There’s good news in Albert Lea. While the state’s average high school graduation rate went from 78.9 percent in 2013 to 81.2 percent in 2014, Albert Lea’s graduation rate hit 88.6 in 2014, putting it close to that magical 90 percent goal, according to the Albert Lea Tribune. Albert Lea has seen an upward trend since 2011, said Superintendent Mike Funk, who suggested a couple of possibilities for the rise but gave much credit to recovery opportunities for students who have failed. “We still have some work to do,” he said, “but we are definitely making progress in the right direction.”
There’s some bad news for travelers on Interstate 94 near Clearwater. The St. Cloud Daily Times reports a bevy of weather-caused accidents that resulted in the Minnesota Department of Transportation shutting down the highway at about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. “There’s no other word to describe it other than it’s a mess,” said Minnesota State Patrol Sgt. Jesse Grabow. “[State Patrol] Capt. Jeff Westrum told me it’s the worst mess he’s seen in 28 years.” The tally: 31 collisions as of 10:30 a.m., 17 cars off the road, four injuries. “People are going too fast for these conditions,” Grabow said. “Since we haven’t had much snow, we haven’t been constantly fine-tuning our ability.”
Big trouble up toward Duluth. Tom Olsen of the Duluth Tribune reports that drug overdoses caused at least two deaths and at least six medical emergencies over the weekend. The deaths came from heroin overdoses in Virginia and Iron. In Duluth proper, six people were hospitalized with overdoses over the weekend. Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel said the increase in opioid use is well known, but it’s very unusual to see this much death and destruction is such a short timespan. Police saw a similar spate of deaths in November, Kazel said. “That was kind of an eye-opening moment for us,” he said. “To have another group like this, so close in time, is definitely concerning.” He said the problem lies in the variations of product purity: A junkie doesn’t know from buy to buy whether he’s getting heroin that is 20 percent pure or 70 percent pure.
Speaking of pure chemicals, remember in October when dozens of employees at the Jennie-O Turkey Store plant in Willmar got sick at the same time? The West Central Tribune says the Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted an investigation and found … nothing. On Oct. 17, 24 employees were hospitalized with symptoms such as vomiting, coughing and difficulty breathing. A chemical leak was thought to be the culprit, but OSHA did not detect abnormal chemical levels within the building, according to the report. The employees all worked in the raw meat department of the plant, cutting and sorting turkeys into bins. Of the three chemicals used in that department — ammonia, chlorine dioxide and carbon dioxide — they were either not in use or registered at normal levels. Wasn’t this the plot of an “X-Files” movie or TV episode?
Speaking of movies and TV episodes, some website named the top 10 best downtowns in the U.S., and good ol’ Fargo placed seventh, much to the happiness of the backers of downtown Fargo. (Minneapolis was No. 2.) The Fargo Forum says Livability, a website that publishes lists of best places to live, offered these factors for Fargo’s placement: “Low vacancy rates, a projected climb in household income and low median age show that downtown Fargo is becoming more of an ‘it’ spot every day,” the website reads, adding that arts and entertainment availability, walkability, affordability and proximity to jobs contributed as well. City planner Joe Nigg said that when he was growing up, downtown Fargo wasn’t such a great place to visit. He said the turning point was in 2004 when NDSU opened Renaissance Hall, the first of three university buildings downtown. “That was a key catalyst to downtown,” Nigg said. “You bring students into the core, which helps the restaurants, helps with people on the sidewalks.” The more pedestrians on the street, the safer downtown became, and the more demand there was for businesses to open. Here are the top 10 cities: 1. Pittsburgh, 2. Minneapolis, 3. Indianapolis, 4. Greenville, S.C. 5. Salt Lake City, 6. Alexandria, Va., 7. Fargo, 8. Lincoln, Neb., 9. Somerville, Mass., 10. Evanston, Ill.
The Austin City Council couldn’t pull the trigger on an e-cigarette public smoking ban, the Austin Daily Herald reports. The council voted 4-3 Monday for the ban on its first reading. The measure needed to pass unanimously during its first reading, but council members can approve the policy on a majority vote at a March 16 public meeting. The council passed a one-year moratorium last April banning the use of e-cigarettes and hookahs in public places and businesses. Karissa Studier, a Mower County nurse, said more students are using e-cigarettes, a product that hasn’t undergone thorough testing by the Food and Drug Administration and likely contains an unknown amount of nicotine and other chemicals. E-cigarette proponents say the product has helped people quit smoking, though there are no scientific studies backing that claim.
Speaking of deadly things in Mower County, The Daily Herald reports that the number of permits to carry guns in Mower County dropped in 2014. There were 458 gun permits issued in 2013 but only 304 in 2014 in Mower County. In Minnesota, about 41,000 permits to carry guns were last year, down more than 30 percent from the year before. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension says there are about 181,000 valid permits in Minnesota, a number that has more than doubled in the past five years.
On that note, let’s go to the Rochester Post Bulletin, which offered a story of a unique woman — Courtney Kidd, 32, of Bradley, Illinois, who received a tricky double organ transplant at Mayo Clinic in October. She is one of the first people in the world to receive a heart and liver transplant. The trick is to replace the liver first so the body will filter antibodies within the blood before the heart is put in place. She’s back in Illinois now. She’ll return to Rochester in March to make sure the organs are healing and showing no signs of rejection, but as of now, all signs point to a positive outcome.
So here’s a guy whose internal organs probably aren’t under a lot of stress. The Bemidji Pioneer caught up with Dan Rice, a guy who just spent four months alone in the wilderness and is now going to self-publish his journal about what he thought about while in the outdoors. The book is called “The Unpeopled Season: Journal from a North Country Wilderness.” It’s his second book — the first was “The Side of a Wilderness.” His self-publishing company, Riverfeet Press, is also working with an ecological essayist and professor from Bemidji State as well as a poet from Washington State. Oh, and he also runs an ice cream shop in Bemidji, right across from Paul and Babe. Give the publisher/journaler/ice-cream entrepreneur credit — he knows how to market a product. He’s having a book-release party Friday at the Bemidji Brewing Co. Taproom. Anyone who buys a copy of “The Unpeopled Season” will get his signature and a free beer.