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Thumbs up … We’re impressed by a new program aimed at developing young leaders in Union County. The program replaces classroom theory with hands-on entrepreneurial experiences that bring students, educators and business owners together to develop students and business interests in the community. Midland Institute's CEO program will allow 20 students to visit local businesses and develop their own personal products and businesses that they will show off at a trade show. "Students will actually be developing true business plans," Rollie Hawk, Union County chief information officer, said. The program, which is funded entirely by investors, aims to keep local talent in the area. CEO, which stands for Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities, has a track record of students developing successful businesses. The students will visit dozens of businesses and hear 50 to 60 guest speakers. Each  will also be paired with a business person in a mentor relationship.

Thumbs down … Just in case you’d forgotten the dismal condition of our state’s finances, including a towering stack of unpaid bills, Illinois Auditor General Bill Holland delivered a wake-up call earlier in the week.Taxpayers (that means you) had to fork over $318 million in interest payments during 2013 to vendors who weren’t paid on time. As we reported Thursday, that $318 million could have easily covered the annual budget of the Illinois State Police or could have been used to help bail out struggling schools and universities. How bad of a problem is this? Holland said Illinois and Massachusetts were the only states in the nation to end fiscal year 2013 in the red. That’s something worth remembering when going to the polls and deciding whether to return longtime incumbents to office. Bottom line is this: They either were directly part of the spending problem or they failed to apply the brakes.

Thumbs up… SIU forward/center Dyana Pierre deserves kudos for making the All-Missouri Valley Conference first team. SIU’s women’s basketball program had only one first team selection to the all-conference team in the last 14 years before Pierre made it on Wednesday -- after leading the league in rebounding. Pierre has been a bright spot for a dismal 5-24 campaign by the Saluki women in coach Cindy Stein’s first season. SIU lost two starting guards for undisclosed medical reasons in the first month of the season and has struggled to take care of the basketball. Pierre somehow managed to deliver 12 double-doubles and win the rebounding title by an astounding 58 rebounds.

Thumbs down … Didn’t anyone see this train wreck coming? That’s what people are asking in the wake of GED testing fees rising by more than 100 percent in Illinois this year, from $50 to $120, and the resulting decline in enrollments for the GED --- which now is administered in four sections at cost of $30 apiece. State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, an Urbana Democrat, is trying to build interest in a bill that allow the state to consider other testing companies as alternatives to the partnership of GED Testing Service and Pearson, a for-profit education assessment and publishing company -- which moved the test to an all-digital format and updated its academic standards. Those are commendable goals, but the price isn’t realistic. Anyone surviving on the wages available to those without a high school degree would have a hard time coming up with even $50 while still paying for food and shelter. Asking $120 is too much. Find a way to cut the GED fee!

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Thumbs up … Show them how we play basketball in Southern Illlinois! We hope championships are waiting for the Sesser-Valier and Nashville boys basketball teams, which are representing our region in the state tournament this weekend. The Red Devils, playing in the Class 1A tournament, have rolled together upsets on their way to the tourney. The Hornets, a Class 2A team, are looking to continue Nashville’s success in prep sports. Win or lose, all of Southern Illinois can be proud of these two fantastic teams. Good luck!

Thumbs up … It was encouraging to learn that John A. Logan College leads the state in community college enrollment growth. A report from the Illinois Community College Board states that JALC is thriving while many are struggling. It’s great to have a strong community college in Southern Illinois, and JALC’s success is a testament to the quality education that can be obtained there.

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