Happy New Year!

As we reflect on the past year and look ahead to 2012, we have identified a set of critical issues that deserve the community’s attention.

Our five-member News-Leader Editorial Board has endorsed this agenda as our vision for Springfield and the Ozarks in the year ahead.

Three of the items are broad: helping our children, growing our economy and holding government accountable. One is more narrow: addressing the dangerously poor dental care of many of our neighbors.

During the course of the year, we will regularly revisit these issues and explore different facets. Our goal is to help you understand the issues better — and to get community leaders and our readers to take action.

We will offer solutions and highlight ways individuals and groups can get involved through government, businesses, nonprofits, volunteer organizations, churches or other activities.

As President and Publisher Linda Ramey-Greiwe outlines below, we believe the News-Leader has an important role to fulfill as a community leader and this agenda is part of that mission.

Briefly, here are the key issues and our agenda:

As we said in launching our Every Child public-service journalism project, few issues in our community are as compelling as the challenges involving children:

» Greene County has the state’s second-worst rate of reports of child abuse and neglect. Domestic violence, drug abuse and juvenile crime are critical problems.

» Poverty and hunger are widespread. More than 50 percent of children attending Springfield schools are in families qualifying for free/ reduced-price lunches. Mobility rates are high among low-income families, disrupting learning.

» High-quality early child care and education are in short supply, while research proves children who are prepared when entering kindergarten are more likely to succeed in later life.

» Many children have poor quality health care, dental care and mental health services. Childhood obesity is increasing, while rates of low-birth-weight babies remain high.

A committee putting together a strategic plan for the city concluded: “Many in our community go about daily life and never see children that struggle with poverty or abuse.” The committee said raising awareness is a priority because: “By and large, our community is known for stepping up to address issues once they know about them.”

We’re counting on that.

The national economy remains weak following the Great Recession and the local economy is realigning in part due to the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs.

While unemployment rates here are well below the national average, the deeper issue for our region remains persistently low per capita average wage rates, even after adjusting for the benefits of a lower cost of living.

To confront these issues, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce has been working with partners in the public and private sector to develop long-term strategies. While the public is skeptical about government as a partner in economic development, City Council has adopted new policies on appropriate incentives.

And entrepreneurs have emerged.

Results are mixed, but encouraging, including revitalization of Springfield’s center city and development of the Missouri State University IDEA Commons and Jordan Valley Innovation Center.

Despite the presence of MSU, Ozarks Technical Community College, Drury University, Evangel University, the Forest Institute and other educational institutions, Greene County is home to fewer college graduates than the national average.

We believe a key is retention and expansion of existing businesses and capitalizing on our strengths. We should build Springfield’s image as a college town — and a place where college graduates should stay and raise a family.

For the most part, our local and state officials deserve credit for maintaining essential services even while the recession and weak recovery have set back attention to critical needs in education, public safety, social services and infrastructure.

And now that the much-derided federal stimulus money is running out, the cracks may turn into crevices.

While some needs can be postponed, we only get one shot at educating our children, so maintaining and improving funding for K-12 schools is critical.

Likewise, we cannot ignore the needs of an overburdened justice system in Greene County, so we urge voters in April to approve a 1/8-cent sales tax to fund law enforcement and deal with growing crime and an overburdened staff in our jail.

The timing is right as passage will be tax neutral to consumers — with the new tax taking the place of an expiring tax that funded stormwater improvements.

Even most opponents of the tax recognize the need: They just dispute the timing.

Tim Smith, county administrator, and Greg Burris, Springfield city manager, summarized it well in presenting the case last year to a county Safety and Justice Roundtable: “These decisions will have profound effect on whether Springfield and Greene County remain an attractive place for business and a place where people know their homes and families are safe.”

When you look at the smiles of people throughout the Ozarks, a startling picture emerges.

A dental clinic held in Springfield last September touched a nerve with us. The free clinic served 1,856 people — and volunteer dentists and aides pulled 2,922 teeth and provided services valued at $1 million.

And that barely scratches the surface of a problem that affects many in southwest Missouri, especially the unemployed and working poor, many of whom have no insurance or cannot qualify for Missouri’s Medicaid dental assistance.

Missouri ranks 47th among states in the percentage of people who visit a dentist or clinic (62.6 percent). State estimates suggest 90 percent of adults over 40 suffer tooth decay and 51 million school hours are missed annually due to tooth decay.

The tragedy is poor oral health is nearly 100 percent preventable. In your family, you can brush and floss to avoid many problems. But communities can do more, as outlined in a state oral health plan from 2009. A proven prevention to dental decay is fluoride. Ozarks’ towns are notably lacking in water supply systems with fluoride. Another option would be a fluoride varnish/ dental sealant program for children.

Raising awareness is the first step to addressing this dangerous health problem — and to giving all Ozarks residents a reason to smile.

Our Voice

This editorial is the view of the News-Leader Editorial Board. Linda Ramey-Greiwe President and Publisher David Stoeffler Executive Editor Don Underwood Opinion Page Editor Cheryl Whitsitt Managing Editor Linda Leicht Senior Reporter