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After nearly 30 years in town, Northfield chief heads into retirement

Northfield Police Chief Monte Nelson first expressed his desire to pursue a law enforcement career to his high school counselors in the early 1980s.

A straight-A student, his advisers believed he was “too smart” to enter law enforcement, and instead told him to pursue a career that would allow him to embark on more schooling — a recommendation he didn’t heed.

Now, more than 35 years later, he is set to leave the profession he loves, at the top of his field, in the community he cherishes.

An out-of-state beginning

After deciding to forge ahead in law enforcement, Nelson attended a two-year school in Golden Valley. Once he received his degree, he started on his first job within the field from 1986-91 as an officer in Rapid City, South Dakota, in a profession that is different than today in many ways .

The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) was still fairly new to the state, and only a handful of schools within Minnesota had bonafide law enforcement programs.

Rapid City was a more dangerous community to police than Northfield and Nelson’s first taste of police work came with many vehicle pursuits and arrests for violent crime arrests.

“I wanted to go someplace where they would give you good training,” Nelson said.

Although he enjoyed the area and liked the culture of the Rapid City Police Department, the pay was extremely low, and, with a growing family, he couldn’t afford to buy a house and wanted to be closer to extended family.

During a return trip his wife, Cindy, made to the area, she saw a job opening at St. Olaf College in its Security Department.

Nelson serves college, transitions to PD

Nelson served as the assistant director of security for St. Olaf, until 1996 when he learned that the Northfield Police Department was hiring six officers.

Northfield had become the type of town that Nelson wanted his family to grow in, and, as a native of a rural area, a small-town police department seemed like the ideal place to serve. Add in the presence of Carleton and St. Olaf colleges and the opportunity for promotions within the Police Department, and Nelson was hooked.

“I felt like it was where I would be willing to invest possibly the rest of my career, if it worked out,” he said of applying as a patrol officer. “It was just too tempting.”

Nelson’s career steadily progressed. A member of a new crop of Northfield police officers, Nelson was trained on the bike patrol, served as a member of the Dakota County SWAT team for more than eight years, and, in 1998, became a school resource officer — a position he still lists as one of his most enjoyable.

Being a school resource officer was challenging. Nelson served atNorthfield High School, three middle schools, Arcadia Charter School and the Area Learning Center — all while helping the community in other ways.

“It might be one of my favorite assignments,” he said. “It might also be the most exhausting assignment.”

Helping to ensure a safe school environment allowed Nelson to live out his youthful goal to serve young people when he became an officer. He still runs into a lot of his former students and the volleyball players he coached at Northfield Middle School.

Nelson transitioned to the investigations division in 2002. He still had a number of job duties during his four-year tenure, including patrol work, and he used the connections he developed as a school resource officer with students and their parents to help him investigate crimes.

His investigative work came at the beginning of the methamphetamine crisis that has plagued the U.S. ever since. The cases he worked often covered multiple counties, and many crimes — thefts, assaults and other criminal activity involving weapons — related to the drug. In helping to address the meth crisis, Nelson worked with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

“It was a great learning experience, because I hadn’t worked a lot of that stuff before, and I like working with people,” Nelson said.

Following that stint, Nelson was promoted to patrol sergeant in 2006. At the time, the department had three patrol sergeants.

Nelson, along with fellow Northfield officers Bill Olsen and Mark Murphy, supervised Northfield road patrols for four years.

“I remind some of my patrol sergeants that this is probably the best job in the department,” Nelson said.

In 2010, then-Police Chief Mark Taylor added a sergeant of investigations, and Nelson was the first hire. Like patrol sergeants, Nelson was directly involved with investigations and supervised the police investigator and school resource officer.

Taylor, who now works as a consultant for an architectural firm, says Nelson’s skill set, particularly his experience in the schools made him the ideal candidate. A lot of cases then dealt with young people, Taylor said, and Nelson had the knowledge and finesse to take on the job.

But it wasn’t just the skills or experience that Taylor, who was still new to Northfield when he was tapped to take the chief’s job, appreciated. By mid 2007, Northfield was dealing with a significant opioid problem among residents in their early 20s. There were several overdoses and a number of overdose deaths over the next few years. It was an issue that rattled the community and law enforcement.

“You could tell how much it mattered to him,” Taylor said of Nelson’s desire to curb drug use in the community and find those who were providing the drugs. “His compassion and caring really showed.”

The former chief credits the soon-to-be former chief with easing his transition as the city’s top cop.

“Monte was key to my success…. He wanted me to succeed and the department to succeed. I really felt that with Monte,” said Taylor. “I still consider him a friend.”

Nelson reaches the top

After spending three years as the sergeant of investigations, Nelson was promoted to police chief in 2014. As chief, he has served as a community representative for the department, reported to the City Council and administrator, presented information and requested ordinance changes, and worked with other department leaders on high-level planning and budgeting. He has been a member of a number of community boards such as HOPE Center, Healthy Community Initiative, the sexual assault victim-centered organization Rice County SMART, Safe Roads Coalition, Rice County Treatment Court, Rice County Chemical and Mental Health Coalition and others.

Lately, Nelson has played a leading role in strategic planning and operations as the department continues to use community policing. Under Nelson’s leadership, Northfield officers have taken part in implicit bias training, crisis intervention work, de-escalation tactics, responding to and recognizing people who are in a mental health crisis, and many other tasks.

The department has worked with partner groups such as Growing Up Healthy, Mayor’s Youth Council, Community Action Center, Northfield Public Schools, the local faith community and other organizations. The department has added two Latino officers as part of a goal to increase staff diversity.

Nelson’s career has seen the system change to reflect a more victim-centered approach while ensuring suspects are treated fairly and are given accurate information — no matter if doing so supports or erodes a case.

“I’m proud of what we accomplished as a department,” Nelson said.

A difficult choice

Nelson’s decision to retire was based on timing and for his family. He turns 55 this month and knows that he could continue in his role for a while longer, but believes that sometimes the only way for a police department to grow is for new leadership to be introduced.

“It has taken a big toll on me and on my family,” Nelson said of his position. “This is a job that kind of eats you up and can consume you … I think my wife would accuse me of putting too much of my time and my effort into my job.

“As hard as it is to let go, change is good.”

Nelson’s retirement comes approximately 16 months after former Deputy Chief Mark Dukatz stepped down. Dukatz was also hired as a Northfield patrol officer in 1996.

“If there was ever a community or person-centered policeman, Monte was it,” Dukatz said.

“He listens, he doesn’t make judgments immediately. If time permits, he takes the time to patiently and thoroughly go over all of the options that are available and what best serves the department and community.”

As much as Dukatz lauds Nelson for his ability to balance the well-being of his officers with the needs of the community, one of his fondest memories of the chief is how he and his family welcomed him into their home for dinner when they were working different shifts.

“They made me feel really welcomed, right at home right away,” Dukatz said.

Nelson agrees with Dukatz’s belief that although all officers have their own career plans, there also needs to be consideration for what’s best for the entire department and how NPD can continue evolving.

The City Council hired Mark Elliott to replace Dukatz last year as part of its succession plan.

To Nelson, Elliott, who served as a police officer for 22 years in Bloomington and was a Prior Lake police chief, has different strengths and prior experience he never had. The move also meets a department goal to recruit from within.

“Mark Elliott is going to be a better chief than me in many ways,” Nelson said.

“He brings things that I didn’t bring … that’s going to be good for Northfield, that’s going to be good for the community, it’s going to be good for the Police Department. We all have our strengths, and it’s time to let someone else’s strengths shine through.”

Elliott is aware that getting Nelson’s perspective, experience and knowledge before assuming the chief’s job is relatively rare in departments across the country. He spoke highly of the chief’s knowledge about the department and the city.

“I hope that Monte enjoys his retirement,” Elliott said. “Well-deserved.”

Although Nelson hoped to have a non-law enforcement position lined up prior to his retirement, the previous nine months have been difficult for Nelson personally and professionally.

Two days before Christmas, 60% to 65% of his possessions were destroyed in a house fire. A few months later, the United States began dealing with COVID-19.

The right decision

As Nelson steps away, he knows that his decision to enter the profession decades ago was the right one.

The memories he keeps from his career have proven to form a mountain of evidence of the importance of his work, from helping an elderly person who is suffering from dementia, to solving bank robberies, sexual assaults and other cases.

“The ones that make you glad you chose this job, they are a lot of them and they’re all over the map,” he said.

Nearly 30 years after moving to Northfield because of the quality of the community and its educational system, Nelson said his family’s reasons for doing so still stand.

“Northfield is a unique community, a strong community, strong education community,” he said.

The end of Nelson’s tenure comes at a time of unprecedented friction between police and the public in some cities after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in May.

Despite the unstable climate, Nelson is proud that the relationship between Northfield police and the community remains strong. Northfield residents sometimes deliver food, cards and emails thanking officers who helped them.

“I’ll never apologize for some of the people I got convicted, because it’s not about the suspect,” Nelson added. “It should be about the victim. And unfortunately, we can’t always give to all victims what they hope for: to see justice or what they see as justice.”

Some of the best compliments he said he has received have come from people whom he has dropped off at jail thanking him for treating them well.

“What I am proud of hearing is that I treated people fairly, that I was good at bringing people together and finding a way to negotiate sometimes difficult circumstances,” Nelson said. “And that could be something simple out on the road working as a patrol cop, or it could be as a chief at a larger collaborative level, but that I treated people fairly, regardless if they were a suspect or a victim, and that I treated them with compassion, and that I took the time to give them time.”

School officials say return to in-person instruction would pose challenges

Northfield Public Schools officials say a return to in-person instruction this fall poses a number of logistical challenges.

Last month, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health provided reopening guidance to districts in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic. In doing so, the state suggested districts prepare for either an exclusive distance learning format, a mixed approach of in-person and out-of-school instruction, and solely in-school learning. The state is expected to provide further guidance later this month.

Minnesota schools have been closed since March as a way to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Superintendent Matt Hillmann said during a July 13 School Board meeting that he anticipates at least two of the formats will be necessary, and possibly immediately shift, during the 2020-21 school year. In Minnesota, another possibility is that students and teachers who initially resist returning to school could become more comfortable with doing so later in the fall, depending on the progression of the virus.

“This is not simple,” he said. “This is challenging stuff.”

Hillmann said the No. 1 concern he has is how districts can safely bus children to school. Current health guidelines stipulate only 13 children should occupy school buses meant to hold a maximum of 77 students. Last year, Northfield Public Schools bused 3,000 students per day. Hillmann noted the district is trying to think creatively and troubleshoot to ensure a sufficient number of students have transportation.

Board member Tom Baraniak expressed concern that more traffic around the Highway 246/Jefferson Parkway roundabout construction zone caused by busing capacity limits could pose problems. The project is slated to be completed in early October. The construction on the intersection, however, could be done sooner.

Hillmann added the district is trying to form a text-based health screening system. Also, an exclusive in-person or hybrid option will likely necessitate the use of face coverings for students and staff. The district has worked with Rice County Public Health for face covering options and is evaluating the possibility of offering full-size masks.

Hillmann said other possibilities for face coverings include bandanas or scarves students and staff could pull over their noses or mouths. He added the district has plenty of soap and hand sanitizer and a quality cleaning and sanitizing plan.

Baraniak suggested district officials poll families on how many could provide their own face masks to accurately gauge how many Northfield Public Schools needs to provide.

Northfield students and staff are not unanimously supportive of returning to school this fall. Nearly 17% of 400 staff members and 25% of 1,100 students — 300 — indicated in a recent survey that they wouldn’t be comfortable with in-person instruction this fall because they or someone they live with has an underlying health condition that places them at greater risk. The district is working to allow them to operate in a distance learning environment.

“We plan to do everything possible to provide those staff who cannot come back to work a remote learning option such as working in the distance learning model for students who cannot come back,” Hillmann said.

In a worst-case scenario as a last resort, Hillmann said the district could offer staff who don’t feel comfortable coming back to school a yearlong unpaid leave of absence.

According to a Star Tribune survey involving 130,000 responses between June 15 and July 6, 64% of parents said they would feel comfortable with their children returning to school full time. Eleven percent said they’d feel uncomfortable and 24% said they were unsure. According to the survey, more than 94% said they’d prefer to have students attend school full time if schools reopened.

Board member Rob Hardy said he wants Northfield Public Schools to have options available for those students and staff so they don’t have to decide between protecting their health and meeting education obligations.

Districts prepare for an uncertain fall

Hillmann noted national discussions have started on the learning format schools will undertake this fall. President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have placed pressure on districts to open this fall by threatening to cut funding for districts that don’t reopen. Two of the largest districts on the West Coast, San Diego and Los Angeles, have committed to opening in a distance learning format.

To prepare for the possible scenarios, Northfield Public Schools has teams focusing on three components. The groups consist of 12-19 people who meet several times a week and represent teachers, custodians, nurses, the District Youth Council, assistants and others.

An instructional design team is being led by District Assessment Coordinator Hope Langston. Activities Director Joel Olson is heading up the logistics group. One consideration the working team is considering is enacting one-way hallways to prevent COVID-19 exposure.

Director of Special Services Cheryl Hall is leading the health and virus focus group.

Hillmann said although some people believe local districts will have the final say in developing the learning format, there has been no indication that will be the case. He anticipates local decisions will be made once the state makes a final recommendation. Those decisions could be made on a region-by-region basis as different areas of the state experience uneven progressions of the virus.

At Owatonna Public Schools, a working group consisting of staff is addressing internal logistics. Parent and student focus groups are in place within all district buildings.

Superintendent Jeff Elstad said the district is also tacking transportation concerns surrounding any return to in-person instruction. In addition, he noted everyday activities like eating lunch and passing time between classes could need to be staggered to ensure social distancing.

“We can find a way to make that work,” he said. “It will probably require some out-of-the-box thinking.”

Elstad noted although he is aware the best work of students comes in an in-person learning environment, he needs to ensure the safety of students.

“It’s a dilemma,” he said.

In Faribault, Public Schools Superintendent Todd Sesker said the district will be ready for students should they return to in-person instruction. He expects board action to take place in early August. A district task force, consisting of teachers and administrators, is working on plans for all grade levels.

Sesker said he doesn’t have a favored option, and he expects the district’s final decision will be based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Tri-City United Superintendent Lonnie Seifert said the biggest logistical issue the district sees is how to get students to school.

“Once we get done with that, once you start looking at in the building, what are requirements?” he asked. “We’re still waiting to see. Are masks for staff required or recommended? Masks for students required or recommended?

Despite the numerous hurdles, Seifert said educators are problem-solvers and can make the logistics work. In order for them to do so, however, he called on state and federal guidelines, which shifted several times over the last month, to be consistent.

He raised the possibility of having K-3 students initially return to school before adding students in more grade levels, adding he prefers that approach to a staggered week schedule. In suggesting that option, Seifert noted the elementary age group especially relies on in-person instruction.

Continued distance learning format could also pose challenges

Although Hillmann and other officials deemed distance learning last spring as relatively successful based on the short turnaround from in-person instruction and quick action by the district and other partners to provide technological devices to all students, he believes a more robust approach will be needed this fall if that approach continues.

Hillmann doesn’t expect the district to receive much more than the already committed $380,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) funding. Hillmann said for the district to combat the possible looming financial strife caused by the COVID-19 induced economic downturn, the board will need to successfully weigh the long- and short-term impacts of decisions.

Northfield Public Schools plans to meet face-to-face or via a video conference format with every family from Sept. 8-11 to express support and gauge stakeholder feelings on how the pandemic and other societal issues have impacted them since the end of in-person instruction.

Hillmann said part of the reason for doing so is to ease the anxieties of parents and staff. In addition, he noted staff who are unable to meet the mental health needs of students will refer them to needed resources.

Joey Glampe, a 2020 Northfield High School graduate, has spent this summer playing for the Elko Express. That’s meant playing a total of four games this regular season against the Northfield Knights and Dundas Dukes. (Michael Hughes/Northfield News)

School Board approves iPads for all K-2 students

All Northfield Public Schools K-2 students will have access to iPads this fall.

The Northfield School Board, during its July 13 meeting, approved a more than $172,000 master agreement. The district used Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) dollars to fund 50% of the cost over four years.

The move comes as the district remains unsure of the format for the 2020-21 school year. Last month, Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health advised districts to prepare for three options: A complete return to in-person instruction, continued distance learning or a hybrid of the two choices.

Superintendent Matt Hillmann noted that prior to this year, the iPad ratio for Northfield K-2 students was at 1-2. However, the district still made distance learning work by properly providing the devices based on the feedback of parents who already had iPads. Still, families began to realize more devices would be needed, as students shared iPads with their siblings. The addition ensures the entire district is at a 1-to-1 iPad-to-student ratio. Sixth- through 12th-graders have had a 1-1 iPad-to-student ratio since the 2012-13 school year. Since then, fourth- and fifth-graders have also achieved that rate.

In 2019-20, Northfield Public Schools had 248 kindergartners, 254 first-graders and 259 second-graders.

If the board adopts a distance learning-only format for this fall, families will still be able to pick up the devices curbside. District staff will make home deliveries to families with transportation concerns.

Hillmann stressed that students would not be on the iPads the entire day. Instead, he sees the devices as a valuable resource, if used properly, to be utilized along with other teaching strategies. To be used in the correct fashion, he said students need to use the devices in an active way. As an example, he noted students are expected to use the devices to build reading skills, learn math and engage in creative learning.

He added the move comes after more K-2 teachers requested the 1-to-1 ratio, because they see the value of the devices as an important part of their instruction.

Even if the pandemic hadn’t struck, the district would have likely evaluated adopting the ratio as part of its next iPad lease agreement. Hillmann noted most districts are using federal stimulus dollars to increase students’ access to technology. Faribault Public Schools opted to approve a 1-to-1 iPad-to-K-5-student ratio last month.

“We felt that it was the right time to do it,” he said.

Hillmann emphasized the district is committed to working with families who are only comfortable in a distance learning format, adding although overall data indicates a positive public response on the extensive distance learning enabled by Northfield Public Schools last spring, improvements still need to be made. He views adding more devices as one way to improve that format.

Even with increased device access, being able to access the internet is still a crucial factor for distance learning. Citing that need, Hillmann noted Northfield Public Schools is working with local organizations to ensure all students have internet access.

That need has been shown in studies since distance learning began.

According to a Star Tribune parent survey in April, personal connection was still key for their children during last spring’s distance learning period.

According to the survey, nearly 3 in 4 parents whose children had live, daily conferencing rated their experience with distance learning as a 4 or 5 on a 1-to-5 scale.

Bridgewater board picks younger Ebling to succeed father as supervisor

At a special meeting on July 14, Bridgewater Township’s Board of Supervisors tapped Andy Ebling to fill the spot left by the untimely death of his father, Gary.

The younger Ebling will serve on the township board until next year, when four of the five supervisor positions will be up for election. Only the seat currently held by Kathleen Kopseng, who was elected this March, won’t be up for a vote.

The elder Ebling died July 4 in an accident that sent the local community into a state of shock and mourning. Rice County Sheriff’s deputies found Ebling, 71, about 4:30 p.m. after responding to a call that a tractor had rolled down an embankment. The caller reported there was a man trapped under an implement with severe injuries. When deputies arrived at the scene Ebling was deceased, according to Sheriff Troy Dunn.

The owner of Retail Design Services, the elder Ebling was a successful small businessman with major corporate clients across the country — but his passion for the residents of Bridgewater Township often matched or even exceeded his entrepreneurial zeal.

He was first elected to the township board in the 2000s and returned to the board in 2013. During his tenure, the board approved a 30-year long annexation agreement with Dundas, and first began and then took over its own planning and zoning.

At the time of his death, the Gary Ebling served as the board’s chair and oversaw township road maintenance. Although the township’s road budget was smaller than some of its neighbors, he was praised for helping to keep Bridgewater’s roads among the region’s best.

To succeed Ebling as board chair, the board’s other members tapped Glen Castore, the only other board member with lengthy experience. Like Ebling, Castore is on his second tenure on the board, and expects to seek his fourth nonconsecutive term in March.

In addition to Ebling, three other candidates stepped forward to succeed Ebling in his role on the township: Mary Franz, Brad Phfaning and Janalee Cooper. Unlike Andy Ebling, all three had previously sought seats on the board.

With Castore leading the discussion, Supervisors diligently considered the four candidates based on five factors: connection to agriculture, road experience, board experience, township experience and a willingness to make a long-term commitment to serve on the board.

While Cooper ranked well based on the board’s five qualifications, her lack of ties to the ag community gave the board pause, especially given the relative lack of ties to the ag community among the other supervisors.

Andy Ebling also rose to the top, with supervisors particularly appreciative of his ties to the township’s ag community. Though Ebling is not a farmer himself, his family owns a sizable amount of land in the township.

“I think we would begin to feel some difficulties in the township if there’s no ag representation,” Castore said. “It’s such a big part of who we are in the township.”

While Ebling lacks direct experience on the township board, he’s been deeply involved in the community in other ways. That appealed to Kopseng, who felt the board could use a fresh, youthful perspective.

“He has fresh ideas, but also experience,” she said. “I think that would be a good fit.”

Andy Ebling said that he had talked with his father about potentially running for the board himself one day. While that time came quite a bit sooner than he would have imagined, he said he would do everything possible to build on Gary Ebling’s legacy.

“I don’t think there’s much more that a person could hope for than to try to build on their parent’s legacy,” he said.

Ebling promised to focus on road maintenance and do his best to stand up for the township’s ag community. In general, he also pledged to be “the voice of reason and common sense” on the township board.

Andy Ebling also expressed interest in pursuing increased powers for Bridgewater Township, including possible eventual incorporation. Though strongly opposed in his efforts by neighboring Northfield and Dundas, Gary Ebling pushed hard to see Bridgewater pursue incorporation.

“It’s something that is worth exploring,” he said. “I think it could well be in the best interests of residents of the township.”