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With the Le Sueur outdoor community pool closed until late June, private backyard pools have soared in the community. With the increase in pools, the city of Le Sueur has implemented a permitting process for temporary and permanent pools. (File photo)

Artists with developmental disabilities, mental health conditions create public art gallery
Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Maddy Roemhildt-Herda shows off her painting and clay bowls made in workshops at Alee Services. Her artwork and those of her classmates are on display at the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center from July 1-11. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News

After several months of work and patience, 20-year old Maddy Roemhildt-Herda, of Le Center, was given an opportunity many people her age do not — to have her own art displayed in a gallery for the whole community to see.

Through a partnership between Alee Services and the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center, Roemhildt-Herda and a class of approximately 15-20 clients with developmental disabilities and/or mental health conditions at Alee will have their works shown at the Heritage Center from July 1-11.

The gallery — open to the public between 2-5 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and 9 a.m.-noon on Saturday, July 11 — features dozens of paintings and clay sculptures by Alee clients. These artworks were created in workshops led by retired TCU art teacher and Arts and Heritage Center Board member Maureen Gunderson over February and March, which clients signed up for.

The first class in February was a paint and sip session. During the session, Gunderson led students in painting a scene of a sunset over a lake. Those scenes now hang on the walls of the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

These paintings of a sunset by clients at Alee Services show how many ways a single scene can be interpreted. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

It was fun to do the painting because everyone got the same directions, but were encouraged to do it however they wanted,” said Gunderson. “It was fun to see about 15 different interpretations of the same painting. And it was totally from scratch. They were all very proud of their paintings and that’s what makes it extra special.”

“I think for the most part they all enjoyed painting,” said Rose Weyl, Activity Coordinator of Alee Services. “It was a challenge for some, but the way Maureen teaches it is very manageable.”

The second session was even more popular than the first. In March, Gunderson held a pottery session, teaching clients to use the pinch and coil method to create clay sculptures. Students showed their creativity with pots, bowls as well as animal sculptures.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Clients at Alee Services practiced pinch and coil pottery to create these sculptures. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

Working with clay was Roemhildt-Herda’s favorite activity between the two. Having some experience under her belt with pottery from high school, she created two bowls — one with a turquoise coloring and the other with a heart-pattern.

Roemhildt-Herda said that she was excited for people to see her art at the gallery. She wasn’t the only one. Some students were so enthusiastic that they submitted paintings and drawings they had created outside of the workshops as well.

“I think that they had a strong interest,” said Gunderson. “Not all of the clients participated, but they could sign up if they wanted … A lot of the people did do that and the same was true for the pottery and I think more people signed up for the pottery.”

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

These drawings were created by a client at Alee Services outside of the regular workshops. The sketches depict a wide variety of beasts and monsters. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

The gallery is an exciting event for staff as well. For Gunderson, these work sessions were the first time she had seen some of her former students since retirement.

It’s also a first for Alee Services. The Waseca-based service provider assists person with developmental disabilities and mental health conditions through in-home family support, independent and semi-independent living skills training, supported living services for adults and respite care, but partnering with an art gallery is a wholly new experience. The gallery proved to be a good opportunity for Alee to pursue its goal of building life skills for those in need of special services.

“We work with people to build life skills, adults and children with developmental disabilities and mental health issues,” said Weyl. “Alee means going forward so we hope that people will go forward.”

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Kathy Russell proved herself an avid painter with these pictures. The artist and client at Alee Services painted and submitted several more works outside of the painting workshop. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

With participation in the workshops and gallery being a huge success, Weyl and Gunderson looked forward to doing a similar event in the future.

“No matter your skill level, everyone can be successful,” said Gunderson.

Community banks provide local businesses with millions in PPP loans

With tightening coffers amidst economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of small businesses across the country and in Minnesota raced for relief last April with the launch of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). But for many small businesses, there was only one place they could receive those loans: community banks.

PPP loans were first administered by the Small Business Administration following the passage of the CARES Act. The funds are designed to assist small businesses struggling with keeping their current level of staff through the pandemic by covering employee expenses including payroll costs, vacation, parental, family, medical, and sick leave.

Demand skyrocketed. By June 27, more than 79% of small businesses in Minnesota had applied for and more than 77% received PPP loans according to the US Census Small Business Survey.

Those loans have left a large mark on local communities, such as St. Peter, Kasota, Le Sueur, Le Center, Cleveland, Henderson and more. Mike Bresnahan, President and CEO of First National Bank Minnesota said in June that the bank had approved $16.7 million in loans for 258 businesses in Nicollet, Blue Earth, Le Sueur, Scott, Carver, and Sibley counties. Around 44% of those PPP loans were provided to small businesses that could not otherwise access PPP funding through their large bank or credit union relationship.

Community banks have played an important role in delivering PPP loans to small businesses. Shortly after the launch of the program, the SBA application portal and the portals for many large national banks continued to crash. Community banks picked up a significant portion of applicants who couldn’t seek loans anywhere else.

The SBA reported that 60% of PPP loans were delivered by community banks during the first wave. Nationally, banks under $1 billion — a group that represents just 6 percent of all banking assets — provided their communities with nearly 20% of first-round PPP loan dollars.

“Community banks are coming out the heroes of the program in terms of coming online to serve their local economies, for responsiveness to borrowers, and for the number of loans [relative to their size],” said Brian McDonald, the Acting SBA District Director for Minnesota. “Small businesses are benefiting from Minnesota’s strong community banking sector and the lenders who are putting in long hours and submitting record quantities of SBA loans to help shore up their local economies.”

The PPP loans from First National Bank Minnesota alone have the potential to support thousands of jobs. The bank has four locations in St. Peter, Gaylord, Mankato and Belle Plaine. The St. Peter location has provided 50 loans worth $1.5 million, Gaylord has provided 18 worth $300,000, Mankato has delivered 88 worth $10.5 million, while Belle Plaine has supplied $4.5 million between 95 different loans. In the St. Peter area, Bresnahan estimated that between 500-700 jobs were retained because of the loans.

Bresnahan stated that community banks were more successful at providing PPP loans than larger banks and credits during the first wave, because smaller banks were less reliant on automated technology.

“Very large banks are heavily dependent on automation and those sorts of things, trying to do as much as they can,” said Bresnahan. “The community bank model, while they use technology, really have a boots on the ground mentality where we meet our customers face-to-face. So I think the community bank model was set up better to deal with the continual changes with the program.”

Technical issues plagued both the first and second wave rollout of PPP loans. The speed at which small businesses could apply also played a key role in being approved early on. In less than two weeks during the initial wave of PPP loans, the $349 billion reserved for small business relief had evaporated and loans were distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“We had a pretty good indication that the first initial wave of funds were going to go quickly, so our staff contacted quite a few of their business clients and got them signed up,” said Bresnahan. “During the first week, I would say we were working evenings and over the weekend when it first came out.”

PPP loans have slowed down significantly since then and the June 30 deadline for loans has passed. But the deadline may be extended further. The House and Senate have passed an extension through Aug. 8 and is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump.

While most small businesses have applied for and received PPP loans, there are many that are still hesitant to take them up. Loan forgiveness requirements, such as the requirement that 75% of the loan be spent on payroll, have deterred some businesses from seeking funds.

“Bars and restaurants and some of these businesses that have been shut down, they’re the ones I think that are a little apprehensive about whether they are going to take these funds,” said Brasnahan. “They’re concerned they might not meet the criteria for full forgiveness.”

Cleveland native Eric Stocker races his 3.2% sport compact car at Arlington Raceway. Racing side by side with him is Tim Senne (21s) of North Mankato.

Local schools look to create more educators, diversify workforce with new classes


Class sizes are growing and becoming more diverse, but teachers, especially teachers of color, are getting harder and harder to find in Minnesota.

But now, new classes are coming to local schools, including Tri-City United, Le Sueur-Henderson, Faribault, Owatonna, Waseca and more, which aim to help students pursue a career in education and encourage young students of color to consider teaching as a profession. It’s a new approach in trying to grow a teacher field, both in diversity and in general.

Grow Your Own

The new curriculum is being made possible from a competitive grant through a state program called Grow Your Own. In partnership with Minnesota State University, Mankato, eight school districts (Le Sueur-Henderson, Tri-City United, St. Peter, Waseca, Faribault, Owatonna, Mankato and Centennial) received $376,000 from the MDE to offer a new class to high school students.

The class, titled Exploring Careers in Education, is a college-level class that will be offered to high school students next year. Within the course, students will not just learn about teaching but a variety of careers in education. Students can earn three college credits transferable to MNSU and also receive hands-on experience.

“Our classes will have something like a student teaching experience,” said Le Sueur-Henderson Middle/High School Principal Brian Thorstad. “When someone is in college, they get to go out and student teach and have that experience. We look forward to offering those types of experiences on a smaller scale.”

Unlike the other districts, Owatonna will be using grant monies to pilot a different course: Introduction to Critical Race Theory in Education. Because the district already has an Intro to Education course, Critical Race Theory was selected as a class that could increase Owatonna’s education career-based offerings. Like the other course, this class will be implemented in cooperation with MNSU and will be worth three college credits.

School districts hope that these classes will create a student-to-teacher pipeline. By offering college credit to high school students, the program intends to give local students a head start at earning their teacher’s license. Creating educational experiences locally may also lead students, particularly students of color, to consider teaching in their communities.

“It’s to recognize that there are viable opportunities for their future careers right here in our community,” said former TCU Superintendent Teri Preisler. “Just like we’ve been doing job shadows and partnerships with our skill trade employers and health services. It’s for students in the educational pathway to explore and experience education as a career and they may then consider coming back into our area … If we are able to attract them to come back at some point to the communities of Tri-City United, that’s a thriving win for everyone.”

Pipeline programs like Grow Your Own have seen significant success in Minnesota. In a 2019 report from the Minnesota Department of Education, 17% of school districts surveyed reported that pipeline programs made a big difference in their efforts to recruit standard licensed teachers, while another 70% said it made some or a slight difference.

Teaching shortages

Finding effective strategies to recruit and retain teachers is becoming more important than ever for schools in Minnesota. More than half of Minnesota schools districts in 2019 reported that they have been receiving significantly less applications and more than 40% see it as a major problem.

“Sometimes you’re not able to fill a position with someone who has all of their licensures, so you need to use variances or work through pathways or other means of licensure,” said Preisler. “We have a reduced pool and you got to move very quickly and sometimes you just want to make sure you have a pool of a size that garners the highest possible quality candidates. We have been fortunate to find high-quality candidates for our positions, but it’s getting harder.”

Preisler mentioned that one of the challenges with recruiting teachers is that public schools often have limited budgets to work with. A district that is reliant on mostly on state aid, as well as an operating levy, has to balance its funding while offering a competitive salary and benefits.

One cause of the shortage is that many qualified teachers simply aren’t teaching. The MDE found that in 2019, more than half of teachers with an active license (52%) were not working in Minnesota public schools.

Shortages also limit the availability of teachers with specialized skills. More than 10% of teachers specializing in subjects like hospitality service, careers like transportation, medicine and manufacturing, computer science, theater and dance, autism, as well as languages, like Chinese, Arabic, Latin and Hmong, are teaching under special permission or out of compliance.

“The number of applicants for each position really depends on what teaching position is posted, some positions get more applicants than others,” said Thorstad.

The Le Sueur-Henderson principal said that while candidate pools have been smaller, in the year since he started his position, the school has been able to find high quality candidates.

“I think, overall, we always want the largest candidate pool possible so that we can select the best of the best from the candidate pool to go through our interview process,” said Thorstad. “Ultimately, that’s what positively impacts students the most is hiring the best of the best to be teachers.”

Teacher diversity

Another goal of the Grow Your Own program is to help more students of color pursue careers as educators. Diversity in teaching remains a major issue all across Minnesota, with student bodies being far more diverse than their teachers.

Between all the MEP districts, 24% of the student body come from diverse backgrounds, while just 2.7% of teaching staff are non-white. At LS-H, 20% of students are non-white, compared to 6.5% of teachers. About 19% of TCU’s student population is non-white, while just 1.3% of TCU teachers are.

“Teachers of color matter for all students, especially students of color,” said Anne Marie Leland, Community Education Director for Faribault Public Schools and the grant writer on behalf od MEP. “Over the last decade, studies have shown the benefits of having teachers of color and the positive impact on students’ academic performance, graduation rates, social and emotional well-being and more students of color indicating their desire to attend and be successful in college.”

But school districts all across Minnesota have found difficulties in recruiting teachers of color. Just 4.2% of teachers in Minnesota are from diverse backgrounds. While classes have grown more diverse, the number of teachers of color in Minnesota has remained stagnant.

Grow Your Own aims to increase the number of people of color pursuing education by giving them an early pathway.

“The conversation that we’re having now and around equity, this is one significant step forward for these eight districts and Mankato in partnership for our students of color,” said Leland.

An MDE survey found that a larger share (9%) of school districts that implemented pipeline programs saw big differences in hiring people of color compared to school districts employing financial incentives, competitive salaries and posting position offerings outside their local areas. About 40% of school districts with pipeline programs reported some or a slight difference in recruitment, but 50% have seen no differences at all.


Retaining teachers of color is also an issue for school districts. Since 2000, turnover rates for teachers of color have been higher than the turnover rates of white teachers.

A report from Teach Plus, titled “If You Listen We Will Stay: Why Teachers of Color Leave and How to Disrupt Teacher Turnover” surveyed 88 teachers of color on challenges they faced in the workforce. The report, which was cited by Leland in her research applying for the grant, found five significant obstacles teachers of color run into.

First, respondents to the survey reported hostile work cultures where their ideas and contributions were undervalued compared to their white peers. They reported feeling unrecognized for their work and not being given room to adapt lessons to better fit their students. A general lack of support and the high financial and psychological costs that come with being a teacher also contributed to their decisions to leave.

Thorstad hoped that the Grow Your Own program would help create a more diverse workforce, but stated that it would take some time for the effects to be realized.

“One component of this program is that some districts have offered this course in the past in association with other programs such as AVID and I believe they have seen a certain level of success,” said Thorstad. “These are the first steps in addressing these issues with this specific grant. It takes a little bit longer for students to gain interest in the career field of education and then obviously multiple other steps have to happen after leaving this course and leaving this school district … I think it, unfortunately, takes years sometimes before we see impacts of this.”