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Hardy Robert Wills-Traxler

LS-H students bring fantasy to the classroom with Dungeons and Dragons Club
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Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

LS-H dungeon master Joey Burgess sets the scene of a castle hallway lined with doors, each one containing a surprise for the players from an ocean to a volcano. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)

While some students spend their after school hours in the basketball court or in the choir room, these Le Sueur-Henderson students are hunting treasure, slaying orcs and roaming mysterious locales.

The adventure is happening in Le Sueur-Henderson’s Dungeons and Dragons Club, an after school guild where students play the popular fantasy tabletop role-playing game. The club is enjoying its second year at LS-H after a group of students led by 17-year-old Joey Burgess organized the group.

Dungeons and Dragons offers a unique level of freedom to its players. The story of the game, the locations players travel to and the enemies they fight are plotted out by the group’s dungeon master, who acts as a narrator giving players a sense of their surroundings.

“I can be really nice or really mean. It all depends on the story,” said Burgess, who acts as the group’s dungeon master. “If people are getting overwhelmed, I’ll start going meaner, and if people are a lot quieter, I’ll be more generous, because they’re not interacting as much.”

The players each have their own characters that they’ve created, each with a unique set of skills such as strength, which measures how powerful one’s character is, and dexterity, which measures a character’s reflexes, balance, and agility. With these skills, players can overcome the obstacles the dungeon master puts in front of them and fight battles.

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

Ryan Perolil rolls a 20-sided die to check his barbarian’s dexterity, allowing him to throw a torch into a dark pit. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)

“I really like the freedom to just do whatever you want as long as the dungeon master lets you,” said Ryan Perolil who plays as a figther-class totem barbarian.

The game also requires a little bit of luck. With every action a player takes, whether it’s swinging a sword, scaling a cliff or bargaining for a cheap price on some potions, they must roll a 20-sided die. The higher the number, the more likely they are to succeed. But a low number could put the player in danger.

“Getting a natural 20 on command is one of the greatest things possible,” said Steven Hess, who plays as bard-class dwarf farmer. “I did it once and felt really good.”

The club meets twice a week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to play through a main story and a side story scripted ahead of time by Burgess. The dungeon master said he couldn’t share much about the story without giving away spoilers, but said that both stories were connected in ways the players would soon discover.

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

Steven Hess breaks out the Dungeons and Dragons to see if he can cast a healing spell on fellow adventurer Ryan Perolil, who lost his arm to lava spurting from a volcano. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)

When the club met for the side story on March 30, the group had just finished fighting a giant statue and were preparing to enter a magic castle with a hallway full of mysterious doors. Burgess set the scene for Perolil and Hess as they encountered a sea monster in one room and a pit of darkness in another.

“I love seeing people’s reactions,” said Burgess. “Having people laugh over funny mistakes or funny wins and honestly getting a natural 20 or a natural one.”

With around 8-10 students that regularly participate, the Dungeons and Dragons Club has found an active player base at Le Sueur-Henderson. Through distance learning, the club found ways to play over Zoom and now that they’re back in school, the club sees distance learners come to school after class just to play and even had a student from TCU join in on the fun.

“It’s neat, because Joey is so darn smart and creative, and he makes all these cool storylines, so it’s really fun,” said Supervisor Jen Hovick. “Just to see students that might not be involved in after school activities find something that they enjoy, seeing them smiling and having fun is great, too.”

Racial bias by city, counties and state alleged in former Somali daycare owner's lawsuit
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A Faribault businessman is suing Rice and Le Sueur counties, the city of Faribault and Steele and Waseca counties’ Human Services agency, alleging racial bias influenced an investigation of his former daycare center’s record keeping and led to unsubstantiated charges he’d defrauded the state of Minnesota.

Abdullahi Ali Hussein believed he was living the American dream.

At 20, he left his native Somalia for America. Six years later, he was swearing an oath of allegiance to the U.S.

By 2012, Hussein was a Faribault business owner, operating Lyndale Halal Market and buying Kids Avenue Learning Center, which he renamed Hyatt Daycare. The daycare was so successful that in 2016 he was operating a Minnesota Department of Education Early Head Start program out of the center and it became four-star rated. He joined the city’s Chamber of Commerce and took a seat on its board.

But that dream was short-lived. Hussein can pinpoint its end almost to the minute — shortly after 6 a.m. Oct. 5, 2017 — that’s when officials from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Rice County and the Faribault Police Department first knocked on his door, serving a warrant to search his daycare center.

In the lawsuit filed late last month in U.S. District Court, Hussein alleges that the city of Faribault; Rice, Ramsey and Le Sueur counties; Minnesota Prairie County Alliance and DHS targeted his business solely because of his race and its reliance on public assistance benefits. The business, he says, was surveilled by investigators and a camera was placed across the street from the center to try and catch him taking in fewer children than he was reporting in attendance.

According to law enforcement, a MnPrairie fraud prevention investigator noticed irregularities in Hyatt’s billing and approached Faribault police about the alleged deceit. MnPrairie serves as the Human Services department for Steele, Waseca and Dodge counties.

Hussein says the allegations were part of a statewide pattern in which Somali-owned childcare centers receiving state assistance were singled out and investigated. The following spring, a Minnesota Department of Human Services employee told state legislators that Somali daycare operators throughout Minnesota were defrauding the state and sending millions to fund terrorists overseas.

While the State Auditor couldn’t substantiate the claims, its report, released in March 2019, came too late for Hussein, who by then was dealing with criminal charges later dismissed almost out of hand by a Rice County judge.

Authorities, in the October 2017 search warrant, wrote that over a four-day period that July, State Bureau of Investigation agents found Hyatt Daycare over billed area Human Services departments for 63 children living in Rice, Le Sueur and Steele, defrauding the state of at least $1,500.

At the time, authorities said they suspected that was the tip of the iceberg.

Hussein alleges that the Human Services departments in Rice, Le Sueur and Ramsey counties and MnPrairie quickly revoked Hyatt’s participation in the state’s Child Care Assistance Program, which reimburses child care centers for caring for qualifying low-income children. Less than two days after the search warrant was executed, Hussein says his business was on life support.

Because 95% of the center’s clients were enrolled in the state assistance program, their parents withdrew them from Hyatt and found other providers.

According to the lawsuit, none of the defendants reviewed evidence taken during the search before revoking Hyatt’s Child Care Assistance Program authorization. An appeal wasn’t permitted, he says he was told by DHS.

“Defendants knew that revoking Hyatt Daycare’s ability to participate in CCAP would effectively cause Hyatt Daycare to close,” according to Hussein’s court filing.

He alleges that the revocation was planned, agreed to prior to the law enforcement’s search and that it was racially motivated with the intent to shut Hyatt down.

By the end of October 2017, Hussein issued a statement to the Faribault Daily News which read in part that “any claims of manipulation are simply false.”

In July 2018, Rice County prosecutors charged Hussein with fraudulently over billing the state for child care by $5,265 in July 2017.

In April of the following year, Minnesota District Court Judge Christine Long dismissed the case for lack of probable cause, finding documentation from investigators rife with problems: missing records, poor quality surveillance video, records that didn’t specify the children attending and absent, and investigator errors and omissions.

The judge also noted that while some children were marked present when they were absent, the opposite was also true.

“The reasonable inference is that the parents or the teachers erred in recording the attendance, not that the defendant intentionally defrauded the [Child Care Assistance Program],” she wrote, latter adding that “When the state’s evidence is so lacking that there is not even probable cause to support certain elements of the charged crime, the defendant should not have to defend against the charge.”

Hussein is seeking a jury trial and an unspecified monetary award.

Each of the six defendants has 21 days to file a response with the court.

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Some art students chose to use the Art Night to catch up on their own art projects. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

LS-H School Board holds off on proposed budget cuts
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Facing a hefty deficit, the LS-H School Board is considering closing Henderson’s Hilltop Elementary, but a new Finance Committee recommendation would push that decision off until next year. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Amid a $700,000 deficit, the Le Sueur-Henderson School Board is facing a decision to make deep cuts to the school budget, either through closing Hilltop Elementary School or cutting teaching staff. But on the recommendation of the Finance Committee, the School Board voted unanimously to delay a decision on the proposed cuts until next school year.

The School Board chose to keep Hilltop open through the 2021-2022 school year but will lay groundwork to make a decision in 2022-23. They also voted for staff not to be cut in the upcoming school year.

The recommendation was made to give the community a chance to share their views on closing Hilltop, said Superintendent Marlene Johnson. This year’s upcoming facilities referendum could also affect what happens to the elementary school.

“We’ve been studying it, but our stakeholders really haven’t had a lot of opportunity for feedback or input,” said Johnson. “So they possibly want to take a year and do a little more study on what would be best to do there and possibly tie it into the referendum analysis.”

Small class sizes

Cutting teaching staff was also undesirable to the Finance Committee. The current proposal to cut teachers would result in the reduction of a second-grade, third-grade, fourth-grade and fifth-grade teacher. Combined, these measures would save $204,000 but would raise class sizes by up to 50%. The average second-grade class size would jump from 18 students to 25. Third-grade classes would rise from 20 students to 26. Fourth and fifth-grade classes would see the biggest changes, leaping from 21 students to 30 and 32 students respectively.

On top of staffing cuts, the proposal includes the same $51,000 cut to TOSA curriculum in the first proposal. It would also remove the course for American Sign Language, saving $20,000.

Johnson said that the school district prides itself on smaller class sizes, prompting the Finance Committee to look for another avenue to address the deficit.

Any deficits that aren’t addressed this year will be rolled over into next year’s budget, but a one-time windfall from the federal government is releasing some of the pressure on the district to make large cuts. Le Sueur-Henderson Finance Manager Ky Battern said the district is eligible for $395,000 in ESSER II funding under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act enacted last December.

“That will give them some breathing room and time to analyze it a little bit more, find possible other avenues or resources, so it doesn’t impact the classroom,” said Johnson.

But the ESSER II funding doesn’t save the district from its debts in the long-term. The relief dollars are one-time funding, but the shrinking class sizes remain a problem for the district’s budget.

Revenues for the district have dried up as the school loses students. Incoming kindergarten classes have too few students to offset the graduating senior classes and the district continues to see a net loss in students enrolling in/out of the district. Since the 2018-19 school year, the district has lost 88 students, a whopping 8.6% of total enrollment.

With fewer students comes fewer state dollars. Roughly 80% of Le Sueur-Henderson’s funding comes from state aid, which contributes $6,567 per student. Losing 88 students amounts to a $578,000 loss for the district.

But Superintendent Johnson suggested that the School District may find new ways to increase student enrollment in the next year with the assistance of incoming Superintendent Jim Wagner and new School Board members.

“There’s new leadership on the board and there’s new leadership coming in,” said Johnson. “There might be new ideas on how to gain more revenues for the district and possibly gain more students in the district, so they want to hold off on that to analyze that as well.

Smaller cuts

While the School Board voted against closing Hilltop or cutting staff for the upcoming school year,  they did approve several smaller budget cuts recommended for 2021-22. This includes:

Cutting the payroll position and reassign duties to the business manager, saving $35,000

Funding repairs out of the long term facilities maintenance budget, saving $34,000 in the general fund

Cutting the utility budget by $40,000

Removing $120,000 in Transportation costs through hiring a new bus service

Reimbursing the tech budget through the E-rate program to save $45,000

Reducing tech repair and maintenance by $4,000

In total, the estimated dollars saved would amount to $278,000. Combined with the ESSER II funding, the district could this year’s deficit by $673,000, leaving roughly $27,000 in debt rolled into next year.