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Gas prices change behaviors; schools breathing sigh of relief

ALSO: Schools like the new funding bill; DNR gets 549 acres in southern Minnesota; apple growers hope for bumper crop; and more.

Proving their flexibility, Memorial Day travelers bent under the amazingly high gas prices, but didn’t break. Alyson Buschena of the Worthington Daily Globe got the assignment to ask folks in southwest Minnesota about rocketing gas prices. Jesse Raudenbush, manager at Steve’s Shell in Worthington, noted the prices “affected a lot of people’s travel plans. A lot of people are staying around home when maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise.” At the Casey’s General Store on U.S. 59 near Interstate 90, assistant manager Carrie Helms said customers are arriving and buying as in summers past, but they’re not staying on the road as much. “They are doing what they need to, and that’s about it. … They are cutting back on what they buy as far as the inside stuff. If they spend $80 at the pump, they can’t afford to spend $20 in here.”  

After decades of being portrayed as the poster child of all that’s wrong with government, Minnesota schools are finally breathing a sigh of relief after last week’s state education funding bill was signed by Gov. Mark Dayton. The West Central Tribune’s Linda Vanderwerf tallied up the bill’s benefits: an increase in general education aid; funding for all-day kindergarten; changes in state testing; operating levy adjustments; continued funding for integration collaboratives; more funding for gifted/talented programs; and the special education funding formula will be revamped. She found that central Minnesota education leaders find a lot in this bill to like. Pam Harrington, director of business and finance for the Willmar Public Schools, said spreadsheets showing how the changes affect individual districts will be available in early June, and she didn’t want to talk about specific numbers without the final figures. “I will say this is the most I’ve seen done for education in quite a while,” she said. Many school districts currently offer extended kindergarten at no additional charge for families, even though the state pays for a half-day program. Several years ago, Willmar school officials estimated the cost of all-day, every day kindergarten at more than $400,000 a year. “We won’t have to come up with that anymore,” said Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, who is also a teacher in Willmar. Montevideo Superintendent Luther Heller said the additional kindergarten funding is “a tremendous move forward for the state” because it highlights the necessary emphasis on funding for early education. 

A Minneapolis attorney has given the Department of Natural Resources one of its largest donations ever — 549 acres of wetlands, prairie and woods between Blooming Prairie and Austin. John Weiss of the Rochester Post-Bulletin writes that in the mid-1990s, John Goetz was looking for some land to buy for renting out. He stumbled across the land that he heard a farmer was hoping to buy to bulldoze for more farmland. Goetz bought it. “I have a longing to know what this country was like before it was settled,” he said. He can stand in the middle of that land, away from the farmland, “and you think you’re in the 1800s … waving grasses and wetlands and birds … it’s just gorgeous.” The land is valued at $664,000 and will be open to the public for hunting, hiking, birding and other forms of recreation. The land is along Freeborn County Road 35 about five miles west of Minnesota Highway 218.

Amy Pearson of the Winona Daily News wrote a story about how apple growers are hoping for a better crop after last year’s apple disaster. What I neglected to notice is that many of her sources are from Wisconsin. It’s still a good story. In 2012, an unseasonably warm March tricked trees into blossoming about four weeks earlier than average, and the flowers later froze in April when temperatures dropped back to normal lows. Last year, Tom Ferguson of Ferguson’s Morningside Orchards in Galesville, Wis., knew his crop was toast. “Last year at this time we were already done,” Ferguson said. “We knew we had lost 90 percent. Right now we are just so much happier.” However, the weather could still screw things up. Cold, hail and drought pose the biggest threats. “You’re concerned every day until the apples are in the cooler,” said Jess Ecker of Ecker’s Apple Farm in Trempealeau, Wis. “Anything could go wrong.”

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While schools crowed about extra funding to do a better job, transportation officials grumbled about what they get to spend in the next two years. Josh Moniz of the New Ulm Journal said the Transportation Omnibus bill was “status quo at best.” There is no direct funding or progress for Highway 14, although the bill did include the “Corridors of Commerce” program which targets funding of up to 20 percent of highway corridor projects that boost economic development for its region. Highway 14’s four-lane expansion may benefit from the program, since its four-lane expansion project is a solution to growing commerce in the region. Expansion is also considered an essential step to end the dangerous layout of the highway’s two-lane segments, which pushed the fatal crash rate up to three times the state average. Sadly, there was no accompanying funding mechanism for the program. The committees tried to increase the state gas tax to fund the program, but Gov. Mark Dayton’s adamant opposition ended up stripping the proposal out.

In other road news, Rice County has designated County Road 1 as the historic Jesse James escape route, writes Cristeta Boarini of the Faribault Daily News. New signs will be installed along the road to identify it as the escape route of the James-Younger gang, famous for robbing a Northfield bank in 1876. The project was initiated by the Christdala Preservation Association and spearheaded by Dale Quis. “The proposed signs benefit the telling of Minnesota history because the Dodd Road was one of the earliest Minnesota pioneer trails,” Quist said. Here’s Boarini’s text: “In the days of Jesse James, County Road 1 — or Millersburg Boulevard — was called Dodd Road and stretched from St. Paul to Sioux City, S.D., making it the logical escape route for James and his gang. The road also served as a key route for trade between St. Paul and St. Peter along the Minnesota River. Built in 1853, Quist called the road one of the best preserved historic routes in the area. One of the original sections of Dodd Road was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.” County engineer Dennis Luebbe said the signs will cost about $1,500 total for materials and labor, and added there’s about $35,000 in the county budget for highway signs.

A traffic stop in Fergus Falls has led to a 13-year-old burglary, writes Heather Rule of the Fergus Falls Journal. At about 1:30 p.m. Friday, Nelson Nery Escamilla, 31, of Pelican Rapids, was pulled over by a state trooper for speeding on State Hwy. 210, according to the criminal complaint. He allegedly identified himself as Javier Leon Navarro, born Jan. 14, 1982. There was no information for that name. Then Escamilla said his birthdate was April 2, 1984, and again no information came up, the report said. Escamilla allegedly provided his real name once the trooper put Escamilla in the back of his squad car. At that point, the trooper discovered Escamilla was one of three who allegedly broke into a Pelican Rapids trailer home on July, 29, 2000. After they were discovered and police were called, two tried to break into a nearby 16-year-old girl’s bedroom window, the report says. Escamilla was eventually found hiding in another woman’s trailer, according to the report. He was charged in July 2000 in Otter Tail County District Court with two counts of felony first-degree burglary, misdemeanor trespassing, misdemeanor fourth-degree damage to property and misdemeanor liquor consumption by a person under age 21. He failed to appear at the hearing. On May 20, Escamilla was also charged with gross misdemeanor giving a false name and date of birth to a peace officer and misdemeanor driving after revocation. He appeared in court for both cases. The case from 2000 will pick up where it left off.