A debate that has split Le Center residents down the middle has reached its end.
On Tuesday, Feb. 11, the Le Center City Council voted 4-1 to continue operating the city recycling center and waste management service instead of hiring a private contractor to take care of both. The council also voted to open the recycling center for an additional day during the week and to pursue the purchase of a new garbage truck.
The issue on how to handle recycling and waste management in Le Center saw the community divided. At a public hearing in October, some of the town’s older residents expressed that it would be a lot cheaper for them to purchase blue bags from the city that they would only have to use once a month than to pay for a private pickup service. However, residents with family households pointed out that pickup from a private service would be much more convenient for them than having to schedule a time to visit the recycling center on Saturday mornings. For some, the inconvenience meant that their recyclables would pile up for weeks before they could find the time to visit the recycling center.
The council began considering a private service after Le Sueur County terminated its involvement with and funding for the Le Center recycling facility, in order to establish several county-wide recycling drop-offs in Waterville, Le Sueur, Le Center and Cleveland with the end goal of making recycling more accessible. These stations can be used by township residents as their primary drop-off, but city residents currently served by a recycling system are only allowed to use these stations for overflows. When the county withdrew its involvement with the Le Center recycling plant, it also withdrew a $27,000 annual subsidy, prompting the city to consider other options.
Mayor Josh Frederickson proposed that the city continue to operate waste management and recycling in the city, because it would cost residents half of what hiring a contractor would. At a January work session, the council estimated that continuing the current system would cost each household $116.55 annually over the next 20 years, hiring a contractor would cost $240 per household. Those figures included the estimated $250,000 it would cost the city to purchase a new garbage truck to continue city-run garbage pickup.
“If you take the emotional impact out of it, and you look strictly at the dollars and cents of what is best for each individual household in this town, the cheaper route is to keep doing what we’re doing,” said Frederickson.
In addition, Frederickson believed that adding an extra shift during the week to keep the recycling center open could address many residents’ complaints about the inconvenience of dropping off their recyclables. The new hours for the recycling center have yet to be determined.
The decision to continue with the city-run system has its own issues the city will need to address. Residents outside Le Center can no longer use the recycling center, since it is now fully city-run and city-funded but the city is still working to enforce this rule. The council is also deliberating whether or not to allow people outside of town to continue to purchase and use blue bags.
“All of those are definitely items that need to be addressed,” said Frederickson. “However, those are items we can work on over the next couple of months and develop a policy on this.”
Beyond cost, Frederickson asserted that the current system has the advantage of allowing residents to budget their waste management and recycling.
“Personally, I also like it because it gives each individual household the ability to budget on their own to determine what they need to do for garbage,” said Frederickson. “So if you’re a single person living at home, and you can get by with one blue bag a month for garbage, that’s only going to cost you about $8 per month for garbage. If you’re a family of four that goes through two bags of garbage a week, that’s obviously going to cost more, but I can budget for that versus being dinged for $20 a month, whether I use it or I don’t.”
Councilor Christian Harmeyer supported the measure as well and felt that the city-run system could do a better job of serving the whole community.
“I think, personally, with other areas in the city, like people living in apartments, it helps them figure out where they’re going to bring their garbage as well,” said Harmeyer. “I believe we’re helping this city in the long-term, and it helps with other little entities that people may not see, like the students that help out at the recycling center and the people that help with making the blue bags, and they’re part of this community too.”
Along with Harmeyer and Frederickson, councilors Collin Scott and Jennifer Weiers voted in favor of the measure. Nathan Hintz voted against. In a written statement he prepared for meeting, Councilor Scott said that none of the councilors had spoken with each other on how they would vote and that they were voting based on what they believed would be best for the city.
“As your elected officials, we are charged with making a decision to benefit the city of Le Center and not any one particular group in our town,” said Scott. “Councilors are going to make a decision to benefit all citizens in the next 20 years. Not everybody will be happy with the vote outcome and that is your right, but understand that just because you disagree does not make it wrong.”
While kids experiment with paints, colored pencils and clay in art classrooms across the country, Le Center Elementary teacher Aly Olsson is giving students a new type of supply to enhance creativity: the Chromebook.
At first glance, the Le Center Elementary art room may look like the typical classroom. It has tables for students to work, a color wheel on the wall and a wide palette of tools. But closer inspection reveals a space where kids, through the use of technology, learn art and design skills independently by working on their own creative projects.
It’s what Olsson calls choice-based and self-paced learning, and she’s looking to expand the program with the introduction of six new Chromebooks to the classroom. In December 2019, Olsson launched an online fundraising campaign on donorschoose.org to raise $1,691 and put this technology in the hands of her students.
Olsson sees a tremendous value in technology as an instructional tool and is using it to teach students before she even enters the classroom. Using “how-to” videos that she has uploaded to YouTube, Olsson reaches the near 500 kids she instructs daily with lessons guiding students on how to shade, mix paints, weave and more.
With those videos that students can access through six Chromebooks currently available in the classroom, students have the liberty to work in different areas of the classroom on different skills. The class has stations for drawing, painting, collage, sculpture, clay, printmaking and fibers. Rather than all students sticking to one lesson plan, they can choose which parts of the curriculum they want to start with and can use Olsson’s videos as a reference to learn at their own pace.
“The kids just respond to (the videos) really well, and it gets onto their level — where they’re at and what they’re used to — and it just pulls them in,” said Olsson. “It has been really beneficial for our students; they just love it.”
With six more Chromebooks, the art room would have access to approximately one Chromebook for every two students in a classroom. Having those Chromebooks means that students would have greater access to Olsson’s videos, which would allow for more independent and choice-based learning.
When Olsson first came to Le Center Elementary in 2017, her teaching methods were far more traditional, but after seeing students inspired when given control over their own learning, she became a quick advocate of giving her students a flexible learning environment to create.
“When you were in an art class in elementary school, the teacher would show you what you’re doing and we would all do it together,” said Olsson. “Say we’re painting a picture of an owl; everyone is painting a picture of an owl. There might be some choice, as far as color goes and things like that, but adding choice to my curriculum and making that the center, I’ve noticed that kids get excited, and this is their favorite.
She continued, “Allowing for choice, the kids feel like they can take control of what they want to create, and I think the creative side of their brain is more challenged when it comes to choice, because no one is telling them what to do, and so much of their school day is following directions. Play is a really important part of growing up, and your brain development and choice has just opened up a lot of doors.”
The teaching style has also helped Olsson get more in touch with her students.
“I know so much more about my students than I ever have, because once you switch to choice you know what they like and what they enjoy doing,” said Olsson. “I feel like I have more time to have one-on-one conversations with them because I’m not up there directing the class to do one thing. Not every kid wants to learn how to draw the same thing. They have such vast interests, and the only way I can hit all that is by allowing them to explore that themselves.”
Beyond choice-based learning, Olsson sees the Chromebooks helping students learn technological literacy, which she views as increasingly important for all kinds of career paths, including artistic careers like graphic design, architecture and marketing. They can also be used for engaging students in lessons like observational drawing.
“Today I had a first-grader looking up pictures of Mario and he wanted to draw Mario,” said Olsson. “He took his picture and put it right here and on his paper he was looking at different shapes that you have, following the outlines, following the shapes to create his own drawing. We definitely are already using the devices in that way for observational drawing and expanding our ideas.”
So far, 12 donors have contributed to Olsson’s fundraiser and the campaign is just $481 away from reaching its goal before it ends on April 11. The fundraiser can be found at www.donorschoose.org/classroom/7018417.
“I’ve gotten so many generous donations from our community members which has been really great,” said Olsson. “I appreciate any support that comes our way.”
Major questions surrounding the costs of building a new elementary school, and where, hung in the air when the facility task force made its final recommendation to the School Board. Now, the Le Sueur-Henderson School Board is looking for those answers with the help of a private consultant.
On Monday, Feb. 10, the Le Sueur-Henderson School board interviewed RA Morton Construction Managers, the first of a few firms bidding to advise the School Board on the referendum. As a construction manager, RA Morton would assist the school board in pre-referendum planning, estimating the costs for referendum project ideas, coordinating a competitive bid process among construction firms and managing the construction process.
This isn’t the first time Le Sueur-Henderson has sought out RA Morton’s help. More than 10 years ago, the firm helped Le Sueur-Henderson in the building and construction phases of the $18.6 million Le Sueur-Henderson Middle/High School remodeling and reconstruction, which added the second gymnasium, auditorium and choir and band room. Their work received a glowing review from former Superintendent David A. Johnson in 2007, who praised them for increasing the scope of the project while keeping the additions within the project schedule.
Preston Eurule, President of RA Morton Construction Managers, came to the LS-H School Board with a motto of “Right from the start,” emphasizing that the firm’s aim was to get the referendum passed on the first try. The firm has worked with 20 nearby school districts on pre-referendum planning and in the past three years has serviced Murray County Central, GFW, Masabi East, Kenyon-Wanamingo, Eden Valley Watkins, Pierz, Renville County West, Barnesville, Chatfield, and Springfield.
Currently, the direction the School Board will take the referendum in is still unclear. Right now, the board is considering three options and is working with a general range of where they would like the cost to be (approximately $35-45 million), based on what the facility task force has recommended. However, factors like how much it would cost to operate three schools versus two schools in the district, and what land would be suitable for a new school building, are still unknown.
The question of where the public stands and what referendum proposal could pass on the ballot is also uncertain.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but I think we’re feeling a little lost in the woods, and what we really need is to put tangibles on these things,” said School Board Chair Brigid Tuck.
Eurule told the School Board that they could answer those questions by reaching out to architects, construction firms and putting together an itemized budget estimate for the proposals the School Board is considering as well as additional proposals that may be brought up during the process. The RA Morton President recommended that the first thing the School Board should do is take a second look at the costs and feasibility of what district wants to do.
“I think you want to bring your team together, all your stakeholders,” said Eurule. “That would include your construction manager, the architects, the engineers, the financial advisers, bringing all of us together so that we can take the information that you’ve already developed and reevaluate it.”
“I can honestly say, looking at your presentations the costs seem high to me, especially compared to what we’re able to do,” Eurule continued. “Now maybe you have a different design intent, maybe there’s a reason for that.”
Eurule also stressed that the board would need to consider the responses to the community survey. The district sent out a survey to the community in June 2019, which found that 60% of Le Sueur residents and 29% of Henderson residents favored upgrading Park Elementary’s utilities and closing Hilltop for an estimated $17.1 million.
The facility task force went in a different direction; 86% supported a district with three schools by building a new K-3 Park Elementary in Le Sueur and upgrading Hilltop as a 4-5 school; 64% supported closing both elementary schools in favor of one new K-5 school. Some of those would be overlapping.
“It can be dangerous to go a completely different direction from what the survey says,” said Eurule. “It is a lot more efficient to highlight back to the survey and say we listened, we heard what you said, here’s how we address that. I think there’s not quite an alignment between what your survey says and what some of the options are, or at least some of the detail in the options.”
RA Morton’s services would cost the district up to $10,000 up front. That price could be negotiated lower depending on the extent of RA Morton’s pre-referendum services. There would also be no fee paid to RA Morton if the referendum fails.
If the referendum passes, RA Morton would charge a $35,000 fixed fee for services during the design phase of the project, another $35,000 fee during the bidding phase, a $23,000 fee during the post construction phase and $13,000 per month for construction management and $16,625 per month for site supervision. All of those costs would be factored into the referendum amount.
Up to this point, the School Board has received pre-referendum services from Unesco, which assisted the board on the community survey and facility task force. Superintendent Johnson has stated previously that the board may choose to continue its relationship with Unesco, but that the board will also be looking at other interested firms in February to determine which company would be the best fit. The goal is for the board to start holding community meetings in the spring for a potential August referendum.