The nearly 1,000 students of Northfield Middle School (NMS) are primed to shop till they drop — or at least until they run out of coupons to spend. The 15th Annual Holiday Shopping Extravaganza, organized by NMS Media Specialist Amy Sieve and Media Assistant Samantha Becker, is in full swing through Thursday.
Initially designed to give all students a chance to make books their own, the three-day event has morphed into a broader holiday shopping experience that infuses the light-filled NMS Media Center with seasonal spirit while rewarding academic achievement, good behavior and industriousness.
“We realized that kids who were struggling readers usually didn’t have books to read at home,” said Sieve, the mastermind behind the shopping event. “First, it was only about books — and there are still lots of books available.”
About 17 years ago, Sieve initiated Tattered Pages, a student-supported book store within the Media Center. Kids can “purchase” books there throughout the year using coupons they earn in various ways.
“Students earn five Tattered Pages coupons per job — like cleaning, sorting books or organizing in the library,” said Becker.
Teachers also have Tattered Pages coupons to distribute when students excel or make strides in classrooms, and NMS office staff disburse coupons when “catching” students doing good deeds.
At their essence, both Tattered Pages and the NMS Holiday Shopping Extravaganza are reading support and incentive programs thinly disguised as pure fun.
“We weren’t able to have the sale in 2020, so the only students who remember it are the current eighth graders,” said Becker. “We haven’t had all three grades this excited in a long time.”
With holiday music as ambient noise, eager students browsed Tuesday morning among tables piled with donated gifts of all kinds — sandals, candles, stuffed animals, jewelry, socks, puzzles, weighted blankets, clothing — and oh yes, books.
“We receive donations from parents, businesses and community members throughout the year,” said Becker, “and kids bring in used books and items, too.”
Sieve and Becker are supported in their efforts by numerous volunteers, including teams of four who take gift-wrapping shifts during the extravaganza itself.
“Gift-wrapping is provided so kids can shop for friends and family members and have gifts ready to go without spending a dime of their own money,” said Becker. “They can shop, leave their items at a drop-off station and return at the end of the day to pick them up.”
Becker and Sieve strive to make the holiday shopping event something in which every student can participate. Per-item prices range from one to 20 coupons.
“We want to make it affordable for students to get things, even if they haven’t earned a ton of coupons,” said Becker. “We really try to make it inclusive and achievable.”
Ella Holleran, a 13-year-old eighth grader, clutched a healthy stack of coupons she had earned for checking in and straightening books, she said.
“I’m shopping for my two sisters,” said Holleran. “I like it, and there’s a great selection.”
Sieve and Becker are grateful for all the donations received, but one donor is worthy of a special shout-out, according to Sieve.
“Kurt Larson, of Larson Printing, donates Raider gear, scarves, t-shirts, duffel bags and sweatshirts,” said Sieve, naming a sampling of the new items Larson provides.
Donations from community members fuel the sale and are welcome at any time; Sieve says people can drop off items at the NMS office.
“We also have a Mother’s Day sale in May so kids can find gifts for women who are important in their lives,” said Sieve.
The staff realize middle schoolers are at an awkward age when they can’t hold “real” part-time jobs and aren’t licensed drivers who can get to stores easily on their own but are aware of what’s being given to them — and they have a desire to give back. And, since the school environment is all about education, finding lighthearted and positive ways to promote reading is a worthy goal.
“Our Media Center is accessible and welcoming,” said Becker. “With the crazy year we all had last year, the students didn’t have anything to get excited about — but now there is this.”
On the first weekend in December, Dr. Steven Amundson conducted his 40th St. Olaf Christmas Festival, which bore the meaningful theme “Love Divine.”
Amundson will retire at the end of the 2021-22 academic year.
Since the 2020 festival was canceled, the 2021 music event carried even more emotional weight for Amundson and his fellow conductors, the 500-plus student musicians involved and the estimated 9,000 audience members who attended over the course of three days.
Vaccinations and masks were required for all guests, and vocalists wore masks while singing, as did instrumentalists when their instruments allowed it.
“Not only all of us conductors, but the students and everyone who attended, were undoubtedly ecstatic for the opportunity to get back to this wonderful tradition,” said Amundson.
He continued, “We spent quite a lot of time in the past year, planning and thinking how it would work, and the college has done a fantastic job with tremendous amounts of testing and precautions to keep [COVID] case rates on campus very low. In every way, I thought the festival was a big success.”
Amundson, who credits and applauds his colleague Dr. Anton Armstrong for his role as the Christmas Festival’s artistic director, joined the St. Olaf College music faculty and became a Northfield resident in 1981. He has served with distinction as conductor of the St. Olaf Orchestra ever since.
“Anton Armstrong is a remarkable leader, and the theme ‘Love Divine’ was such a great choice,” said Amundson. “Its main premise is to love your neighbor, and I’ve reflected on that, thinking if everyone in our broken world would just embrace that simple message, imagine how different our world could be.”
With selections such as “God is Love” (arranged by John Ferguson), Rosephanye Powell’s “Christus Natus Est” and “Light Dawns on a Weary World” by composer Mack Wilberg, among numerous other pieces on the program, the St. Olaf conducting team led five choirs and the full St. Olaf Orchestra on a musical journey underlining the 2021 theme.
“We heard from people who attended the festival in person that the message of love, hope and peace — one we are all craving right now — came through,” said Amundson. “People said they were inspired, that their souls were fed and their hearts were full — not just from the music but also from seeing young people giving so much during a very busy time of the year.”
He added, “I can’t speak enough about the depth of talent among our students, who are so big-hearted and willing to invest 100% to make this the best it could possibly be, and I think the audience felt that.”
Under Amundson’s skillful guidance, the St. Olaf Orchestra is a two-time first prize winner of the prestigious American Prize in Orchestral Performance among colleges and universities, netting the award first in 2013 and again in 2019.
Recent St. Olaf Orchestra performances of note include an acclaimed Carnegie Hall concert on Feb. 2, 2019, and a June 2019 appearance, along with the St. Olaf Choir under the direction of Armstrong, at the Oslo [Norway] Opera House
Besides being a respected conductor and professor, Amundson is a commissioned composer who has written 23 original orchestral works. At the 2021 Christmas Festival, his first original work, “Angel’s Dance” (published in 1995), was performed by the St. Olaf Orchestra under his direction. Additionally, his composition “Holy Child” was sung by the Manitou Singers directed by Dr. Therees Hibbard.
Amundson will continue leading the St. Olaf Orchestra in the coming months, including on a final tour that will take the ensemble to Oregon, Washington and Montana in late January/early February 2022.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that snow won’t interfere with our travel plans,” said Amundson.
In addition to other home concerts during the spring semester, an April 10 concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis plus appearances at St. Olaf’s May 2022 Commencement Weekend will cap Amundson’s distinguished St. Olaf Orchestra conducting career.
“And from June 3-5, there will be a wonderful orchestra reunion for all orchestra alumni,” said Amundson.
“A 10- to 12-person committee of alumni from many different eras is planning it; it’s a chance for former students to return, connect with friends and celebrate what is an unparalleled tradition among U.S. liberal arts colleges.”
With the final stretch in sight, Amundson savored his final Christmas Festival experience and did his best to keep emotions in check while doing “one of the most joyful jobs—conducting all those hymns and carols” with an appreciative audience before him.
“And one of the true gifts in my life is my family—my wife Jane and our two kids,” said Amundson, noting all three were present for the festival. “My colleagues are very special to me, too,” he added. “It’s not just about making music but getting to do this with dear friends. They [St. Olaf conductors] are super supportive of each other and make everything so smooth and easy.”
He added, “I’m pretty proud of what we’ve done.”
Despite the 11.6% tax levy increase that the Northfield City Council approved Dec. 7, city staff showed the burden on residents to be lower than “peer” cities, including Owatonna, Faribault, Hastings and South St. Paul.
With an adopted tax levy of $11.9 million for fiscal year 2022, up from $10.6 million the year before, Councilor Suzie Nakasian said she considered this year’s increase a necessary “catch-up” following the decisions of previous councils to, in her view, keep the taxes artificially low while delaying repairs to roads and filling necessary positions in city government.
Following a presentation and public hearing on the levy increase, the council voted unanimously to adopt the 2022 levy and budget.
Causes of the levy increase
Part of the levy increase has to do with the net tax capacity for the city of Northfield rising by 6% over the last year, from $17.8 million to $18.8 million. Median home values also increased in Northfield, including Rice County parcels (constituting 90% of Northfield homes) — which rose by 6.7% in value — and Dakota County parcels (the other 10% of Northfield homes) — which rose by 1.1%.
A Northfield resident whose property is valued at $240,000 can expect to pay $1,380 in city property taxes, compared to their Owatonna counterpart who would pay $1,410. In Faribault, the figure is $1,250.
A Northfield resident whose property is valued at $256,300 for 2021 — the average for a home property in Rice County — and experiences a 6.3% market value increase (the average expected increase) can expect their city property taxes to increase by $248, or 6.4%. Their property taxes will also be impacted by county and school district levy changes.
Northfield’s industrial estimated market value, additionally, is only 23% of its peer group average, meaning that the city has far less ability to levy taxes from industrial and commercial property than comparable cities. This puts more of the tax burden on local residents.
Councilor Jessica Peterson White later addressed this point on behalf of the Economic Development Authority (EDA), saying that city staff are working to support the kind of economic growth necessary to support a more balanced tax base for the community, which would lessen the tax burden for homeowners.
The city also budgeted for the addition of 6.7 full-time employees, including a new police evidence technician, a new police officer, two new staff members to work with community development, a horticulturist and a civil engineer, as well as making a few part-time positions full-time. The staff increase brings staff levels at the city back to where they were at the beginning of the century, before local government aid was significantly cut in the early 2000s and the Great Recession caused additional significant cuts.
The average utility bill in Northfield will also increase from $70.97 per month to $72.12 per month.
Finance Director Brenda Angelstad made a point to say that the average Northfield resident pays $160 per month for their wireless phone family plan, $130 per month for their high speed Internet, television and landline bundle, and $127 on city taxes, which go toward services like police, fire, engineering, the library and plowing the snow.
Public hearing and adoption
Three Northfield residents spoke during the Truth in Taxation meeting, including Verne Meyer, who said he built his Northfield home three years ago and, based on his experience managing corporate budgets, said he believed the City Council was not balancing the budget.
Doug Oines, a retired Northfield resident on a fixed income, said his property taxes have been sharply rising in recent years, due to the rapidly increasing value of his property, but that with his fixed income, the increased property value is not much help.
“What am I supposed to do, though, sell off the kitchen to take my trip that I want to take this summer?” Oines said.
Tristan Cox, a Northfield homeowner for 20 years, said the 2022 levy increase was “outrageous” and would hit the working class and people on fixed incomes disproportionately hard. He also suggested the council levy income taxes rather than property taxes, something Nakasian later clarified was impossible for the city to do.
After the public hearing, Peterson White said she believed everyone on the council agreed that “regressive property taxes are not a great way to pay for things, but they are … the main tool we have.” She added that investing in the EDA to grow the commercial and industrial tax base would help relieve the levy burden in future years, and that investing in the Housing and Redevelopment Authority would help the council deal with the “crazy inflation in home prices recently,” which she said makes Northfield unaffordable.