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'Molar Roller' brings the dentist chair to children in southern Minnesota
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Owatonna’s “Smile Fairy” will be hitting the road in her new “Molar Roller” this week to bring dental care to children in southern Minnesota who face barriers to oral care.

Holly Jorgensen, the dental hygienist who founded the Owatonna-based nonprofit Let’s Smile in 2013, will be driving a new cargo van thanks to local organizations and residents who raised money to purchase the vehicle.

Let’s Smile Board member Chris Bienert said the board appreciates supporters like Owatonna Foundation and Crest that made the Molar Roller a reality after two years of fundraising. Their financial support is “recognition of the positive impact Let’s Smile has had on the lives of children” in southern Minnesota, he said.

“Until today, Let’s Smile has been made up of hard work and passion for childhood oral health, but little hard infrastructure. This Molar Roller will enable Let’s Smile to reach more children than ever before and work toward more efficient iterations of the pop-up dental clinic concept,” he said.

The board has had an ongoing concern about growing the nonprofit. Jorgensen uses her own personal vehicle to bring equipment to schools where she sets up a pop-up dental clinic to provide preventative dental care to children up to 19 years old who either don’t have insurance or on state insurance at no cost to the families.

Let’s Smile is seeing an increasing number of children and that means there needs to be an increase in the equipment she brings with her.

Jorgensen hopes the Molar Roller, with its larger cargo space than her Honda Pilot, will be the first step in expanding Let’s Smile to serve more children in southern Minnesota.

“We’re always thinking, ‘What’s next? What can we do for our community next?’” Jorgensen said.

Two-year campaign

Let’s Start provides two programs for children in southern Minnesota. Jorgensen travels to schools to provide oral health education as the Smile Fairy in what she calls “tooth pep rallies.”

Additionally, Jorgensen and a second dental hygienist also travel to schools for pop-up dental clinics where the children receive the same preventive services they would receive at a private clinic, such as an assessment for infections and dental cleanings. The children are sent home with a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and mouthwash because the goal is “the power of prevention,” she said.

Let’s Smile provides dental services in Owatonna, Faribault, Medford, Blooming Prairie, Waseca, New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva and Winona schools, as well as Head Start programs in six cities. She also provides dental services for children at Community Pathways in Owatonna on Wednesdays.

Let’s Smile provided dental services for 550 kids at 26 schools and the Steele County migrant camp in 2019. It also provided education at schools for 2,000 students that year.

Her pop-up dental clinic, which run a day or two at the schools, uses equipment includeing two dental chairs, two tables, two large compressors, two tool boxes, ultrasonic scalers, privacy screens, jugs of distilled water, and the bags of toothbrushes and toothpaste for the children. All together, it barely fits into Jorgensen’s SUV.

“I cannot put one more thing in that Pilot. It is full to the brim. I can’t even see out the windows,” Jorgensen said.

To add to it, her vehicle is 15 years old with more than 230,000 miles on it.

“I kept telling the board, ‘What’s going to happen on the day when my car doesn’t work?’ Or it’s in the shop and I have to cancel a school-based dental clinic because my car doesn’t run,” she said.

When Jorgensen and the board decided they needed a cargo van two years ago, they were trying to come up with names for it. The Molar Roller stuck and they’ve been fundraising and writing applications for grants ever since.

The Owatonna Foundation immediately said “yes” and became one of the biggest supporters of the fundraising campaign. The Kiwanis Club of Owatonna and Flemke Agency were also among the supporters.

Jorgensen also received donations from “The Kindness Crew” at Lisa Korbel’s home daycare in Owatonna. Korbel does a community project every year for the kids to give back to the community and the kids chose Let’s Smile’s fundraiser because Jorgensen visits them for her tooth pep rallies every year. The kids created a chart to keep track of their donations with the goal of $200. They raised $500.

“Here are kids helping kids get necessary preventative dental care services,” Jorgensen said.

There were also many individual donors. One of those donors was Linden Aarsvold, a 9-year-old in Owatonna who saw the Smile Fairy’s tooth pep rallies at school. She decided to raise money for the Molar Roller by baking dog treats to sell, with a “barkery” logo she created, and she raised $326.

“We have so many people in our community who have really rallied for us and for our mission and our vision and what we’re doing,” Jorgensen said. “I can’t even express my gratitude. It has been beyond amazing to me.”

Let’s Smile partners with the North Carolina-based America's ToothFairy Foundation and Jorgensen found out in December that “a major dental supplier” contacted the national foundation with a request to gift an end-of-the-year grant to a deserving organization. The foundation’s board nominated Let’s Smile for the grant. That resulted in the only non-local donation for the Molar Roller, a $5,000 grant from Crest.

“She goes, ‘Crest has been looking at your Facebook and your website,’ with me not knowing any of this is going on,” Jorgensen said with a laugh.

A fleet of Molar Rollers

Now with a reliable vehicle that’s larger than her Honda, Jorgensen said they can have three dental hygienists instead of two, which means they can provide services to more children.

Community Pathways has also announced a new capital campaign to expand its building. Let’s Smile currently sets up the dental clinic in the break room, but in the proposed expansion, Let’s Smile will have a permanent room of its own. They’ll be able to have more time in the schedule and they want to start bringing a dental therapist into the location to do restorative work so children don’t have to be referred elsewhere.

Jorgensen also hopes this is the first of many Molar Rollers.

“The need is huge out there and we want a whole fleet of them to go out to all the different schools in southern Minnesota,” she said. “We want to just take care of everybody that’s having a hard time accessing care.”

Owatonna School Board faces difficult financial decisions
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With unsustainable funding, the Owatonna school district will likely have to make difficult choices about cuts to programming and staffing this spring.

The Owatonna School Board heard about a revised 2020-21 budget and an update on design of the new high school during its work session Monday.

The district’s revenues for the 2020-21 year are coming in around $64.82 million and expenditures are at about $64.79 million, which is a pretty balanced budget, according to Amanda Heilman, the director of finance and operations for the district. Unassigned funds as a percentage of the total expenditures is 9.26%. The board’s goal is for that number to sit between 8 and 10%. However, Heilman projects that could fall significantly below the target in the future, at 4.89% in 2023-24, 0.48% in 2024-25 and smaller still as the year progresses.

“As you see, as we look forward over the next five years without any additional revenue sources coming from the state or federal government or operating levy or additional cuts. As we move forward, we do begin to spend on our fund balance quite fast,“ Heilman said. “So obviously we’ll have decisions to make as we move forward over the next five years as to what that looks like as far as budget reductions, operating levies, those types of things.”

In November, school district residents voted in favor of a referendum which would renew the district’s expiring operating levy. However, voters rejected a levy increase in a phased-in approach. Prior to renewal, the operating level was set to expire in June.

“The budget that we have is quite honestly not sustainable and the community needs to understand that as well. But we have been able to persevere and provide quality educational opportunities based upon what we’ve got now moving forward as expenses continue to go up. We’re going to need to go back to our community at some point, I don’t know when that is, and that will be for the finance committee to recommend to the board at some point,” Elstad said while also praising Heilman for being fiscally responsible.

The district had already made $500,000 in budget cuts last year and $2 million in 2020-21. They also plan to cut an additional $2 million for 2021-22. Cuts will be made to programs and staff. About 85% of the district’s entire expenditures goes to salaries, benefits and other related items, according to Superintendent Jeff Elstad.

“Unfortunately, it means increased class sizes, or we aren’t able to offer certain programs at the middle level or high school level because we simply have to make those reductions in staffing and that includes not only teaching staff, but also operational staff,” Elstad said.

With the continued rising costs of services and education, state education funding has not caught up with inflation, leaving many schools in this tough position.

The board will likely decide on those cuts in March or April. Several factors will be considered during the budgetary process, including looking at registration numbers that come in during the spring for the middle and high school students as well as looking at class sizes at the elementary level.

“We’ve been really diligent about monitoring class size at the elementary, but unfortunately when you don’t have the funding to match that need, we have to make difficult decisions about where we are going to see some increases in class size at the elementary,” Elstad said.

Secondary level students are already seeing increased class sizes, so cuts will come down to offered programs. Meanwhile the district is having to cross subsidize its mandated programs, one of them being special education from the general fund. Elstad points to the federal government for unfulfilled funding of special education.

When it comes to revenue, 79% of the district’s funding comes from state sources, 6% from federal and 12% from local property taxes with the remaining coming from other sources. The district’s revised general fund balance for the 2021-21 school year shows a decrease of $200,700 in state funding due to a lower-than-anticipated enrollment, but an increase of $1.8 million total revenue compared to the preliminary budget, which is mostly federal funding to purchase personal protective equipment and needed technology during the COVID-19 pandemic, Heilman said.

“Some families just chose to do homeschooling or virtual for this year with a pandemic so we’re hopeful as we move forward,” Heilman said. “Some of those students will be obviously returning to us this fall, potentially.”

The general fund expenditures in the revised budget increased by $633,845 more than the preliminary budget. Most of this is due to federal COVID-19 funding expenses.

The revised budget for 2020-21 will come to the board’s February business meeting for approval.

“The kind of the overall picture that we get is, we’re on track, there aren’t any surprises. Amazingly, with all the things that have happened the budget is very solid and didn’t throw any loops that we were concerned about,” said Tim Jensen, one of the school board members on the finance committee.

New high school renderings

Paul Aplikowski, a partner at Wold Architects and Engineers, and Bob Olson, the district’s director of facilities, provided the school board with minor updated renderings of the new high school.

Officials are now looking at the finalization of the design for the new high school and getting into the construction documents phase. The design has been turned over to construction manager Kraus Anderson. Contracts are projected to be brought to the board for approval in March.

The presentation included some new renderings, while the majority of the design stayed similar to what was presented in November to the board.

An updated rendering of the exterior main entrance at the new Owatonna High School. (Photo courtesy of Owatonna Public Schools)

“One of the strokes of luck that you had is you passed a referendum in a pretty competitive time for construction and now are in a down market. I think you’re going to get an amazing school because you hit the jackpot with big conditions,” Aplikowski said.

Construction is projected for June and in the meantime district administration will start thinking of ways to collect public input on what should happen with the old high school building. Officials hope to line up the timeframe so as students are moving into the new building, work on the old building can begin soon after.

The new high school is slated to open in August 2023 and is designed for 1,600 students.

An updated rendering of the community room at the new Owatonna High School. (Photo courtesy of Owatonna Public Schools)

Owatonna school officials plan for more students to return
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Owatonna school officials are considering ways to get secondary students back into the school building.

Preschool through fifth grade students have now had five weeks of consistent in-person instructions, with the exception of the recent snow distance learning day, according to Superintendent Jeff Elstad. He said they’re now starting to look at ways to get secondary students back into the school building.

“We are actively discussing right now about what that might look like. There are a number of factors that need to be considered and a couple of them I would put out there for the community just to be aware of,” Elstad said.

One consideration is the fact that secondary grade levels already have high class sizes, thus making social distancing difficult or impossible in small classrooms. The district may need to look at different strategies to mitigate that factor, Elstad said.

Another factor the district would need to consider is that the state requires districts to offer a full time distance learning option for families that chose that model for this year.

“Within that, however, we don’t have the staffing at the secondary level that can cover both a fully online program, and an in-person program. So in the event that we were to come back, we would have to take a look at a four-day week for our secondary students,” Elstad said.

The fifth day would have to be set aside for a distance learning day where the teachers connect with the full-time distance learners. These discussions continue as the pandemic evolves and more elements are taken into account, Elstad said.

For now the school district is taking a proactive approach. Officials are trying to plan through a number of these factors, so when conditions change and students are allowed back to school, the district will be prepared for that switch.

“I think all of us want to see our students come back, but it’s not as easy as flipping a switch. There are a lot of factors that have to come into play in order for us to make it work,” Elstad said.

The Owatonna school district is continuing to test its staff for COVID-19 every other week, an initiative that began in January. The test is voluntary and free to any school staff.

So far the district has conducted two successful testing events with negative results thus far, according to Elstad. The saliva testing will continue to be offered biweekly.

Dodge County Sheriff: Mental health care at epicenter for victim empathy

Over the last two-plus years, Dodge County Sheriff Scott Rose has been receiving almost daily phone calls from national media outlets looking for a quote regarding one of the most shocking tragedies to hit the small, rural area of southern Minnesota.

Dateline NBC was just one of the latest media outlets to run a feature on Lois Riess, the Blooming Prairie woman who shot and killed her husband, David Riess, in March 2018 before driving to Fort Myers Beach, Florida, and befriending Pamela Hutchinson, eventually murdering her in the same fashion the following month. The murders sparked a nationwide manhunt for Riess which led to her arrest in a Texas bar. She pleaded guilty to both murders and was convicted in August and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in her husband’s death on top of her already life sentence for the first-degree murder of Hutchinson.

The national media dubbed Riess the “fugitive grandma” and sparking several exposes – including Dateline’s two-hour long special that aired on Jan. 29. While producers attempted to include Rose and his office in the program, the sheriff said they received the same answer he had given everyone else.

“I’m just not interested,” Rose said. “I don’t need to go on national media to explain what we did and how we did it just to show our staff we appreciate them. I don’t see any benefit to doing it.”

Most importantly, Rose said, he didn’t want to be a part of any additional stress and hurt more attention to the events could bring to the Riess family.

“It would be different if the family had all been involved in this telling of the story and they wanted to have their input included, by all means then I would be more open to contributing some of the stuff we were involved in,” Rose said. “But if the family is not ready to talk about it, than I sure am not going to talk about it. It’s about being respectful for a family that has lost two people because of this.”

The Riess case is far from the first tragedy Rose’s office has come face to face with, specifically when it comes to the fallout and heartbreak certain cases can leave behind in the forms of victims and surviving family. Rose said his office prioritizes these individuals each and every time, never giving out more public information than necessary in order to protect these people from being continually re-victimized.

“We’re always going to side with the victim or the surviving family to make sure that their interests are taken care of – ultimately that is who we are responsible for, so we need to keep that in mind and use empathy,” Rose said. “Sometimes empathy is hard with law enforcement because you see so much tragedy it can be easy to get callous about it, and I don’t ever want to do that.”

But what can law enforcement do to prevent becoming numb to tragedies that have a lasting effect on the public? Rose said it all boils down to one thing: breaking the stigma surrounding mental health.

“It is just making sure our staff is OK,” Rose said. “Now more than ever we are really focusing on making sure that the mental health of our staff is good and healthy, and part of that is reinforcing the fact that with all the stuff we deal with, it is OK to not be OK, it is OK to talk to someone about it, and it is OK to ask for help.”

Growing up with a deputy for a father, Rose has been around law enforcement throughout his entire life. Rose, who has been the sheriff for six years, said he can distinctly remember the paradigm shift less than a decade ago when he realized that something needed to change to ensure the safety of his deputies and the community they serve.

“We were going through a period of time where we were dealing with a lot of really bad calls and a lot of tragedies,” Rose said. “For me being administrative and knowing how it wore on me, I know it was doing the same to the people involved.”

Rose said it became clear the days of the “old school cop” method of not talking about things had to be left in the past. Over the last several years, the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office has implemented several programs to help address the mental health needs of their personnel, including a state-recognized peer support group as well as one of the only chaplain programs in the region. Both programs provide deputies with an outlet to process their feelings following a difficult call or day on the job.

“I think making sure the mental health of our staff is good and they are able to process this stuff not only helps them do a better job, but I think it helps them react better to help the families and people involved in these cases,” Rose said. “It’s breaking the stigma of the old school cop, but I think it’s important to recognize that once you do that, once you create a culture within law enforcement where it is the norm to talk about mental health, you just going to overall have a better office, better staff, and be able to take care of your community better.”

“I’m definitely an old cop and in a lot of ways still considered ‘old school,’” Rose laughed. “But not when it comes to this.”