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Schools, hospitals hit hard by state funding gaps

News From Greater Minnesota

As Brian Lambert over at The Glean has noted, the more than 130 school districts that will ask voters for more money to run their schools is the largest number to do so since 2001. As the Associated Press reports, “The Minnesota Education Department reports that as state per-pupil funding has failed to keep up with inflation since 2003, schools have become more reliant on local taxpayers.”

But schools are hardly the only institutions left out to dry by poor public financing. Anne Polta of Willmar’s West Central Tribune writes that hospitals will see drastic payment cuts. “The Minnesota Hospital Association estimates the cuts could collectively amount to more than $648 million, including the loss of matching federal Medicaid dollars.” The health and human services bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature last month contains cuts in provider payments and managed-care plans. The state is continuing to phase out its General Assistance Medical Care program, which covered low-income adults. Polta writes that hospital officials also are keeping a close eye on uncompensated and charity care. Historically, Rice Memorial Hospital has written off less than 2 percent of charges that patients were unable to pay. As of June, the hospital budget showed nearly $1 million in uncompensated care, an increase of more than 65 percent compared to a year ago. Mike Schramm, chief executive of Rice Memorial Hospital, said the ability of patients to pay their bills could become an increasing concern. “There are more and more people that aren’t covered by programs,” he said.

Back to those schools. One of the best reports comes from Jodie Tweed at the Brainerd Dispatch who discusses the state’s school funding disparities. In November, Brainerd will ask voters to renew the district’s existing $199.24 per pupil operating levy, and then ask a second levy question for an additional $200 per pupil. The total is $399 per pupil. The state average operating levy is about $936 per pupil, she writes. Steve Lund, Brainerd’s director of business services, says the Edina school district is close in size to Brainerd schools. Edina is seeking to renew $400 of its total $1,800 per pupil operating levy, along with adding another $500 per pupil level of funding for technology, for a combined total excess levy of $2,300 per pupil, compared to Brainerd’s proposed $399.24 per pupil levy. Lund said if Brainerd was funded at Edina’s level, the district would have an additional $15 million of annual funding. “However, all students are measured each year by the exact same comprehensive exams,” Lund said. “I completely agree that the state should have uniform student expectations and accountability, but what I have yet to completely figure out is why school districts can’t have the same uniformity in financial expectations to achieve these results. It frustrates me to no end to see this inequity in education funding not only continue, but grow a system of the haves and have-nots in education across the state.”

Not only are state dollars hard to find, but apparently so are pheasants. Tom Cherveny of the West Central Tribune writes that pheasant numbers in western Minnesota are down. Jeff Miller, assistant wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in New London, said a harsh winter followed by a brutal, late season ice-storm, as well as abnormally wet conditions in June, took their toll on the birds. Miller said the numbers of birds seen on routes in Kandiyohi, Chippewa, and Meeker counties, as well as the Lac qui Parle wildlife area, were down significantly from last year, and last year’s numbers were not great either, so the population drop from a couple of years ago is notable. Most telling of all, the majority of the birds that were spotted were lone males. Very few chicks were seen. The pheasant season opens Oct. 15.

Hundreds of mourners lined the streets of Fosston to pay respects to Sgt. Matthew Harmon, 29, a U.S. Army diesel mechanic who died in Afghanistan, writes Ann Bailey of the Grand Forks Herald.  Harmon was killed when an improvised explosive device hit his vehicle while his unit was attempting to recover a bomb–damaged vehicle. He had previously served two tours of duty in Iraq and had just begun the one-year tour in Afghanistan. About 400 family members, friends, members of veterans groups and political leaders, including Gov. Mark Dayton, Rep. Collin Peterson and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, gathered for the service. Harmon’s widow, Nicole, was presented with a Bronze Star medal and a Purple Heart from the U.S. Army during the funeral service. The news of Harmon’s death hit the small community hard, said Glen Anderson, owner of Lengby Oil Co. “He was well-liked,” he said. Harmon’s father, Tom, said his son was a product of small-town America “where, if someone has a job to do, they get it done. I’m sure he and that other young man knew of the danger, but they went in willingly. We’re very proud of him.”

With the Red River finally back in its banks, Mike Nowatzki of the Fargo Forum reports that a few popular pathways that have been out of commission for months because of flooding may be open soon. The bridge between Fargo’s Oak Grove Park and Moorhead’s Memorial Park could be lowered into place by cranes after several inches of mud are cleaned off the footings, said Larry Anderson, Moorhead’s parks and forestry manager. The Sertoma Freedom Bridge between Fargo’s Lindenwood Park and Moorhead’s Gooseberry Park will have to be lifted out of the water, as one end was knocked into the river during spring flooding. Before dropping below 18 feet Saturday, the Red had been above the flood stage mark for 150 of the previous 152 days, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Spring flooding began March 29 and peaked at 38.77 feet on April 9.

Small towns are defined by only a few institutions: The school, the churches, the town café. The loss of the Echo Bar and Restaurant in a weekend fire has left a hole in the small community, reports Steve Browne of the Marshall Independent. The destruction of the only full-service restaurant and liquor store in the area means locals will have to travel a minimum of five miles to Belview, or seven miles to Vesta or Wood Lake for a sit-down meal. The restaurant was one of 22 businesses in town, employed seven people and was a gathering place for the community. “It’s a place where the seniors meet, there’s a lot of fellowship going on,” Echo Mayor James Busack said. Everybody seems to be hoping a new restaurant will go back up, but the restaurant’s owner Lynae Marotzke isn’t sure. “It’s pretty early to tell. I haven’t even started cleaning up the mess. I don’t know,” she said. But if Marotzke does decide to rebuild, she’ll have a lot of support. “The council is behind her 100 percent,” Busack said. “Whatever we can do to make it happen, we can try.”

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is warning that some black bears in the Ely-Tower area have become aggressive toward people. John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune  offers this impressive list. In the past three weeks: One person was injured by a bear that slapped him, causing him to receive several stitches; a bear at Bear Head Lake State Park put its paws on a vehicle that had stopped along a road; another bear came within 3 feet of a 2-year-old child near the open door of a vehicle; and on Monday morning, a homeowner killed a bear that refused to leave the homeowner’s porch. The homeowner fired a warning shot, and then legally shot and killed the bear after it refused to leave at about 4 a.m. A conservation officer responded to the incident and took possession of the bear carcass. Independent bear researcher Lynn Rogers said this is the latest effort by some DNR officials to sabotage his work and he downplayed any danger. The bear that put its paws on the SUV is June. “June putting her paws on that vehicle is a non-event. She wouldn’t hurt anyone,” he said. In the case of the man injured by the bear, Rogers said a homeowner went out to feed a noncollared bear with cubs in his yard when he was slapped. DNR officials said they can’t comment on that situation because it remains under investigation. Rogers is the only researcher using collars in that area, mostly in Eagles Nest Township. In addition to placing collars on bears he befriends, Rogers’ work through his Wildlife Research Institute also involves feeding bears in an effort to see if intentional feeding can reduce nuisance bear-human interactions. The DNR urges the public not to feed bears. For more information about living with bears, go to the DNR’s website.

The Milford Mine in Crosby, where 41 miners lost their lives in 1924 in the worst mining disaster in Minnesota history, has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Brainerd Dispatch. The Milford Mine Historic District is on the Cuyuna Iron Range, northwest of Crosby, and covers approximately 180 acres of Crow Wing County managed land. It is located within the boundaries of the Milford Mine Memorial Park. Crow Wing County is working on a four-phase project to complete the memorial park. Phase one, which was completed last fall, included the construction of an access road, parking lot and canoe launch. Future construction phases will include walking trails, a picnic shelter and interpretive and educational signs. The County has applied for a Legacy Parks and Trails Grant to complete phases two and three of this project.

The Duluth Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a local jobs program that helps low-income people who have little or no job prospects find work, was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Northwest Area Foundation, reports the Duluth News Tribune. The mentoring program works with clients to tackle the various aspects of becoming self-sufficient and financially stable. The program brings 10 nonprofit organizations and the city of Duluth together to remove common barriers for low-income families and small businesses that often provide the needed jobs. So far, 175 people are now working because of the program; about 82 percent of them had no prior job possibilities, according to Pam Kramer, Duluth LISC’s executive director.

John Fitzgerald is a longtime Minnesota resident and freelance journalist. He lives in Buffalo.

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