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On Jan. 1, The Gazette editorial board looks forward to key public issues that demand attention in our community, region and state. Our list is not comprehensive, but it includes items that citizens can work on together in the new year.

The Gazette opinion column will revisit agenda issues during the year to track and promote progress. We invite readers to share their opinions in the Voice of the Reader.

Preventing child abuse

Last year, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services conducted 8,091 investigations of abuse/neglect involving 11,286 children, and substantiated 909 reports.

Just sorting through abuse reports is a huge job. Montana leaders should take steps to ensure that our state is consistently promoting practices proven to reduce the incidence of child abuse and neglect, and that the laws in place hold adults accountable for harm inflicted on Montana children.

The 2011 Legislature called for a study of reducing childhood trauma, a task that the Interim Committee on Children and Families has just begun. A draft study plan prepared in October by committee staff describes childhood trauma as "a range of early experiences including abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, or growing up with substance abuse, mental illness, parental discord or crime in the home, that correlate to numerous health and social problems throughout one's lifespan."

Senate Joint Resolution 30, which requested the interim study, noted that that "the human brain grows to 85 percent of its adult size by the time a child is 3 years of age, and this growth is profoundly shaped by the child's experiences during those years, particularly by the safety, stability and nurturing provided by the child's primary caregivers."

The committee can be the starting point for policy changes to improve accountability and prevention of child abuse.

Healthy community

Yellowstone County residents have some great local resources for taking care of their health. Unfortunately, many of us seldom take advantage of opportunities to maintain good health.

Nearly 79 percent of adults here report usually eating fewer than five servings of fruits and vegetables daily -- the recommended consumption for good nutrition. About one in five Yellowstone County adults surveyed admitted to getting no physical exercise outside of work. More than one in five of us are obese, and more than one in three are overweight.

Yellowstone County residents are more likely than Montanans generally to eat too few fruits and veggies, avoid exercise and carry too much weight. We are more likely than the average Montanan to get recommended medical screenings for cancer and our cancer rate is slightly below the state average. However, we are more likely than most Montanans to have strokes, diabetes, heart attacks or asthma. Despite a higher incidence of diabetes in the county, our death rate from diabetes in lower than elsewhere in Montana.

Those facts, drawn from the community health assessment on the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services website, provide plenty of food for thought — and action this year. A healthier community is good for individuals and all of us together.

Responsible oil development

The hottest oil play in the United States is on Montana's eastern border. A fifth of the Bakken shale formation lies under Montana.

Between Dec. 1 and Christmas Eve, the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation approved more than 40 oil well permits and logged 16 well completions. This development is concentrated in counties bordering North Dakota (Sheridan, Richland, Fallon), but extends west to permit sites in Dawson, Roosevelt, Pondera, Big Horn, Phillips, Garfield, Rosebud, Fergus, Glacier, Valley, Petroleum and Toole counties.

The boom has brought well-paying jobs and greater demand for all kinds of service to the Bakken region. Many Billings-based businesses are delivering services and supplies to the Bakken. Big Sky Economic Development is marketing Billings as an energy hub.

The challenge for Montana is to reap the rewards of this boom while mitigating undesirable impacts. Public policy must help meet immediate infrastructure requirements for local housing, water and sewage treatment and road improvements. Montana must also look to the long-term future in planning sustainable communities and preservation of the clean air and water that is the state's greatest treasure.

Majorities of Montanans generally favor natural resource development, along with supporting protections for clean air, clean water and wildlife. Public policy must promote responsible development.

Quality public schools

The school year isn't yet half over, yet Billings Public Schools has weathered a top leadership shakeup. Jack Copps is on board again as interim superintendent, but a more permanent leader must be hired before the 2012-2013 school year starts.

The 2011 Legislature tightened school budgets statewide, and Billings schools were among the majority that saw reduced state aid this year. Next year, the district anticipates a boost of $1.3 million for the elementary district because this year's K-6 enrollment is up by 325 students from last year. That per student support will have to be spent carefully to get the most value in a district that has nearly 100 K-6 classrooms more crowded than state standards permit.

The district also will have three school board seats up for election in May. Montana's largest school district needs trustees who can work together as a board to set policy and oversee a $100 million budget.

The district and all its advocates must tell voters and lawmakers about the strengths and challenges of Billings Public Schools.

Growing 2-year colleges

This could be the biggest year ever for Montana's five colleges of technology. A grant funded by the Lumina Foundation is helping the Montana University System develop and implement an expanded mission for these two-year colleges, a mission that is more comprehensive and responsive. The initiative is imperative to close Montana's "degree gap," the difference between projected growth in demand for highly educated workers and the Montana work force.

The Montana Board of Regents last summer directed university administration to implement the new two-year mission within two years and draft implementation plans are on the regents January agenda.

Goals include workforce development and lifelong learning though such things as classes and scheduling to meet the needs of working students and students over age 25, ensuring that credits transfer to other university units, increasing opportunity for associate degrees to bridge to bachelor's degrees.

Montana State University Billings College of Technology has grown in enrollment and added courses in high-demand career fields. Yet there is much more that Billings and the other two-year colleges could do to meet the needs of Montanans for quality, affordable higher education. These colleges need community input in 2012 to set a smart course for the future.

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