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Shawn Kirby at Forum

Shawn Kirby, second from left, was joined by Mayor Gregory Haag, left, along with council candidates Ryan Scherer, Torry Machtemes, Ron Morrill and Newell Krogmann after a 2018 election forum. Kirby was a Le Sueur city councilor and is now the mayor. (File photo/southernminn.com)


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YEAR AHEAD: Local districts focus on more than COVID in upcoming year
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January doesn’t mark the start to a new school year, but 2021 still signifies a turning point for students as they pivot out of distance learning. in the year ahead, districts including Le Sueur-Henderson, Tri-City United and Cleveland Public Schools are figuring out what the remaining school year will look like.

But it’s not just coronavirus that schools are tackling this year. Area districts have plans this year ranging from hiring a new superintendent to opening new facilites. Here’s what to look out for at local schools in 2021.

Le Sueur-Henderson

The Le Sueur-Henderson School District is in full transition mode to bring students back into school. School at Park and Hilltop Elementary will be closed on Monday and Tuesday Jan. 11 and 12 for teacher prep time, allowing elementary students to transition into in-person learning on Wednesday, Jan. 13.

Students at Le Sueur-Henderson sit in a social distanced classroom. The district is planning to open the school up for in-person and hybrid learning in January. (Photo courtesy of Le Sueur-Henderson Public Schools)

Middle and high school students will have to wait a bit longer. After days out on Thursday and Friday, Jan. 14 and 15, Le Sueur-Henderson students will return to their hybrid schedules on Monday, Jan. 18.

Practices for athletics at Le Sueur-Henderson began even earlier on Jan. 4 after the Minnesota Department of Health gave schools the OK to resume activities. The first games of the season are set to begin Jan. 14.

Spectators at activities will remain limited. Athletes will be allowed two fans per contest and families will be given passes to events. LS-H’s One Act Play will also resume, but will be held via livestream like the fall play.

While the district is putting kids back in school, the School Board also has the task of searching for a new superintendent to lead the district. Superintendent Marlene Johnson submitted her resignation letter on June 30, citing differences in leadership style with the School Board. Johnson’s contract with the district expires with the district on June 30.

The School Board began its search for a new superintendent in October, hiring the South Central Service Cooperative (SCSC) to assist with their recruitment efforts. Advertisements for the position went out soon afterward and the School Board is scheduled to conduct the first and second rounds of interviews in February with goal of hiring a new superintendent in the spring.

The district is also turning its attentions back to a potential facilities referendum. Designed to allow the district to raise money to update its aging buildings, the referendum process was put on hold last year when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Now the district’s steering committee is making moves to reconvene a focus group made up of members of the Le Sueur and Henderson communities. The group will be responsible for recommending the type of referendum the district should pursue.

Options that have been presented to the group include but are not limited to simply updating the facilities, closing one of the elementary schools and expanding the other, building a new facility for specialized classes like Career and Technical Education or closing both elementary schools and adding on to the Le Sueur-Henderson building.

Whether a referendum will make it onto the ballot this year is a question that will be left to the focus group.

“I think the [School Board} is progressing in hopes that they can hold the referendum this year,” said Superintendent Johnson. “But that will be determined by the focus group as to when everyone is ready. It could be yet this year or in 2021-2022.”

Le Sueur-Henderson’s fiscal goals in 2021 don’t end with the referendum. The district is facing a projected $750,000 deficit and the School Board has indicated that difficult cuts may need to be made to the budget. 30 students left the district in 2020, adding to its fiscal woes.

“We did save some money during the closures of COVID-19,” said Johnson. “So we were able to increase our reserve funds, but those expenditures will be carried forward in future years because we’re not always going to be close because of COVID-19.”

“We do have some reductions to be considering,” Johnson added. “Finding ways to increase our revenues and decrease our expenditures. We have some surveys from our staff who are always able to give us feedback and we’ll work with administration, the finance committee and the board members to analyze what we can do.”

Tri-City United

Facing an unprecedented pandemic, Tri-City United is focused this year on how to bring kids back into school and how to bring back some normality for their students.

Tri-City United Superintendent Lonnie Seifert said the district stayed in the hybrid model longer than he expected for the 2020-21 year. It wasn’t until 10 weeks into the school year that TCU Schools shifted to full-time distance learning, and following winter break, students return to class the second full week of January, either in person or as hybrid learners.

“I think the biggest issue we faced in the beginning of my first six months here is so many unknowns,” said Seifert, who started his tenure with TCU Schools in the midst of the pandemic. “ … I think from an administrative standpoint, whether myself or principles at each of the buildings, it’s been difficult to do long-term planning.”

Even with students returning to school — full-time in person for students in pre-K through sixth grade and hybrid for grades seven through 12 — Seifert recognizes the outcome of the pivot is another unknown. With the vaccine becoming more accessible locally, he is hopeful that students can safely stay in school.

Tri-City United High School students resume hybrid learning this month, following winter break and a few weeks of distance learning. Pictured in September 2020, students spread out in their classes to make social distancing possible. (Photo courtesy of Alan Fitterer)

During a year when the district had intended to explore adjustments for the English language arts programming specifically, Seifert said identifying ways to address the instructional needs of students has taken precedence as the piece needing most attention.

The best way the district can gauge student progress for now, said Seifert, is by looking at the results of the FAST (Functional Academic Skills Test) assessment students took in the fall and will again take this winter and spring. Realistically, he predicts the test results will reflect less growth than usual, due to the reduction of direct contact between students and their teachers. But since pre-K-6 students will take the assessments immediately following distance learning this month and again in the spring, after some time back in the classroom, the results will help teachers compare the impact of one format over the other.

To evaluate TCU’s implementation of the hybrid model, the district released a survey for parents in the fall. According to Seifert, in breaking down the four district buildings, 60% to 67% of families felt the online pieces were better or significantly better than spring 2020, when the district had limited time to prepare for distance learning. The biggest frustration for parents, as noted in the survey, is needing to act as a teacher to their children after coming home from work.

Winter sports began Jan. 4, and athletes start participating in games and competitions Jan. 14. As of the first day athletics resumed, Seifert said no spectators are allowed. Basketball and hockey players must wear masks while playing, which is a stricter guideline than what health professionals recommended for fall sports.

Although he once struggled with the idea of starting activities before students return to class, Seifert said he realizes now that giving those opportunities to students, when they’re already separated from friends, could benefit their mental health.

Non-athletic activities have also resumed in whatever format works best. Theater students have been preparing their one act play submission for competitions, and the department hopes to push back the musical to later in the spring. Students in activities, such as knowledge bowl, have participated in practices virtually.

By the middle to the end of February, Seifert said the administration will need to decide how to go about prom, which typically lands in April or early May. Discussions about graduation will start in March.

“We’re trying to make decisions for things four or five months down the road and we don’t know what the guidelines will be at that time,” Seifert said.

Thinking ahead to summer, one goal of the staff is to consider ways to make up for the broken instructional patterns that resulted from school closures. One option he mentioned involves enhanced summer school programming to support students who fell behind while navigating distance and hybrid learning.

Seifert also acknowledged that some students have realized they prefer distance learning over instruction in person, so the district plans to explore potential online options for those students.

“I think everybody’s goal is that now, as we come back, hopefully we don’t have to take a step backwards but can stay in this model,” Seifert said. “Ideally, when September 2021 comes around, we can go back to what is a normal educational setting.”

Cleveland

This year, Cleveland isn’t just opening up the school for hybrid learning, the district is also opening up new facilities.

Beginning on Thursday, Jan. 14, Cleveland Public Schools is planning to move grades Pre-K-3 back into in-person learning after two days of prep time for teachers on Monday and Tuesday. Grades 4-6 will be back at school on Monday, Jan. 18 and finally Grades 7-12 will enter the building on Monday Jan. 25.

Our goal is to get everybody back in-person and monitor things,” said Cleveland Superintendent Brian Phillips. “We’re hopeful that our numbers are low enough and we won’t be having to switch between in-person and hybrid learning. They need to be back and we’re comfortable at this point with what we’ve planned.”

Same as the other local districts, Cleveland resumed sports and activities Jan. 4 with the first competitions starting Jan. 14.

The Cleveland School District is also opening new facilities in the new year including new fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms, a STEM lab, biology lab, AgTech lab, teacher training lab, gym and weight room, locker rooms, cafeteria and kitchen and a larger band room.

Cleveland Public School constructed new additions to the school, including a new STEM Lab, Ag/Tech Lab, cafeteria, makerspace and additional classrooms. The infrastructure will be used for lessons to teach kids 21st century skills like creativity and collaboration. (File photo/southernminn.com)

These facilities were recently constructed and paid for with the passage of a $14.4 million referendum in 2018. New programming options including the makerspace, where students can explore problem-solving through play, and the expansion of robotics and addition of digital electronics classes.

However, the facilities will only be partially available to students at the start of the year since there is still work left to be done on the building.

”It is our hope that we’ll still get into it this school year and we’ve been assured that that will happen,” said Phillips. “But you know when they round construction you have to go through a punch list, and the punch list can take X amount of time depending on what you find and corrections that need to be made.”

Some of the areas that will be immediately available include the first floor, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms, the STEM Lab, art room, biology lab and new offices for the athletic director and counselor. These spaces have been prioritized to free up space in the rest of the building.

One thing that may not be on the agenda this year was a proposed increase to the district’s operating levy. In November, the district sought the approval of a levy increase that would have collected $100,000 in additional revenue. The School Board pursued the referendum to cover additional staffing costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was rejected by 62% of Cleveland district voters.

But with the potential for a new federal relief package on the horizon, Philips indicated that an operational levy increase may not be necessary.

”We were short $100,000 so if there’s another round to meet those expenses it probably won’t be necessary to go back to the voters and ask them for more money,” said Philips. “We just may look at a renewal of what we currently have or even a reduction if CARES funding is to a point. We’re not trying to make money off of this, we’re just trying to meet our needs.”


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YEAR AHEAD: Local governments prepare street reconstruction, economic development for 2021

Local governments have a whole slate of new projects hitting Le Sueur County in 2021. Major street repairs are taking place in Le Sueur and Le Center, downtown Le Sueur is undergoing a renovation, Cleveland’s improving its meter system, and Le Sueur County is seeing a staffing shakeup.

Here are some of the major projects and government business that Le Sueur County residents can expect in 2021.

Le Sueur

The upcoming year is expected to be a big one for infrastructure in Le Sueur with reconstruction on major roadways and the redevelopment of the downtown area.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

The city of Le Sueur has begun planning for a new reconstruction project on South Main Street and County Road 36 scheduled for 2022. (Carson Hughes/southrnminn.com)

In a joint effort with Le Sueur County, the city of Le Sueur recently began planning phases for the reconstruction of South Main Street. The project would stretch from South Main Street up to the intersection with Ferry Street, and Ferry Street into the intersection with South Fourth Street.

Construction on South Main Street, which is part of County Road 36, would begin in 2022, but planning will be conducted through 2021. A public open house and a public hearing on the project is scheduled for spring 2021 and the final design for the project would be approved in December 2021. Bids would be awarded in March 2022 and construction would run from April into October 2022.

According to preliminary estimates, the full cost of the project is expected to total $6 million. Upgrading utilities, which is expected to cost $2.5 million, would be covered by the city of Le Sueur while Le Sueur County would be on the hook to fund the remaining, covering $3.5 million in reconstruction costs.

One of the issues facing the end of South Main Street is a lack of full availability of sanitary sewer and water. The project would extend those utilities to turn South Main into a full service area.

In addition to the reconstruction on South Main Street, the project will result in the transfer of ownership of County Road 37 (Bridge Street, North Fourth Street and North Fifth Street) over to the City of Le Sueur.

That’s not the only facelift sections of Main Street will see this year. The reconnection of North and South Main Street is scheduled for completion by the end of the year, hopefully in time for Christmas on Main. Main Street has been separated since the Valley Green Square Mall was developed in the 1970’s, but with the reconnection the road will finally be able to host thru-traffic.

Le Sueur’s mall is also undergoing a redevelopment. By August 2021, developers Building Good Downtown LLC are hoping to transform the Valley Green Square Mall into Tiller + Main, a new shopping center and apartment complex.

The new layout would see stores on the second floor moved to the first floor as well as glass storefronts and a fresh facade facing the newly reconnected Main Street. The top level would be reserved for six studio apartments, five one-bedroom residential units and five two-bedroom units.

In another joint project with the county, the city of Le Sueur is finishing construction on the Hwy. 112/County Road 22 turnback project. The second phase of the street project includes reconstruction on the bottom half of the turnback leading into Le Sueur as well as reclamation and watermain and storm replacement on Commerce Street.

Beyond infrastructure projects, the city of Le Sueur is also putting some focus on parks and the Community Center. The Community Center had been closed for much of 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, causing the facility’s deficit to rise to $900,000. City staff expects to reduce the deficit to $545,000 with CARES Act dollars, but on top of the existing deficit, the city is still seeing reduced membership from the pandemic.

To keep costs down, the city closed the indoor pool at the Community Center for the year, but there’s still hope on the council that the city could find a way to reopen the indoor pool in the next year.

“We hope this 2021 year will be more normal,” said City Administrator Jasper Kruggel. “The only thing that’s not open is the indoor pool and there will be conversations, planning, public comment things of that nature to figure out what we want to do with that and dig deep into the financials of it.”

On top of the community center, the city of Le Sueur is planning to work on some potential additions and improvements to city parks listed in the Park Master Plan.

{p dir=”ltr”}”We’re looking at possibly doing more with the Parks Open Space and Trails plan and implementing some of that plan, maybe doing some fundraising for those amenities such as an inclusive playground,” said Kruggel. “We’ll know more about what we want to do after the council retreat.”

Le Center

Front and center on the city of Le Center’s agenda in the coming year is the completion of the 2020 street project. Half of the project has been completed in 2020, with the latter half expected to be finished in June 2021. In total, the $3.7 million project aims to repair 6,400 feet of road on the north side of Le Center with bituminous overlay, the replacement of utilities, water mains, sanitary sewers and storm sewers.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

The city Le Center has major projects coming up including the completion of the 2020 street project and a technological upgrade to city hall. The city is also discussing a potential increase to water rates. (Carson Hughes/Southernminn.com)

The streets include North Park Avenue between Tyrone Street and Sixth Street; Bowler Street from Park to Cordova Avenue; Spors Street from Park to Cordova; Montgomery Avenue; Waterville Avenue; and Sixth Street. The proposed improvements are expected to last more than 50 years.

The city is also adding new alarm systems and notices to water mains to help prevent flooding in case of heavy rain. Homes on Rolling Hills Drive were drenched in sewage on June after 6.5 inches of rainwater caused the city sewer system to overflow.

“There will be early warning, in case it happens in that seven inch rainfall the lift station will start pumping before our guys get to work,” said Le Center City Administrator Chris Collins. “It will send an alarm to some of our guys phones.”

The city is also pursuing a number of technology changes with the use of CARES Act funding. City staff are in the process of getting trained to use new laptops and set up a system to send out paperless city agendas. New technology is also coming to the bathrooms at Le Center parks in the form of touchless faucets, paper towel dispensers, soap dispensers and automatic light switches.

The city may also look to increase water rates in the upcoming year. Collins said that the balance has fallen “precariously low” over the years.

The money the fund balance accrued has really gone down because we aren’t taking any more money in them,” said Collins. Wages keep going up and cost of doing business goes up and we haven’t touched the rates.”

Cleveland

The Cleveland City Council is currently focused on replacing 300 water meters in the city with a new radio rad system to get a more accurate reading and raise revenues. (Photo courtesy of lakesnwoods.com)

In Cleveland, the City Council is just beginning a project to switch out the city water meters for a radio read water meter system. City Administrator Dan Evans said that many of the city’s current water meters have aged to the point that Cleveland is not getting accurate readings.

A new system has the potential to reduce meter errors and raise city revenues, said Evans. The project is in its infancy, so nothing has been finalized and no bid s have been accepted, but Evans estimated the project would cost $80,000 to replace 300 water meters.

County Government

2021 will be a light year for infrastructure in Le Sueur County. The main focuses of the county will be the joint projects it is working on with the city of Le Sueur: the completion of the 112 turnback project and the reconstruction of South Main Street.

The county may also take the year to prepare for an upcoming renovation to the east entryway of the Le Sueur County Courthouse off of Park Avenue. County Administrator Darrell Pettis estimated it may cost $1.5 million to reconstruct the stairs and parking lot outside the building and make it ADA accessible.

“The steps are literally falling off the courthouse. They’ve been rehabbed a couple of times and right now we only have one entryway that is handicap accessible,” said Pettis.

The earliest the building could undergo reconstruction is 2022.

In staffing, the county is seeing some major shakeups. County Administrator Pettis has submitted his letter of resignation to the county and will leave his post on Jan. 22. The Board of Commissioners have begun interviews with firms to assist in the hiring process for a new administrator.

The Commissioners have also outsourced the work of the Planning and Zoning Department to consultants from WSB Engineering. Planning and Zoning Administrator Joshua Mankowski resigned at the beginning of the month. The consultants have begun managing day-to-day operations and will provide the Board of Commissioners with recommendations to improve department procedures, best practices and the zoning code.


Abby Beer vaccine


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New local legislators get started; Akland regrets response to 'Storm the Capitol' attendance
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Though the balance of power in Minnesota Legislature remains divided between a Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate, the 2020 elections sent several new faces to the Capitol, including two freshmen lawmakers from Le Sueur and St. Peter. Sworn in for their first session on Jan. 5, District 20A Rep. Brian Pfarr, R-Le Sueur, and District 19A Rep. Susan Akland, R-St. Peter, are learning the ropes and setting their agendas for the new year.

For Akland, who attended a Storm the Capitol rally in her first week, which ran parallel to the Trump supporter break-in at the nation’s capitol, lessons have been learned quickly.

Akland, a retired registered nurse from St. Peter, said that her priority entering office was to find ways to reduce the costs of healthcare. The representive received requested positions on the Health Finance and Policy Committee as well as Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

“One of the big issues I’ve heard several times is the high cost of our insurance, our premiums and deductibles and the surprises that come with that sometimes,” said Akland. “I want to look at the whole of how people are paying out of pocket and how we can make it affordable and how we at the same time we can provide the high quality of care that we experience right now.”

Akland did not provide specifics on how she wanted to lower health care costs, saying that she would be listening to her constituents and to experts in the insurance field.

The St. Peter legislator was one of a few House Representatives to flip their seats in the last election, unseating incumbent Democratic Rep. Jeff Brand. Akland campaigned on resolving partisan divisions, but she was on the receiving end of criticism last week after her attendance at a rally in St. Paul protesting the certification of the election of President-elect Joe Biden.

The rally on Wednesday, Jan. 6 was billed as a “Storm the Capitol” rally where hundreds of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered at the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol to challenge the election. The rally was peaceful and there were no reported attempts to breach the Minnesota Capitol.

Akland was one of several state Republican lawmakers to speak at the event and became further embroiled in controversy after the Star Tribune reported that she told the crowd she was happy to see them unmasked.

Akland said that she regretted the response to her presence of the rally and that her words were taken out of context. The lawmaker said she was in support of mask-wearing and that her remarks were intended to be a comment on how she was happy to see people smiling.

“As a nurse, I’ve worn masks for many years,” said Akland. “They do help stop the spread of certain diseases, no doubt. So in the pandemic, it is absolutely necessary that we be cautious to protect ourselves and others. So when people say I’m ‘anti-mask,’ I’m not.”

The lawmaker also condemned the violence at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, when supporters of the president broke through police barricades and forced legislators to evacuate.

“I want to take steps to heal the divisiveness in our country,” said Akland. “Our actions matter and our words matter. I regret that my attendance at this event is viewed as furthering division. That was not my intent and it’s not the leader I plan to be for this district.”

When asked if she supported the protest against the election certification, Akland commented that it was a federal issue and that now that certification is complete “it’s time to move on.”

Questions of Akland at the rally may continue, though, as House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, indicated the House would launch an investigation into the actions of the representatives who attended the Minnesota rally.

“We have a situation where we have members of the Minnesota House of Representatives who gathered at a gathering called ‘Storm the Capitol’ while the United States Capitol was under assault,” Hortman said. “So, you can bet we will fully investigate and find out exactly what was said and done and whether any of that was worthy of prosecution.”

Six Republican House members were at that St. Paul rally, according to House Democrats: Reps. Akland, Steve Drazkowski, Mary Franson, Glenn Gruenhagen, Eric Lucero and Jeremy Munson.

Virtual start

Freshman lawmakers aren’t the only ones facing a learning curve in the 2021 House session. In reaction to the continued spread of COVID-19 and the resulting death of Sen. Jerry Relph last month, the House has limited in-person contact in the chambers, utilizing virtual meetings and shifting to a fingerprint activated voting system that allowing representatives to vote from their own offices.

“Training as a new legislator was different because everything is online via Zoom so it’s a new experience obviously,” said Pfarr. “I’m learning everyday the process but its new for the seniors who have been here for a while because of the way we’re conducting business.”

The Le Sueur native is entering office off the back of a career as the president of Le Sueur First Farmers and Merchants Bank and a National Guard Colonel and succeeding retired Rep. Bob Vogel (R-Elko New Market). Pfarr said that he wants to use his experience in banking to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, who was lauded by colleagues as a “master of numbers.”

“My predecessor Bob Vogel was noted for being the numbers guy and digging into the true cost of the bill and making sure that the numbers worked out and we weren’t overspending,” said Pfarr. “With my experience in finance I think I can be that person that helps there as well.”

The new legislator has been assigned to the Housing, Commerce and Judiciary Committees and said that he is developing his priorities by listening to his constituents. Pfarr signaled that his top priority will be the reducing the state’s projected long-term deficit.

The state of Minnesota is currently forecasted to have a $641 million surplus in June, but a $1.27 billion deficit for the next two-year budget according to the Department of Minnesota Management and Budget. Pfarr said he aims to cut the projected deficit without raising taxes.

“Every one of my constituents has to live within their means and I can’t pain them with the fact that the government has to do the same,” said Pfarr. “I think it’s very doable from what I’ve seen and not further burden the taxpayer and provide the services we’re providing.”

The new legislative session has been a transitional period not just for new lawmakers but some experienced ones as well

“Training as a new legislator was different, because everything is online, via Zoom, so it’s a new experience obviously,” Pfarr said. “I’m learning every day the process, but its new for the seniors who have been here for a while, because of the way we’re conducting business.”

The legislator said that he didn’t have any specifics on what he would cut at this point.

“I’m certainly a fan of looking at each individual area on its merits and what it provides for the citizens of Minnesota,” said Pfarr.


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