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Superintendents back cops in schools, report trusting relationships

Earlier this month, about 200 people representing more than 20 schools took part in a student-led march in downtown St. Paul, calling on Minnesota school districts to end contracts with local police departments.

But while the vocal group says the having law enforcement stationed in schools creates problems, Rice County superintendents defend the SRO services police departments provide to their schools. For both superintendents, Todd Sesker, of Faribault Public Schools, and Matt Hillmannn, of Northfield Public Schools, the relationships come down to trust.

School resource officer programs have drawn scrutiny and criticism in the wake of the late May police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Proponents say SROs schools safe, but opponents say they can be more of an impediment than a help to students and have called for money spent on SROs to pay for more counselors and other student services.

Kaaha Kaahiye was among the speakers who addressed the crowd before the Aug. 8 march. She said she saw several Black students assaulted by a school resource officer when she attended high school in St. Paul.

“All students, and Black students especially, have a right to police-free learning environments. And we’re going to make that happen today,” she told the crowd, highlighting the student-led origins of the event.

The group gathered outside the building housing the headquarters of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and marched to the state Capitol.

Some Minnesota school districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, already have severed ties with local police departments. Organizers pushed to see more districts across the state take the same step.

At Northfield and Faribault Public Schools, superintendents have a different take on SROs.

“I understand there are questions across the nation, and I understand officer-involved shootings kill Black men at a higher rate than white men,” Hillmann said. “At the same time, I think we have to look at the local police department structure.”

Hillmann commends Northfield Police Chief Mark Elliott’s leadership and the amount of training school resource officers undergo. He views SROs as “one part of the overall system” where other resources include counselors, social workers and school psychologists.

Apart from his regular law enforcement training, Northfield SRO Bart Wiese attends additional training as an SRO to stay informed of school laws and their privacy data. Last year, before school started, Northfield Public Schools offered a week full of training that included guest speakers focusing on diversity. This year, the pandemic has presented barriers to that training.

The national discussion on the necessity of SROs prompted Northfield Public Schools to provide an annual data report to the School Board on the SROs’ services, clarifying any misconceptions about their responsibilities. The schools will begin releasing that report this academic year.

“Our school district is committed to anti-racism,” Hillmann said. “George Floyd’s murder has shed light on a number of strategies that elevate that. I think we have a positive relationship with a well-trained department that prioritizes the needs of every child.”

Hillmann said SROs hold a variety of responsibilities within the district, teaching the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program to fifth-graders, developing positive relationships with staff members and families, providing traffic support and addressing concerns students may have outside of school.

“It’s a good situation where we have a person from the police department who already has relationships with teachers, communities and families to work through some of those situations together,” Hillmann said. “… Many of the school resource officers have lived in Northfield and have a deep connection to the community in a number of different ways.”

One resource officer, Wiese, serves eight schools in Northfield, public, charter and parochial. The total cost to the district annually is $58,722 — .0009% of its operating budget. Since Wiese is employed through the city, that total does not include his benefits and compensation.

“I work with a lot of teens; sometimes it’s problem solving, sometimes education and guidance,” Wiese said. “I try to be the first contact with parents and juveniles because I’m a face they recognize.”

In conducting search warrants, Wiese intervenes if a juvenile is involved. A mix of students and staff report to him, he said, and many calls are related to incidents in the home that carry over to the schools.

“There’s reports and there’s incidents,” Wiese said. “I might have three of four things going on, but there’s no way to calculate that. I know I’m stretched thin as an SRO. We have one, so it’s definitely a hard job.”

Wiese believes he could accomplish more as an SRO if he wasn’t the only one working for Northfield Public Schools.

“Sometimes I have to tell people they just have to call patrol because I’m tied up, and I don’t like doing that,” he said.

But despite needing more help sometimes, Wiese said being an SRO is the most rewarding role he’s had in his career so far.

“I believe I have a really great relationship with the schools’ admin,” Wiese said. “My job does carry over to a lot of positive encounters outside of school. Even in COVID, I have my face mask on, but these young people recognized me. There’s a lot of trust. I’ve been called to situations just because of what I do during the school day.”

The Faribault Police Department employs two school resource officers, Detective DJ Skluzacek at Faribault High School and Detective John Gramling at Faribault Middle School.

The district spends $110,000 per year on the two school resource officers, according to Director of Finances Andrew Adams. That total comes from the general fund, but state dollars offset that. Since officers are employed through the Faribault Police Department, they receive benefits and compensation through the city.

“The SROs maintain a very good relationship with the schools,” said Faribault Detective Sgt. Matt Long. “They fulfill an important role in the link between Faribault having a good representation and relationship with law enforcement. It’s a very positive relationship school resource officers have with the kids.”

According to data reports from the Faribault Police Department, students reported concerns directly to the SRO at the building for 255 incidents in 2018-19 rather than going to a teacher or administrator first. Incidents dropped to 121 student concerns in 2019-20. High school students sought help from SROs for 45 incidents in 2018-19 and 27 incidents in 2019-20, according to reports.

The reports also cite a number of instances when staff members sought assistance from SROs. In 2018-19, SROs received 138 of these calls from Faribault Middle School and 50 from FHS. In 2019-20, staff members called SROs to assist 125 incidents at the middle school and 15 incidents at FHS. One such incident occurred earlier this year, when the FHS administration reported to an SRO that a student had allegedly threatened a school shooting via a social media message.

In academic year 2018-19, SROs received calls for 172 reported incidents at FHS and 446 at Faribault Middle School. More recently, in 2019-20, calls decreased to 138 at FHS and 207 at the middle school. The reports state that many “routine contacts” with students and assistance provided to faculty are not documented.

While there was a drop in incidents from one year to the next, the school closure that happened in mid-March this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic made the data “not quite an apples to apples comparison,” said Superintendent Sesker.

Long agreed that the drop in incidents “had everything to do with the pandemic” since officers were not on campus for the last months of school.

Sesker also tethers the drop in incidents to the district’s positive behavior plan, which promotes relationship-building between students and the adults in each building. From his perspective, SROs fit right into that plan of creating trust.

“We all know when students connect with adults, that creates a better environment for students. We do see a reduction with negative behaviors,” Sesker said. “Resource officers build relationships with kids internally and outside the buildings, and they’re right with administrators, proactively working with students and the administrative team.”

Cities shift economic development efforts online

With the pandemic turning traditional business promotion models upside down, Faribault’s Economic Development Authority and Chamber of Commerce are trying out new ways to promote the city.

At its monthly meeting, the city’s Economic Development Authority authorized a $2,500 donation to support the Minnesota Marketing Partnership’s advertising campaign. In a typical year, the EDA would have devoted that money to advertising in the MMP’s magazine.

This year, the MMP has adapted to the pandemic by taking a different route. Starting in September, it will launch a digital marketing campaign to promote communities across the state, complete with a video series and printed/digital collateral.

Once complete, the MMP’s materials will be available to all of its members. With a focus on industry, innovation, and work-life balance, the materials can be used to promote cities like Faribault at the local, regional and national levels.

Faribault isn’t the only regional city that will be supporting the MMP this year, even without a magazine. Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Brad Meier said that it made sense for Owatonna Partners for Economic Development to support it as well.

“The magazine was great but for right now we’re realizing there’s more effective ways to connect with people,” Meier said.

The MMP is just the latest facet of what has become a fast-changing approach to recruiting potential employers. Once heavily focused on conventions at the local and regional levels and the face-to-face conversations they engendered, economic development has now gone digital.

“We’re in times that are requiring us to think a bit differently than we used to,” said Mayor Kevin Voracek. “We have to come up with ways to make sure our name is out there.”

The city has managed to keep its name out there in part through a part thanks to the services provided by Site Location Partnership. The Texas-based firm went live with a Faribault “hot spot” in June, marketing the city to companies of all types.

In July, SLP managed the city’s “presence” at the IFT Food Expo. Scheduled to be held in Chicago, the convention was held 100% virtually due to COVID-19. Still, staff were able to reconnect with site selection consultants they had met with in previous years.

Faribault Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen said that even throughout the pandemic, many businesses have continued to express interest in expanding or shifting operations, and the city has worked hard to recruit interested businesses.

Kuennen said that it isn’t as easy to promote the city virtually as in person, but with cities across the country in the same boat, people are understanding. In addition the limitations of the format, simple technical glitches can come in the way.

“I had a virtual meeting a couple of weeks ago, and the technology wasn’t working right. Nobody cared that I had the IT director come in because everyone’s in the same boat,” she said.

Kuennen said that on the positive side, many businesses have always done a lot of research to narrow down a list of cities they are interested in. In recent years, that legwork has become increasingly digitalized and thus less affected by the pandemic.

Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said that the cancellation of business conventions not only hurt the efforts of businesses to locate in localities that make sense, but also been another devastating blow to the hospitality and tourism industry.

Across the state, hotel revenues have been halved, according to a new report by Explore Minnesota. Even though the hospitality industry saw “job growth” in the latest state employment report, its numbers have fallen dramatically compared to before the pandemic.

The industry remains highly vulnerable and could suffer more damage if more federal aid is not provided. According to Hospitality Minnesota, the trade organization representing hospitality businesses across the state, 2/3rds of its members relied on PPP loans to stay afloat.

At the beginning of the year, Johnson took on the role of Chairperson of the state Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus. As a result, he’s been on the frontlines in terms of seeing the economic effects of the pandemic on Minnesota’s dozens of convention centers.

Johnson continues to hold onto hope that sometime in the near future, the pandemic will be brought under control and Convention and Visitors Bureaus will be able to be hotspots not of a virus, but of of invaluable networking opportunities for businesses and communities.

However, he expressed sadness that once the pandemic does lift, it will leave permanent damage and ruined businesses in its wake, with once beloved hospitality businesses forced to shut their doors.

“Because of the lack of both tourists and convention business, local favorites will suffer as a result,” he said. “Many communities are already losing key locally supported businesses.”

Runway expansion makes its way into city plans

Though it’s still several years in the future, a dramatic expansion to the Faribault Municipal Airport could provide a major boost in the city’s continued efforts to secure economic development.

The plan was tucked into the sizable Capital Improvement Plan reviewed by the City Council for the first time at its Tuesday meeting. It includes a longer runway, a new eight-unit public T-Hangar and a large aircraft storage hangar. City Public Works Director and Airport Manager Travis Block said that the upgrades would bring the vision laid out in the city’s Airport Master Plan to fruition. That plan was finalized in 2016, providing a 20-year vision for the airport.

Two years later, the facility was devastated by a historic storm that sent 21 tornadoes ripping throughout the region. The strongest of those directly hit the airport, an EF2 twister with winds estimated to have reached 120-130 mph. In all, some 39 buildings at the airport sustained significant damage, while 12 private hangars were completely destroyed. Thanks to insurance dollars, the airport managed to rebuild stronger and larger than ever, as a testament to Faribault’s resilience.

While it doesn’t serve commercial passenger traffic, the airport has become a key tool for economic development. Close to the metro, but not run by the Metropolitan Airport Authority, it’s been able to offer businesses ample space and fewer regulations.

That has helped it to retain businesses like Rare Aircraft and draw in new ones like SteinAir, a cutting-edge avionics business which set up shop in Faribault not long after the tornado hit. At its previous location in Farmington, demand for SteinAir’s services dramatically increased, but a lack of space inhibited its growth. Company CEO Stein Bruch has said that moving to Faribault enabled his company to double its workforce.

In addition to those businesses located on-site, the airport is a major draw for all sorts of other businesses. Many rent out the facility as a landing strip for corporate jets, and it’s also used by Carleton and St. Olaf colleges in Northfield as well as Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault.

According to a report released earlier this year by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the airport has a sizable direct economic impact, providing 56 jobs and $2.5 million in revenue, as well as an additional indirect impact of more than $4 million.

Those impacts could increase if the city proceeds with an airport expansion plan. The process would be long and complicated, beginning with a Justification Study that would be crucial to securing the federal and state dollars needed to make the project affordable.

If the study finds a need for a longer runway, more work will need to be done before any groundbreaking ceremony could take place. In order to expand the runway, the city would need to purchase land and relocate Canby Avenue.

Mayor Kevin Voracek expressed skepticism that the project will progress as expected. He noted that Faribault’s Airport is already larger than it was pre-tornado, and with Owatonna recently expanding its airport’s runway, the demand may not be there for an expansion in Faribault.

Block acknowledged that the project could eventually end up being delayed or shelved but said he’d encourage the council to do a justification study. By the time such a study would be complete, he noted that almost 10 years will have passed since the master plan’s enactment.

“We’ll have to look at the cost,” he said. “It depends on what the (Airport) Board and City Council want to do.”

For their part, Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen and Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson both strongly welcomed proposals to expand the sirport and make it accessible to larger planes.

Already, the airport is a major draw and a key reason for the city’s success in securing Foreign Direct Investment from four major international companies, Kuennen said. By expanding the airport, she predicted the city could further expand its appeal.

Johnson said he expects that the popularity of private aircraft travel will only increase in the near future. By making investments in the airport soon, he said Faribault could reap the rewards for decades to come.

“As air traffic becomes more common, it will help bring in more traffic, which we’ll all profit from,” he said.

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