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Le Sueur biofuel-plant plan proceeding, with opposition

ALSO: Austin contemplates loss of integration funding; homelessness persists in Bemidji area; more Duluth children use free and reduced-price lunch program; Woolly bear caterpillar seen in New Ulm.

A $30 million plant that would convert chicken manure, potato-processing residues and corn silage into methane to be burned to produce electricity is under consideration in Le Sueur, and that’s raising a stink among some residents. Brian Ojanpa of the Mankato Free Press says a group called Le Sueur Area Concerned Citizens claims there has been little public discussion about odors, heavy truck traffic, property-value declines and other issues.

In 2009 the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, which includes Le Sueur and 10 other cities, proposed to build a bioenergy plant north of Le Sueur. In September they chose another site, an abandoned gravel pit on the south side of town, to expand the plant so it could generate eight megawatts of power rather than six. In December the city opted to annex that land. A few days ago the Le Sueur Planning Commission recommended the area be rezoned, pending a state environmental assessment, to accommodate plant operations. Opponent Frank Ebert, a biochemist and former environmental-standards compliance official for General Mills, called the project pathetic and listed issues concerning effluents, waste-product availabilities and potential processing glitches. His group says accountability and transparency have been lacking. Mayor Bob Oberle, a project proponent, disagrees. “That would be their opinion. This is all being done according to the process and the law.”

In Austin, integration funding has been the driver of some of the school district’s biggest successes, writes Trey Mewes of the Austin Daily Herald. The district uses the money to hire 10 Success Coaches, who help students of color integrate in school, whether that means assisting a bilingual Hispanic or Sudanese student with classes, translating for parents who don’t speak English, or bringing students from other countries up to speed on their lessons. Austin works with Albert Lea, Southland, Hayfield and Lyle in an integration district that also brings in speakers like Naomi Tutu as well as taking students to Mankato State University for a Latino career day in engineering programs. Yet in this legislative session, Republican lawmakers say Twin Cities school districts, which have a larger population of students of color and receive the majority of integration funding, aren’t doing enough to curb the achievement gap between white and non-white students. Therefore, they want to change the funding program.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington and chairman of the Education Finance Committee, has said greater Minnesota could see more money under the new program. But Austin educators aren’t holding their breath. “We just don’t know what they’re going to do,” said Kristi Beckman, Austin’s integration coordinator. “In the spirit with that, we’re going to stick with the initiatives going on right now. We’ll keep those initiatives going until we find out what’s next.”

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The Bemidji area has long struggled with homelessness, writes Bethany Wesley of the Bemidji Pioneer, and local activists and volunteers say the problem isn’t getting better. “It’s growing,” said John Szurpicki, a member of SOS, a church-based volunteer program that provides shelter to the homeless during the winter. Audrey Thayer, the coordinator of the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project, said she believes the number of homeless in the Bemidji area alone vacillates between 250 and 350. In 2011, Churches United in Bemidji assisted 1,632 clients in emergency situations, providing vouchers for gas, groceries and utilities. Sandy Hennum, the executive director of Village of Hope homeless shelter, said Village of Hope can house up to 28 people. It is always at capacity. The waiting list includes 6 to 10 families at any time. While Village of Hope will admit families and SOS will house sober individuals, The People’s Church is the lone option for alcoholics, drug abusers and the mentally ill who are seeking shelter. They have been housing about 15 people a night this winter, said Bob Kelly, the pastor of People’s Church. “We know a lot of people that are very vulnerable, felons, people who have used up their families and their families don’t want to see them. All the support that you like to see for people in those situations, they don’t have that.”

Mike Bakke, the chief deputy with the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office, said the homeless situation can be a public safety concern. Those with substance-abuse issues have frozen to death and gotten hit by trains. Homeless people used to be able to sleep in the Lew Enforcement Center lobby, but that option ended last year. There is some hope. A 20-unit transitional housing project is under construction and is expected to be open in July.

The effect of the recession is continuing to show up in schools. In Duluth, more than 44 percent of school district families take part in the federal and state-run free and reduced-price lunch program, a number that has grown from 36 percent five years ago, writes Jana Hollingsworth of the Duluth News Tribune. The government and manufacturing jobs that put people “solidly in the middle class” are disappearing, said Drew Digby, the northeast regional labor market analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. In Duluth, about 19 percent of government jobs and more than 16 percent of manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2001. At Denfeld High, where 52 percent of students qualify for the lunch program, many families come to activities director Tom Pearson asking for payment plans for things like the $500 fee for hockey or the $235 fee for football. At Piedmont Elementary, with 66 percent in the lunch program, Principal Cher Obst said the school makes a lot of referrals to the free Kids Closet and gives out backpacks, hats, mittens, scarves and snow-pants that others have donated. Piedmont has a hardship fund for students, and teachers and the Parent Teacher Association often pitch in. If a student can’t afford admission to a play, for example, “nobody knows we are paying, but we make sure everybody is participating in the activity,” she said.

Morgan Park Middle School principal Denise Clairmont said 65 percent of students qualify for the lunch program. She said she has made more referrals to the district’s homeless program coordinator this year than ever before. “It breaks my heart that our families work so hard to deal with basic need things,” she said.

Is that a woolly bear caterpillar? A photographer at the New Ulm Journal spotted the spring harbinger on a city sidewalk recently and snapped a photo.  “The caterpillars hatch during warm weather from eggs laid by a female moth, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. When spring arrives, woolly bears spin fuzzy cocoons and transform into Isabella tiger moths. Could this woolly bear be confused by the warmth of February?” the Journal asks.

A Britton, S.D., a man who was reported missing Friday was found Sunday 300 miles from home, lost in the weekend’s fog, reports the Grand Forks Herald. Leonard Johnson, 82, was discovered in Grand Rapids, Minn., a six-hour drive from home. The rural Marshall County (S.D.) resident was reported missing by his family after he did not come home Friday. A man matching Johnson’s description stopped at the Eide Hyundai Suzuki dealership in Grand Forks and asked an employee for directions about 8 a.m. Saturday. Deputy Sheriff Jake Hagenson said, “It was really foggy for the last few days.” Britton, S.D., is 205 miles from Grand Forks.

A Montevideo man has been charged with felony theft for taking a herd of Holstein steers from a rural Madison feedlot and selling them as his own cattle at livestock markets in Benson and Pipestone, reports Gretchen Schlosser of the West Central Tribune. Richard Kenneth Nelson, 40, was arrested Tuesday. According to the Lac qui Parle County complaint, the owner of the cattle reported missing 26 head of steers, weighing between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds. The owner noticed cattle were out and gates moved Sunday, but didn’t count the livestock until Monday. The value of the cattle — with a market price of $1.15 per pound — was $40,365. The owner did not have insurance on the livestock. WEB Livestock in Benson and Pipestone Livestock Auction were contacted during the investigation. Officials traced the cattle back to Nelson, who was interviewed and eventually admitted to selling the steers.