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Flu closes Northrop school; child, 3, left on freezing Fond du Lac bus for hours

St. James Lutheran School in Northrop, Minn., canceled classes Monday and today after 27 percent of students were absent Friday during an outbreak of influenza, said school board member Laurie Quinn. Kylie Saari of the Fairmont Sentinel reports that while other schools are seeing students with influenza, it’s not as bad as the outbreak before Christmas vacation. "It was [more prevalent] early on but it isn't as bad now," said Tate Jerome, principal at Truman Public Schools. Jerome said his district has more trouble with teachers out sick than students at the moment. Finding substitutes has been a challenge. The Minnesota Department of Health says parents should keep children home if they have a fever above 100 degrees and either a sore throat, cough, or both.

Brooklynn Wait wants answers after her 3-year-old son, Ty Stiffarm, was found alone and screaming after three hours on a Fond du Lac Head Start bus. Mike Creger of the Duluth News Tribune has the story: Ty was strapped into his seat behind the driver on his way to the Fond du Lac Head Start and was left alone for three hours in temperatures near 0 degrees. “He said, ‘I was crying and nobody helped me,’ ” Wait said. He was taken to the hospital in Cloquet and was released after about three hours. Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal Chairwoman Karen Diver said the employees involved have been placed on administrative leave while an investigation is conducted. 

Thanks to warmer temperatures and open water, the Owatonna Christmas Bird Count broke several event records, reports Ashley Stewart of the Owatonna Peoples Press. The watchers counted 7,052 birds, which is almost 3,000 birds more than in 2011. On average, the group spots 4,633 birds a year, organizer Darryl Hill said. The group saw 51 species of birds, which is the most species observed in the 41 years of the local bird count. Last year, 45 different species were spotted. During the count, the group added two new species — the tundra swan and the soary redpoll — to the Owatonna Christmas Bird Count list, which contains 102 different species. Eighty-nine Steele County residents participated in the 2012 bird count, which Hill said set a new record with 74 people counting at their feeders and 15 people counting in the fields. The group spotted a large number of hawks and seven bald eagles. More birds that migrate from Canada than usual were seen, including the horned lark, Lapland longspur, common redpolls, and one snow bunting. 

The Duluth School District has to balance its budget, but it won’t do so by increasing class sizes, the school board decided. Jana Hollingsworth of the Duluth News Tribune reports that the district will have to cut $3.5 million to bring the budget into balance, but Superintendent Bill Gronseth said he’s heard clearly in community meetings that “we can’t touch class size.” Several board members said they wouldn’t support it even if it appeared on the list. “I won’t be supporting anything in that area,” Chairman Tom Kasper said, noting he’s heard concerns from many parents. Class sizes this school year are in the upper 40s in middle- and high-school classes and mid-30s in elementary school classes. Class sizes were the largest they had ever been in Duluth, longtime teachers said.

Panther Distillery of Osakis is ready to put White Water Whiskey on local shelves, and will begin selling signature whiskey and bourbon liquors in 2014, after they’ve aged two years, writes Amy Chaffins of the Fargo Forum. There are also plans to make a gin, rye whiskey and rum-flavored liquor made from locally grown sugar beets. The distillery sources its ingredients locally. In the meantime, they are producing White Water Whiskey – a clear, unaged whiskey-flavored liquor made from corn. “We started bottling by hand around Christmas, and now we’ll meet with our sales team to start going statewide,” said Master Distiller Brett Grinager. He and Panther Distillery owner Adrian Panther have been conducting tasting and signing events in Alexandria, Osakis and Nelson.

The largest solar energy facility in Minnesota went online last Friday outside of Slayton, writes Steve Browne of the Marshall Independent. The plant, which generates enough electricity to power 250 houses, is run by Ecos Energy LLC with help from Xcel Energy. The project covers an area equal to about seven-and-a-half football fields and has 7,040 30-by-60-inch solar modules that produce about 1.6 megawatts of alternating current under optimum conditions. The plant is unique because it mixes solar and wind energy. Solar power often operates when wind doesn't and vice versa. By remotely monitoring the energy produced by the wind and solar facilities in the same area, Ecos and Xcel hope to find out if the two in conjunction can provide a consistent source of renewable energy. Best of all, the solar panels don’t bother anybody. "It's quiet and just sits there and does its thing," said Mark Ritter, grant administrator for Xcel Energy's Renewable Development Fund Ritter.

The demolition of the old Owatonna Hospital began last week, reports Al Strain of the Owatonna Peoples Press. The demolition will make way for a new Fareway grocery store. A 12,000-square-foot section of the old hospital will not be demolished. Mayo Clinic Health System- Owatonna will take over that space for offices and file storage. The demolition began last Tuesday, said Community Development Director Troy Klecker. After an initial section of the old hospital was taken down, the demolition was delayed as the crew waited for a piece of equipment that crushes the building as it is torn down, which is helpful because the old building will be ground down and go underneath the pad that the new store will sit on.

For 21 years, workers at the Kandiyohi County Recycling Center sorted and baled materials under high-pressure sodium lights that were so dim they were said to cast an “orangish-pinkish” haze. “It was kind of like working at dusk all the time,” said Terry Rice, operations manager at the center. All that has changed, reports Carolyn Lange of the West Central Tribune. The building has been retrofitted with energy-saving LED lights. The 62 new fixtures dropped the energy load by 10,000 watts and created a bright work environment. “You almost feel like you have to put on sunglasses,” said Rice. “It’s really a different place.” The $22,000 county investment, which was paired with a $3,000 rebate from the Willmar Municipal Utilities, will be paid back in about 5 years with decreased energy usage. Also, LED lamps have a much longer life than other bulbs, which means reduced replacement costs.

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