OWATONNA — It has been a trying week on downtown traffic as the Rose Street road construction began and the preparation has started to transition Oak Avenue from four to three. To add to the stress, the Canadian Pacific Railway decided Monday to begin work on the railway crossing that connects Bridge and Main Streets, blocking off a main throughway and additionally backing up traffic.
This may not have been the case if the traffic signals on the intersection of Oak Avenue and Vine Street hadn’t been decommissioned earlier this summer — at least that’s what the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism is saying.
“There are too many changes going on at once,” said Chamber President and CEO Brad Meier. “With all the stuff that is going on, it would only make sense to leave the lights in and see how it plays out.”
In addition to the road construction, Meier also noted that a potentially popular business is slated to open near the intersection in questions. Mineral Springs Brewery, a microbrewery located on 111 N. Walnut Avenue, has been making rapid progress this summer with hopes of opening yet this year. The brewery will be the first of its kind in Owatonna and is hoping to include food trucks on site as well as local food delivery.
“With Mineral Springs Brewery developing in that area we have the anticipation of there being more traffic,” Meier added. “Once they’re open I think we need to see what that will look like.”
With a more long-term vision in mind, Meier also noted a future bike lane that the Streetscapes Plan has designed to run down Vine Street, connecting the bike path along the river to downtown. The Streetscapes Plan is a collaborative effort between the Chamber’s MainStreet program and the City of Owatonna.
“Vine makes the most sense because it will align straight across to downtown,” Meier explained. “If you were to do it by the Chamber you kind of have to jog over to Pearl Street. It isn’t straight across to downtown. That is why the Vine Street location makes the most sense to bring you right into the heart of downtown.”
The decommissioning of the traffic signals on Vine and Oak — as well as the signals on Oak and McKinley Street — was announced in June after the Steele County Highway Department were able to analyze the most recent signal justification report that had been completed in 2017. The reported showed that the two intersections on Oak Avenue, which is also County Highway 45, do not have the vehicle and pedestrian traffic volume requirements needed to justify the signals.
Meier, however, believes that circumstances are rapidly changing and that a second evaluation may be necessary before the county permanently removes the signals.
“We know that once those signals are out that they’re not going to be put back in,” Meier said. Ideally, Meier said that he would like to see the signals remain in place to further observe the way traffic will be inevitably changing in the upcoming months. He said that he is even OK with their remaining bagged, which he feels could possible give them a better chance at observing how effective a two-way stop would truly be in that area.
“If people are observing issues and problems, then we can evaluate the situation and possibly turn them back on,” Meier said.
Because the lights on the intersection of a county highway, it will be up to Steele County on whether the traffic lights will remain in place a little longer. During the Owatonna City Council meeting on Tuesday, city engineer Kyle Skov noted that he requested that the lights remain in place at least until the restriping of Oak Avenue is complete. Council members thanked Skov for making the request, with a couple of them stating that they have concerns with that intersection.
“We are just urging for some patience and not to remove them just yet,” Meier said. “I’m hoping we can all work through this.”
Meier said he has yet to hear back from the county commissioners on this matter, but that he has been in communication with the county engineer and county administrator.
“Given the reconfiguration of Oak Avenue to three lanes, there has been a little bit of confusion with when [the signals] should be taken out,” explained County Administrator Scott Golberg, adding that the Minnesota Department of Transportation gives the guidance of 60 to 90 days to remove a signal after it has been decommissioned. “We will be delaying the process until the restriping is done on Oak and continuing the monitoring period for that intersection.”
Golberg added that the concerns from the chamber — as well as from the City of Owatonna — are being taken into consideration and that the intersection is most definitely on the county’s radar.
OWATONNA — While local students enjoy their summer vacations, plenty of work still goes on at Owatonna Public Schools, including myriad construction projects.
That includes extensive work on the roof of Wilson Elementary, “probably the biggest roof project in six or seven years, and it’s one of the last roofs we’ll have to do for about” a decade, said Bob Olson, the district’s director of facilities. The district is completing a cycle of roof work, and only one remains: Washington Elementary’s roof, scheduled for next summer.
The work on Wilson’s roof is on the school’s addition that was built in the late 1990s, as “roofs are normally about 20 years,” Olson said.
The project, scheduled to be completed by the time students return to classes, was put out for bids, with Interstate Roofing the lowest bid, and the effort will cost roughly $700,000.
At McKinley Elementary, “the gym needs a new coat of paint inside and some new sound panels,” he said. The sound panels may not be installed until mid-October, because “it takes a long time to manufacture and (transport) them.”
McKinley Elementary moved to a new site, the former Willow Creek Intermediate Schools, which was substantially remodeled to become a K-5 building, in 2017, and “the improvements in the gym area (will) replicate the improvements to the building,” said Justin Kiel, McKinley’s principal. “It now completes our building, making the gymnasium an improved learning space,” and “the new sound panels will improve the volume and sound in this shared instructional space.”
McKinley has plenty of “green space” but little blacktop, so the district is going to blacktop an area that has been filled with woodchips, Olson said. Basketball hoops and other equipment will be added to that space.
The basketball hoops will provide “another space for our learners during outside time,” Kiel said. “Prior to the blacktop addition, students had to cross the bus lane to get to our basketball hoops, (but), now, students can enjoy this feature in a location that is more central to the playground area, hence, improving safety.”
Lincoln Elementary is adding a canopy to the building to make the entrance “more identifiable,” Olson said. Because the school’s entrance is around a corner, “it’s hard to tell where it is,” but the canopy will make “it more noticeable.”
In addition, children waiting for transportation can gather under the canopy, he said. “Lincoln has been asking for this for quite a few years,” and the district is using money from the $78 million bond passed by voters in November of 2015 for the project, which is slated to be completed prior to the start of this school year.
“Those are the big projects, but there’s also the stuff we do every summer,” Olson said. “We’re cleaning all the schools and painting areas that need it.”
OWATONNA — Kory Kath, who officially took over as principal of Owatonna High School earlier this summer, is back where he’s most comfortable: with high school students and staff — and in Owatonna.
Kath, who was a social studies teacher at Owatonna High School for a dozen years, had most-recently been principal of Eagle Lake Elementary in Mankato, but he realized high school students and teachers are his favorite, he said. Conversations with high school students regarding their futures “often become very real,” and “one of the most-rewarding things” is knowing “you made a positive impact.”
“You can help them forge a path as they move forward” in their lives, Kath said. “I love being part of conversations” to create “truly robust learning environments.”
Though the principal position at Mankato West actually opened twice while Kath was working in Mankato, and many encouraged him to apply, he’d promised himself he’d only be a high school principal in the city he calls home, Owatonna, he said.
“If an opportunity to come back to Owatonna came up, I always said I would jump at it,” said Kath.
Equity in Education
Since taking the reins July 1, Kath has concentrated on learning about systems already in place, as well as becoming acquainted with the leaders of those programs, he said. For example, OHS already has an exceptional AVID program for freshman-seniors.
This will be the high school’s fifth year of AVID, which promotes success through engaging, rigorous, and student-centered learning environments, he said. Kath wonders “how we can expand that work” to provide every student what they need to succeed, too.
“All decisions I make have to be through a lens of equity,” he said. “We need to reach all students.”
Kath is “a strong advocate for equity,” according to Jeff Elstad, Owatonna’s superintendent. “That is critical for our work moving forward, because schools only get more diverse, and we are here to serve all.”
Learning “won’t take place in a classroom unless a student believes the teacher has their best interest in mind,” Kath said. “Developing relationships to engage learners is key.”
While “technology can connect us one-to-one in ways we never have before, to areas of the world we could never access before, technology can never replace true relationships, conversations, and how we interact as human beings,” he said. “Social and emotional needs of our students need to be examined.”
While some in education bemoan the added burden that has been placed on schools in recent years to care for the mental and emotional well-being of students, Kath counters it’s absolutely a “fair” expectation.
“As a school, one of the reasons we’re here is to teach the whole child, not just content, but the human side,” he said. “The world is coming at us faster,” but “we have been enlightened that we can talk about this more, that it’s healthy to talk about it, and there’s not as much stigma.”
“That’s changed a lot from when I first started teaching” two decades ago, he said. Back then, social and emotional concerns weren’t “shared out,” but, now, “students are more willing to talk about it, and there are so many pathways to resolve the issues.”
Family, Accessibility, and Growth Mindset
Kath, an alumnus of Gustavus Adolphus College, also earned an M.S. in Educational Leadership from Southwest Minnesota State University. He and his wife of 14 years, Melissa, have two children, Norah, a rising seventh grader, and Brennan, a rising fifth grader.
Because they’ll soon be students at OHS, Kath wanted the imprimatur of his children before he applied for the position, he said. Fortunately, they endorsed the move, and “they are really excited to be able to go to even more high school events.”
Kath prides himself on being accessible, so throughout this month, he’s providing opportunities for staff members to meet with him one-on-one to discuss their work and hear their expectations for their principal, he said. He’s also eager to meet with students, as “my door is always open.”
Kath, who also served as assistant principal at Mankato East High School, wants everyone at OHS to possess a “growth mindset,” not “rest where we’re at,” he said. As educators, “we have to make sure all of our students feel safe, welcome, and challenged at school.”
Students “have to find relevance and purpose in the work they do,” he said. It’s incumbent upon teachers to “build the bridge of understanding.”
Prior to the technological explosion that put “all the content and knowledge you’ll ever need in your pocket” with a cellphone, “teachers were looked at as drivers of content and knowledge,” he said. Now, however, anyone can procure that information simply by logging onto the internet, so teachers must show students “how this is going to impact” them.
Students “remain extremely curious,” he said. They just want to know “how this is relevant to what I’ll be doing in real life.”
Through initiatives like Steele Co. Works and Career Pathways, OHS students have “more experiences opened up to them,” he said. Kath’s mission is not to prepare students for “something,” but to ready them for “anything.”
Today’s OHS graduates will “have ongoing learning,” whether at college or in jobs, so high schools must prepare them, Kath said. When he started in the profession, “the measure of students” was if they went on to four-year degrees, but “the pendulum has swung” toward making sure students are ready for “whatever their next step.”
Steele Co. Works is a partnership with the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, Owatonna Workforce Development, Inc., United Way of Steele County, and high schools in the county to connect local youth with job opportunities. With Career Pathways, freshmen would concentrate on developing a plan for an area of study for grades 10-12, as well as career awareness and exploration, social/personal growth, and academic readiness. As sophomores, they’d select one of three areas of study: engineering, manufacturing, and agriscience; business, communications, and information technology; or health sciences and human services.
“Education is more than taking tests or learning out of books,” but, also “injecting relevant, authentic experiences” into student lives, according to Elstad. “I’m so happy to live and work in a community where businesses support our kids.”
Desire to Serve
Kath was the state representative for House District 26A, covering the communities of Owatonna and Waseca, for four years. He spent four years in the Legislature as a member of the DFL, and he was vice chair of the House K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee.
Kath “always had a community-service mindset,” and that philosophy was present while in politics and as an educator, he said. “Service to your community happens in so many ways.”
His OHS students actually cajoled him into a political run.
As a social studies teacher, government was often a main topic, and Kath also played a pivotal role as an adviser for student government at OHS, he said. “I was always challenging students to take risks and put themselves out there,” so they eventually “challenged me” to do the same thing.
Putting his name on the ballot “was one of the greatest risks I’ve taken,” but “I was very fortunate to have the trust of the voters,” he said. “When you have that trust, don’t take it for granted.”
That holds true as OHS principal.
“People want to be able to trust the leaders of their schools, and I want them to trust me,” he said. “I care about our community as a community member.”
His time in politics reminded Kath of the value of listening, he said. “Be a collective voice, not someone (executing) a personal agenda.”
As principal, he’ll listen to voices of students, and even amplify them, because “often that gets lost,” he said. “Listening to their views” is “one of the most-powerful things we can do.”
The school, the district, and the community are still dealing with the aftermath of a February incident at Owatonna High School, when racist social media posts by white students ignited a firestorm among the student body that ultimately led to a lockdown of the building and law enforcement called to the scene.
Mankato found success embracing diversity in its schools and community by making equity a community — rather than only a school — issue, Kath said. The Greater Mankato Diversity Council conducted “practicing respect” workshops for grades K-12, emphasizing “what it means to be part of diversity in Mankato, not just in school.”
Similarly, “this can’t just be an (OHS) conversation, it has to be a community conversation,” he said. Diversity ought to be recognized as an “asset, not a liability.”
Whether principal, teacher, assistant principal, or politician, “titles have never been important to me,” Kath said. “It’s about the work we do.”
Growing up in Owatonna as part of a large family taught him the value of “humility,” so he knows his level of success as OHS principal will hinge on the support he receives from students, staff, parents, and the community, he said. “I know I can’t do it alone.”
MEDFORD — It has been made clear since April that Medford is highly interested in a possible wastewater connection with Faribault treatment plant, but there is still much to be done before the regionalization process can officially begin.
As the City of Faribault continues to embark on its capacity study where the city will analyze the city’s infrastructure to determine if its wastewater lines can accommodate additional flow, the Medford City Council is preparing itself as much as possible before business gets serious.
During a work study session on Wednesday, the Medford council members discussed how they will finance a potential connection with Faribault. While the numbers are still very much preliminary and have a lot of tweaking left to do, the advice they received from their financial advisor was to adjust the wastewater rates for the town’s residents.
“We have about three options,” said Mike Bubany with David Drown Associates. “We can either rip off the band aid and do it all at once, we could do steady increases over a lengthy period of time, or we can go with something that is kind of in-between.”
According to Bubany, there are simply not a lot of options for Medford when it comes to the financing the potential hookup. He explained that with the first option, a vast majority of the rate increase — about 50% — would be seen in the first year following the connection. After that, residents would see a 5% increase on their bill for a period of time before eventually transitioning to a 3% increase. The more gradual options would take a longer period of time to plateau, according to the city administrator.
“It would be over many, many years,” Andy Welti said. “The option where the vast majority of the increase would come in the first year would include very small and very normal annual increases after that.”
Because the numbers are still preliminary, with nothing being set in stone until Faribault continues its current study, Welti said that the general consensus of the council was to wait until the agreement process begins to take a closer look at rates.
“We do feel the numbers will be pretty close to what we have,” Welti said. “Right now, Medford is just waiting to confirm that the connection point with Faribault will be where Faribault has indicated. If there are going to be any additional costs from Medford, it will come from the connection point changing.”
The capacity study will determine exactly where the best possible connection with Faribault’s lines will be based on what areas in the city could accommodate the flow from Medford.
In Medford, the average residence will discharge 5,000 gallons of wastewater a month, bringing their bill to $48.50 a month. Preliminary numbers thrown around during Wednesday’s meeting could nearly double those monthly bills.
The City of Medford had originally entertained the possibilities of either expanding its own wastewater treatment plant of regionalizing with one of its larger neighbors, Faribault or Owatonna. The connection costs were roughly $2 million cheaper with Faribault than Owatonna, and according to Welti the connection with Faribault would cost about $1.6 million less than upgrading Medford’s existing plant.
Faribault’s Water Reclamation Facility treats about 4.5 million gallons of water per day, with a wet water flow capacity of 7 million gallons per day. Medford currently averages $86,000 gallons of wastewater flow per day, but the city’s 20-year flow estimate is $250,000 gallons per day. That would take up 16% of the Faribault facility’s available capacity.
Welti said that he anticipates revisiting the potential connection with Faribault in a few months.