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A LIFE WELL-LIVED: St. Olaf music leader remembered for kindness, commitment to justice
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Robert Scholz’s tenure as a St. Olaf College music professor began in 1968, a time when the U.S. was in the grips of the Vietnam War, a conflict that would cost thousands of lives and cause a cultural shift some say permanently changed both Vietnam and the United States.

Four years later, as the war continued, Scholz had his students perform “War Requiem,” a clear choral/orchestral work that also served as an anti-war piece, signifying what those around him say he will be forever remembered for: His music, commitment to peace and justice, and love for his fellow man.

Scholz, music professor emeritus at St. Olaf College, died Feb. 21 at age 81 of Parkinson’s disease.

‘He was my musical godfather’

St. Olaf Choir Conductor Anton Armstrong began his association with Scholz as an 18-year-old college student in 1974.The young artist would come to his teacher with questions, ideas and the understanding that Scholz possessed a talent for music and for caring for those he taught.

Armstrong still can’t recall another St. Olaf faculty member who attended as many recitals.

One instance of Scholz’s kindness still stands out to Armstrong. A sophomore at the time, Armstrong received word that, due to financial problems his family was facing following the closing of a company his father worked for, he would likely have to leave school once the semester ended.

Scholz, who Armstrong calls “perceptive” could tell the then-student was upset, found out the challenges he was facing and reached out to the school’s financial aid office to ask them to help Armstrong without burdening him with loans. The effort proved successful.

Later, Scholz referred Armstrong for a choir position at Calvin College in Michigan.

“He was my musical godfather,” Armstrong said.

“He was a man with a passion and he was a man who sought justice.”

Armstrong, who also considers Scholz to be “a gifted composer,” expects his compositions to live on and continue, along with the professional legacy and lives he touched at St. Olaf.

“I’m a better musician, and more importantly I’m a better man,” Armstrong said of Scholz lasting impact.

Scholz’s musicianship a lifelong passion

Born in November 1939 in Chicago, Scholz began taking piano lessons as a child and started learning the organ in high school. He eventually moved to Minnesota to begin studying at St. Olaf.

While at St. Olaf, Scholz was a tenor in the college’s choir under Olaf Christiansen and earned a bachelor’s magna cum laude with a music education major in 1961. Following his graduation, Scholz began work on a master’s degree at the University of Illinois followed by teaching for two years at Campbell College in southeastern North Carolina. Following that, he started his doctoral studies in choral conducting at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.

“Bob Scholz never gave in to the pressure of choosing between being a caring teacher or an excellent choral conductor; he achieved choral excellence by caring always about the whole lives of his students,” reads his obituary states. “Bless him for that.”

Scholz legacy stretches for decades in Northfield

Scholz started his 37-year tenure at St. Olaf College in 1968. Initially the director of the Campus Choir, Scholz formed the first-year male ensemble Viking Chorus in 1972, later becoming the director of the Chapel Choir.

With the Chapel Choir, he presented what is considered a major choral-orchestral work every spring, with work such as German Composer Johannes Brahms’ “Requiem,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.”

Both ensembles reportedly performed regularly at Sunday morning services in Boe Chapel and throughout the academic year. In addition to directing two choirs, Scholz also taught voice lessons, choral conducting, and choral literature. He is seen as having played a major role in planning the annual Christmas Festival and spent much time proofreading and editing event programs, work he continued even after his retirement. Scholz was a founding director of the Male Chorus Festival in Minnesota. Considered a prolific composer and arranger, numerous Scholz works continue to be performed at St. Olaf and across the U.S.

Considered a man of strong faith, Robert and his wife Cora were members of St. John’s Lutheran Church after moving to Northfield. They continued to consistently attending services even as Scholz’s Parkinson’s progressed.

Scholz started Northfield Chorale in the 1980s and served on the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota.

“Dr. Bob, as he was affectionately called by his students, was considered a pastoral figure in the music department by both students and faculty,” his obituary stated. “Over the course of his tenure, he touched the lives of many thousands of students. His light and clear tenor voice was a fixture in the hallways of the Christiansen Hall of Music, and many of his students went on to become members of the St. Olaf Choir and music teachers in their own right.”

Perhaps the most enduring part of Scholz’s legacy to Armstrong will be the way he welcomed him and his extended family into their homes when they would visit Northfield. To Armstrong, his friend’s life wouldn’t have been complete without his wife Cora. The couple raised five children and have seven grandchildren.

“She has been an incredible caretaker,” Armstrong said.

Thoughtful, caring friend

St. John’s Director of Worship Nathan Proctor, who attended St. Olaf as a church music major from 2002-06, participated in the college’s annual Christmas festivals at the end of Scholz’s career. A group of people involved in the choir program, including Proctor, would often have dinner at Scholz’s home Thursday nights. Scholz would always thank others and appreciated conversations with his former students centering around life and the music he was studying.

Proctor, who visited Scholz prior to the pandemic, recall that “he was quiet, he was very thoughtful.”

The Rev. Pam Fickenscher, senior pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church, described Scholz as having had “an enormous influence on so many people,” through his experience as a “gentle, deeply thoughtful director.” Though technically not a staff member, Scholz would occasionally direct the choir.

Fickenscher said Scholz “had a very gentle spirit and a good sense of humor,” an “incredible ear for excellence,” and the ability to constructively offer criticism.

“Bob meant a lot to us,” she said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story erroneously attributed the person who composed “War Requiem." That composer was Benjamin Britten.   

EDA approves two-year contract with Riverwalk Market Fair
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Northfield’s Economic Development Authority will help fund the Riverwalk Market Fair for at least two more years.

Under the agreement approved Thursday during an EDA meeting, base funding will increase from the $7,000 allotted annually in the previous two-year contract to $10,000 in 2021 and 2022, while retaining $3,000 yearly in additional matching funds if revenue goals are met. In 2019, the Riverwalk Board of Directors received the extra funding because the event’s revenue increased by at least $3,000 from the previous year.

Economic Development Coordinator Nate Carlson said the funding increase comes because the Riverwalk Market Fair Board tried new approaches and increased safety precautions during the pandemic. The EDA plans to use reserve funding to cover anything over the annually budgeted $10,000 and could withhold 50% should the market be closed for at least 60 consecutive days due to state mandates to close public gatherings and events in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The Board of Directors intend to increase the number of vendors by extending the market toward Fourth and Fifth streets, and developing partnerships with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Northfield Arts Guild, Minnesota Grown and other organizations.

In a memo sent to the EDA prior to the meeting, the Riverwalk Market Fair Board of Directors wrote that they intend to “support economic development through increased tourism and … local entrepreneurs and businesses, increase diversity of the board vendors and attendees, develop additional funding sources through grants, corporate sponsors and growth of the market.”

The 2021 season is scheduled to begin May 22.

The agreement comes one year after the Market Fair Board of Directors canceled the 2020 season, a decision that drew mixed reviews from vendors. In canceling the fair, organizers grappled with the loss of 700 to 800 people who visit the Market Fair each week, bringing in $220,000 in customer purchase revenue along with $14,000 in vendor fees.

Prior to EDA approval, Riverwalk Board of Directors Vice Chair Teresa Jensen thanked the group for its support. Mayor Rhonda Pownell said the event adds “vibrancy” to downtown and provides entrepreneurs with the chance to develop.

EDA member Enoch Blazis believes people are excited to venture out after extended periods of lockdown during the pandemic, and said the contract makes him “optimistic” the events will be “a shot in the arm” for the community. He noted that outside events are generally seen as the safest activities to hold during COVID-19.

Northfield Public Schools to return K-12 students to in-person learning March 31
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Northfield Public Schools plans to return K-12 students to in-person learning March 31.

Superintendent Matt Hillmann announced the decision Friday. Currently, elementary schools are operating completely in-person with older students at the Middle School, High School and Area Learning Center learning in a hybrid format. The Department of Education requires school staff to wear face masks and face shields in the building and students need to wear face masks while participating in physical education. The change does not impact students who are taking online classes as part of the Portage program.

Hillmann said the decision is being made because “the Rice County COVID-19 situation continues to improve.” Also, he noted the district has “experienced limited cases among our middle- and high-school student population since shifting to the hybrid model on Feb. 2.” All staff interested in receiving their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine will have been vaccinated by March 31. There will be no school March 30 to prepare for the return.

“I understand that it has been a difficult pathway and I have been proud of our community’s effort to persevere through the pandemic,” he said. “While the road ahead of us is still uncertain, we are in the best position we have been in a long time.

Please continue to follow the safety protocols recommended by MDH: wear a face mask when in public, maintain social distancing, avoid large gatherings, and stay home if you feel ill.”

Hillmann noted during a Feb. 22 School Board meeting that the district will need to content with social distancing guidelines when students return. He said the district has changed physical distancing standards from 6 feet to 3 feet to align with revised state guidelines. In classrooms where 3 feet of distancing is not possible, Hillmann said administrators are considering shifting class space to other areas. However, contact tracing standards include anyone within 6 feet of someone who tests positive for the virus. Hillmann noted that means that one positive test could lead to seven to eight close contacts and 50 people needing to quarantine for 10 days.

Hillmann said administrators have “a vested interest in getting students in school.” He estimated Rice County could soon have less than 20 cases per 10,000 residents.

Vaccinating staff is seen as important to ensuring that students can return to in-person classes. As of last week, Hillmann said the district was able to offer the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to “the vast majority of staff who wanted it.” On Feb. 10, 308 employees were vaccinated. The second dose for those staff are planned for March 10.

Hillmann said administrators are paying very close attention to the possibility that a small percentage of employees might have symptoms after receiving the second dose of the vaccine. Other districts have reportedly had up to 27 staff out for at least one day following the second shot.

Hillmann noted the district is asking families to review Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota Department of Health guidance on travel doing so during the March 22-26 spring break. Following the holiday season, Hillmann said 21 positive cases were reported at the high school.

The drop in local cases comes as the state continues to see similar trends following a period of many more cases and deaths from the virus late last year. Twelve deaths from the virus was reported statewide from Thursday to Friday along with 1,156 newly reported confirmed cases. At Northfield Public Schools, six current cases are reported at Northfield Middle School. One to five are listed at Northfield High School, Northfield Middle School Bridgewater and Greenvale Park elementary schools on the COVID-19 cases dashboard.

Work continues on online certification

Even with the return of in-person learning, the district is considering how to continue offering an exclusive online option in the years ahead.

District Assessment Coordinator Hope Langston said the district will complete its application to become an online licenser by the end of next week. The Department of Education then has 90 days to respond to the application. She expects the number of students who choose online coursework to either remain the same or slightly decline, but with more course options that number could rise.

She noted administrators are aware of the interest some families have in continuing to mix online and in-person classes. Hillmann added that he can see some students taking an exclusively online course offering while still participating in athletics. Another option is taking a majority of classes in-person but also having a couple online offerings.

This year, approximately 17% of the school population is learning exclusively online. Hillmann noted less than half of the 148 responses in a recent survey indicated the likelihood of remaining in distance learning was a 3 or 4 on a 4-point scale.

Hillmann noted Northfield, a city with a strong population of homeschooled students, could offer those youth the chance to enroll with the district through an online program as well. He said he is aware that some students have finished year-long or semester classes ahead of time and picked up additional learning areas. However, Hillmann noted administrators must also consider the “very rigorous, product-based coursework,” of remote learning in deciding the pace of online instruction.

It is unclear how online learning impacts the school’s per-pupil funding formula. Though Hillmann noted there are efficiencies in online learning, he added that full-time secondary teachers cannot take on as much while instructing online compared to being in a classroom.

In-person and online learning must align with state statutes. However, Langston said the tools used to meet those standards can differ based on the setting. Next year, the district is considering creating overlapping content between in-person and online instruction.

School district: retirement incentives, fee increases could combat funding shortage
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A Northfield Public Schools leadership team is recommending the district offer early retirement incentives, increase admission fees and explore advertising revenue to combat a projected $1.9 million deficit for fiscal 2021-22.

Under the plan, presented to the School Board Feb. 22 by Finance Director Val Mertesdorf, teachers who take early retirement would receive increasing incentives based on the number who do so on a yearly basis. The incentives, intended for teachers who retire during a specified time period, would only activate once 10 opt for early retirements. Each teacher would then be given $15,000 to $20,000 cash payments on their final paychecks.

Mertesdorf noted the educators must be eligible for retirement insurance benefits to qualify.

“We reviewed all the union contracts and determined these three groups calculated potential cost savings both short-term and long-term,” she said.

Though Mertesdorf that while she is “grateful” for having experienced staff, new hires cost significantly less than longtime employees who have reached the top of the pay scale.

Northfield Public Schools last used the program in 2011. That year, nine teachers retired early. On average, two to three teachers do so annually.

If approved, ad revenue would reportedly be generated through advertising at Memorial Field or the High School gymnasium through a partnership with local and regional businesses.

“Charging fees to families is a strategy that the district can use to generate some revenue,” Mertesdorf wrote. “As a district, we need to balance the potential impact of fees on families with the revenue they provide. Our leadership team is having a discussion about the possibility of raising admission fees to activity events to be more consistent with the Big Nine (Conference) and exploring the possibility of sharing in the cost of credit card processing fees for online payment systems.”

The recommendations were made after Mertesdorf postponed the formal process in part because doing so allowed Northfield Public Schools to update its strategic plan to accommodate any future opportunities brought on by distance learning and enables more robust community participation.

The district has long known the shortfall would come, in part due to a persistent lack of state funding. In February 2020, Northfield Public Schools reduced the number of district instructional coaches from six to three and reduced administration to combat the ongoing shortage and to maintain class sizes. The change merged the director of teaching and learning position with the director of assessment services into a combined director of instructional services leadership role.

Northfield senior Annika Richardson (left), Emma Hodapp (center) and Emma Rasmussen (right) celebrate after Hodapp hit a game-winning layup in Monday’s 53-52 victory against Rochester Century at Northfield High School. (Photo courtesy of Jim Wellbrock)