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University of Minnesota Extension Officer Shane Bugeja examines a lilac afflicted with pseudocercospora, a leaf spot fungus that stressed many Le Sueur County lilacs this summer. (Photo courtesy of Diane Bugeja)


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Community outbreak and staffing shortages push TCU into distance learning
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As COVID-19 cases in the community spike, Tri-City United students will be learning from home until next year.

A classroom at Tri-City United Lonsdale Elementary sits empty. Classrooms will remain vacant until at least mid-January, as the district shifts to distance learning. (File photo/southernminn.com)

At the Nov. 9 School Board meeting, the TCU administration announced a plan to move grades K-12 to distance learning. The school district’s hybrid learning model ended last week on Thursday, Nov. 12 for B group students and Friday, Nov. 13 for A group students. School was out on Monday, Nov. 16 and Tuesday, Nov. 17 to give teachers time to plan for distance learning beginning on Wednesday, Nov. 18. The district will remain in distance learning until at least Jan. 15, 2021.

The plan was debuted as Le Sueur County is reporting record numbers of COVID-19 cases daily. During the first week of November, Le Sueur County saw 121 new cases of the coronavirus. In those seven days, more cases were detected than in the entire month of September.

The communities in the county that are part of Tri-City United School district have been hit the hardest by the virus. Le Center and Montgomery lead the rest of the county in COVID-19 cases. In total, 186 cases, about 22% confirmed in Le Sueur County, were from Le Center.

Montgomery has reported 165 cases, the second highest amount in the county, making up 20% of confirmed cases.

Le Sueur County’s 14-day case rate, which informs safe learning models for schools, is at a record high in the past months. At its current rate of 33.23 cases per 10,000 people, the Minnesota Department of Health recommends a hybrid model for elementary students and distance learning model for secondary. From discussions with the Le Sueur County Department of Health, Superintendent Lonnie Seifert believed that cases could rise even further in the coming months.

Meanwhile, in Rice County, where Lonsdale is located, cases are also surging. In a Nov. 5 update from Rice County Public Health, the 14-day case rate was at 40.3, well above the recommended trigger point for distance learning.

Challenges

School resources are already being strained under the current model, said Seifert. There are six active coronavirus cases in the Tri-City United community and 119 students and staff have been in quarantine due to being in contact with a confirmed case. The quarantines have resulted in a staff shortage.

“It looked like today we were semi-distance learning,” said Seifert. “We had seven to eight teachers that were distance learning, because they couldn’t be in the building. Also in our support services … Mr. Johnson was helping serve lunch today in the high school, because we don’t have many food service people at the high school right now.”

The TCU School District is preparing for two months of distance learning after COVID-19 related quarantines have left the district short staffed. (File photo/southernminn.com)

The superintendent worried these problems may continue as the holidays approach. Many of the cases in the past week are being linked to Halloween by the Le Sueur County Department of Health, and major holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day could be opportunities for further spread. By staying in distance learning through January, the school would not have to move back and forth between models, said Seifert.

Not all students will have to distance learn. TCU plans to continue in-person instruction for special services students — which may include groups like special education students and English language learners — and pre-kindergarten students. Administration will assess more opportunities for in-person learning as the year continues.

Childcare services will continue to be provided for Tier I workers and district employees. Families requesting childcare services may also receive assistance depending on staffing availability.

The fall sports season, along with fall activities, such as robotics, speech and knowledge bowl, are planned to continue as normal. The Tri-City United fall musical will also be allowed to continue, but with some new limitations. The musical will be held on just one night and will be livestreamed to the community. Students may be given a select number of tickets to give to friends and family to attend in-person and a filmed version of the musical will be distributed for the students to keep.

But for the winter sports season, only varsity teams will play. Seifert said that this will allow for seniors to finish their seasons while limitations on participation would reduce the opportunity for the virus to spread. Each team would also have their own space for practices and games.

Community education and youth groups will still be allowed to use school facilities for classes and practices, but youth athletics will be prohibited from hosting tournaments at the school.

All of the school’s plans for athletics and activities may be subject to change as the year goes on.

“If we start seeing an increase in the participants having issues or our staff having issues that we can’t just do it anymore, we would have to shut it down,” said Seifert. “Because we can’t do that to our staff.”

The proposal drew praise from several School Board members.

“I just want to say I like this plan,” said Ashley Rosival. “I think it’s well thought out. I appreciate the administration putting in their two cents on it since they are the ones that will have to carry it out.”

“These aren’t easy decisions to be made,” said School board Chair Marsha Franek. “We’ll just move forward and hope to get these kids back in school soon.”


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Minnesota leads nation in census response; local communities keep the pace
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Minnesota leads the nation in voluntary self-responses to the 2020 Census. The high response rates are good news for a state on the verge of losing a seat in Congress. (AP)

The state of Minnesota is leading the nation in census outreach at a crucial time for the state’s reapportionment. And local communities contributed positively to the effort.

Data released by the United States Census showed that 75.1% of Minnesotans voluntarily responded to the census by phone, mail or online more than any other state. Minnesota’s voluntary response rate grew by 1% compared to the 2010 census and is seven points ahead of the 67% national average. Self-response in Minnesota also ran nearly three points ahead of Washington and Wisconsin, which held second and third place in voluntary response rates at 72.4% and 72.2% respectively.

High voluntary response rates were seen locally as well. In Le Sueur County, 74% of residents voluntarily responded, just below the state average, while Nicollet County saw an 81.6% response rate, well above state averages.

Local response rates are also well above the national averages. In Le Sueur County, Heidelberg led with an 88.2% response rate followed by Cleveland at 83.8%, Montgomery at 79.9%, Le Center at 79%, Le Sueur at 76.7% and Waterville at 71.7%. In Nicollet County, Cortland had an 89.2% response rate, North Mankato had 84%, New Um 79.4% and St. Peter 78%.

These high voluntary response rates are good news for the state of Minnesota, which has representation in Congress riding on the line this year. Minnesota could lose one representative in the U.S. House after the nationwide count is complete. The state is one of several in the Midwest, including Michigan and Illinois, that is projected to lose representation in 2020 because of major population growth in southern and western states, like Texas, Florida, Arizona and Colorado, which are poised to gain representatives.

A complete count isn’t just important for representation. Census data is used when federal and state governments distribute aid and grants to state and local governments and for federal programs like Medicaid and SNAP. It’s used in the private sector as well. Businesses use census data when moving into markets and expanding their operations.

“The Census Bureau has told us that they believe that for every person that is not counted, an undercount of a person, that can cost us $15,000 over the next decade,” said St. Peter City Administrator Todd Prafke.

Undercounts are most likely to occur with hard-to-reach populations, such as renters. A report from the U.S. Census Office estimates 8.5% of renters were undercounted in the 2010 census.

This has resulted in demographic groups that are more likely to live in rental units, including black and Latino populations, to be undercounted as well. Children ages 4 and younger were also undercounted in the last census by 1.7%

One hard-to-reach group specific to areas like Minnesota is snowbirds — people who reside in the state but head down south during the colder months of the year.

“In St. Peter, one of the things that’s important to us is making sure snowbirds are counted here,” said Prafke. “Lots of people look at this and think maybe it’s the Latino community being undercounted, maybe it’s teenagers, maybe it’s college kids, but what we found was two primary demographics: snowbirds and children under 5 years old. Families may not have counted those very young children, because they didn’t think they needed to, they weren’t in school yet.”

St. Peter is one of many communities that formed complete count committees to make the community aware of the census. The committee was staffed with volunteers who could reach out to groups within the community and promote the census on posters, social media and the city website.

But for other communities, COVID-19 interrupted those plans. The pandemic hit at the same time communities were beginning to assemble complete count committees and some, like Le Sueur County, declined to form committees. County Administrator Darrell Pettis said the county was too busy responding to the pandemic to put resources into promoting the census.

The city of Le Center had formed a complete count committee, but City Administrator Chris Collins said that the Census Office stopped responding to requests for training for the committee.

The pandemic has also put added pressure on the Census Bureau as deadlines shifted throughout the year. The count was originally supposed to stop at the end of July, but the pandemic shut down the bureau’s efforts to count in the spring. The Census Bureau moved their deadline to the end of October, but that was reversed by the Supreme Court. The court sided with the Trump administration on Oct. 13 to immediately halt the census count on Oct. 15.

The White House argued for an immediate end to the count so that the numbers could be reported by Dec. 31 — the congressionally mandated deadline for completing data to apportion House seats. However, activists have raised worries that the early deadline will undermine the accuracy of the census and undercount black and Latino populations, as well as Native Americans on reservations.


Le Sueur County will hold an open house and public hearing on a proposed half-cent tax increase intended to speed up road projects as state aid declines. (Le Sueur County News file photo)


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Montgomery woman charged with embezzling $200K
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A Montgomery woman is facing charges after being accused of stealing more than $245,000 from her employer.

Paula Marie Mills, 39, of Montgomery, has been charged with 11 counts of embezzlement between 2015 and 2020. The charges include three felony counts for embezzlement of more than $35,000, carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment and/or a $100,000 fine, four counts of felony embezzlement of more than $5,000, with a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment and/or a $20,000 fine, three counts of felony embezzlement between $1,000 and $5,000, carrying a max sentence of five years imprisonment and/or a $10,000 fine, and a gross misdemeanor for embezzlement between $500 and $1,000.

Mills is accused of amounts ranging from between $572 and $58,229 from her employer, Anderson Engineering Operations, through additional payroll paid to herself, personal charges on company credit cards, PayPal transactions and through bank accounts over various time periods within the past five years.

Police say that Anderson Engineering discovered various discrepancies in their financial records and held Mills responsible after an internal investigation. Mills reportedly resigned from the company after the investigation and admitted to the embezzlement. Results of the investigation were forwarded to the police, who obtained warrants to search three accounts related to Mills’ personal bank account.

According to the complaint, in a taped interview, Mills said that she worked her way up to become financial manager of the company and was responsible for accounts receivable and payable. She reportedly admitted that she used the company credit card for various purchases, including a lawn mower and a down payment for a cruise. She reported admitted to embezzling money through PayPal paying herself additional pay, beyond and above what she should have.

She reportedly said that she had intended on taking the money to cover her accounts and then pay it back, but it got worse each year.

Mills has an omnibus hearing scheduled in Le Sueur County District Court for Feb. 2, 2021.


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Le Sueur man charged with scamming locals out of $300K in farming equipment
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A Le Sueur salesman is accused of swindling his clients out of more than $300,000 worth of plows and other tiling equipment.

Kevin Ray Hewitt, age 60, of Montgomery, has been charged with eleven counts of theft by swindle and one count of theft by check. Hewitt is a salesman for DBA Hewitt Drainage Equipment, located in rural Le Sueur.

Police spoke with several people in the area who said they ordered Soil Max Company tiling equipment through Hewitt, but never received their purchases. Others reported giving their equipment to Hewitt for him to sell on consignment, but they never received their money back.

One area farmer told police that he ordered a Soil Max tile plow and accessories from Hewitt, totaling nearly $50,000 in June 2019. Hewitt allegedly promised it would be delivered in four to six weeks, but in the coming weeks and months, no plow ever came. The customer said he contacted Hewitt numerous times, and Hewitt promised that the equipment would be on its way after being manufactured. It wasn’t until January 2020, six months after the purchase, that the farmer said he was able to get in contact with Hewitt and request his money back.

One to two weeks later, Hewitt reportedly wrote out a check from his personal checking account to the customer, but when he went to the bank, the check was denied. The customer was told that Hewitt’s personal account didn’t have the funds to cover the check.

Many more clients had similar reported stories from working with Hewitt. One man told police that he made a $35,000 down payment on $70,600 worth of Soil Max equipment he ordered from Hewitt. Hewitt reportedly told him that the delivery would take four weeks, and when the customer called for updates, he was told that Soil Max was behind the production. Another client was told the same when he traded in a used tile spade and $22,000 to Hewitt in exchange for a new one. He said he tried to contact Hewitt several times, eventually confronting him in person. In response, Hewitt allegedly said that he had a truck load of tile plows waiting to be delivered.

But when police contacted Soil Max, they were reportedly told that Hewitt had allegedly swindled the company as well. The general manager told police that Hewitt ordered three tiling plows and accessories worth $70,300, which he sold to customers, but he never paid Soil Max back for the equipment.

Police determined through investigations into Hewitt’s accounts that several of the payments he received were deposited into his personal checking or farm accounts and were used to pay off his debts, rather than purchase the equipment he promised to clients.

Several people that gave equipment to Hewitt to be sold on consignment reported similar troubles. One man told police that he made a deal for Hewitt to sell his used Soil Max plow for between $28,000-$30,000. Police later determined that Hewitt sold the plow for $38,000, but when the client called for updates, Hewitt reportedly said that he was having trouble selling it and no one was interested in purchasing it. Hewitt reportedly kept all of the money from the sale.

A manager of a business in Hartland, Minnesota also told police that Hewitt failed to follow up on a consignment agreement. Hewitt reportedly told the manager that he could sell their 2017 Soil Max plow and replace it with a 2019 plow of the same make and model. But months later, the manager said he received no word from Hewitt and his attempts to contact Hewitt were unsuccessful. At one point, Hewitt reportedly answered the phone and told him the plow was ordered, but when the manager spoke with Soil Max, he was told that they were not accepting orders from Hewitt.

Police eventually made telephone contact with a customer who said they ordered a 2019 plow from Hewitt. Through comparing serial numbers, police determined that the plow the customer purchased for $35,000 was actually the 2017 plow that Hewitt took from the Hartland business. None of the funds from the consignment sale were delivered back to the manager.

Hewitt is scheduled for an omnibus hearing in Le Sueur County District Court on Dec. 15.