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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers (17) warms up before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

School districts turn to CARES Act to offset MSHSL's large fee increases

The Minnesota State High School League has taken a hit as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving member schools to deal with the consequences.

Schools leaders throughout the state recently received letters from the MSHSL detailing fee increases up to 300% to offset losses caused by the pandemic.

Schools will pay a new "COVID installment'' membership fee that varies by enrollment, with the biggest schools paying $11,000 for the school year and the smallest ones paying $1,000.

The league has shortened its sports seasons and budgeted for no state tournaments in the 2020-21 school year. Those tournaments have typically funded about 75% of the league's annual budget, which is projected to shrink from $9 million to $5 million this year.

“This is a shock to the system for everybody,” said Bryan Boysen, Kenyon-Wanamingo Schools superintendent. “I was not anticipating this other than the letter.”

Since receiving the letter, many superintendents and district finance directors have learned that the Coronavirus Aide, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act could take the sting out of the increase.

“That’s an option, to offset that higher rate,” Boysen said. “The thing is though, if they continue down this path or other entities do, it’s going to have a significant budgetary impact on our district. This is the first of other hits … It’s so imperative to have an operating referendum on Nov. 3. This is just another example of why we have to go to the voters to approve a levy to keep us going. It’s the reality of the situation we’re in in rural Minnesota.”

Like Kenyon-Wanamingo, Faribault Public Schools plan to use CARES Act funding to offset the cost of higher activities fees.

Faribault finance director Andrew Adams said fees more than tripled in the Faribault district — from just under $3,000 in fiscal year 2020 to $14,000 in fiscal year 2021. Like Kenyon-Wanamingo, Faribault Public Schools plan to use CARES Act funding to offset the cost of higher activities fees. Specifically, Adams said the district will use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding within the CARES Act.

Jean Kopp, director of finances for Tri-City United Schools, said the district will experience a $7,000 increase in MSHSL membership fees for 2020-21 as a result of COVID-19. She said TCU plans to cover the unbudgeted increase using funding from the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) as well as the CARES Act.

Kevin Werk, athletic director of Medford Public Schools, reported a $7,000 fee increase impacts his district as well. The first payment of $3,500 is due Nov. 30 this year and the second and final payment will be due Feb. 28, 2021.

Owatonna High School Activities Director, Marc Achterkirch, said he saw the increase coming because MSHSL detailed its budgetary constraints in a document he accessed prior to receiving the letter.

“They were very transparent about the whole process,” Achterkirch said. “Based on everything that’s happened, they’re being forced to look for other revenue streams to make up what they lost. We saw this coming.”

According to Achterkirch, fees have “more than doubled” for Owatonna Public Schools. Yet, Achterkirch is optimistic about the future of the MSHSL.

“No one likes to see expenses rise like this,” Achterkirch said. “But it's necessary. Having a stable governing body — the Minnesota State High School League — is good for everyone. We have always been supportive of the High School League for what they provide for our kids from fine art to athletics and everything else.”

Northfield Public Schools will also see a substantial increase in athletic fees, about 380%, from $3,600 in fiscal year 2020 to $17,532 in fiscal year 2021.

Val Mertesdorf, director of finances for Northfield Schools, said the district is still considering its options. CARES funding is one possibility, but competing interests for that pool of money means no guarantees. The other option, she said, is to turn to the general fund and “see how that balances out at the end of the year.”

“I think overall most districts were quite surprised,” Mertesdorf said. “We certainly understand where they’re coming from; we understand the financial changes that they’re facing … We certainly value the membership; our district gets quite a bit from it, but in times like this, it’s a little hard to swallow. We will make it work and take it one thing at a time.”

River clean up for community, connection and conservation

As people look for a safe way to have some fun during a pandemic, many are turning to outdoor recreation.

But with the many benefits nature can provide, comes a sense of responsibility to keep local parks and waterways clean. One organization is hoping an upcoming event will bring awareness to the environmental impact of trash.

The 12th Annual Cannon River Watershed-Wide CleanUP will be held 9 a.m. to noon Saturday throughout the region. Members of the public are

asked to participate in this COVID-19 compliant event hosted by the Cannon River Watershed Partnership.

Volunteer cleaners are required to wear face masks and gloves while maintaining a 6-foot distance between other households as they pick up trash.

The Cannon River watershed in southeast Minnesota includes an expansive 90 lakes and 107 wetlands of 10 acres or more in size, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The clean ups will be happening across five parks including:

• Riverside Lions Park in Northfield

• Two Rivers Park in Faribault

• City Park in Medford

• Morehouse Park in Owatonna

• Riverside Park in Cannon Falls

Picking up trash in local parks not only improves aesthetics, but it also helps the environment and watershed as a whole. Even a piece of litter on the street can easily wash into a storm drain and make its way into the river.

Trash debris can cause physical harm to habitats, spread chemical pollutants, negatively impact wildlife and interfere with recreational and commercial use of waterways. There are several negative ways in which trash can affect habitats. Piled up trash can alter and decrease light levels for aquatic life that live in the lower levels of waterways as well as deplete oxygen levels, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. On top of that, wildlife can also become entangled in litter, making it difficult to move or do other basic tasks.

Trash leaves its footprint at a chemical level too. Plastic trash that has found its way into bodies of water can contribute to the accumulation of chemicals and be transporters for persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (also known as PBTs) contaminants. These contaminants include chemicals that are very difficult to degrade or break down. Plastic waste has the potential to transfer these PBTs to organisms when consumed, thus entering the food chain and increasing in concentration going up the food chain, according to the U.S. EPA.

“The river is a lot more pleasant to be around when we don’t have plastic bottles or paper floating in it,” Kevin Strauss, community engagement coordinator at the Cannon River Watershed Partnership said.

Strauss says areas with trash tend to accumulate even more trash if it doesn’t get picked up. The annual clean up event reminds people that littering is not OK and brings awareness to any littering problems a community might have.

“It’s just a reminder to folks that it is everyone’s responsibility to keep our parks and rivers clean,” Strauss said.

Although the group will focus on pollutants that are easy to clean up such as plastic bottles, food wrappers, plastic bags, cans and paper, other more complex and chemical pollutants contribute to the overall water quality. Most people prefer to live by a river that looks clean and has a healthy ecosystem and provides resources like fish, and a place to swim or boat.

“We can only do that by working together,” Strauss said. “Especially this year when we are facing multiple challenges including a pandemic.”

Participants are encouraged to wear clothes they don’t mind getting dirty and closed-toe shoes. Check the weather before arriving to have a better idea of what to wear. CRWP will provide gloves for everyone, but they will be a one-size-fits-all type, so volunteers can bring their own fitted gloves if desired. Every volunteer will get a CRWP 30th anniversary reusable cloth mask as a way to say thank you for volunteering. Trash picking tools are also welcome.

With common sense practices, required masks and social distancing, the annual event will continue safely as a way to build community.

“We are not able to gather the way we did before, we are not able to socialize so this could be an opportunity to both keep the river clean, the way we’ve been doing it every year, but also to give people a safe socially distanced community activity,” Strauss said.

Unlike years prior, there will not be a community picnic following the clean up due to safety concerns. Group gatherings, which were traditionally held at check in will be no more this year. A group photo at the end of the end has also been canceled. Instead photos will be taken throughout the clean up.

New this year is the option to participate from home with family members/roommates as part of the “Clean up at Home” program. This is a great way for people that don’t want to attend a community event to still participate in the clean up, Strauss says. Those who register to take part in this program will be given a supply kit from CRWP staff to host their own clean up. Materials include a set of gloves, bags and masks which will be placed at participant’s front doors the week of Sept. 13. Participants can, at their convenience, clean up their neighborhood and dispose of the trash in their household garbage.

“We are cautiously excited about the clean up coming up … Sometimes we assume with the pandemic that no one will want to show up, and we’ve been pleased with how many folks have already signed up,” Strauss said. “But there still is plenty of space.”

Crime rates dipped for the Faribault Police Department, the Northfield Police Department and the Rice County Sheriff's Office in 2016 after each saw increases in 2015. (Gunnar Olson/Daily News)

2 years after tornado, airport's better than before

Highly pleased with Faribault Municipal Airport’s brand-new building, members of the City Council expressed an interest in investing in the facility like never before.

The council toured the recently completed Fixed Base Operator building as part of its Tuesday work session. The building, a replacement for one destroyed in a Sept. 20, 2018 tornado, has been occupied for only a few weeks. The structure’s so new that Public Works Director Travis Block noted that even now the finishing touches aren’t completed.

The new hangar was constructed with insurance dollars as well as disaster assistance dollars from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Airport Manager Jerry Serres praised Block for going to great lengths to get the city a “bang for its buck.”

“Travis gets all of the kudos for getting the right building for the budget we had,” Serres said. “He squeezed every nickel out of it. This goes above and beyond what we had before.”

The new facility provides about 15,000 square-feet, including 12,800 square-feet of hangar space. By contrast, the temporary trailer that served as the airport’s Fixed Base Operator building after the permanent building was destroyed offered just 6,500 square feet.

Even the previous permanent building offered just 10,000 square feet of hangar space. With the extra space, the airport’s ability to accommodate quick maintenance needs in a timely fashion and provide storage space has been greatly enhanced.

The new FBO building offers style and comfort as well. Councilor Janna Viscomi praised it for its design, which she compared favorably with a pre-tornado building that she characterized as resembling a shed.

“This looks really nice, really professional from the outside,” she said.

In addition to councilors, Block said that airport visitors have also been highly complimentary of the new building. With momentum from the successful project, the Airport Board is now eyeing tackling its next big request — a project to significantly extend the runway. The project was included in the Airport Master Plan approved by the city in the pre-tornado days of 2016, its approval conditioned on a Justification Study that could open up the federal dollars needed to make it financially feasible.

At the time, runway lengths of 5,000 or 5,500 feet were considered, but the Board opted for a shorter 4,900 foot runway, believing the cost and potential environmental impacts of the longer runways would be too great.

The board chose its final plan based on its desire to reduce costs associated with land acquisition, construction, environmental impacts and road relocation. Still, a portion of Canby Avenue west of the airport would need to be reconfigured.

The Airport Board has since largely reversed itself, believing that the extra investment would be worth it. Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said that for many businesses, a 5,000-foot runway might be the minimum airport size they’d consider.

“It is a benchmark that would allow larger aircraft to use our facility,” he said. “It would be a great boost to the air services related businesses and our ability to recruit businesses.”

Currently, Faribault’s Airport has just 4,257 feet of runway, according to Block. Owatonna Degner Regional Airport has already upgraded its runway length to 5,500 feet and has seen significant benefits. However, it would be difficult for Faribault to “piggyback” off that since most businesses that need an airport like to be close to it.

Building the longer runway could be spendy, and the cost is likely to increase significantly if the city opts to cross the 5,000 foot threshold. That’s because the longer runway would likely require a wider berth and repositioning of the runway itself.

Councilors said they wanted to see more numbers first but seemed inclined to support the project. Mayor Kevin Voracek, who expressed a somewhat skeptical attitude about the runway expansion project last month, seemed to warm up to the idea on Tuesday.

“The landscape of Faribault has changed a lot over the years, “ he said. “Maybe now is the time to push for a longer runway.”

Councilor Tom Spooner said that if the city is going to go ahead with the expansion project, it should make sure it’s doing it right. Spooner said he worries that if the city doesn’t go “all-in” to address its needs now, costs could rise dramatically in the future.

“I’d hate to sell ourselves short,” he said. “ If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. Let’s not second guess ourselves in 15 years.”