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TCU second baseman Sydney Sartori does what she does best, fielding a ground ball and throwing the runner out at first. (Pat Beck/St. Peter Herald)

MN Reconnect program eases adult students' return to college

For Christina Rubie, 2008 wasn’t the right time to pursue a college degree.

After undergoing two emergency surgeries, Rubie put college aside. But 12 years later, she picked up where she left off at South Central College’s North Mankato campus. She plans to become a doctor.

Rubie said she can’t imagine returning to school without participating in MN Reconnect, a program designed to assist adult students in resuming and completing their college educations.

“It’s given me the opportunity to not give up on my dreams,” Rubie said of Minnesota Reconnect. “… There’s not a feeling in the world that can compare to that.”

Qualifying MN Reconnect students receive $1,000 scholarships for six semesters, including summers, to put toward tuition or any number of life expenses that may present barriers to earning their degree. That could include rent, mortgages, food, transportation and childcare. The $1,000 is an increase from last year’s $500 scholarships, and in addition to that, students may receive up to $1,000 to help with their past college debt.

Program participants must be between the ages of 25 and 62 and have at least 15 college credits under their belt, which they earned no less than two years ago. Since the program aims to help adult students finish what they started, adults who already earned a diploma or certificate are not eligible for Minnesota Reconnect. Participants must fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) from the federal government to qualify.

Apart from SCC, eight other colleges in the state offer the MN Reconnect program: Riverland Community College, Central Lakes College, Dakota County Technical College, Inver Hills Community College, Lake Superior College, Minneapolis College, North Hennepin Community College, and Pine Technical Community College.

Rubie found it easy to fill out the two-page application for MN Reconnect, and she called her advisor, Matt Leisen, an “absolutely phenomenal” program navigator with all the resources he provides. Each participating college has a program navigator to help students develop their academic plans, figure out which classes to take and navigate resources for any number of conflicts that arise in their personal and academic lives.

As a navigator for the MN Reconnect program, Leisen said he works with his students as often as possible, mainly online for now due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is a point of contact where a text or email will go out to them, and I will try to meet with them at least three times throughout the semester,” said Leisen. “The idea is high contact and wanting to make sure they keep academics the foremost priority in their life.”

Across both Mankato and Faribault campuses, Leisen said 87 students have enrolled in the Minnesota Reconnect program since it started at SCC. Twenty-nine students enrolled in fall 2019 and 24 in the spring of 2020 across both Faribault and Mankato campuses.

Amy Wagner, academic advisor and school navigator for Riverland Community College, has a caseload of about 50 Minnesota Reconnect students per semester across Riverland’s three campuses.

“We want to support [MN Reconnect students] in school, but that also means supporting everything else to allow them to go to school,” said Wagner.

Wagner generally meets with her students face to face unless they take all their classes online, but since March she’s met with students via Zoom more frequently. Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, she set specific times and dates to visit each campus and set times in the late afternoon to coordinate with students who are parents who work during the day.

“Sometimes if students weren’t successful the first time they went to college, if they have anxiety about coming back, that is my role to help them make sure they’re not going through this alone,” said Wagner. “I always tell the students that I work with, ‘For whatever reason the first time you [attended college] it wasn’t the right time for you to finish, and I want to help you finish.’”

Amber Friesen, a part-time psychology student, was pleased to find out about MN Reconnect after enrolling at Riverland Community College last year. At 33 years old, she didn’t want to waste time or energy worrying about her credits transferring. Through MN Reconnect, she anticipates completing her two-year degree at Riverland next spring and plans to transfer to Minnesota State University, Mankato from there.

“I think it’s just awesome and a lot of people should do it,” Friesen said. “I thought about going back to school for probably at least five years and just never took the jump. If I’d known how easy this was, I probably would have done it sooner.”

Friesen said she’s impressed with how much Wagner has helped in the process, not only academically, but to make sure Friesen can seamlessly transition to MNSU.

“It’s nice that it’s for people who are non-traditional students,” Friesen said of MN Reconnect. “Amy was able to give me more nonspecific help and balance classes with home life, so I could stay at home and homeschool my kids.”

Environmental group report highlights ag runoff issues

Excessive runoff from more than 23,000 animal feedlots across Minnesota has caused significant damage to the state’s water quality, according a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.

The EWG’s investigation into the issue of manure overload is the latest in its series of Minnesota-focused reports. While it’s based in Washington, D.C., the organization has a field office in Minneapolis along with two in California.

The organization isn’t without its critics. Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, a Watonwan County farmer, objected to even allowing testimony from the EWG at the legislature’s Subcommittee on Water Policy, blasting the group as “anti-agriculture.”

Other legislators tend to view the group more favorably. Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, who serves as vice chair of the House’s Agriculture Committee, said that from what he’s seen, the group does good, “science-based” work.

According to a 2019 EWG analysis, Minnesota’s water supply included unsafe levels of 10 toxic chemicals and illegal levels of four. Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna did not have illegal levels of any chemicals in their water, but all three cities have amounts of some chemicals above the level recommended by the EWG.

Particularly high is the amount of cancer-causing radium in the water. Faribault’s water contains 93 times the amount of radium recommended by the EWG, while Owatonna’s water had 34 times the recommended amount, and Northfield’s water 19 times.

While city water undergoes regular testing, one in five Minnesotans get their water from private wells that are not regularly tested. Many of those wells are in rural areas with high levels of water pollution from agricultural runoff.

Problems and possible solutions

To help ensure that those Minnesotans know exactly what’s in their water, Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, partnered with Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, on a bipartisan bill to create a pilot program for testing the health of well water.

Rep. Todd Lippert supports that bill and has introduced another that would expand the state’s Source Water Protection program to cover private wells. Lippert’s bill has two DFL and three Republican co-sponsors, including Torkelson.

Approximately 3% of the state’s land is currently protected under the Source Water Protection Program, protecting drinking water for 600 communities statewide. That land is subject to special environmental protections under state and federal law.

Despite bipartisan support, neither bill was able to achieve passage in the regular legislative session, halted by conflict between Gov. Tim Walz, a DFL-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate.

Improving water quality has been a major priority of state lawmakers for years. While Minnesota may be known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 56% of the state’s surface bodies of water do not meet basic water quality standards.

According to the MPCA, approximately 85% of that pollution is attributable to so-called “non-point source pollution,” which includes runoff from animal feedlots and cropland. That pollution damages the water quality of surface and underground water alike.

According to an April 2015 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Swimmable, Fishable, Fixable?, “the majority of impaired waters are in the southern half of Minnesota, which has the highest number of stressors related to excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, excess sediment, lack of habitat and connectivity and impaired biological communities, all of which are known upshots of over application of livestock manure. More than half of these southern waters fail to the meet swimmable or fishable standards.”

In January, an EWG report noted that approximately 500,000 Minnesotans drink water with elevated levels of nitrates, which has been linked to severe health issues, including different types of cancer, elevated heart rates and a potentially fatal condition known as blue baby syndrome in which infants are deprived of oxygen.

The problem appears to be the worst in rural farming areas. According to the EWG’s latest report, 69 of Minnesota’s 72 agricultural counties saw levels of nitrogen from manure and fertilizer in excess of those recommended by the University of Minnesota and MPCA.

In 13 counties across the state, the amount of nitrogen in the water exceeded the recommended level by more than half. Three of those counties are local: Goodhue clocked in at 160% of the recommended level, Nicollet at 157% and Waseca at 154%.

According to the EWG, Goodhue County is also one of just nine counties in the state where phosphorus overload is of high concern. Once that phosphorus washes into area lakes, it can trigger algae blooms, which in turn produce toxic bacteria.

Feedlots and water quality

Because of the inefficiency of transporting manure, feedlot manure tends not to be dispersed evenly, but instead spread on fields near to the feedlot. That further increases overload and surface runoff near large feedlots.

Across the state, the issue with feedlots has become worse in recent years. Minnesota now has three times as many large feedlots as it did in 1991 and produces 49 million tons of manure annually.

In a prepared statement, MPCA Communications Director and Senior Advisor Darin Broton said that the agency has worked hard to improve water quality. Within five years, Broton said every watershed in the state will have a comprehensive water quality protection plan.

“Together with the Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota, the MPCA continues to assess possible measures to limit nutrient runoff from manure spread on farm fields,” he said. “To address phosphorus and nitrogen in the state’s waters, Minnesota relies on a holistic approach that does not single out one industry; rather brings all stakeholders to the table to find common sense solutions.”

Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, noted that the state has made significant investments in reducing the levels of many water pollutants in recent years, with assistance from funds provided through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

Still, Daniels noted that the amount of nitrates in water remains a sore spot. He expressed optimism that with continued investment in conservation efforts, the state could reduce the amount of nitrates in the water to safe levels.

For his part, Lippert said he expects the report to be a cornerstone of future discussions at the capitol in regard to water quality. He said that a key part of the equation will need to be supporting local Soil and Water Conservation Boards.

“Everyone needs access to clean water,” he said. “We have so many farmers that are working really hard to keep our water clean, and we need to make sure we’re supporting those efforts and allowing farmers to expand those efforts.”

A quonset hut at 114 Central St. East will likely be torn down and replaced in the next year. The storage shed has been in Lonsdale for 55 years. (Photo courtesy of the city of Lonsdale)

Two take on incumbent District 5 commissioner in Aug. primary

With the Aug. 11 primary coming up fast, four candidates are vying for just two spots on the November ballot in Rice County Commissioner District 5.

Until the last day of the filing period, incumbent Commissioner Jeff Docken was set to run unopposed. Docken, a farmer from Webster Township, was first elected to the board in 2008 and is seeking a fourth term.

Docken faced multiple challengers in 2008 and 2012. Comfortably elected to his first term, he nearly lost in 2012, narrowly fending off a stiff challenge from former Rice County Sheriff Richard Cook. In 2016, he was re-elected by a large margin over his only challenger, Kim Halvorson.

Jeff Docken

Docken’s district includes most of western Rice County, including Lonsdale and Morristown. On the board, he’s focused on fostering business growth in the county. He’s particularly excited about the industrial park in Lonsdale.

To reach out to voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Docken said he’s relied heavily on social media and word of mouth. Docken said he’s also attended township meetings, which recently have been held in person but with social distancing and masks recommended.

“I haven’t started telephone calling and I do not plan on doing door knocking,” he shared.

Docken said that if elected to another term on the board, he’d focus on improving access to broadband internet in his largely rural district. He said that from farmers to students, many of his constituents are badly in need of better internet access.

Under current state law, legislators have set lofty goals with regard to broadband access. By 2022, state law mandates that every Minnesotan have internet access with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps.

Docken said he doesn’t believe it’s possible for the state to hit that goal anymore, but that it’s vitally important that it come as close as possible. He said that quality broadband is a crucial economic development tool that could help to achieve the goal of expanding the tax base.

Another key priority for Docken is improving the county’s infrastructure. He noted that projects like the reconstruction of Baseline Road, which was recently delayed to 2021, are crucial to attracting more businesses.

While Docken hails from the north end of the district, both of his opponents live on the south side. While their resumes include significant community involvement and even prior runs for office, they pledged to bring new ideas to county government.

Kim Halvorson

Kim Halvorson ran against Docken in the 2016 election, though she lost by a significant margin. Nonetheless, she decided to seek a rematch, saying that she believes the board could use a fresh voice and felt like she could provide that.

Halvorson owns a turkey farm in rural Morristown, has served on the County Planning and District One Hospital boards, and previously owned Bio Wood Processing, which recycled wood products for turkey bedding and mulch.

Bio Wood had a rather unhappy relationship with county leaders and was sued by the county for violating its conditional use permits. While the county was initially successful, the state Court of Appeals overturned almost all of the district court’s decisions.

Halvorson has been critical of Docken for, in her view, not representing the southern portion of the district as actively as the north. She said that to represent her ag and rural constituents, she would seek to address issues with several drainage ditches.

“I would work to bring in the right people to make sure all of the issues get addressed,” she said. “I’m well connected at the state level as well to make sure the people near that ditch get the answers they would like.”

Another top priority for Halvorson would be transportation. She said that improving the I-35 corridor, potentially by adding an exit at County Road 9, would be a boon for economic development and convenient for local residents.

That interchange project was proposed more than a decade ago, with support from the city of Faribault. Even though Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, has continued to support it at the state capitol, progress has been slow. More recently, the city of Faribault focused its economic development efforts on the interchange at Hwy. 60, and away from the northern portion of the city.

Kurt Wolf

Former Morristown Mayor Kurt Wolf is the third candidate who threw his hat in the ring. First elected in 2008, Wolf was defeated for re-election in 2010 by just two votes, then won his seat back in 2012 and held it until 2018, when he lost to now-Mayor Tony Lindahl.

Wolf, who works in information technology for the city of Northfield, could have sought to get his old job back, but opted to run for county board. He said that decision was heavily influenced by his strong desire to see broadband internet access expanded to cover the whole county as quickly as possible.

“It’s absolutely my number one priority. It affects economy, education and healthcare,” he said, noting the expansion of telemedicine in the wake of the pandemic.

When tornadoes tore through the region in 2018, Wolf was forced to leave his home for a year and a half, taking up residence near the Flying J at Hwy. 19 and I-35. There, he and his family lacked the ability to access broadband, hammering home the importance of the issue.

If elected, Wolf said that he would use his relationships in local government and with local broadband providers like Bevcomm and Jaguar Communications to boost broadband access. Wolf also sits on Morristown’s EDA, and said attracting new businesses to the county would be a priority of his.

In addition to improving access to broadband, Wolf said that the county also needs to work on the issue of affordable housing. Even though his district may be more rural than those which include Northfield or Faribault, he said that the shortage is still a major concern.

“It’s a challenge for Morristown, and for communities across the county,” he said.