewarned, for I had been in the audience at the January 3rd Board of Supervisors meeting when it was discussed that these reassessments, expected to show 25-35% increases in many cases, would cause sticker shock.

The BOS more or less acknowledged the need to lower the tax rate toward a level that — offsetting the assessment increases — would be “revenue-neutral” for the county.

However, I would suggest a more drastic approach. Throw out the reassessments altogether. They are based on outdated information.

While it’s unclear exactly what data was used to calculate the increases, the fact is that the real estate market peaked in May or June 2022 and has been in a precipitous decline ever since.

The reported prices used in any assessment calculation come with a serious time lag. For example, the oft-referenced Case-Schiller index is only up-to-date through October closings, which reflects contracts that were signed in the July-to-September timeframe.

Whatever selling prices were used to develop the new assessments, they were based on a roaring market and constituted prices that almost no one selling a home could get today.

Today, 30-year fixed rates are 6.15%, up from 3.45% a year ago. This rapid increase has kneecapped the housing market.

And in December, existing home sales posted the 11th straight month of declining volume.

Pending home sales are down about 35% year over year.

Days on the market (selling time) is up nearly 25%. The percentage of asking price offered to sellers is shrinking, and affordability is getting worse except for all-cash buyers.

Consider a local couple that has saved up $84K to buy a house and can afford a $1500 monthly payment (not including property taxes and insurance).

With $84K in hand, at the 3.45% interest rate a year ago, they could have bought a $420K house with 20% down.

Today, at a 6.15% rate, they can only buy a $330K house with their nest egg.

That is $90K in purchasing power lost into thin air due to rising interest rates.

Since our market is roughly balanced in terms of buyers and sellers, it means that the seller of that $420K home just lost $90K in equity. Yet Warren County sees fit to increase her assessment by 30%.

In all likelihood, anybody who thinks they can sell their house today for what it may have sold for a year ago is in for an unpleasant surprise.

Most of us would be unable to sell our homes for the newly assessed value in any reasonable amount of time, even if we wanted to.

This is why the reassessments should be scrapped altogether, or at a minimum; the increases should be cut in half to reflect the recent downturn in the market. And on top of that, the BOS should indeed lower the tax rate to offset any increase in assessments, such that the real estate tax haul for the county is revenue-neutral.

Families in Warren are paying more for food. Car taxes are up based on increased assessments. Electricity prices will likely increase as well.

A real estate tax hike based on outdated data is too much for our families to stomach.

John Stanmeyer
Warren County

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