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‘Lime-sized’ hail, blown-down barns in wake of weekend storm

Also, New London-Spicer school cuts, a Rochester home-sales bump, and decrepit bridges.

News From Greater Minnesota

This probably isn’t the biggest news story in Greater Minnesota this week, but I’ve always been a sucker for pictures of big hailstones and the Winona Daily News offered a doozy last week.

The story by Winona’s Geri Parlin called the hail “lime sized,” which looks pretty accurate to me. Here’s the quick roundup of last weekend’s storm: Hail as big as baseballs near Mount La Crosse, Hokah and Brownsville; three barns in Houston County were blown down and a mobile home was knocked off its foundation about 5 miles north of Caledonia; and the county’s 911 system went dark for about half an hour.

Suicides and budget cuts in NLS
On Monday night, the New London-Spicer school board took a minute to remember two students who apparently committed suicide last week. Then it went ahead with budget-cutting moves. According to a story by Gretchen Schlosser in Monday’s West Central Tribune, board chairman Robert Moller asked for silence and said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families.”

Then, because the state doesn’t adequately fund schools, the board unanimously passed a resolution cutting the district’s budget for the 2011-12 school year by $193,214. The cuts include portions of a business education teacher’s assignment and a foreign language teacher’s assignment; discontinuing four sixth-class pay assignments; 0.8 full-time equivalent (FTE) high school teaching assignments from a number of teaching positions; discontinuing a 0.34 FTE music teacher; discontinuing the middle school “explore your options” program; cutting a 1.0 FTE special education management aide; and a 0.5 FTE cut in housekeeping. The cuts also include discontinuing a grade 9 softball coach and a middle school assistant tennis coach, and reducing the coaching for middle school cross country and gymnastics.

Two school districts consider consolidation
In another example of bad decisions in St. Paul being played out in Greater Minnesota, Tanner Kent of the Mankato Free Press reported that community support seems to favor combining the Le Center and Montgomery-Lonsdale school districts. Of 49 responses received at a joint public meeting, 63 percent said they are “strongly supportive” of consolidation and 10 percent said they are “slightly supportive.” Only 26 percent were undecided or against the measure. If residents approve, the districts will merge in time for the 2012-13 school year with an enrollment nearing 1,800. If residents vote no, school officials say they’ll continue to look for a long-term solution to the financial crisis facing school districts.

Decrepit bridges a growing concern
One more state funding shortfall story and then we’ll move on to more pleasant stories, I promise. On Monday, Jason Schoonover of the Austin Daily Herald highlighted nearly 100 deficient bridges in Mower County.

Which isn’t to say they’re dangerous. “Just because a bridge is structurally deficient, doesn’t mean you can’t drive over it,” County Engineer Mike Hanson was quoted. Instead, the highway department must take additional precautions like load limits. “The funding is one of the primary problems,” Hanson said in the newspaper. Apparently, about a century ago Mower County agreed to maintain both city and county bridges, whereas cities in most other counties maintain their own bridges. The addition of maintaining Austin’s bridges puts a financial burden on the county. Since most bridge repair money comes from the state and the current state Legislature isn’t inclined to provide sufficient money for infrastructure, Mower County bridges are left to suffer.

Of the county’s 99 deficient bridges, 76 were constructed between 1915 and 1941. The remaining 23 deficient bridges were built between 1941 and 1989, but most were built with timber pile substructures or corrugated steel pipes that have a limited life, according to Hanson. The county has a plan to replace about six bridges each year.

Rochester home sales get a bump
Mike Klein of the Rochester Post-Bulletin reports that Rochester home sales in March saw a healthy seasonal increase, according to the Southeast Minnesota Association of Realtors. There were 94 sales, up from 76 in February and 49 in January. However, sales were down 12.1 percent from March 2010. The median sales price was $145,900, down 2 percent from March 2010; and the average number of days on the market was 147, up 5 percent. Sales year to date totaled 234, down 1.3 percent from the same period in 2010. “The market is working to build positive momentum,” Duane Sauke, SEMAR’s MLS president, told the newspaper.

‘We’re getting too old for this’
Each year the river floods, and each year Eugene and Marijo Vik of Ada are forced to boat two miles across the Wild Rice River to get from their water-logged property to dry land. Patrick Springer of the Fargo Forum brings us this tale of the couple who make a go of it every spring in their battery-driven duck boat. “We just kind of grin and bear it,” Marijo says. “It’s an adventure.” But when the battery goes out, “I’m the one who gets to row,” she said. The worst part is when the floodwaters recede but before the gravel road to their farmhouse has been repaired. Then they walk two miles where a neighbor lets them park their vehicles and moor their boat, trudging through the muddy mire.

Today marks the seventh day the Viks have had to boat in and out of their farmstead this spring, Springer reports. In 2009, they were stranded for 31 days. Except for floods, which seem to come with increasing frequency, the Viks like the quiet seclusion of living at the end of a dead-end road in the country. “People think we’re nuts for being there at times like this. Most of the year it’s good,” Marijo says.

Brainerd student linked to synthetic marijuana
A 17-year-old male student at Brainerd High School was hospitalized Thursday after he allegedly overdosed on synthetic marijuana, Jennifer Stockinger reports in the Brainerd Dispatch. “The chemical makeup in these products is very unsafe and, hopefully, after people see what happened to this student, they’ll realize how dangerous these substances are,” Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston said. The Associated Press reported that synthetic marijuana is a mixture of herbs and spices that is sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Meanwhile, Willie Nelson to play in Duluth
Country music legend Willie Nelson will perform Aug. 6 at Bayfront Festival Park, Christa Lawler of the Duluth News Tribune reported. Trampled by Turtles and 4onthefloor are opening. Tickets for the show are $35 and go on sale on April 15 at Ticketmaster outlets, including

In other Duluth news …
The first oceangoing freighter of the season passed under the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge Sunday, according to John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune. The “Saltie” will take 21,000 short tons of durum wheat to Italy. The Duluth Seaway Port Authority each year celebrates the first saltie to traverse the entire 2,342-mile Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway that connects the Twin Ports to the Atlantic Ocean and world commerce. Total ship visits hit 991 last year, up 37 percent last year from 2009 but still below the average before the current recession. In 2007, for example, there were 1,235 ships visits to the Twin Ports.

Library branches face forced furlough
All branches of the Great River Regional Library system will be closed today as employees take a required furlough. The move is expected to save $46,000, Sunny Hesse, regional coordinator of human services, told the St. Cloud Times. The other closure will take place Oct. 10. Great River’s operating budget for 2011 is almost $300,000 less than two years ago. However, traffic at the libraries has increased each year since 2005. Great River has 32 branches in Benton, Morrison, Sherburne, Stearns, Todd and Wright counties. Full disclosure: I serve on the board of directors for the Buffalo library branch. I think I can speak for the other members of the board when I say that the furlough is an unnecessary result of state underfunding for library services. Usage is up, yet funding is down. Minnesota is in an Orwellian situation, and if you don’t know what that means, go to your library and ask a librarian. Just don’t go on Tuesday, because the librarians are at home taking a pay cut on that day.

John Fitzgerald is a longtime Minnesotan and journalist. He lives in Buffalo.