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Members of the Owatonna boys basketball team celebrate after defeating Robbinsdale Armstrong in the 1989 Class AA state championship game in St. Paul (Photo by Tom Shea/Owatonna Photo News).

Medford prepares to open pool, host annual street dance

After months of uncertainty, the Medford City Council has officially taken steps to have as normal of a summer as possible.

During the regular City Council meeting Monday, board members unanimously approved getting the Medford Pool up and running by the end of the month, with a targeted opening of Monday, June 29.

“Council members have been contacted by parents in town who are looking for entertainment and recreational options for over the summer,” said City Administrator Andy Welti. “After consulting with a handful of other cities in the area who are opening their pools, we felt this was the decision we wanted to take.”

When the pool opens, Welti said pool staff will hold swimming lessons and a water aerobics class, but that an exact programschedule is yet to be determined. Originally, Welti had suggested to the council that water aerobics not be offered during the 2020 season due to both staffing needs and the additional exposure it would put on the program’s participants, the majority who are in the high-risk category for COVID-19. Mayor Lois Nelson and members of the council argued passionately that the public wants the water aerobics classes offered, and therefore agreed to schedule either a morning or afternoon class.

Only daily passes will be sold at the pool this summer. Welti said that the maximum capacity allowed in the pool during opening week will be 40, though it could be increased to 50 if it is decided that safe social distancing can be maintained.

The pool is currently scheduled to close on Aug. 14, one week earlier than normal.

The city was able to hire one new lifeguard who obtained certification. Welti said that two additional lifeguards will be hired to work in the guard shack and perform other duties such as sanitizing public areas until they are able to take classes and obtain their certification. He said that finding lifeguard certification classes continues to be a challenge during the ongoing pandemic.

“We have adequate staff in order to open,” Welti said.

Also during the meeting, council members unanimously granted the Medford Volunteer Firemans Relief Association a temporary liquor license in preparation for the annual street dance on July 25.

As of June 10, the state opened up outdoor events and entertainment for up to 250 people, so long as social distancing is maintained. According to Welti, the association will have up to 10 days prior to the event to cancel the license without accruing additional fees if the state were to change the restrictions in a way that would prevent the dance from happening.

The dance is planned to be held in the City Hall parking lot.

The council also filled two vacant board positions on Monday following recommendations from the mayor. Tom Harris was appointed to the Planning and Zoning Board, a spot left vacant by Matt Rosenbaum. Bianca Ward was appointed to fill a vacant position on the Park Board.

Schools plan for three reopening scenarios, possibility of some localized control

Minnesota health and education officials on Thursday asked school administrators to plan for three scenarios on reopening in the fall, and promised a decision by the week of July 27 on which of the three will be implemented upon students’ return.

According to local superintendents, the Minnesota Department of Education also discussed on a conference call with school leaders the possibility for a region-specific response. This could open the door for districts to enact different models given the pandemic’s reach in their communities.

The three scenarios the state is asking schools to prepare for are in-person learning for all students, hybrid learning with social distancing and capacity limits, and distance learning only.

“Decisions around the fall may change as we learn more about which scenario will be in the best interest of public health, and specifically the health and safety of our school communities,” the Minnesota Department of Health said in a statement that included a link to a 16-page document guiding school districts.

With another month to go until the state hands down a set recommendation for schools’ reopening, Steele County districts have started preparing for each scenario and will plan to fine-tune after final guidance.

In Owatonna, Superintendent Jeff Elstad said at a Monday night School Board meeting that it’s possible the district may end up enacting all three scenarios at different points in time.

“For example, we may start the year with all of our students in session,” he added. “If we have an outbreak in Owatonna, we may have to take a three-week break in in-person instruction.”

Elstad also said that MDE had appeared to offer a little more flexibility to districts in how they respond next year— meaning that different schools could have different modes of learning happening simultaneously.

“There could be a time during the school year where we have all of our students in person, and a community within 15 minutes of us could be doing distance learning because they have an outbreak in their particular school,” said Elstad. “It could also be within a district … we could very well have an elementary that’s infected where we could have no in-person classes.”

If there was a necessity for distance learning, he added that it would look different from this past spring as the district has more time to plan and respond to end-of-year feedback from families. On the whole, he said he would much prefer having students back in the classroom because, “I know we do our best work when our students are there in person.”

Smaller districts, different considerations

In Blooming Prairie, Superintendent Chris Staloch echoed the desire to have students back in the building as soon as it’s safe to do so. If in-person or hybrid learning happens this fall, he said it will also be a challenge to balance safety and comfort for students — making sure they feel welcomed in the school, and that the learning environment can be as normal as possible when children return.

“We’re going to have to follow guidelines that are given to us, and it will look different. If we get the opportunity to have kids in our buildings, we also want to make it as normal as possible,” he said. “I hope that being a smaller school, we will have an advantage of being able to bring kids back, create those safe environments and keep them here for an extended period of time.”

Staloch added that he hoped to be able to offer some consistency with the different scenarios, being able to stick with one model for a longer period of time as opposed to moving back and forth more often.

Being a smaller district is also factoring heavily into the Medford Public School’s planning, given its unique situation of having both elementary and high school students together under one roof. Of the three scenarios administrators are planning for, Superintendent Mark Ristau said for him, hybrid learning would likely necessitate the most planning.

“Ideally, we will have some local control when it comes to the transition from one model to another if that’s the case,” he added via email. “I do indeed see us experiencing more than one model during the course of the year.”

For now, Ristau said the district has committees working on each of the three scenarios which will continue meeting until late July when educators can narrow in on the model that will be implemented in September.

Financial impact to all scenarios

In Owatonna, Elstad said all three possibilities will likely necessitate additional expenses on the district’s part. If classes are held remotely, he said the district would likely need to purchase additional technology to help ensure students have equal access to online learning.

“With the hybrid model, that has us all guessing at the scale of what that looks like. For instance, with transportation — if we can only put half of the typical students on a normal bus, that’s going to require more trips. It’s going to require more drivers,” he added. “If we’re in person, that will require more products as far as sanitizing materials and temperature scanners.”

At the moment, Elstad added that the district is replacing only vacant positions that he said “would be absolutely pertinent to fall learning … we’re having to tighten our belt.” In Owatonna, this is also ahead of an operating levy referendum this fall which will seek to renew and potentially increase voter-approved funding set to expire next year.

Ahead of receiving final guidance from MDE next month, all three superintendents say they have either started planning for all three scenarios or are beginning the process this week. Especially with the possibility of having to implement all three at some point next year, district leaders say they want to get ahead of the curve and have plans in place well in advance of the first day of school.

Fr. Gregory Leif is greeted by members of the Church of the Scared Heart congregation in Waseca on Saturday during a drive thru parade. After seven years in Waseca and 42 years as a priest, Leif is retiring. His last Mass in Waseca was Sunday. (Photos by Annie Granlund, People’s Press)

District recommends levy referendum on the ballot


Voters can expect to see an operating levy on the ballot this fall, as Owatonna Public Schools seeks to replace local funding set to expire next year.

Pending final approval by the School Board next month, residents will be asked first to renew the existing operating levy — which provides $483 annually per student, supplementing the $724 per student that the district is able to receive from local taxpayers without going to a vote. If the renewal fails, the district will lose that supplemental portion of its funding, equating to roughly $2.6 million a year.

Contingent upon passage of the renewal, the second question will ask for an additional, tiered increase throughout the 10-year proposed levy. Under this plan, residents would see no additional tax impact in the first year of the levy. In 2022, the district would bring in an additional $300 per student, translating to a $120 annual tax increase on a $175,000 home. In 2025, this would rise to $600 total increase per student, for an annual tax impact of $240 on a home of the same tax value.

The plan was presented by Superintendent Jeff Elstad and Finance Director Amanda Heilman at Monday night’s School Board meeting, with officials expressing unanimous support for the proposal. The board will be asked to sign off formally on the ballot questions July 13. Although the district has passed two building bonds since the last operating levy went to a vote in 2013, that money can’t be used for operating expenditures — only for facilities projects.

Unlike with the recently approved high school building bond, agricultural land is not taxed in its entirety. Only the house, garage and 1 acre are taxed when it comes to operating levies.

If the current levy isn’t renewed, the district is projected to be in statutory operating debt by 2029 if no additional funding becomes available. Heilman said failure of both questions would necessitate $6.5 million in cuts in the 2022 and 2023 school years.

“Any budget reductions that we do moving forward would be across the board,” she said. “We will see class sizes increase though teacher layoffs. We will have cuts to school and district support services.”

Already, the district is planning $2 million in reductions this coming year. A preliminary budget for fiscal year 2021 — which will run from July 1 to June 30, 2021 — was approved by the board Monday night. The district is forecasting $63 million in general fund revenue and just over $64.1 million in expenditures — a slight increase over the current year.

Even if voters approve the levy increase, the district will still need to make $5.25 million in reductions over the coming three years in order to keep a healthy fund balance. One of the reasons for the proposed increase and corresponding cuts, according to Heilman, is the fact that state funding hasn’t kept pace with inflation over the last two decades.

In total, revenue from the state accounts for just over 80% of the district’s general fund. If it were keeping pace with inflation, Heilman estimated that the district would have received an additional $3 million last year alone.

“It does not appear in the near future that there will be any additional revenue for school districts and there may be further reductions,” added Elstad, given the state’s projected $2.4 billion deficit amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

If only the renewal were to pass, Elstad said the district would need to come back to voters with another ask in the next few years — otherwise, without additional funding, it would likely still enter statutory operating debt by 2030.

Another option considered by the district and board officials at a May work session was to ask for the entire increase up front starting next year — meaning a $600 per student increase in revenue and a $240 annual tax increase for the entire levy term. Officials seemed to favor the staged version, which the district termed a “shared approach,” last month and continued to support the idea when administrators brought it back to them Monday night.

“Whenever you’re able to spread out the tax increase over a longer period of time, you also get the benefit of the community growing and being able to grow that tax base,” added Elstad, of another benefit he sees in the shared approach. “We do anticipate some growth within the community based upon the businesses that are coming to Owatonna.”

Board Vice Chair Lori Weisenburger said she hoped last-minute savings on the high school building bond due to a lower than expected interest rate would also help residents be open to the increase.

If the board approves, voters will weigh in on both questions Nov 3.