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Census delay throws a wrench in redistricting for city, county
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Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the data needed to redraw district lines from U.S. Congress to the county board won’t arrive until Sept. 30 — a full six months after the deadline set in law. The delayed data release will make an already condensed process of drawing the district lines tricky for the state and even harder for local governments.

“The deadlines will be tight — even tighter than they normally are,” said Rice County Property Tax and Elections Director Denise Anderson.

Much like state legislatures are tasked with redrawing their own district lines and those of U.S. representatives, Rice County goes through the process of redrawing its county board lines every decade to ensure population balance.

Once the new district lines are set, every county commissioner runs in the following election — an exception to the board’s normally staggered terms. The process is particularly tricky because districts are small — and so much of Rice County’s population lives in Northfield or Faribault.

Anderson will need to work quickly with Faribault and Northfield to make population balance possible by adjusting precinct boundaries. Faribault City Administrator Tim Murray said he doesn’t expect big shifts — but implementing even small changes can prove a headache.

“It’s not going to be exact, but we may need to shift a precinct line a block over if one part of the city grew more population than another,” he said.

Fortunately, Murray said that the city is largely insulated from the monetary effects of a late census. However, each person not accounted for can cost the state up to $28,000 in federal aid over a decade, meaning the delayed and potentially flawed census comes with a steep cost.

Had the 2020 census run normally, the Census Bureau would have released data at the end of last year indicating how many U.S. House districts each state will have for the next decade.

This year will be different, as the Bureau’s normal operations have been wracked by COVID-19 and the Trump Administration repeatedly shifting of its timelines, leading to several fights in court. Now, the Bureau won’t even release the basic apportionment data until the end of April.

Minnesota will be waiting for that announcement with bated breath, hoping to retain its eighth U.S. House district. The state hung onto the seat a decade ago by less than 10,000 people, but current projections indicate it’s likely to be lost.

At the state level, the divided legislature is likely to push redistricting to the courts, as it has for the last several redistricting cycles. Had the DFL won one additional Senate seat, an all-DFL legislature could have worked with Gov. Tim Walz to pass district lines to their liking.

Both the House and Senate have set up redistricting committees to consider potential district lines. Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, is the only area legislator to serve on either.

Even though the redistricting committee hasn’t yet met, Munson and his staff have enthusiastically prepared for the assignment, taking classes to learn more about redistricting and how to draw representative district maps. Coming up with a map that can win the bipartisan support needed to pass the legislature may be unlikely, but Munson noted that the courts often consider suggestions that come from redistricting committees.

Munson expressed disappointment that the committee won’t have the data it needs until the fall, but said it would instead give the committee more time to consider how it will use the data to draw fair district lines, an exercise he hopes will be less partisan and more useful.

“If you know exactly how the populations are in each precinct, then politics can get more involved,” he said. “(Instead), we can have an honest debate about demographics and socioeconomic lines, what’s most important when we apply the census data.”

Senator updates Council on clean cars, Mill Towns Trail, taxes
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Faribault’s City Council welcomed back its former mayor Tuesday, peppering state Sen. John Jasinski with questions about his work on a wide variety of issues at the Capitol.

In addition to the big statewide issues, Jasinski is working on several bills of local importance and made sure to touch on them. Councilor Tom Spooner also pressed him on the Mill Towns Trail, a long planned route which would connect Faribault with Cannon Falls and serve as a key link in the regional trail system.

As even numbered years don’t typically see the passage of a large bonding bill, Jasinski said the project is unlikely to receive much funding this year. While Jasinski has suggested that a small bonding bill of around $200 million to $300 million could pass, it would likely focus on the most essential projects.

One project that could gain more momentum this year is a proposed interchange at I-35 and County Road 9. Partnering with fellow Faribault Republican Brian Daniels, he’s again brought forward a bill to provide $500,000 in funding for a comprehensive study of the project. Jasinski has supported the interchange for more than a decade, going back to his time as mayor. Despite his position on the powerful Senate Capital Improvement Committee, previous efforts to secure funding for the project have been unsuccessful.

City officials have said that if constructed, the project would provide a boost to economic development and reduce traffic at the intersection of I-35 and County Road 21, the city’s busiest intersection and an increasing bottleneck. Neighboring townships could benefit as well.

Partnering with Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, Jasinski is also championing a bill to increase penalties for attempted first-degree murder against a police officer, corrections officer, judge or prosecuting attorney. The bill is inspired by Waseca Police Officer Arik Matson, who nearly lost his life last year after being shot in the head while responding to a call. Jasinski said that the current maximum penalty, a 20-year sentence with 2/3rds of that served behind bars, is too lenient.

Local background

Before his election to the Minnesota Senate as a Republican in 2016, Jasinski served as Faribault’s mayor for a pair of terms. He got his start in government nearly 30 years ago as a member of the city Planning Commission. Jasinski has risen quickly up the totem pole at the legislature, securing the positions of Assistant Senate Majority Leader and Senate Majority Whip in his first term. He has retained the latter title in his second term, and currently serves as chair of the Local Government Policy Committee.

As during 2020, COVID-19 and its many effects will be at the top of the agenda of this legislative session. While they initially lent support to Gov. Tim Walz’s efforts to combat COVID, Jasinski and his fellow Republicans have become increasingly critical of Walz’s approach.

In particular, the Governor’s continued use of executive powers to enforce COVID restrictions has come under Republican scrutiny. Yet while Senate Republicans have repeatedly voted to end Walz’s powers, the DFL-run House has blocked the effort.

Jasinski also expressed frustration over the governor’s use of unilateral authority with regards to “clean cars” emissions standards. Using its rulemaking authority, the Walz Administration is moving forward with plans to require car dealers to stock more zero- and low-emission vehicles.

According to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop, the standards will lower greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality and help electric cars to become more available in Minnesota. However, local car dealers and Republicans like Jasinski have said that if implemented, the rules will force them to carry vehicles on their lot that consumers don’t want. If the vehicles sit on the lots unsold, interest costs begin to add up for dealers.

Divided government

Jasinski vowed that a proposal advanced in the House this week to spend $300 million in state dollars rebuilding parts of Minneapolis and St. Paul that suffered massive damage from last year’s riots following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody would not pass the Senate.

“The biggest thing I hear at the post office, the grocery store, the tavern is don’t you dare give more money to Minneapolis,” he said.

Instead of requesting state aid, Jasinski said it should be incumbent on Minneapolis and St. Paul to pay for both rebuilding costs and law enforcement. He expressed frustration that with violent crime on the rise, local government officials have continued to cut police budgets.

As 2020 is a budget year, the divided legislature will need to come together on its priorities over the next biennium. Minnesota currently has a projected deficit of $882 million over the next two years, though that figure is expected to shrink in the upcoming budget forecast.

In his “COVID recovery budget,” Gov. Tim Walz called for significant investments in education and childcare, as well as a large expansion of the Working Family Tax Credit that would benefit 300,000 Minnesotans.

To pay for it while covering the deficit, Walz is calling on legislators to increase taxes significantly on corporations and the wealthy, creating a new tax bracket for individuals with more than $1 million in income. Republicans made clear that the governor’s proposed tax increases are dead on arrival. Jasinski expressed confidence that legislators could put together a budget that helps Minnesota emerge from the challenges of COVID without raising taxes.

Even though the state’s fiscal picture may be improving, Jasinski conceded in December that balancing the budget will ultimately require some “tough budget choices.”

Key to the state’s long term financial picture is the recovery of its hospitality industry. Councilor Janna Viscomi, a longtime downtown business owner, pressed Jasinski on how the state could help the industry get back on its feet.

Even if restrictions are lifted, Viscomi noted that many customers won’t come back anyway because they don’t feel safe yet given the continued presence of COVID. In addition to pushing for relaxed restrictions, Jasinski said he would support measures to help businesses, including the exemption of PPP loans from taxes.

“Why are we taxing people on that money? We want to make sure people don’t get taxed on it,” he said.

Still undecided about elementary, ALC transitions, school board weighs pros and cons
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Major transitions could be coming to three Faribault elementary schools as well as the district’s Area Learning Center as soon as this fall.

Declining enrollment and inadequate state funding has once again has the district making large budget adjustments, this time totaling $2.2 million. While seeking creative ways to capitalize on resources, the Faribault School Board agreed to keep student-centered learning, mental health and equity at the forefront of its decision-making process. A solution that pleases everyone is proving hard to come by.

The board will make final decisions on two major transitions in the district at two different board meetings. The first, consideration of moving the Faribault Area Learning Center to the high school building, is scheduled for Monday’s board meeting. Meanwhile, a committee of parents, education leaders, administration and staff will explore the possibility of transitioning the elementary schools to a choice school model. Approval of that decision is scheduled for April.

That could involve an extended school year calendar option, which shortens the summer break to allow for periodic breaks during the academic year, and/or divide the buildings according to grade levels. If the board approves, Superintendent Todd Sesker said Jefferson would serve pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, Roosevelt would serve early childhood through grade two and Lincoln would serve grades three through five. With the choice model, Jefferson may also follow an extended school year calendar.

In addition, the board has a list of possible reductions to examine. The list includes cutting teaching positions: five elementary, four middle school and three between the ALC and FHS.

The reduction at the elementary level impacts classroom sizes, so the choice model could keep numbers similar to what they were before the pandemic: around 20 students per kindergarten and first-grade class and 27 per second- through fifth-grade class.

At Monday’s meeting, Faribault Director of Teaching and Learning Tracy Corcoran presented community feedback on the extended school year calendar. Seventy-nine parents, representing preschool through fifth grade, responded to the survey last week. According to her findings, 40% of the surveyed parents expressed an interest in the extended school year calendar while 74% wanted more information. Additionally, Corcoran said the survey found a particularly strong interest from families of color.

The choice school model has generated mixed reactions from the board, but most gave their support. Board member Richard Olson prefers neighborhood schools in which students attend the same building from kindergarten to fifth grade.

“I’ve had calls asking, ‘Why are we moving so much?’” Olson said. “You move to a neighborhood because you want to go to that school. I don’t like all this transition; I really don’t. I don’t think it’s good for the students or the parents.”

While she likes the neighborhood school model, Board member Courtney Cavellier said it isn’t sustainable and considers it inequitable when class sections aren’t split evenly. Roosevelt and Jefferson have experienced more of an enrollment decline than Lincoln.

Corcoran presented possible advantages to the choice model. Teachers in any particular grade level all working in one building could open the door for more staff collaborations and team-building opportunities. As students transition from second grade in one building to third grade in another school, they could also benefit from having multiple third-grade teachers helping with that transition.

Board member Carolyn Treadway and Chair Chad Wolff both supported the choice model.

“As much as families in Faribault have always experienced that traditional model, I think we owe it to our schools to be innovative and also make sure we bring our community along with us to help them understand how it better serves their children,” Treadway said. ‘It’s that education give and take piece that I am the most concerned about.”

Wolff, who’s been through several rounds of budget cuts in his years on the board, pointed out that whatever reductions aren’t approved this year will likely come up next year. He encouraged the board to “not let perfect get in the way of something good.”

ALC update

A possible reconfiguration of the Faribault Area Learning Center at Faribault High School generated a lengthy discussion at the Feb. 8 School Board meeting, but board members wanted more data. The transition would save the district an estimated $443,000, but board members wanted to know how that would impact students.

Since that meeting, FHS Principal Jamie Bente and Assistant Principal Joe Sage explored where within the building the ALC could be located, and 16 current students from the ALC offered their input on the transition.

If the ALC were to move to the high school, Bente said ALC students would have their own parking lot and separate entrances and exits. These students would be able to access the cafeteria, a computer lab and shop, and metals and welding classes. The transition could involve minimal construction.

While one particular hallway would be designated for ALC students, Bente said FHS students would still need access to that hallway to get to certain classes.

Adult Education Coordinator Cassie Ohnstad and Career and Equity Coordinator Brian Coleman interviewed 13 ALC seniors and three juniors to gauge their support for the reconfiguration. Ohnstad reported some students were in support while others were not.

Most students said they wanted to work, enter a training program or attend South Central College after high school, according to Ohnstad. The location of FHS in relation to SCC was an advantage some students noted.

Ohnstad found that students overall like the ALC’s small class sizes, welcoming environment and teachers. They want these things to stay the same if the program moves to the high school, she said. While some liked the idea of seeing former classmates again and having closer access to certain classes and electives, others saw no advantage. Disadvantages like crowdedness and peer pressure from old groups of friends to make poor decisions were noted. A couple of students, who will have graduated by next school year, reported having negative experiences at FHS and wanted a fresh start at the ALC.

ALC Director Vonna Dinse also presented possible advantages to the shift. She noted an increase of support services to ALC students like English learner services, custodial services during the day, health services and more access to Fernbrook, which provides mental health services to the district.

As students complete the Ninth Grade Academy program, which involves smaller class sizes, Assistant Principal Sage pointed out the seamless transition those students could have if they wanted to continue with small class sizes within the ALC program on the same campus.

A counselor position was also included in the reduction list originally, but seeing the value of having more mental health resources for vulnerable students during the transition, the board took it off the list. Instead, the district will backfill $74,000 in annual funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The district will have access to that funding for one year.