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Cedar Valley Services broke ground on SMART bus facility

Cedar Valley Services broke ground on their new SMART Facility on November 3. The new facility will house SMART’s Transportation Department for Steele County. SMART buses will be parked and stored at this facility, and it will operate as the hub for our Steele county staffing needs. The building will include space for training, meetings, bus washing station, locker rooms for drivers and several offices. (Submitted photo)


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Local group makes massive data request to Owatonna School District
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Many school districts throughout the country are seeing an influx of data requests, and Owatonna is among them.

A local group named United Patriots for Accountability (UPA) recently made the largest data request that Owatonna Public Schools Director of Human Resources Chris Picha has ever seen.

According to the request, which was made through Attorney James Dickey with Upper Midwest Law Center in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and cited the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the group sought to access 33 different articles of data, including several keywords in various district correspondences. The initial request indicated that they would like to receive the results in 35 days or less.

Picha responded to the request that the initial search would equate to over 900,000 documents and more than 2 million pages. She also indicated that 35 days was not an adequate time frame to complete the request.

The UPA elected to eliminate seven of the 26 keywords or phrases they initially requested. Even with the reduction of these words in the search, Picha said there are still tens of thousands of pages and documents to compile and make necessary redactions.

Based on the request itself, originally sent on Aug. 2, the focus of all the data UPA is seeking revolves around equity. Over the past several months, members of UPA have been attending board meetings to speak during the public comment period, strongly advocating against the teaching of critical race theory, which was offered last year as an elective for upperclassmen through the Minnesota State University, Mankato. The group has also asserted the school district has not been transparent, stating the emphasis on equity is “indoctrinating” the students.

Details of the request

The request includes any data involving written contracts with an outside entity that carries out equity assessments that have been contracted by the district, including the agreement itself. If an equity assessment has been conducted, the group requests results, feedback, policies, or plans that have been created as a result of the assessment. The request asks for access to data for each category, whether or not there is no responsive data.

Also requested is data related to the district’s adoption and application of an equity plan, including materials related to the curriculum and whether or not they are currently being used or under consideration.

Materials provided to teachers within the district as an element of teacher equity training were also requested, along with any and all data involving any complaints or comments made by teachers, students, families, or any other community member to the district involving an equity assessment, plan, or teacher training.

The following keywords or phrases were also requested: white fragility, 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter, climate survey, mini-race riot, A People’s History of the United States, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, critical race theory, antiracism, white supremacy, whiteness, white privilege, ethic studies, systemic racism, institutional racism, Network Improvement Comm. Inc., and courageous conversations.

The eliminated phrases were culturally responsive, cultural competency, social emotional learning, CLEAR, REACH, Vision 2020, equity, injustice and inclusion.

When asked what prompted the UPA to make such a large request, they responded with the following statement:

“We made our request to discover what is being taught to kids in our district about race in America, its history and the current state of our nation. We were and are concerned that the district has not been transparent about what it is teaching students with our tax dollars. We hope that the information gathered from our request will help inform residents and taxpayers about these matters.”

Accompanying costs

Because this is such a large data request, Picha consulted with Jennifer Earley, the attorney the school district usually partners with, on how to move forward while meeting all requirements of the law. At the time, Picha said they didn’t have the software available to redact using in-house technology. The estimate Earley gave the district for their services, however, wasn’t doable.

“The expenses to outsource the search and redaction of such of high volume of documents would require us to add a very large expense to our already tight budget,” Picha said. “Therefore, we decided to try to do as much as we can ourselves on this project.”

Picha said that in the six weeks it took to compile and make necessary redactions to the documents of only the first four keywords, accumulated costs are around $14,000 in labor alone. This would mean the total cost of just the keyword searches could amount to nearly $100,000. Picha said it is unknown how much the remaining portions of the request will cost.

When asked if the group was aware of the accompanying costs the data request had, UPA said in a written statement the claim is false.

“If the district claims a high cost related to [the request], it cause of that cost is almost certainly poor data processing practices within the district,” the statement reads. “We now plan to seek additional data from the district related to the estimated cost of fulfilling our request. We feel obligated to determine whether the district is in compliance with state law governing how these requests are processed.”

Redacted material

Items that must be redacted include any information that is protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), anything that applies to attorney/client privilege, and information protected under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA). Because of her background and professional experience in human resources, Picha is exceedingly knowledgeable with the type of confidential information that is included under both of these acts, which is why she is now doing the searching and redacting for this request on her own.

Along with her regular duties as the director of HR and student affairs, Picha has been dedicating much of her spare time and weekends to continuing to search and redact documents per the request. She estimates the process for the next three keywords will take about six weeks to complete as well.

“Sometimes I can redact 100 documents in an hour and sometimes only 45,” Picha said. “I’m trying to complete this request as quickly as I can while still maintaining my other duties at the school.”

Total costs and a completion date for this process are still unknown. Picha stated that it could take her until the end of the school year to fully compile all requested information. She said that as she gets further into the project, she will be able to better estimate time and costs.

“Some of these keywords will produce thousands of documents, others will come up with a few,” Picha said. “I estimate in total that I will search through and redact at least one million pages.”

Generally, if a data request is made, and whoever makes the request would like a copy, whether physical or electronic, that party would be responsible for costs associated with time, printing and so forth. The UPA asked in the data request if the district would be willing to provide electronic copies to the group at no charge. If not, they would utilize their right to inspect the documents.

According to Minnesota Statutes, the UPA may inspect all of the data requested at no charge.

Picha said that after the group is able to inspect the documents, they can make specific requests for copies of documents. It is unknown as of now if the UPA will be requesting any copies.


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GOP gubernatorial candidates tackle the issues at Owatonna forum

Law enforcement, public education and election integrity were among the several hot topics discussed by Republican candidates for Minnesota’s governor.

Five of the six GOP gubernatorial candidates gathered Tuesday night at the Owatonna Country Club for a meet and greet and panel discussion hosted by the Steele County Republicans. Sen. Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake; Sen. Michelle Benson, of Ham Lake; Dr. Scott Jensen, of Chaska; Dr. Neil Shah, of North Oaks; and Mike Marti, of Kasson, were in attendance. Candidate Mike Murphy, of Lexington, was unable to attend due to a family issue.

Steven Nelson, co-chair of the Steele County Republicans, said they were extremely pleased with the night’s turnout of roughly 150. After a social hour, the candidates took their place at the front of the room to tell the crowd a bit more about themselves and their motivation to run for governor.

“I’m not a career politician, but I have Minnesota’s best interest at heart,” said Marti, a farmer and electrical contractor. Marti used his opening statement to talk about what a typical day in his life entails as a business owner, father and farmer.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Sen. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake greets Owatonnans during the social hour of Tuesday’s event. Benson said she wants to make Minnesota “more free and prosperous” than it has ever been. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

In her opening statement, Benson said Minnesotans have nothing to be embarrassed about, but that recently things have changed.

“We can do this again. Let’s remember where we came from, let’s remember who we are,” she said. “Let’s look to a future with hope. We are coming out of a pandemic, we are coming out of riots. We are coming out to a future that we get to design, that we get to decide.”

With the exception of Marti and Benson, each candidate used their opening statement to blame Gov. Tim Walz and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party for problems the state and country is facing.

Gazelka, the state Senate majority leader for the last five years, said he was “tired of playing defense” against the Democrats in the Legislature, which is why he stepped down from his position in September to run for governor.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Sen. Paul Gazelka of East Gull Lake discusses business and economy with Owatonna locals at the country club. Gazelka said his five years as Senate Majority Leader prepared him to be governor and that Republicans need to “stick together” against an “onslaught” of Democratic ideas. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

“It’s a constant battle to stop what they’re doing and I said, ‘I am tired of being on defense — I’m going on offense,” Gazelka said. “Frankly it’s not just about running for governor: it’s about winning governor, winning Senate and winning the House … if we don’t get all three it’s just going to be a stalemate.”

Republicans have won just one statewide race since 2006 while DFLers have taken 26.

Jensen, a physician who served in the Minnesota Senate from 2016 to 2020 and did not seek re-election, said in his opening statement that election security has been “harpooned” each session by liberals and that the political system is broken.

“We have far too many omnibus bills, far too many shenanigans in the e11th hour, far too much secrecy, far too much backroom dealing,” Jensen said. “That’s not where we want to be.”

In his opening statement, Shah made it simple: he wants Walz out.

“I want to fire Tim Walz because we can’t tolerate four more years of what he is doing to our state,” he said. “Tim Walz locked us in our homes, pulled our kids out of school, forced them all into masks, shut down our businesses, and he’ll do it again at the drop of a hat. We can never again allow that to happen.”

Prepared questions

The Steele County Republicans Executive Board sent the candidates four questions in advance, Nelson said, in an effort to address a wide variety of topics. The first question asked the candidates what they believed was the most crucial issue currently facing the state, to which each candidate provided a different answer.

Gazelka said public safety is the number one issue, and that recent movements to defund police were concerning. Though he gave several examples of recent gun violence in the Twin Cities, Gazelka said the problem is statewide.

“The police are demoralized everywhere as a result of the actions of too many Democrats and it’s driving police out of the police force … suddenly we don’t have enough help,” he said. “We’ve got to turn that around, and it’s not just the police. It’s the prosecutors not prosecuting, it’s the judges that lower the sentence, it’s all a mess and we have plans to deal with that.”

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Dr. Neil Shah, of North Oaks, introduces himself to members of crowd before the questions began. Shah said he is running for governor to “start a movement” and that he looks forward to leading Republicans in that fight. (Annie Granlund/ southernminn.com)

Shah said he believes the “woke mob” is what is currently “destroying” the state, adding that they have infiltrated every aspect of state government and are allowing the left-wing group Antifa to burn down neighborhoods.

The Star Tribune last year reported that FBI records contradict the theory that radical groups led riots in Minneapolis.

“In particular, what they’re doing to our schools will have repercussions for years to come,” he said, adding that many Minnesotans do not have the economic means to pay for a private school. “They pay into a public school system that should provide education, not indoctrination. Until the purse strings are given back to the parents and there is a parental right to choose an educational venue, the public schools will not reform.”

He added that children should not be pawns for teachers unions to manipulate. Shah said this year he and his wife pulled their children out of the public school system and now has them in a private school.

Benson also said the education system, which she claims has been failing for decades, is the most crucial issue facing the state.

“We’re teaching our children what to think, not how to think,” she said. “The left aggressively entered higher education and we didn’t wake up, we didn’t stop it, we didn’t say ‘now.’”

She added that there also needs to be a “high standards, no excuses” policy in the public system that states those enrolled in public schools must learn to read by third grade.

When posed the same question, Jensen said it reminds him of death certificates and how people need to look at the underlying cause to the “death” of democracy.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Dr. Scott Jensen of Chaska greets guests Tuesday night at the GOP gubernatorial candidate panel in Owatonna. Jensen said the current system is “flawed and broken” and that Minnesotans “deserve better.” (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

“If we can’t fight against the apathy that has the potential to take over the democracy and our nation we will have lost what we stand for,” Jensen said. “So to me, it seems we have got to find a way to secure our elections.”

When asked, every candidate said they would support a Voter ID law that requires voters to provide identification when they vote.

Marti said the “cultural war” is the most critical challenge Minnesota is facing and that politics will not solve that issue.

“This is a matter of the heart, one election isn’t going to solve this. It will get us a little farther down the road, but we have to realize that we need to change our culture,” he said. “We need to reach out to places where we haven’t in the past and we have to stop being moderate, wishy-washy Republicans and stand for something that the rest of the people believe in.”

Other prepared questions included mitigating the worker shortage, securing election integrity and what historical figure inspires them.

With the worker shortage, each of the candidates said it is important not to provide people with incentive not to work and that there needs to be an emphasis on valuing a strong work ethic. Gazelka said there also needs to be an immediate stop to any and all vaccine mandates. He also wants to eliminate the tax on Social Security income and prioritize legal immigration to help fill workforce gaps.

Marti said the workforce shortage is not new, but is decades old when looking at the trades. He blamed high school guidance counselors, saying they push children into four-year colleges.

Benson also spoke about the schools being the key to helping the workforce, believing many women are reluctant to enter the workforce because of the state of the public schools and choosing to keep their children at home. She echoed Marti that options outside of four-year colleges need to be promoted in high school settings.

Shah said there is no real clear understanding on why the workforce shortage continues to be such a problem in Minnesota, but said the cost of childcare is a huge issue. He suggested reducing taxes on businesses so they can pay their employees more and reducing tax burdens on employees so they can afford childcare.

Aside from Voter ID, options suggested for protecting election integrity included hand-marked paper ballots, provisional ballots and poll watchers. Shah said liberals in the Legislature have been working to weaken safeguards that protect elections, such as allowing same-day voting and no ID requirement for absentee ballots.

Marti, Jensen and Gazelka said more Republican election judges is crucial to securing elections, with Gazelka stating Democrats had 20,000 election judges in 2020 while Republicans had only 3,000.

According to Risikat Adesaogun, the press secretary and deputy communications director for the Office of Minnesota Secretary of State, the claims made by Gazelka are unfounded.

“Minnesota law requires party balance and we achieved that in the 2020 election,” she said on Wednesday. “Regardless of party status, under Minnesota law every election judge has to swear under oath to administer elections impartially. Ultimately, there is no factual basis for Sen. Gazelka’s claims.”

Jensen added that mail-in ballots need to be investigated, but that the division between the state and the country is the biggest threat to election security. He said people calling those who have concerns about election security “conspiracy theorists” is “exactly what is wrong with where we are at today.”

Blind questions

Questions submitted at the event included legalizing recreational marijuana, ensuring access to quality education and the priorities regarding law enforcement and public safety.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Mike Marti of Kasson (left) visits with a Freeborn County resident at the end of the event. Marti said the governor is meant to be an “unassuming servant of the people” and that he plans to be exactly that is elected. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

Marti was the only candidate who said he would support the legalizing recreational marijuana, and would want it to be an open market with no monopoly held by the government.

The other candidates said they are in support of decriminalizing or reducing sentencing for marijuana use and possession, with Benson adding she would support employers prohibiting its use and sending any adult to jail who provides marijuana to a child. Jensen said he simply wants to see the enforcement surrounding marijuana to be equal across the board.

Multiple candidates brought up critical race theory, curriculum that explores through the study of law and history how racial oppression shaped the legal fabric of the country, during the night and that it needs to be kept out of the public school systems. There was also agreement across the panel that the “dollars should follow the children,” meaning if families take a child out of public schools that the should receive a portion of their student’s “per-pupil” funding to pay for their education, whether that be at home, at a private school or other school setting.

Every candidate showed strong support for police and the role they play in public safety. Several candidates said it is important to prioritize training and made references to supporting more sentences resulting in jail or prison time.

Shah said he believes the root of the problem Minnesota is seeing in public safety extends beyond law enforcement agencies and to prosecutors and judges. He said having a run of conservative governors will allow the state to appoint “judges who want to follow the law” and if elected judges are acting like partisans he wants to have their political party added to the ballot.

In their closing statements. Marti said Walz has been acting like a “king” and not a civil servant, and Benson said Walz does not trust or respect the Minnesotan people. Jensen and Shah both emphasized that it is time to elect someone other than a career politician.

Gazelka said he is ready to do in the governor’s seat what he was able to accomplish during his time as Senate Majority Leader, despite the roadblocks from across the aisle.


A young group of Blossoms say “thank you” to the community both questions on the special election ballot passed Tuesday. The bond referendum will allow the Blooming Prairie School District to make much needed upgrades to both the high school and elementary school. (Photo courtesy of Blooming Prairie Public Schools)


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Owatonna School Board: Where do they stand on equity?
  • Updated

Debates, questions and opinions around equity have been flooding school board meetings throughout the nation for the last several months. The Owatonna School Board is no exception.

The public comment period at the School Board’s regular meetings for the last several months have mainly revolved around masking, critical race theory and equity. This fall, the School Board adopted a strategic plan that emphasis equity throughout the roadmap, igniting even more questions about what exactly that means for Owatonna Public Schools.

According to Superintendent Jeff Elstad, equity has been practiced in schools for decades, beginning in 1975 with the introduction of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This act is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but the notion behind it remains the same: to provide students with an education plan that tailors to their individual needs.

The People’s Press approached the School Board members to ask where they stand on this topic garnering nationwide attention. These were their responses:

What does equity mean to you?

Mark Sebring: To the best of our ability, providing each student what they need to be successful.

Lori Weisenburger: Equity in the Owatonna school system means providing all students access to quality educational opportunities in a culturally competent environment, designed to meet their individual needs.

Jolayne Mohs: Equity to me means being fair and impartial by giving each child what they need in school to be successful.

Eric Schuster: To me, equity is being “Fair” & “Just” to all students. I feel we as a district started this through all students being able to receive an IPAD in grades K-5, and a ChromeBook in grades 6-12. “HOT SPOTS” were also offered to families that do not have WI-FI access for the children. This is Equality.

Deborah Bandel: I think everyone should be treated equally and students should receive help so they can achieve the best of their abilities, but I am not in favor of bashing our ancestors and forefathers for what they did back then and what was acceptable back then. It was a different time. Just as people are trying to raise their kids now, they can’t raise them the way I was raised. That world doesn’t exist anymore.

Nikki Gieseke: Equity to me is giving a person what they need to be successful.

Tim Jensen: It’s pretty easy, it’s just making sure each kid gets what they need to be successful in school

What does equity look like to you?

MS: Recognizing each student brings different capabilities and needs, equity means helping a student demonstrate a level of proficiency in a particular topic. It also means recognizing and unlocking greater potential in a student’s interest and capability.

LW: There are several examples I could cite of opportunities or programs in our District that show what equity means to me. Here are a few:

Free & Reduced Lunch programs are one example of an equity-base program. It addresses the inequity of financial resources our students experience. If a family has less income, they may qualify for free or reduced cost lunches.

At OHS, we have Success Coaches. Success coaches serve as a liaison between multilingual families/students and school sites to help develop and sustain a trusting and supportive relationship between students, families, and the district. It is designed to equalize the students & parents’ understanding and access to information and understanding of school programs, for those with non-english speaking parents.

At OHS, we have courses co-taught by English as Second Language Teachers and Content Teachers. This assists our non-english speaking students to learn/excel in the subject of the course. Two examples are Intermediate Algebra and Geometry Standards and English Language Arts for 9th and 10th graders.

Equity applies for our higher potential students as well. The Talent Development program addresses the needs of high potential students who need more than traditional curriculum to help them meet their highest potential. This has been often referred to as our gifted & talented program. In addition, we offer enriched courses, college in schools, courses that offer post secondary credit, advanced placement courses (AP courses) and career tech courses. Rising Scholars is a subset of our Talent Development program that identifies students in protected classes (i.e...race or income) that show high potential. They are provided additional academic support; counseling to work on grit/perseverance, enabling them to merge into the standard talent development programs.

At the elementary level, we have elementary intervention for reading and math support to get all students functioning at grade level. All kindergarteners come in with different needs, some went to preschool while others didn’t. Some might need intervention for math, while others need additional help with reading. This is a program designed to differentiate based on the needs of the student but providing equity within the instruction as a whole.

These are all ways we meet the differing needs of our students and create an equitable education for all of them. It doesn’t mean they all take the same class, they don’t all need the same class, but they get what they, as an individual, need. Hope this helps provide some real life examples of equity at work in our schools. As you can see, they address inequities of all types.

JM: Equity looks and feels like school staff creating strong relationships through a kind, caring, inviting environment with students and families. When a student has a strong relationship with teachers and staff it allows them to be open and honest with their strengths, interests and areas for improvement.

Equity in school looks like a variety of things: Free & Reduced Lunch program, it’s the vast range of services the Special Education program provides, it looks like additional intervention time for a student in math, reading, science etc., to reteach a lesson to make sure a student has the full understanding, it’s giving a student glasses that has a hard time seeing the smart board, it looks like being flexible with seating charts and/or learning space that allows for some students to sit near the front of the room for a better focus.

Equity also looks like the wide variety of programs, classes and extracurricular activities and clubs our school has to offer students.

I believe it is a part of our job to provide access and opportunity to students in a variety of ways to help them identify what they are passionate about so they can be well equipped to succeed in our world.

ES: At the OMS, they have introduced a wonderful program where students that have missed school, fall behind in class, or might want to retake a test to possibly improve the grade, can get scheduled to meet with their teacher if needed. This is where the students can get the help they need and/or want with different subjects. This is “Fair” & “Just” for all at OMS.

DB: When we practice equity then we are providing things for each student to succeed and do the best to their abilities.

NG: The block illustration where everyone has one block to see over a fence, even though one person doesn’t need it and for the shortest person it isn’t enough. Equity would be distributing the blocks to ensure everyone can see over the fence.

TJ: This could be a whole lot of things. Some big examples would be like a kid with special needs, they get an IEP specifically for them. It’s just as much as a kid who doesn’t get math lessons. You go back and you help them. It’s not equal, we don’t teach them one time and say, “Sorry, you didn’t get it.” It’s equitable so we get them what they need individually.


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