Marshallese translator is 1st for the courts

LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas has the largest population of people from the Marshall Islands in the continental U.S., and on Thursday it became the first state with a certified Marshallese court interpreter.

Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Hannah swore Melisa Laelan in to the new role.

"We are immensely proud to introduce Melisa as the nation's first certified Marshallese court interpreter," Hannah said as Marshallese dancers, dressed in purple tropical shirts and dresses, looked on.

More than 4,000 people from the small Pacific island nation live in Arkansas. And Marshallese is the second-most requested language in the state's courts, after Spanish, Hannah said.

Laelan, of Springdale, has been "singlehandedly taking on nearly all of the Marshallese interpreting requests for the last few years," Hannah said. She interpreted in more than 800 cases last year alone.


Deadly bat disease spreads west to state

SPRINGFIELD - A disease that decimated bat populations in the eastern United States has been detected in Illinois, raising concerns for the environment and the agricultural industry.

Two laboratories confirmed the presence of the fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday. The disease, fatal to several bat species, was found in bats from four counties: LaSalle in north-central Illinois, Monroe in southwestern Illinois and Hardin and Pope in the far southern part of the state.

Researchers are especially concerned about the disease because bats play a crucial role in the environment, devouring huge quantities of agricultural pests, which likely saves that industry billions of dollars a year in the U.S., said Joe Kath, endangered species manager for the department.

"Although its arrival was anticipated, the documented spread of WNS into Illinois is discouraging news, mainly because there is no known way to prevent or stop this disease in its tracks," Kath said.


State claims nation's top graduation rate

DES MOINES- The state Department of Education says Iowa's graduation rate increased to more than 89 percent, the highest in the nation.

The department reported Wednesday that 89.26 percent of Iowa's class of 2012 graduated, up nearly 1 percentage point from 2011.

Iowa's four-year graduation rate ranks first nationally.

Graduation rates increased in 172 of Iowa's 318 school districts that had high schools.

Eight of the 10 largest districts saw graduation rates rise. The biggest jump among those districts was in Des Moines, where the rate climbed 3.47 percentage point to 79.15 percent.

Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass noted the strong numbers but added that the state needs to ensure graduating students are adequately prepared.

State lawmakers are considering reforms aimed at improving Iowa's public school system.


Settlement reached in suit over light display

BATON ROUGE- A lawsuit over a Denham Springs woman's light display, which extended a middle finger to her neighbors, has been settled.

Final dismissal documents were filed in Baton Rouge-based federal court this week.

Sarah Childs said she put up the roof message in November because she believed a neighbor stole her dog. She said police threatened her with fines and arrest because of the lights. She and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana sued the city, its mayor and police.

ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie Esman described the final settlement as allowing Childs to keep the lights up without harassment and requiring the city to make a payment to the ACLU to cover legal costs.

"The city agreed to leave her alone and paid $15,000 in attorney's fees," Esman said Friday.


Woman bludgeoned with casserole dish

BAY CITY - A Michigan woman who authorities say bludgeoned a relative with a glass casserole dish during a dispute is facing a felony charge. reported that 35-year-old Stacey J. Meyer attacked the 24-year-old woman in April at a Kawkawlin Township home with the 9-by-13-inch dish containing banana cake. The woman told authorities she was hit three times before the dish shattered.

The woman told police she has hearing loss afterward.

A message was left Thursday by The Associated Press with a lawyer listed in court records as representing Meyer.

Following an investigation, Bay County authorities issued an arrest warrant for Meyer in January. She's free on bond ahead of a March 12 hearing to determine whether there's enough evidence for trial. If convicted, she faces up to four years in prison.


Many permit holders abusing water use rules

WORTHINGTON - Hundreds of water permit holders in Minnesota are violating the law by using billions of gallons more water than they're allowed, Department of Natural Resources records show.

The violators include individuals, businesses and even state government agencies, Minnesota Public Radio reported Wednesday. All have state permits that let them take specific amounts of water each year from underground wells, rivers, lakes and wetlands. But many aren't obeying the terms of their permits, and they face few consequences for using too much water.

"There's no doubt that a lot of them are appropriating more water than they're currently authorized," said Dale Homuth, manager of the DNR's conservation assistance and regulations section.

But Homuth said stopping the excessive pumping is not a high priority. He said the agency's top objectives include processing new water permits.


Report-card measure for schools advances

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri schools would start receiving letter grades based upon how well they perform on state standards under legislation approved Thursday in the House.

The measure calls for education officials to produce a simplified report card for public schools and for charter schools that have classes beyond second grade. The report cards are to indicate the state standards that apply to the school, how the school scored and the corresponding letter grade for each standard.

For state performance standards with multiple components, the report card also would list the score and letter grade for each piece.

Schools would not receive an overall letter grade, and principals could provide up to 250 words of context or background about their scores. The report cards would be limited to a single piece of paper.


State retirees to see drop in pension pay

MADISON - Retired public employees in Wisconsin will see their monthly pension payments decrease by 9.6 percent starting in May, the Department of Employee Trust Funds announced Friday.

The department warned in December the cut could be as steep as 13 percent.

Pension payments are based on the performance of funds managed by the State of Wisconsin Investment Board, as well as other actuarial factors like the number of retirees entering and leaving the system. The decline is the result of a 26 percent loss in investments in 2008, as payments to retirees invested in the Wisconsin Retirement System's Core Fund are smoothed over a five-year period.

Investments have been increasing every year since 2008, meaning payments to retirees should start to go up again in 2014.

The Associated Press