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School levy elections heating up around state

News From Greater Minnesota

For 10 years, lawmakers have been shifting school-funding responsibility from the state to local property taxpayers (making liars out of the “no new tax” pledge-takers), which leads to the annual procession of school officials to area voters and institutions asking them to pay for what the state won’t cover. In Waseca, Ruth Ann Hager of the Waseca County News chronicled the trip Waseca Superintendent Brian Dietz took to the city council to ask for its support to pass an operating levy. The district is asking for $700 per student for six years. The last referendum expired after the 2009-2010 school year, leaving the Waseca district one of only about 30 of Minnesota’s 320 districts without an operating levy. In five years, the district has made $5.3 million worth of cuts: Programs are devastated, many junior-high students have two study halls, class sizes are as high as 39 students, fees are up, 41 staff members have been cut, and, after building consolidations, the district will operate three buildings instead of four next year, Dietz said. If the levy fails, things will get worse.

Over in Carlton County, Barnum joins three other school districts to have a levy referendum. Jana Peterson of the Pine Journal (and Duluth News Tribune) writes that Barnum is joining Cloquet, Esko and Moose Lake in asking voters to help adequately fund schools. Barnum is actually in a better-than-average position when it comes to asking for voter support. The current $200 per student operating referendum expires after the current school year, and the district is asking for a $400 per student operating referendum for the next 10 years. However, building bonds issued in 2002 and 2008 were paid this year, ultimately reducing property taxes. For example, even if the $400 referendum is passed, an owner of a $100,000 home will pay $116 less than was paid in 2011. In Esko, the district is asking for a $341 per student operating levy, to replace the previous $1 levy that will end next year. In Moose Lake the district will ask voters for an operating referendum that would increase the current $250 rate that expires at the end of the school year to a $450 rate. The Cloquet district is asking for a renewal of the existing referendum revenue authorization of $97.61 and a second question for an additional $275. Cloquet voters would have to vote yes on both questions in order for the second question to pass.

They wanted bumper crops, but corn and soybean farmers will just have to make due with a good year, reports Julie Buntjer of the Worthington Daily Globe. Corn prices are about $7 per bushel and soybeans close to $11 per bushel, which are pretty good prices and made Minnesota farmers salivate at the prospect at bumper crops. But the weather had different ideas. Dan Uttech with the New Vision Cooperative in Brewster said soybeans are averaging 45 to 50 bushels per acre and corn about 160 to 170 bushels per acre. Both are down from a year ago and can be blamed on a lack of measurable rain since late July and an early, killing frost in September. “We didn’t have the moisture to really finish this crop out the way we wanted to in August and September,” he said, adding that, with the high winds, ears of corn are popping out of the husks and landing on the ground where, of course, combine heads aren’t able to reach, he added. Combine or field fires have also been quite common, with at least two calls in Nobles County on Thursday, and two more by Friday afternoon.

But do they ask about having a German accent? New census data show that 7.4 percent of Stearns County residents speak a language other than English at home, reports the St. Cloud Daily Times. The 2010 American Community Survey says the most common language other than English is Spanish, followed by other Indo-European languages, Asian and Pacific Island languages and “other.” The report says an estimated one-fifth of U.S. residents and one-tenth of Minnesota residents age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home. However, more than half of Stearns County residents who reported speaking a different language at home said they speak English “very well.”

Professor David Kung of St. Mary’s College of Maryland is presenting a trio of lectures at Winona State University on the intersections of social justice, math and music, reports Nathan Hansen of the Winona Daily News. While his talk Thursday about math and his violin concert on Friday will be interesting, I’d like to attend the Wednesday lecture on math as a tool for civil rights. Kung says math performance predicts success and salary, and even with control for variables, minorities are less likely to stay committed to it. That creates inequality. “Access to math is an important tool for social justice and equality,” he said. “Who has access to math is important for civil rights.” He might be able to shed some light on Minnesota’s bottom-of-nation achievement gap between minority and white student academic performance.

Sounds to me like everyone had a good time and went home. This report out of the Austin Daily Herald caught my eye. Police were called to the Windmill Inn and Suites in Dexter at about 3:45 a.m. Sunday on a report of about 30 people “actively fighting.” The sheriff said the crowd was pushing and shoving when police arrived, and officers had to spray the crowd with mace to get everyone to disperse. One of the party hosts told police that more than 250 people had been at the party earlier in the night. Two windows were broken during the party, but there were no known injuries and no one was arrested. The Austin Police Department, Minnesota State Patrol, Olmsted County Sheriff’s deputies, Freeborn County Sheriff’s deputies and the Albert Lea Police Department all responded.

Jenny Kirk at the Marshall Independent had a good idea. She asked area school superintendents what they would do if they were the Minnesota Department of Education commissioner for a day. Bruce Houck, superintendent of Russell-Tyler-Ruthton, Lynd and Hendricks public schools, said the state should allow more innovation in schools such as the flexible learning year for 25 school districts in southwest Minnesota. “Take some risks and try some new things. Step outside the box. We have to be creative nowadays as we’re trying to get achievement levels higher,” he said. Loy Woelber, superintendent of both the Westbrook-Walnut Grove and Tracy districts, would like to see funding for districts to convert their buildings to geothermal within 10 years. If given the chance, Canby Superintendent Loren Hacker would like to go back to the basics of the democratic process. “If I was commissioner, I’d beg the Legislature to operate more in the sunshine. This last session, all of a sudden, we have this magical agreement that comes out from behind closed doors that has hardly been talked about. The democratic process is something that is supposed to be talked about, but sometimes things don’t happen because of political agendas. … We should start looking at nonpartisan answers. We’re too stratified.”

“Cheers” actor George Wendt – Norm – was in New Ulm Saturday signing copies of his new book, “Drinking with George,” according to Fritz Busch at the New Ulm Journal. Apparently, he drank some Schell’s, had a burger and fries at Turner Hall, and signed copies of his book at the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, the Schell’s Brewery Gift Shop and at Oktoberfest at the Holiday Inn. Good to see the guy is still working.

John Fitzgerald is a long-time Minnesotan and freelance journalist. He lives in Buffalo.

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