Amid a pandemic fraying the community’s bond, Northfield schools have tough times behind them and in front of them.
After a dry run at the Northfield Public Schools School Board meeting Monday, Superintendent Matt Hillmann delivered the annual State of the Schools address Wednesday to members of the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce.
The speech at Northfield Golf Club focused on the district’s struggle against three foes: the coronavirus pandemic, systemic racism and lack of money.
Hillmann told attendees that this year was even more complex than 2020, since there was no unified set of COVID regulations across the state.
“I’ve been trying to find another superintendent who had previously managed [through] a global health pandemic,” Hillmann said wryly. “The people from 1918 aren’t around anymore, so we have had to write the playbook ourselves.”
District surveys said that 81% of parents held confidence in Northfield Schools’ ability to handle the pandemic and keep students safe, Hillmann said.
“Were mistakes made? You bet,” he said.
But those failings were made in the course of trying to preserve the academic, social and emotional health of the kids, he said. There were 263 total COVID cases among students and staff during the 2020-21 school year, he said, and Northfield schools looked back on the year satisfied they had done right in mitigating the spread.
The district was now in the process of reforming the criteria by which children are sent home to quarantine, Hillmann said, although he declined to provide details.
A districtwide message from Hillmann sent Tuesday said the district has so far had to quarantine far fewer students since implementing a universal masking requirement. It also outlined the current COVID protocol.
“At school, a person is considered a “close contact” if they have been within 6 feet of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 for 15 or more minutes over 24-hours,” Hillmann said in the update. “Quarantine for close contact at school with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 is not required when both parties were wearing a face mask or if the close contact has been vaccinated or if the close contact had a laboratory-positive COVID-19 test [indicating immunity] within the 90 days preceding the exposure.”
Northfield students must test negative before being allowed to return to class or receive an alternative diagnosis from a doctor.
Equity and underfunding
Hillmann said in the districtwide message, and directly to the crowd Wednesday, that he would not abide the hostile and rude behavior sometimes shown toward school health staff trying to notify parents that their kids must quarantine.
“Northfield is better than that,” he said.
Hillmann said he hoped that when the community looked back on the coronavirus years, they could be proud of their actions.
“We will, we will maintain decorum,” he said. “I will not permit this to devolve like it has in other communities and you shouldn’t allow it either.”
He compared kids today with the Greatest Generation that came of age during the Depression and fought in World War II. Although the specific circumstances were different, he said, both generations faced a similarly massive disruption to their daily lives. The online collaboration skills the modern students picked up during the pandemic would go on to serve them in their careers in a rapidly globalizing world, he said.
In the fight to be equitable to students of all backgrounds, Hillmann said the district achieved a victory through its new pre-K and childcare program, EarlyVentures. All of the EarlyVentures alums who entered kindergarten in the fall of 2020 were deemed “ready” according to standardized tests, he said.
“It’s also the most diverse early learning center in the community,” he said. “We are very proud of that work.”
After the district retooled its science teaching and curriculum, students this spring maintained their Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) performance numbers despite the disruption, Hillmann said.
Hillmann also said the district must fight against “misinformation” against Northfield’s efforts toward racial equity.
Nationwide, grossly exaggerated fears about so-called “critical race theory” have some of the public at loggerheads with educators.
“I’d say it’s about basic human decency,” Hillmann said. “Every kid, is all of our children. They are all of our kids. And we want all of our kids to be successful.”
The district also has to face hard choices in the face of underfunding, Hillmann said. Despite what the Legislature called a “historic investment” in education during the 2021 session, the school district still did not receive state funding that kept pace with inflation, Hillmann said.
“We have to rethink how we budget, because we cannot outrun 32 years of chronic underfunding,” he said.
Over the next five years, the district will have a policy of “priority budgeting” which Hillmann said was equivalent to the concept of zero-based budgeting in the private sector. Zero-based budgeting assumes all department budgets start at zero dollars, and then each line item expense must be scrupulously justified. Since the organization only spends exactly what it needs, no more and no less, theoretically it will end the month or accounting year with zero dollars, just as it “began” the month with zero dollars.
“It’s going to fund what the community really wants,” Hillmann said. “Many of you in this room will be asked to help with that process. Sorry about that up front.”
Rice County Habitat for Humanity showed off a new home under construction with an innovative new material to dozens of people.
The site visit adjacent to St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on Sumner Street drew state and local lawmakers and a contingent of Habitat construction volunteers to help pour concrete. Everyone wore hardhats, both because it was an active construction site and to protect from the periodic impacts of baseball-size fruit falling from the canopy of black walnut trees 50 feet overhead.
Rice County Habitat Executive Director Dayna Norvold successfully avoided getting hit by fruit as she spoke to the crowd about the need for affordable housing in the area. Within Rice County 27% of households earn less than $35,000 a year, she said, but market-rate rent averages $1,200 monthly.
“Enter: Habitat for Humanity,” she said.
The organization offers affordable mortgages for the families that occupy the homes it builds, Norvold said. Housing, in turn, provides stability and helps prevent negative social effects such as truancy, she said.
The home that will eventually be occupied by the Strand family had its foundation and walls already in place. The event Tuesday featured Mendota Heights-based Cemstone pouring concrete into a new type of mold that allows for simpler construction: the insulated concrete form (ICF). These molds are made from styrofoam, not unlike the disposable coolers one might store drinks in for a camping trip.
Supplied in this case by the Canadian company Logix, the ICFs interlock with each other to form a precise mold, doubling as insulation throughout the life of the building. ICFs are ideally suited for the Habitat’s volunteer builder teams since they simplify construction, making it more goof-proof.
Jenna Strand said the family was connected to Habitat through their church; St. Peter’s. Strand works at the Benedictine Living Community-Northfield, so this new home represents the community giving back to her and her family. She said their young son Lucas would benefit from learning how to walk in the expanded space of the new home.
“The kids are very excited,” she said. “They’ll have a big backyard to play [in].”
The Strands hope to move in early next year.
One of the area’s fall traditions, the Studio ARTour is back for its 17th year, taking place Friday through Sunday at locations in Faribault, Farmington and Northfield.
Admission for the Studio ARTour is free and the hours are 4-8 p.m. Friday (some studios only), with all studios scheduled to be open Saturday (10 a.m.-6 p.m.) and Sunday (10 a.m.-5 p.m.).
This year’s tour will feature 36 local artists showing their work at 17 studios. Due to safety concerns about COVID, visitors will be requested to wear masks at all of the tour locations.
The range of work offered in the tour includes weaving, glass, jewelry/gemstones, clay, carving, welding, photography and painting. The tour offers visitors a chance to meet the artists, ask questions about their work and see the studios in which they create their art.
The tour was started 17 years ago by a group of local artists led by Judy Saye Willis, who is taking part in this year’s tour at Sunset Studios in Northfield.
“Judy and some of her friends decided it would be a good idea to have a place and time each year in this area to have a tour,” 2021 Studio ARTour organizer Tami Resler said. “There were other art tours but this area really didn’t have one. She saw a need, jumped in and filled it.
“We really have a rich group of artists in this area, and (before the Studio ARTour) they didn’t have a good venue for everybody to be showcased at the same time. The tour allows for people to get to know artists and see where they work … and to see a lot of different artists at the same time.”
Resler, who will exhibit her ceramics work at the Bachrach Building in Faribault during the tour, believes the success of the event is driven by the focus on quality art created by the participating artists and the large number of art supporters in the area.
“The artists are representing themselves, so there are not any retailers or anything like that who are participating,” Resler said. “”So, I think there is a lot of pride that goes into their work and the artists are always putting their best foot forward. Also, I think we have a lot of art supporters in this area, who really appreciate the opportunity to get out and see all of these artists and their work.”
Resler previously worked at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault before devoting herself full-time to her home-based pottery business. In 2021-22, Resler also works as a pottery/sculpture instructor at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School. Her involvement with the 2021 event helps provide an important resource to artists.
“It is important that people are able to see your work and be able to touch it,” Resler said. “When they get an opportunity to talk to you, and you can tell them about the work and you can show them the progression of pieces and they can actually hold the piece, I think it heightens the educational component for people, and therefore their appreciation for it.”
“As an artist, what I get out of it (the Studio ARTour) is that I get somebody who is interested in the work and I also get to meet some really awesome people.”
Northfield artist Annie Larson will also participate in the Studio ARTour in 2021. She will be part of the tour stop at Eureka Pots in Farmington.
“I have always been a maker of things. I grew up in that kind of house. I have been making jewelry since college and although I started out being self-taught, I have since taken quite a few classes on specific techniques like lamp working, silversmithing and bead weaving,” Larson said. “We have such great opportunities with the Northfield Arts Guild to learn all kinds of new things and we have an amazing community of artists that share and collaborate. We are really lucky to live here and have access to great art and music and still have the charm of a small town.”
Larson’s work features jewelry and ornaments, and many of her creations include repurposed items from her grandmother’s and mother’s old jewelry collections along with other found treasures. She also likes to incorporate a Scandinavian flavor to her work.
“I have also been researching my Norwegian ancestry over the past few years, which has led me to make earrings and necklaces inspired by Viking shields,” Larson said. “I have also taken a few Norwegian sweater knitting patterns and modified them to make beaded earrings.”
Much like Resler, the tour provides Larson with an opportunity to showcase her work each year.
“The tour is the best of both worlds for the artist and the community. Artists don’t have to haul their work to an art fair and the customers get to see where the art is made, especially if you are into pottery or painting or other art that requires a larger space or specific equipment,” Larson said.
On the topic of Nordic inspired creations, mother Donna Johnson and daughter Lyn Rein will be part of the tour at their Modnordicarts studio in Faribault this year. The pair specialize in the Scandinavian art of rosemaling, which is a decorative style of folk painting particularly popular in Norway.
The pair’s work is inspired in part by Johnson’s mother Bernice Verdugt, who was a self-taught rosemaler at her home in central South Dakota.
“I think she just picked it up,” Johnson said of her mother’s introduction to rosemaling. “She didn’t really have formal training, because back then in the middle of South Dakota there really wasn’t any classes to take.”
As a hobby, Johnson took art classes at the Faribault Art Center in the early 1980s while her children were growing up. She also became involved with rosemaling and worked with local rosemalers Pat Caron and Eleanor Johnson.
Rein got into the world of rosemaling when she took a course taught by Patti Goke, while living in St. Cloud, Minn. She also took pottery courses in St. Cloud and later continued to take art courses after a move to Maryland. Rein later returned with her family to her hometown of Faribault and the began painting with her mother.
The pair have since averaged about three rosemaling workshops per year, including many from noted local rosemaler Ken Magnuson of Zumbrota.
Johnson’s work is strictly painting, while Rein paints and also creates ceramics and pottery work with a rosemaling theme.
“The designs I use on my ceramics are informed by the Norwegian motifs in the rosemaling. Sometimes I paint on a design and sometimes I carve it into the piece,” Rein said.
A unique feature of her work includes Norwegian sayings with an English translation incorporated into her pottery pieces. The pair will exhibit their work in their home studio at 608 Division St. E in Faribault. The studio was designed by Rein and constructed with help from her father and other neighbors.
“We have met great people on the art tour,” Rein said. “People, who honestly appreciate Norwegian art. The tour really allows more people to find out about what we do.”
After seven years as Troy Dunn’s second in command, Jesse Thomas will soon wear the Rice County sheriff’s badge.
In a unanimous vote by the Rice County Board of Commissioners Sept. 28, Thomas, 49, was named interim sheriff, effective Nov. 13. Dunn’s retirement, announced earlier this month, becomes effective Nov. 12. Thomas will fill out the remainder of Dunn’s term, which runs through the end of 2022.
Thomas has made no secret of his interest in the sheriff’s job. Knowing that Dunn had indicated this term in office would be his last, Thomas shared that he someday hoped to become sheriff earlier this year during a meeting to discuss the then proposed county Safety Center.
“You’ve got big shoes to fill,” Board Chair Jeff Docken said of Dunn, “but I know you can fill them.”
Thomas appeared emotional while speaking to commissioners, but promised to uphold the values and ideals of the office, and indicated there are some changes he’d like to see, but didn’t say what those were.
(Becoming sheriff) “is something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “When you get the blessing from the county board it touches home and reminds you of the good work you’ve done.”
Thomas grew up in rural Dundas, the son of the Elizabeth (Betsy) and the late Donald Thomas. He attended Faribault’s Bethlehem Academy, graduating in 1991. From there, he went to Minnesota State University, Mankato to major in economics. While he enjoyed working with numbers, he found it “really dry.”
Positive experiences with local officers got him thinking about a career in law enforcement and he soon made the switch, graduating from St. Mary’s University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Those early encounters with officers, particularly with then-Faribault Officer Rosemalen, have helped inform his theories on policing.
“He always had good words of advice and I took them to heart. Cops aren’t always about giving tickets, sometimes it’s about giving advice,” he said, explaining how some straight talk can change behaviors and possibly save lives. “I’m not out to write a ton of tickets, but sometimes a ticket is the best way to correct their bad actions.”
Thomas began his law enforcement career as a Rice County correction officer in April 1996, hired by the then sheriff David Schweisthal. By the following March, he was made a patrol deputy. He later served as an investigator and on the county’s SWAT team.
In 2009, then sheriff Richard Cook promoted Thomas to sergeant. In 2011, he became the department’s lieutenant. On Dec. 26, 2014, he followed Dave Stensrud as Rice County’s chief deputy.
Among Thomas’ first acts will be to fill the chief deputy job. He plans to name another longtime deputy to the role, Joe Yetzer, now the department’s lieutenant.
Thomas will soon be waist deep in planning for the new Safety Center. A construction manager for the project was chosen Tuesday, but a preliminary rendering and layout for the center, to be located along Hwy. 3 on the north side of Faribault, won’t come to the board until sometime later this fall. Construction is expected to take about 22 months.
When complete, the Safety Center will house the Sheriff’s Department offices and the county jail.
And with 2022 being an election year, he will also have a campaign to run.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “Time to get to work.”