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American Crystal looking for local replacements

News from Greater Minnesota

American Crystal Sugar Co. ran ads in the Fargo and Grand Forks newspapers last weekend looking for “sugar factory workers” nearly four months into its lock-out of 1,300 union workers. The ads offer local workers “$15 an hour, day-one benefits including medical, personal and flex dollars, for manufacturing technicians; and $23.50 and $24.50 an hour for millwrights and electronic control technicians, respectively,” according to the story by Stephen J. Lee of the Fargo Forum. Union member Lester Bergh, who worked at Crystal’s Moorhead factory for 15 years, expressed frustration. “That just gives me a reason not to accept the contract. … They are giving first-day benefits to new employees, something I had to work three years to get.” Crystal says no, the health plan is the same plan managers and other non-union employees receive: Employees pay 17 percent of the premium. Brian Ingulsrud, Crystal’s vice president for administration, says that was part of the company’s last offer to union employees: After one more year of free health care, they would pay 17 percent of the premium.

Since the strike started, Crystal hired replacement workers from Minnetonka’s Strom Engineering for its processing factories in East Grand Forks, Crookston, Moorhead, Drayton, N.D., and Hillsboro, N.D. Beets are harvested from Sept. 1 to mid-October, while the processing of beets into sugar runs from Sept. 1 to mid-May. Crystal is paying housing and per-diem for the Strom-hired replacements, as well as their wages, so they want to hire locals who won’t cost as much. Ingulsrud said the company received about 100 applications Monday. “The long-term goal, if this continues, would be for us to hire 1,300 employees.”

You would think that after years of warning what state school budget cuts would do to the quality of instruction, this story wouldn’t amaze and anger, but it does. Marino Eccher of the Forum writes how the Perham-Dent school district faces millions in cuts but can’t do it without smashing the quality of education. Here are his first several paragraphs: “When science teacher Shawn Stafki was a 10th-grader here three decades ago, there were 17 students in his biology class. The classroom in which he teaches is built for 24, the upper limit of what the state recommends for lab classes, and as recently as three years ago, when the school had the equivalent of one and a half more science teachers, his biggest class size was 26. Today, 33 students cram into the room for his environmental studies class. Next term, a few classes at the school will creep into the 40s.”

Perham-Dent schools have already pared more than $4 million from the budget over the past five years and voters recently rejected a $695-per-pupil operating levy, the fourth year in a row a levy has failed. The district, which is already running a $280,000 budget deficit this year, faces a shortfall of about $637,000 next year and more than $6 million over the next five years. Leaky roofs aren’t getting fixed, textbooks are not updated, and teachers are laid off. But don’t blame the voters; it’s the Legislature that’s to blame for Perham-Dent’s situation. Eccher, a business reporter, puts it this way: “In nominal dollars, unadjusted for inflation, basic state per-pupil funding has increased by about $600, or 13 percent, over the last decade. But that’s about half the rate of inflation over the same period. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the state gives about $500 less per student in basic aid today than it did a decade ago – part of the reason about 90 percent of the state’s school districts have operating levies in place. Perham is one of a few dozen that does not. To make matters worse, recent state budgets have relied on delays in school aid payments, disrupting the district’s cash flow and forcing it to borrow from private lenders to make up the difference.” Perham-Dent’s enrollment has also declined, from around 1,600 in 2003 to 1,350. The district has already frozen support staff and teacher salary schedules. The paraprofessional staff is down to the legally mandated minimums. Options like a four-day school week are on the table, though the savings benefit isn’t clear. The cutbacks are showing in test scores: A few years ago, Perham-Dent outpaced most surrounding districts in state math and reading test scores. Last year, it fell toward the bottom of the pack. In other words, Well done, Grover Norquist.

Wonder what the U.S. Postal Service thinks every time you send that email? Here you go: USPS is moving mail processing operations from Bemidji to St. Cloud, reports the Bemidji Pioneer“Given the drastic 20 percent decline in mail volume the Postal Service has experienced since 2007, we must take action to reduce the size of our mail processing network,” Northland District Manager Anthony Williams said in a press release. “Consolidating operations and placing our people where we need them is necessary if the Postal Service is to remain viable to provide mail service to the nation.” The transition is expected to be completed by July. Some employees may be reassigned (but of course some may not). There will be no change in service standards for local mail service, according to the Postal Service, and full retail services will still be available at the Bemidji Post Office.

Staff at Southwest Middle School in Albert Lea have been on the alert for a new “game” in which adolescents begin to suffocate themselves or others to cut off blood flow to the brain, which can produce a sort of high, reports Kelli Lageson of the Albert Lea Tribune. The school sent home a letter about the game, saying students don’t realize it can lead to brain damage, seizures, stroke or even death.  “Kids at this age are so impulsive and don’t think things through,” Principal Jean Jordan said. (Insert picture of me, a father of two middle-school students, shaking his head sadly).

And over in Mankato, the Occupy Mankato group is planning an alternative to Black Friday shopping with what it calls a “Really, Really Free Market,” reports the Mankato Free Press. People are being encouraged to bring items to the corner of North Victory Drive and Madison Avenue (the grassy area next to McDonald’s) for a no-cost swap meet. Bring what you can and take what you need; no buying or selling allowed. Remember, you can never have too many sachets of patchouli or hemp-rope necklaces to give away at Christmas.

Ted and Ray are on their way to Washington. No word yet on which party they’ll join, but we know which party they’ll miss: Thanksgiving! One will be pardoned by President Obama Wednesday, the other will be kept in a secret location, ready to assume the duties of his predecessor in case something “untoward” should happen. Linda Vanderwerf of the West Central Tribune (who draws all the really good assignments) says the turkeys were named after Willmar Poultry Co. founders Ted Huisinga and Ray Norling. The birds will be accompanied by four Willmar High School FFA members: Brianna Hoover, Brenna Ahlquist, Val Brown and Preston Asche. Rick Huisinga, chairman of the National Turkey Federation and executive vice president of Willmar Poultry, will make the official presentation to Obama.

It’ll be a year full of celebrations for Bemidji’s Paul Bunyan statue, which turns 75 in 2012. The lumberjack statue was erected in 1937 for the Winter Carnival, writes Laurie Swenson of the Pioneer. She even allows herself a little florid exposition on the topic: “The iconic Paul Bunyan statue is Bemidji’s Statue of Liberty, its Mount Rushmore, its Lincoln Memorial, imbedded in the identity of the city.” Anyhoo, community members began meeting last week to brainstorm ideas for celebratory events in 2012. Special events will be planned specifically for the birthday celebration, and organizers expect businesses, organizations and schools will incorporate Paul Bunyan and his 75th birthday into events they already do, publicizing the events on their websites and on the celebration’s Facebook group.

John Fitzgerald is a longtime journalist who lives in Buffalo

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