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Will Minnesota improve access to dental services for the rural and underserved?

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 8:00am

It is morning, and the sun is breaking over the horizon. An extremely long line of people winds around the block. At first glance, a person could presume the line is for the newest iPhone or Lady Gaga concert tickets. After a closer look, the diversity of age is apparent. Many are children, several are in wheelchairs, and some appear to have traveled a great distance. What is clear is everyone is looking with anticipation toward a building with a banner that says “Mission of Mercy.”

Angie Sechler

This was the scene in Moorhead, Minnesota, in 2016 when needy patients received more than 7,655 free dental procedures thanks to the Minnesota Dental Association and Minnesota Dental Foundation. Free dental-care events like these have occurred annually over the last five years with the help of volunteers from Minnesota’s oral health provider community. The purpose is to bring free dental treatment to underserved populations.

Events like these are often held in Minnesota communities for thousands of low-income children and adults, many who are unable to access dental services despite being promised care by the state’s public assistance programs. How is it possible in a state known for having some of the best health care coverage in the country that so many people are showing up for free dental services?

A silent epidemic

This problem, as described by two previous surgeons general, is the silent epidemic of oral disease in the U.S. affecting the most vulnerable. Low-income individuals have some of the greatest oral health disparities, experiencing higher rates of cavities and difficulty accessing dental services. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 42 percent of adults with incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) had untreated cavities compared to 11 percent of adults with income above 400 percent FPL.

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Residents of Greater Minnesota are at greater risk of being unable to receive dental care. Several factors contribute to this: 1) reluctance among dental providers to see low-income patients, particularly those receiving medical assistance, 2) fewer transportation options available to make a dental visit, and 3) an aging dentist workforce in short supply. As of 2013, only 10 percent of licensed dentists were practicing in isolated and small rural areas of Minnesota, and more rural Minnesotans end up forgoing dental care, placing their health at risk, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The majority of Minnesota’s Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas are in Greater Minnesota and designated as “low income,” meaning high numbers of people living in these areas have incomes at or below 200 percent FPL (see map). Making matters worse, dentists practicing in Greater Minnesota are older and closer to retirement, and newly graduated dental professionals simply are not arriving in numbers necessary to replace them. Many rural Minnesotans are likely facing the permanent loss of local dental services. Addressing dental disease in rural Minnesota starts with creating greater access.

Legislation would help

The 2017 Minnesota Legislature has an opportunity to improve access to preventive dental care for low-income Minnesotans, and especially for rural residents. Proposals in both the House and Senate (HF1712/SF1496) encouraging greater use of “collaborative agreements among dental hygienists and dentists” would increase direct access to dental care for underserved populations. As proposed, the legislation permits greater utilization of dental hygienists, allowing them to collaborate with dentists to bring preventive dental care to more Minnesotans. It is a solution widely supported by the oral health provider community, including the Minnesota Dental Association and Minnesota Board of Dentistry.

The passage of this legislation could be a pivotal moment for the both low-income and rural residents who wonder about the future availability of dental services in their communities.

Angie Sechler lives in St. Paul and is a graduate student in the Executive Public Health Administration & Policy program at the University of Minnesota.

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Minnesota House passes two abortion-related bills; Dayton threatens veto

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 5:53am
Brian Lambert

They might as well take another run at Voter ID and marriage while they’re at it. Says Tim Pugmire at MPR, “The Republican-controlled Minnesota House passed a pair of abortion-related measures Monday that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has threatened to veto. One bill would prohibit the funding of abortions under state-sponsored health care programs. The other would set new licensing and inspection requirements for abortion clinics. Lawmakers voted 77-54 on the prohibition bill, which would apply to the Medical Assistance program.”

Measles count: 20. Says MPR, “Minnesota health officials are asking parents and health care providers to be vigilant for symptoms of measles now that 20 cases have been confirmed among children in Minnesota's Somali community. Minnesota Health Department officials confirmed the 20 Hennepin County cases in a statement Monday urging citizens to make sure as many Minnesota children as possible are protected through vaccination.”

Very few books made as deep an impression. The New York Times’ Paul Vitello writes, “Robert M. Pirsig, whose “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” a dense and discursive novel of ideas, became an unlikely publishing phenomenon in the mid-1970s and a touchstone in the waning days of the counterculture, died on Monday at his home in South Berwick, Me. He was 88. … Mr. Pirsig’s plunge into the grand philosophical questions of Western culture remained near the top of the best-seller lists for a decade and helped define the post-hippie 1970s landscape as resoundingly, some critics have said, as Carlos Castaneda’s ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’ helped define the 1960s. Where ‘Don Juan’ pursued enlightenment in hallucinogenic experience, ‘Zen’ argued for its equal availability in the brain-racking rigors of Reason with a capital R.” Maybe our Orange Leader will commemorate Pirsig today.

How about a heftier dose of brine in your creek? Micah Emmel-Duke of the Strib says, “Those familiar thick carpets of blue salt crystals could soon be a thing of winters past on Minnesota roads. Instead, expect to see more brine. Liquid anti-icing agents, like salt brine, are the current stars of the winter maintenance world, while granular anti-icing agents — like sand and rock salt — get used more sparingly and for specific purposes … . This past winter in the metro area, MnDOT used 325,000 gallons of brine, four times as much as it did the year before and about double its average annual use over the last five years.”

These guys are taking themselves waaaaay too seriously. Christena O’Brien of the Eau Claire Telegram reports, “The owner of an Eau Claire television station didn’t find an early morning prank last November too funny. Instead of laughing, the people behind Atlanta-based Gray Television, which owns WEAU-TV, filed a federal lawsuit earlier this month in New York against The Found Footage Festival, Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, all of New York. Using fake names and materials, the ‘defendants fraudulently induced Gray Television station WEAU … to book their appearance for a live interview on its flagship morning program ‘Hello Wisconsin’, according to the complaint. Pickett and Prueher, who attended UW-Eau Claire, appeared on ‘Hello Wisconsin’ on Nov. 29 as the ‘fake strongman duo Chop & Steele and performed ridiculous bits and provided false information to WEAU viewers,’ the suit contends.” Sadly, there’s no video.

Forget about old what's his name. In the PiPress Bob Shaw tells us, “Orville Bielenberg never got a dime for having his name on a building. But now Woodbury could be getting about $1.8 million for removing his name from the city’s sports center. Medical giant HealthEast is proposing to pay for the naming rights, erasing the name of Woodbury’s first mayor from what has been called the Bielenberg Sports Center. If the city council approves, the $22 million center will be known as the HealthEast Sports Center.”

Snow!? Paul Huttner at MPR says, “Depending on where you live, you may enjoy light rain, heavy rain, thunder, snow, sleet and ice. This week’s weather reminds us, it’s still April in Minnesota.”

The Forum News Service has this: “John and Anne Alexander were always together after 64 years of marriage, rarely doing anything without their spouse at their side. ‘They were just so close,’ said their daughter, Nancy Alexander. That's why it wasn't exactly a shock to the family that they died together at Ecumen Nursing Home in Detroit Lakes, Anne at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, and John at 6:30 a.m. Thursday, April 20. ‘I think he wanted her to have her own day and then he had his own day, too,’ said Kate Anderson, one of the couple's six surviving children.”

Paulsen's votes have little to do with his Earth Day persona

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 4:04pm

To commemorate Earth Day, my congressman, Rep. Erik Paulsen, posted appealing photo ops on social media and bland positive statements about national parks on his website.

However, his actual voting record bears no resemblance to the persona he creates online and in my district. Few are aware of his terrible record on the environment, as documented by the League of Conservation voters (16% lifetime environmental voting record).

Just this year he has already voted to repeal a regulation that protected thousands of miles of streams from coal mining debris, and to devalue federal lands to make them easier to sell off for sale, mining or development.

His constituents deserve a representative who presents himself honestly. Something doesn't match — either Paulsen needs to stop dissembling or change his votes to match his public persona.

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Don’t put another train on the kids’ credit card

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 2:42pm
Kim Crockett

We’ve heard the Metropolitan Council say for years that the federal government was on board to underwrite the expansion of the metro’s light rail system. It was always inevitable; the funding train had left the station.

Kim Crockett

The controversial $1.9 billion Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) was supposed to get $929 million in federal funds, followed by the $753 million for the $1.5 billion Bottineau line. Instead, both appeared on list of transit projects that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has declined to select for full funding. “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” according to an April 7, 2017, letter sent to Speaker Kurt Daudt and the Trump administration’s budget blueprint.

This announcement is, among others things, a long overdue acknowledgment that the federal government is broke, and that revenues for transportation are dwindling. That means We the People are broke. We cannot afford to keep building expensive transit projects that do not deliver congestion relief.

Borrowing heavily from the future

Although it has dropped from the headlines, our country has been borrowing heavily from the future. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal debt hit the debt ceiling of $19.9 trillion, up about $10 trillion since 2008. Yet even with all that borrowing, the feds are still running big annual deficits ($559 billion this year).

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Borrowing from the future means that government is spending future tax revenues — and people’s paychecks — to pay for today’s, and even yesterday’s, costs.

We are not just taking out loans for ourselves; we are taking out loans on behalf of our kids and grandkids. How are future generations supposed to pay for government if we have already spent their earnings and tax dollars, and left them with our debts?

The DOT’s recommendation that we look to local funding has forced a tough conversation here at home. Are these good projects? And even if they are, can we afford them?

The answer from most state and local officials has been a resounding “No.”

Light rail expansion has failed to get approvals and funding from the Legislature; that issue blew up the transportation bill last session, leaving the state without funds for road repairs and expansion. Suburban counties have rejected the plan, too. In fact, when presented with funding transit that serves a “city-centric” model favoring downtown Minneapolis at the expense of suburbs, Anoka and Dakota county decided to dissolve the Counties Transit Improvement Board (or CTIB). Exit negotiations are under way.

Burden on Hennepin County

If light rail expansion somehow moves ahead without state dollars, and suburban counties withdraw, light rail would come at a very steep cost to Hennepin County taxpayers. Even though it promised the Legislature in writing not to do it, the Met Council is planning to use an obscure borrowing scheme (Certificates of Participation) that would divert current tax revenues to pay down capital costs, while Hennepin County would raise taxes by $125 million a year to fund operational costs of transit, including light rail.

So what was once a regional project that assumed state and federal backing is quickly becoming a Hennepin County project. 

Why have so many elected officials rejected these projects?

“Light rail is an obsolete form of transportation that will be made even more obsolete in a few years by self-driving cars,” said Randal O’Toole, a CATO Institute senior fellow and public transit expert. “Congress should stop funding light rail, including the Southwest line, as well as other obsolete transit programs, such as an extension of the Northstar to St. Cloud.”

Supporters say the projects are too far down the track to stop now. The Met Council, for example, has already spent at least $159 million on planning SWLRT, and besides, developers have bought land and planned apartment buildings and other development along the line.

Costs will only rise with time

First, the sunk costs of the project, while high, are nothing compared to what will be spent to build ($2 billion), operate ($20-30 million a year) and then replace SWLRT in 25 years. None of these projected costs include taxpayer subsidies planned for “affordable” housing and other subsidized development that planners say are needed to drive ridership. Next comes Bottineau and other transit lines.

Second, when developers speculate, they do so at their own risk. Yes, government should be an honest and reliable partner, but the Met Council’s long-term transit and housing plan has been met with fierce and growing opposition, so there was always a risk of cancellation.

What about losing “free” federal dollars? We absolutely need to get tax dollars back to Minnesota, but let’s spend the money on projects that relieve congestion where development has already happened, rather than borrowing more money for a speculative “build it and they will come” real estate development scheme.

DOT decides which project to fund

Congress allocates a lump sum of money to the DOT for transit, but DOT decides which projects will get funding. Not even the friendlier Obama administration advanced SWLRT or Bottineau beyond the engineering phase. So unless the DOT does an about-face, neither of these projects will get federal funding.

That does not mean supporters have given up: State legislators, our congressional delegation and bureaucrats at the DOT are being lobbied hard by Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, Met Council Chair Adam Duininck, and developers and construction companies.

Who is lobbying the Legislature and Congress on behalf of future generations who will be stuck with traffic jams, aging and obsolete transit and the debts of their parents? Let’s hope that our Legislature, congressional delegation and the DOT will resolve to stop that funding train.

Kim Crockett is vice president, senior policy fellow and general counsel of Center of the American Experiment.

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St. Paul to power a quarter of municipal buildings with solar

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 12:27pm
MinnPost staff CC/Flickr/(ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧

The capital city is going green. The Pioneer Press’ Frederick Melo report: “The energy that powers the St. Paul Fire Station on Randolph Avenue, the George Latimer Central Library in downtown St. Paul and the North Dale rec center will soon come from the sun. … City officials have negotiated an agreement with GreenMark Solar to power a fourth of St. Paul’s municipal buildings with electricity derived from community solar gardens. … The agreement, adopted Wednesday by the St. Paul City Council, allows the city to buy up to eight megawatts of electricity from the Minneapolis-based solar company, or about a fourth of the electrical energy that St. Paul needs each year to power its government offices, libraries, rec centers and fire stations. As a result, energy bills are projected to drop $165,000 next year.”

Minneapolis’ mayor shares a difficult story. City Pages’ Mike Mullen, writes: “For more than a year now, a local nonprofit called Break the Silence has been helping survivors of rape and sexual abuse come to terms.  … Founded by Sarah Super, survivor of a 2015 rape by her ex-boyfriend Alec Neal, the organization serves as a support group and an outlet for cathartic release. Victims (male and female) of sexual trauma tell their stories and reveal their identities in whichever way they feel comfortable, either in person at one of the group's events, or online, through the Break the Silence Facebook page.  … On Monday morning, visitors to that page were met with one of the city's most recognizable faces: Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.”

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Heat level: Blazin’. The Star Tribune’s Evan Ramstad, Glen Stubbe and Evan.Ramstad Startribune.Com report: “Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. this morning fired back at the activist investor trying to take control of the company, saying he has ‘no credible plan’ to run it and urging shareholders to stay with current leaders. … The company set a June 2 date for its annual shareholders meeting, a usually perfunctory event that this year will be a turning point in its 35-year history. … In the proxy filing and letter sent to shareholders, Buffalo Wild Wings refuted accusations by Marcato Capital Management and its principal Mick McGuire that its executives and directors had taken their foot off the gas after creating one of the fastest-growing and most profitable restaurant chains in the U.S.”

It’s so rare for these stories to have happy endings. The Star Tribune’s Paul Walsh reports: “A man who had been missing since his pleasure boat took on water early Sunday on the St. Croix River has been found and is doing well, authorities said Monday. … The mishap occurred about 2:50 a.m. Sunday on the St. Croix near Bayport, according to the Washington County Sheriff's Office. … At the outset, 35-year-old Kristin Erickson fled the partly submerged boat and made it the short distance to shore unscathed, but the 36-year-old man with her, Jason Elgersma, was nowhere to be found. … However, the Sheriff's Office said in a statement issued about 8 a.m. Monday, ‘The missing boater has been found, and he did survive the accident.’

In other news…

Happy summer: “MnDOT Announces More Lane, Ramp Closures In I-94 Project” [WCCO]

Speaking of which: “Downtown Afton is in for a rocky road this summer” [Pioneer Press]

Rock the Garden lineup announced: “The Revolution to play Rock the Garden 2017” [KMSP]

Minneapolis council challengers have a big weekend at north side DFL ward conventions

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 10:55am
Kristoffer Tigue

In Minneapolis’ Ward 4 and 5, City Council incumbents met stiff competition over the weekend as they sought the DFL  endorsement during Saturday’s party ward conventions.

In Ward 5, challenger Jeremiah Ellison won the endorsement over incumbent Blong Yang, while in Ward 4, longtime City Council President Barb Johnson was denied the party endorsement after a neck-and-neck fight with challenger Phillipe Cunningham. With neither Johnson nor Cunningham securing the 60 percent of delegates needed to get the nod, the DFL won’t be endorsing that race.

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At North High School, a strong turnout of first-time delegates helped propel Ellison to his win in Ward 5 after just two rounds of voting. In all, more than 180 delegates attended the convention, with about 63 percent voting for Ellison, 30 percent voting for Yang, and less than 1 percent voting for Cathy Spann, the third candidate seeking DFL endorsement. Another council candidate in Ward 5, Raeisha Williams, did not seek the endorsement.

Wintana Melekin, an organizer with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), said many of the candidates at both the Fifth and Fourth Ward conferences were new to the endorsement process but came this year because they wanted to see a change in city leaders, whom many believe aren’t progressive enough on issues like a citywide $15 minimum wage and stronger police reform measures.

“I think folks are really excited about seeing a Minneapolis that’s reflective of them,” Melekin said. “They want to see something new and strong and equitable, and I think a lot of these folks are out here fighting for that.”

Ellison defeats Yang

Jeremiah Ellison’s campaign was already well-positioned coming into Saturday’s convention. He carried good name recognition because of his father, Rep. Keith Ellison, and he received early endorsements from labor unions and several advocacy groups on the north side, such NOC and TakeAction Minnesota.

Selling himself as a “Northsider fighting for the North Side,” Ellison promised on Saturday that he would bring more economic opportunities to north Minneapolis.

“We seem to be caught in a loop, experiencing the same old problems,” he said. “Words like gentrification aren’t just buzzwords for academics or politicians to throw around. These are people that I love struggling to stay in a place they call home.”

MinnPost photo by Kristoffer TigueMore than 180 delegates attended the Ward 5 convention, with about 63 percent voting for Ellison, 30 percent voting for Yang, and less than 1 percent voting for Cathy Spann.

Ellison also took issue with how current city leaders have approached issues like persistent racial disparities. He called past city proposals “band-aid” solutions and promised he would bring more creative, community-led ideas to the table.

Ward 5 incumbent Blong Yang stood behind his leadership, however, saying he has done what he could to address violent crime in the area, boost economic opportunities there, and provide more affordable housing for those who need it.

“In 2014, I went to City Hall with these grandiose ideas for change,” Yang said. “Today, I stand before you with more experience and a realistic view of how change can be done. Speeches with big promises and buzzwords won’t get the work done in Ward 5.”

In the end, Ellison won the endorsement with 117 delegate votes to Yang’s 55 in the second round of voting.

No endorsement in Ward 4

Over in Ward 4, voting was more complicated. Unlike in Ward 5, Fourth Ward delegates used rank-choice voting (RCV) to try to select which of their four candidates seeking party endorsement would win it.

More than 220 delegates packed the Lucy Craft Laney Community School for nearly five hours due to the lengthy RCV process, a method where voters choose candidates based on preference, and votes are then redistributed on additional rounds based on voter’s second and third choices if the necessary majority isn’t met.

None of the four candidates broke the necessary 60 percent needed to receive DFL endorsement and the ward convention eventually adjourned with no endorsement. Frontrunners Phillipe Cunningham and Barb Johnson fought neck and neck throughout the convention’s five rounds of voting. In the end, Cunningham got 47 percent of the delegates and Johnson 44.

MinnPost photo by Kristoffer TigueMore than 220 delegates in Ward 4 packed the Lucy Craft Laney Community School for nearly five hours due to the lengthy RCV process.

Both Marcus Harcus and Stephanie Gasca encouraged their supporters to vote “no endorsement” after they were dropped from the balloting. On the fourth and fifth round of voting, nearly 10 percent of the delegates voted to not endorse any candidate.

Indeed, the no-endorsement decision was seen as a win by some delegates. Beth Backen, who’s lived in the city’s Fourth Ward for 11 years, said the lack of any endorsement was the second best scenario. While she would have rather seen Cunningham or Gasca walk away with the endorsement, she said, she was at least happy it didn’t go to Johnson. “I feel the incumbent hasn’t been doing a good enough job,” she said. “That was my priority.”

The fight for the DFL endorsement in the St. Paul mayor's race is about to get personal

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 10:28am
Peter Callaghan

There’s a handful of St. Paul DFL party members who are about to become very popular, at least with the four party candidates who’d like to become the city’s next mayor.

After the first weekend of the city’s DFL ward conventions — when three of the party’s seven wards distributed their delegates to June 17 city DFL convention — any path to a clean party endorsement will have to go through uncommitted delegates. “We’ll be knocking on their doors,” said Dai Thao of those delegates. “They’ll get tired of seeing us.”

Melvin Carter III, the former city council member and current advisor to Gov. Mark Dayton, can claim bragging rights for now. He won a total of 71 endorsements over the weekend, securing 19 of 55 delegates from the city’s northern Ward 5; 23 of the 67 delegates from his home Ward 1; and 29 of the 83 delegates from Ward 2. With those 71 of the 205 awarded so far — Wards 3,4,6 and 7 don't hold their conventions until next weekend — Carter has the most delegates of the four candidates who are seeking the DFL endorsement, which includes current council member Dai Thao, former city council member Pat Harris and former school board member Tom Goldstein. 

Second and third places so far are held by Harris, with 39 delegates, and Thao, with 35. Harris rode strong support from Somali voters in a single precinct in Ward 1 to help him win 13 delegates there, four from the 5th Ward and 22 from the 2nd. Thao won 14 delegates from his current Ward 1, seven more from the 5th and 14 from the 2nd. Goldstein got a total of five delegates.

“We feel good about it,” a happy Carter said at the conclusion of the Ward 1 convention at the Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet school, his alma mater.

It takes 60 percent of the delegates at the city convention to win the endorsement, so a candidate who doesn’t have that level of support has to hope that no other candidate can reach the threshold. Both Carter and Thao have pledged not to run if another candidate wins the endorsement for the office, which is technically nonpartisan. Harris said he will continue to run even if he doesn't get the endorsement, while Goldstein said he is undecided on whether to continue if he doesn't get the DFL's imprimatur. (Also running for St. Paul mayor are two candidates not seeking the DFL endorsement: Green Party candidate Elizabeth Dickinson and Tim Holden, who has said he will run as an independent.)

MinnPost photo by Peter CallaghanMelvin Carter III, right, won a total of 71 endorsements over the weekend.

The totals for each of the candidates came from the sum of a small handful of different subcaucuses. Under the DFL rules, one way to elect candidates is with what are called walking subcaucuses. A delegate nominates a subcaucus that can be the name of a candidate a political issue or both. So Harris’ delegates in Ward 1 were a combination of support for “Harris Affordable Housing” and “Harris Serving Our Troops,” a reference to the organization Harris helped found, which travels the world to serve steak dinners to U.S. soldiers.

Thao’s walking subcaucuses were “Progressives for Dai” and “Dai Thao Equity,” while Carter’s delegates came from a single caucus in Ward 1, though he did well among subcaucuses in other wards focused on education.

MinnPost photo by Peter CallaghanDai Thao, center, won 14 delegates from his current Ward 1.Where the endorsement fight goes from here

With four more ward conventions next weekend and the city convention six weeks beyond that, the campaign now becomes one of house-to-house combat for delegates.

There are two types of undecided delegates. One is the delegate elected from a subcaucus that declared itself uncommitted but united behind an issue, such as uncommitted pro bicycling; uncommitted sanctuary city; uncommitted first-time caucusers; uncommitted but in favor of keeping ranked choice voting in the city; and uncommitted but in favor of another city vote on RCV.

Then there are delegates elected based on their support for a candidate for the St. Paul school board. Marny Xiong, a Hmong-American who is an administrator for the Minneapolis schools, won 10 of 55 delegates in the 5th Ward and three in the 1st; John Brodrick, a four-term school board member, won two delegates in Ward 5 and two delegates in Ward 2. Those delegates will take part in balloting for the mayoral endorsement, and may already have a favorite candidate for mayor.

MinnPost photo by Peter CallaghanPat Harris, right, said he will continue to run even if he doesn't get the endorsement.

The St. Paul DFL is trying a different format for its caucuses and ward conventions, a move that chair Libby Kantner said is aimed at increasing participation and reducing the time commitment. This year, precinct caucuses and ward conventions are being held on the same day and same location. Ward 1, for example, started holding its 17 precinct caucuses at the Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet school 10 a.m., followed by the ward convention in the school gymnasium at around noon.

Throughout the morning, the four mayoral campaigns were staffed by workers wearing different colored shirts, while the candidates made the rounds of all 17 caucuses for short speeches. In their speeches to delegates in Precinct 2, the candidates made an attempt to appeal to the many immigrants present.

“Would you rather have a soccer stadium in your neighborhood or soccer fields your kids can play on and a rec center open to your families,” said Goldstein.

MinnPost photo by Peter CallaghanTom Goldstein, left, said he is undecided on whether to continue if he doesn't get the DFL's imprimatur.

Harris reminded attendees of his work on increasing the minimum wage for workers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, which he oversees as a member of the Metropolitan Airports Commission. Thao spoke of his own immigration experience, fleeing Laos in a migration that saw two sisters and a brother die. And Carter said he envisions a city that embraces its multi-ethnic residents to become a leader in the global economy.

But the speeches didn’t matter. Harris had a team of Somali-American volunteers, including former city council candidate Samakab Hussein, who worked to deliver them as delegates to the ward convention, and 17 of the precinct’s 25 delegates to the Ward convention were for Harris.

Donald Trump is making huge promises about rebuilding America’s infrastructure. Does that include trains?

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 9:54am
Sam Brodey

As a candidate and as president, Donald Trump painted a picture of a U.S. transportation network in shambles: He said that roads and bridges nationwide are crumbling, and he called U.S. airports dilapidated — even going so far as to deem them “Third World.”

There’s no question that the one-time real estate tycoon wants to build up the country’s infrastructure, and he’s aiming to build big: Trump and his aides have floated a $1 trillion infrastructure package, an idea viewed favorably by Republicans and Democrats alike.

In his grand designs on U.S. infrastructure, though, Trump will have to come to grips with the third rail of transportation: trains.

Across the country, from commuter light rail projects to high-speed passenger trains, rail projects have become political lightning rods, getting bogged down in partisan bickering while road and bridge improvements remain priority projects for most federal and state authorities.

Trump has said repeatedly that he hopes to bolster all kinds of rail projects, but train advocates are skeptical, and see in the president’s new budget proposal the same old focus on car infrastructure — a focus that comes at the expense of certain key elements of the rail network.

In Minnesota, there are several major rail projects picking up steam, from the proposed Southwest Light Rail to a passenger train between the Twin Cities and Duluth. As they approach critical funding junctures, will Trump keep these trains on track — or derail them?

‘The high-speed rail president’

Trump’s big proclamations on infrastructure mirror those of the last president, Barack Obama, who made transit improvements a key element of his $830 billion stimulus package to jolt the economy after the 2008 financial crisis.

The stimulus dedicated $48 billion to transit projects, which included $8 billion for major passenger rail initiatives and $1.3 billion for the country’s main passenger rail operator, Amtrak.

But through the Obama years, rail grew more politically charged in states like Minnesota, with Democrats and Republicans arguing over funding for rail versus road infrastructure.

That’s why some are surprised at Trump’s embrace of the kinds of big-ticket, big-budget rail projects Republicans have been slamming Democrats for over the past eight years.

In his first 100 days in office, Trump has gone out of his way to publicly declare his support for rail. In a meeting with airline executives, the president bemoaned the lack of top-notch train transit in the U.S.

“You go to China, you go to Japan, they have fast trains all over the place,” he told them. “We don't have one. I don't want to compete with your business, but we don't have one fast train.”

When the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, visited Washington, Trump reportedly asked him about high-speed rail. Abe later said that he believed Trump would make significant investments in that kind of transit.

Trump’s transit team also identified in a document, which was shared with the press, 50 infrastructure projects that would be prioritized in any funding plan. Eight of them involved some type of rail transport. (None was in Minnesota.)

All of this has encouraged the press, from mainstream newspapers to the Trump-loving outlet Breitbart, to muse that Trump could be “the high-speed rail president,” snatching that mantle from Obama. (The conservative RedState blog recoiled at Trump’s pro-rail declarations, grousing, “if you liked TrumpCare, you’re gonna love TrumpRail.”)

Red flags in Trump’s budget

However, some are looking past Trump’s talk and finding signs that the president could usher in a darker era for train travel in the U.S.

The budget blueprint released by the White House in March requests from Congress a 13 percent cut in federal transportation funding, all of which comes from nonroad sources, like rail. It would entirely eliminate federal support of long-haul Amtrak routes and certain regional rail projects, among other things.

Trump’s budget is unlikely to become law, but it’s a statement of the administration’s priorities, and it will press Congress to act on some of them. If the document is any indication, rail is not one of the White House’s priorities, and that has significant implications for the handful of rail projects that are being considered in Minnesota.

Currently, state authorities are in the middle of planning two major new passenger rail routes: one connecting the Twin Cities with Duluth, and one connecting the Twin Cities with Chicago, with stops in Wisconsin and southern Minnesota in between.

The former, called the Northern Lights Express, has been in the works since 2009, and it is the closest to being ready for construction. It would run on a 152-mile stretch of existing track between downtown Duluth and Target Field, in Minneapolis, with potential stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley, and Superior, Wisconsin.

Averaging 60 miles per hour — and topping out at 90 — the Northern Lights Express aims to make the Duluth-Minneapolis run in 2½ hours, roughly the amount of time it takes to hike up I-35 in a car, without traffic.

The capital cost of the project is estimated somewhere between $600 and $650 million, and state transportation officials expect that the federal government would carry 80 percent of those costs. It would be up to the involved state governments — Minnesota and possibly Wisconsin — to cover the train’s operating costs.

With proposed round-trip fares hovering around $70, revenue from fares could easily cover up to 90 percent of operating costs, says Dan Krom, director of the Passenger Rail Office at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The issue is getting capital investment from the feds, which advocates say is an uncertain prospect. They realize they have work to do, but they believe they have a strong case to make that the project is feasible and will provide positive economic impact.

Frank Ongaro, director of Intergovernmental Relations with St. Louis County, says that when environmental impact proceedings are completed in July, the Northern Lights will be “shovel-ready.”

“The timing is probably perfect for us,” he told MinnPost. “This project alone will create 3,100 jobs during the construction phase, jobs that currently don’t exist in rural Minnesota.”

Duluth City Council Member Elissa Hansen told the Duluth News Tribune that Northern Lights is “positioned better than any rail project in Minnesota and compared to some other national ones as well. My hope is that the federal government sees this as a true public-private partnership.”

Service to Chicago, and points west

The other big rail project in MnDOT’s docket, dedicated service to Chicago, is only in the initial stages of the planning process.

They propose instituting a daily round trip between St. Paul’s Union Depot and Chicago’s Union Station, with stops in Milwaukee, central Wisconsin, and southern Minnesota cities like Winona and Red Wing.

That track is already serviced once a day in each direction by Amtrak’s Empire Builder train, which runs between Chicago and either Seattle or Portland, Oregon. At about 2,200 miles, it’s the second-longest route that Amtrak operates, and it cuts diagonally through Minnesota, from Winona through the Twin Cities and up to Fargo, with stops in between.

According to MnDOT’s Krom, ridership patterns on the Empire Builder have led officials to believe there’s a good case to be made for a train that solely runs the Twin Cities to Chicago route. About 450,000 people ride the Empire Builder every year —  a lower total than most Amtrak routes — but Krom says that Amtrak often adds an additional passenger car or two when the train picks up Twin Cities passengers heading to Chicago. (He says around 150,000 Minnesotans rode Empire Builder last year.)

With a dedicated Twin Cities-Chicago train, Minnesotans looking to travel to Wisconsin and Chicago would have more options. But there’s a problem, Krom says, and it’s in Trump’s budget.

“What I’ve read of Trump’s framework for transportation,” he explains, “again, none of this is set in stone, but his interest is in shifting support for Amtrak that Congress provides from long-distance service trains like Empire Builder to corridor service trains.”

Indeed, Trump’s budget would cut funding for long-haul trains like Empire Builder, effectively killing them because they rely on federal cash. So, Krom says, there’s a scenario under which the Twin Cities-Chicago train moves ahead, but the Empire Builder is axed for good.

There’s also another scenario: “The only service we have is the Empire Builder, and if we don’t have state support and federal support to do the second train specifically between the Twin Cities and Chicago, we’d have no rail service,” Krom says.

Train advocates say that’s bad news. According to Laura Kliewer at the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, a rail advocacy group, “We just have some educating to do of the administration to help them understand how important intercity passenger rail is to our communities across the region and the country. Long-distance service is a critical lifeline for our nation.” (And, according to Krom, about 40 Minnesota Amtrak employees would lose their jobs if Trump’s budget went forward.)

In the past, there has been support in Congress for slashing Amtrak's budget, and critics point out that eliminating its longer-haul routes would save federal cash. Kliewer’s organization sent a letter to Midwestern members of Congress asking them to oppose any cuts to long-haul train service. It points out that five Minnesota cities, along with the Twin Cities area, would be among 50 Midwestern cities and towns to entirely lose passenger rail service if cuts proceed.

“Even if a town has just one stop daily in each direction, long‐distance trains are an essential service to many rural communities,” the letter states. “Trains provide connections within and between regions, and economic development opportunities.”

In the shorter term, there’s a real concern that MnDOT won’t be able to do any passenger rail work, at all. “The Legislature’s transportation bill zeros out our programs,” Krom says. “Unless there’s an agreement between the Legislature and the governor, the office may not exist. Efforts from the state in passenger rail have a shelf life, in a few years they’d have to be replicated.”

“Add in the uncertainty at the federal level with funding,” Krom says, “and it doesn’t bode well for more passenger service in Minnesota.”

The state of Twin Cities rail

Uncertainty at the state level has typically been a feature of light rail planning in Minnesota. On the other hand, for projects like the Southwest Light Rail and the Bottineau Blue Line, the promise of federal funding has been steady in recent years.

Trump may scramble that dynamic, with D.C. replacing St. Paul as the main source of angst for light rail advocates in the Twin Cities. “There’s more uncertainty in Washington than there is at the state level,” says Adam Duininck, chair of the Metropolitan Council.

The president’s budget proposes cutting the federal grant programs that fund SWLRT and the Blue Line expansion project, that haven’t signed full-funding agreements yet with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Minnesota authorities are close to a full-funding agreement with Washington for SWLRT, having secured last year the $135 million in non-federal contributions needed for it to proceed. Once the agreement is completed, $900 million in federal support over nearly a decade would be all but locked in.

Perhaps realizing time is running out, staunch opponents of SWLRT, led by House Speaker Kurt Daudt, sent a letter in March to U.S. DoT secretary Elaine Chao asking her to deny funding for the project. Gov. Mark Dayton sent a counterletter in April to Chao reiterating support for it.

Duininck says he is confident SWLRT will move forward, and that the federal grant program supporting it will continue to exist, regardless of what Trump’s budget says.

“The second question is what the Trump administration does on a project-by-project basis,” he says. “Where does Congress and the president meet in terms of sorting this all out could have a big impact on future projects here in the region.”

Duininck says that the Bottineau project, to extend the Blue Line 13 miles into Brooklyn Park, is lower in the feds’ queue, and might be more vulnerable to major changes in Washington. In January, the Federal Transit Administration advanced the project so that it is one step away from the full-funding agreement stage. The feds would cover roughly half of the $1.5 billion project.

Even if SWLRT and Bottineau proceed unscathed, Duininck is disappointed with the direction of Trump’s budget.

“It’s troubling because what it signals to me is that the rhetoric won’t match the budget,” he says. “So much rhetoric about jobs and connecting people to jobs that if the Trump administration decides not to fund programs like these, I think it’s going to have a significant impact on our region.”

Could medieval medical texts help in search for new antibiotics?

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 9:03am
Susan Perry

Antibacterial resistance — the ability of bacteria to survive attempts to control or kill them with existing drugs — is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest threats to global public health.

As a World Health Organization official announced a few years ago, “Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.”

We’re already partially there. In the United States alone, at least 2 million people become infected with drug-resistant bacteria each year, and 23,000 people die as a result of those infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Efforts are under way to find new antibiotic drugs, but progress has been slow. Scientists are trying all sorts of approaches, including ones that employ the latest in molecular biology technologies. Earlier this month, for example, a team of Swedish researchers reported how they had used gene sequencing to identify nine different types of Penicillium fungi with a strong potential for producing new antibiotics. (The original antibiotic, penicillin, is derived from such a fungi.)

'Bald's eyesalve' 

One of the more intriguing efforts to find new antibiotics, however, has to be the AncientBiotics project. This team of microbiologists, philologists, medicinal chemists, parasitologists, pharmacists, data scientists and medievalists (yes, you read that right) from various universities across the world believes that answers to the antibiotic crisis may be found in medical history. 

“To that end, we are compiling a database of medieval medical recipes,” writes AncientBiotics member Erin Connelly, a post-doctoral researcher in medieval studies at the University of Pennsylvania, in a recent article for The Conversation. “By revealing patterns in medieval medical practice, our database could inform future laboratory research into the materials used to treat infection in the past." 

The group has already had one success, as Connelly explains:

In 2015, our team published a pilot study on a 1,000-year old recipe called Bald’s eyesalve from “Bald’s Leechbook,” an Old English medical text. The eyesalve was to be used against a “wen,” which may be translated as a sty, or an infection of the eyelash follicle.

A common cause of modern styes is the bacterium Staphylococcus aureusMethicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA) is resistant to many current antibiotics. Staph and MRSA infections are responsible for a variety of severe and chronic infections, including wound infections, sepsis and pneumonia.

Bald’s eyesalve contains wine, garlic, an Allium species (such as leek or onion) and oxgall. The recipe states that, after the ingredients have been mixed together, they must stand in a brass vessel for nine nights before use. 

In our study, this recipe turned out to be a potent antistaphylococcal agent, which repeatedly killed established S. aureus biofilms — a sticky matrix of bacteria adhered to a surface — in an in vitro infection model. It also killed MRSA in mouse chronic wound models.

An important take-away from the Bald’s eyesalve story, Connelly adds, is that practitioners had to follow the recipe precisely, especially the nine-day wait, in order for the remedy to work.

“Are the results of this medieval recipe representative of others that treat infection?” she asks. “Were practitioners selecting and combining materials following some ‘scientific’ methodology for producing biologically active cocktails?”

A cautionary note

These efforts to find new drugs in old treatments should not be viewed as an endorsement of traditional folk medicine, however. Most such remedies were either placebos or, in some cases, palliatives. And certain medieval medicines — like the herb henbane, which was used for pain relief — could be lethal.

Still, Connelly and her AncientBiotics colleagues are optimistic that their efforts to uncover new antibiotics from old remedies will be successful. 

“The database could direct us to new recipes to test in the lab in our search for novel antibiotics, as well as inform new research into the antimicrobial agents contained in these ingredients on the molecular level,” she writes. “It could also deepen our understanding of how medieval practitioners ‘designed’ recipes.”

“Our research is in the beginning stages,” she adds, “but it holds exciting potential for the future.”

FMI:  You can read Connelly’s article on The Conversation’s website.

PaviElle French, Maria Jette and DJ/FRND lend their voices to MinnRoast 2017

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 8:46am
MinnPost staff

Singing has always been an important aspect of MinnRoast, and this year we have three local professionals adding their amazing voices to our stellar line-up. PaviElle French is a dynamic soul singer and spoken word artist from St. Paul. If you missed her last Friday at the Dakota, MinnRoast is your chance to hear her.

The versatile Maria Jette is able to lend her voice to early Baroque opera, Edwardian parlor music, Latin American chamber music, Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook. What genre will she conquer this year?

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DJ/FRND is a rapper/singer/producer from Minneapolis. He makes music with rappers JaySoCreative, Dom Bars, and Shawn Fitz B.C. in a collective called Hi Class. This is DJ/FRND's inaugural MinnRoast appearance, and he will be rapping a parody from a certain historical musical that's the hottest ticket on Broadway. He'll be performing with the MinnRoast Singers and Dancers.

MinnRoast is our annual song-and-skit variety show featuring your favorite local politicians, journalists and media types. Join us this Friday, April 28, at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.

Our talented singers will share the stage with "Bizarre Foods" host Andrew Zimmern, Gov. Mark Dayton, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Tom Emmer, "Almanac" reporter Mary Lahammer, radio personality Brian "BT" Turner, Le Cirque Rouge Cabaret & Burlesque Show Band and many more.

Buy MinnRoast 2017 tickets

Multiticket sponsorships – which include a VIP pre-show reception – start at $500 for first-time buyers. MinnPost Gold and Platinum members are eligible for a 25% ticket discount on show-only MinnRoast tickets. To get the discount code, become a Gold or Platinum member by donating $10 a month (or more) and contact Development Director Claire Radomski at cradomski@minnpost.com or (612) 455-6954.

Photos: March for Science in St. Paul

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 8:44am
Corey Anderson

An estimated 10,000 demonstrators marched from Cathedral Hill Park to the Minnesota State Capitol on Earth Day this past Saturday. The march was one of over 600 worldwide to support science education and funding research. Speakers at the rally that followed included climatologist Mark Seeley and Rep. Betty McCollum.

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Rooms of their own: Trauma-informed design improves children’s space at People Serving People

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 8:41am
Andy Steiner

The kids who live at People Serving People’s family shelter at 614 Third Street S. in Minneapolis can be a sensitive bunch.

“These children are highly attuned to their environment,” said Gwen Campbell, People Serving People development director. “They are sensitive to bright lights and sound, and they can be hyper-aware of their surroundings.”

Sensitivity is a symptom of trauma, Campbell explained.

“All of the children who live here have suffered trauma of one sort or another. We’re not only talking about the trauma of homelessness, but also other traumas that were part of the journey their families took to losing their homes. That could be abuse, incarceration, household dysfunction, mental illness, addiction. We are talking about kids who have experienced multiple traumas in their relatively short lifetimes.” 

‘It felt temporary’

For years, there were two side-by-side activity rooms on the second floor of People Serving People’s building, where children grades K-5 who live at the shelter could meet with volunteer tutors, do their homework, read or just spend time with friends.

The two small rooms were useful, Campbell said, but they felt cramped and less than ideal, especially for the sensitive young people who used them.

The overhead lighting was harsh and fluorescent. The furniture was a jumbled mix of “nonprofit-style” furniture, Campbell said. The floors were cold, the chairs were hard and toys and supplies were stored in rickety hand-me-down cupboards.

“It definitely wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t soothing, either,” she said. “It wasn’t a place that felt like it was made for the children who live here. It felt temporary, thrown together.”

Because the activity rooms were serviceable, upgrading them was a low priority for the shelter. “We figured the rooms would always stay that way,” Campbell said resignedly. But then, out of nowhere, People Serving People got a call from Jackie Millea, AIA ASID, founding partner of Minneapolis-based Shelter Architecture.

Millea, a member of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID-MN), was looking for a significant nonprofit renovation project that members of her association could take on to showcase their talents.

“I’d taken a tour of People Serving People before,” Millea explained. “I thought their mission was amazing. I thought that having the opportunity to work with my colleagues to create a comfortable, welcoming space there would also be amazing.”

Millea asked if there was an area in the shelter that staff felt really needed a design up-grade.

“They said, ‘What about helping us with these two classroom spaces?’” She recalled. “We took a look and said, ‘Perfect.’ ” 

Trauma-informed design

The ASID design team wanted to take on a project that they felt could demonstrate the power of design in enhancing the accessibility and use of a space. Making the activity room work better for the kids and adults who used it seemed like a perfect challenge.

The project began with conversations.

“The design team came here numerous times,” Campbell said. “They spoke with the coordinator who ran our programs for the K-5 group. That’s the group of children that take part in the activities that go on in those rooms. They learned more about we do in those rooms, what our mission is and the characteristics of the population we serve.”

Courtesy of Shelter ArchitectureJackie Millea

Millea and her colleagues learned about the challenges many of the children face and about the ways past traumas have impacted how they navigate their world. The design team — a group of professionals and students — met for a design charette where they worked in teams to develop four different plans for the space.

All plans incorporated trauma-informed design principles, Millea said, which include “realizing that the trauma exists, recognizing that people are affected by their traumas, responding in ways that are calming and don’t create more trauma, and actively working to create a safe space where the trauma is understood and not exacerbated.”  

Because People Serving People is a homeless shelter, Millea said that the design team understood it was important to build a space that acknowledged the temporary nature of the children’s time there but also encouraged a sense of stability.

“We wanted to create a space that provided physical and emotional safety,” she said. “We wanted the kids to feel like it was their space and no one else’s. We wanted to make clear it was a kids’ space, not an adult space and not a baby space, either. It had to be a space that was created just for this particular group of kids.”

The four charette-born ideas were narrowed to two, and the two finalists were presented to People Serving People.

Staff at the shelter were impressed with both designs, but finally settled on one that offered the option of turning the two rooms into one with the help of a sliding barn door. One problem that came up in meetings was that the rooms often felt crowded and hard to fit all the children and their tutors at one time. The option of sliding open the door and turning two rooms into one solved that problem — while still retaining the flexibility of having two separate rooms when needed.

“The piece that was really impressive about this design was that through their conversations with us and their visits to our shelter, the ASID team really did learn about trauma-informed care and what design principles would support the way we deliver our services,” Campbell said. “Their finished design was very intentional. We felt like it was just what we needed.” 

The finished product

Because the outdoors can have a calming, nurturing effect, the ASID-MN design team worked to create a space that referenced the natural world, Millea said.

“We tried to use neutral colors, to not use bright colors that can be overstimulating. We looked to nature to really bring in the calming sense of wellness that humans often find in outdoors.”

The rooms are on the building’s second floor with no direct outdoor access, so the design team brought natural elements inside by creating a woodland mural and covering the floor of one room with a custom mix of linoleum tiles that look like grass and water.

“We also tried to bring in natural wood colors wherever we could,” Millea said.

The floor of the second room is covered with soft carpeting. The overhead fluorescent lighting was replaced with high-quality LEDs. Custom-crafted acoustic tiles that resemble clouds float below.

Courtesy of People Serving PeopleChildren at People Serving People working with a team of volunteer tutors in the redesigned space.

Matching, movable furnishings have been selected for both rooms.  “The new tables and chairs can be put together in small groups or taken apart individually so kids can have quiet space or meet in a larger groups,” Campbell said. “They also have some sofa seating built into the walls so a child can sit comfortably with a reading tutor or with a friend.”

The fact that the furniture can be moved to suit the way it will be used at a particular time, Campbell explained, “allows for the children to have more control over their environment and what they do in it. This option is incredibly important for kids who have survived trauma.” 

Millea and her colleagues estimate that project costs topped $90,000.  Time, materials and labor were donated by team designers, product suppliers and installers.  

“It was just this incredible outpouring of generosity,” Millea said. “I am overwhelmed and grateful and impressed with our ASID community and how generous people were with their time and their money and their products.”

The project took several months to complete. About six weeks ago, the rooms were opened for use. They haven’t been empty since.

“The children are happily exploring every corner and claiming it for themselves,” Campbell said. “These are kids who don’t have a lot of control in their everyday life, so they love being able to feel like this is their space. They are really moving in and making it their own.”

Millea is beyond pleased with how the project turned out.

“It has just been wonderful,” she said. “My heart is like the Grinch’s heart: It’s grown several sizes and is bursting out of my chest. I’m so excited. It was a wonderful opportunity to illustrate how design can change people’s lives. I’m glad I was able to be part of it.”

Worthington’s latest 'BIO' gathering showcases rural spark and resilience

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 8:00am
Dane Smith

WORTHINGTON — Worrying about Greater Minnesota and rural America has become one of the hottest trends in the media and in public policy circles, and as usual with such things, the upsides tend to get buried in the crisis tableau.

Dane Smith

Valid reasons for concern abound: stagnant incomes, low postsecondary completion rates, an aging and thinning population, skilled workforce shortages, increases in mortality rates, all culminating in a 2016 election result that both parties need to recognize as a cry from the heart of rural America.

Our own Minnesota Rural Equity Project at Growth & Justice was launched earlier this year to move beyond the worrying and help create a more constructive public policy response to these conditions. And as we will repeatedly emphasize in coming research and communication, in MinnPost and elsewhere, an unrelieved narrative of decline and despair is both false and counterproductive.

Signs of re-invention, self-reliance, resilience and vitality abound. A recent case in point is the 13th Annual Worthington Bio conference, sponsored by the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp (WREDC) and showcasing best examples of innovation and opportunity for bioscience and agriculture-related growth in southwestern Minnesota. Two days of listening revealed at least five takeaways that provide light and hope for southwestern Minnesota.

Innovative technology coming on

The main theme of the conference was innovation, featuring presentations by entrepreneurs and business executives outlining ambitious plans for expanding enterprises in the Upper Midwest or southwestern Minnesota, based on new and emerging technologies.

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Here are three that stood out: Micronutrient Technologies Inc., based in Mankato, has patents pending for bottled drinking water products with micronutrients and vitamins, to meet an exploding demand from health-conscious consumers; Energy Organic Systems Inc. is planning a new plant in Willmar that pioneers a new method of super-efficient “anaerobic digestion” that converts agriculture wastes into energy, organic fertilizer, and water; and Acceligen, a division of the Minnessota-based firm Recombinetics, promoted breakthroughs in “genome editing’’ (not the same as GMOs or genetically modified organisms) that show great promise in improving animal and plant reproduction.

Workforce training improving

Many actors in higher education are at work continuously improving our rural workforce, creating faster and improved pathways to skills and credentials, and several were on stage at the conference. One standout initiative in particular, “Get Into Energy,” recognizes that the next big wave of economic growth for rural Minnesota likely will be in the area of renewable energy, wind and solar in particular. Moreover, thousands of opportunities and jobs will be opening up in the conventional energy sector, due to a coming wave of retirements.

Equipped with a large trailer full of instructional equipment, including interactive gizmos showing how solar and wind power technology works, a team representing 10 Minnesota State colleges and universities is touring the state and providing state-of-the-art instructional materials to high school teachers. Extra effort to attract and recruit young Minnesotans into energy careers will disproportionately benefit Greater Minnesota, where most of the renewable and conventional energy is located.

Dakotas and Canada collaborating

Economic development experts tend to agree that too much effort over too many years has been placed on states “raiding” each other, or trying to grow by luring companies across borders with tax giveaways and special subsidies, with no real net benefit to the Upper Midwest region as a whole.

That kind of harmful competition probably won’t end completely, but two presentations at the BIO conference suggested a new era of cooperation may be underway. The “Protein Highway Initiative,’’ involving Upper Midwestern states and Canada’s prairie provinces, is a new undertaking that aims to take greater cooperative advantage of a vast region that includes the most prolific producers of edible protein in the world. Goals include creation of an innovation hub to spur collaboration through the region, attraction of regional entrepreneurs and support for company scale-ups. Representatives from South Dakota economic development agencies expressed envy and admiration for Minnesota’s track record in fostering growth and healthy companies. “We have to work together,’’ said Joni Johnson, executive director of South Dakota Bio.

Broadband expanding, at last

A prominent exhibitor at the conference was MVTV Wireless, a nonprofit, member-owned corporation, which in recent years has expanded its Wireless Broadband Internet Services to include more than 30,000 square miles of Southwestern Minnesota.

The enterprise now serves more than 6,000 businesses and homes and is growing rapidly, thanks to the support of both the Blandin Foundation and a major infusion of state funding in recent years.

DEED’s doing good deeds

Not since the farm crisis of the 1980s has Minnesota’s state government been so involved in so many ways in assisting businesses and entrepreneurs survive and thrive in rural Minnesota, and the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) is at the forefront.

In a presentation entitled “Financing Firms: From Garages to Clean Rooms,” Bob Isaacson, executive director of DEED’s Office of Business Finance, reviewed success stories from the most frequently used state programs for job creation in Greater Minnesota, including “angel’’ tax credits and funds for start-ups, as well as various state aids for expanding businesses.

Of particular note was the new Emerging Entrepreneur Loan Fund, targeted to businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans, low-income individuals and persons with disabilities. That’s a significant new source of help for communities like Nobles County, which over the last two decades has become one of the most racially diverse counties in the state, home to one of the highest percentages of immigrants.

One of those immigrants is Abraham Algadi, a Middle Easterner from Jordan, who serves as executive director of the WREDC, sponsor of the conference, and Algadi in general plays the role of ebullient cheerleader for the region, and especially its potential for brain-powered innovation.

“What we’re seeing is a natural evolution and progression of rural economies nationwide toward the knowledge-based economy,’’ Algadi said. “There is lot more room in this region’s economy for niche innovations, in agriculture, bioscience and animal health. Nobody knows where the next breakthrough will come from, but we are going to encourage it and be ready to take advantage of it.’’

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a policy research group that advocates for more equitable economic growth in Minnesota.

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Dayton moves to put preservation office under his control

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 5:58am
Brian Lambert

The Star Tribune’s Shannon Prather writes: “Months after the Minnesota Historical Society took a stand against Gov. Mark Dayton over Civil War art in his State Capitol reception room, the governor is backing a bill to strip the state’s preservation agency from the historical society and move it under his control. Dayton’s spokeswoman said the measure … is designed to reduce inefficiency and improve accountability.” Inefficiency, huh.

It’s a Prince wrap for another year. For the PiPress, Ross Raihala says, “Celebration 2017 at Paisley Park wrapped Sunday with 2,000 fans from around the world spending four days at Prince’s Chanhassen studio-turned-museum touring the space, sitting in on panel discussions and watching four concerts. … Carmelita Dockery, too, had an issue with a VIP ticket, this time for Celebration itself. She paid $1,000 – twice the price of a general-admission pass to Paisley Park – and said she was disappointed during some of the performances that there weren’t more clearly defined, sectioned-off VIP areas and that she had to jostle for a position after paying extra to attend.”

The case against the NHL: Says Mike Hughlett in the Strib, “[Reed] Larson believes he suffered numerous concussions — he’s not sure how many. …‘Whenever I’m irritable or forgetful, is it because I’m just getting old, or is it because of the abuses to my head over my career?’ asked Larson, one of 126 former players who have sued the NHL for allegedly failing to protect players from the long-term effects of brain trauma. More than a dozen of those plaintiffs have Minnesota connections, including several former North Stars such as Larson. The litigation is snaking its way through the federal courts in St. Paul, and the battle is heating up.”

For all you cooped up city folk, it’s plantin’ time again. Deana Narveson of the Mankato Free Press says, “Spring’s sprung and farmers in the area are gearing up to utilize the tight window of planting time when soil temperatures, moisture and sunshine provide optimum yields. … Ideal planting time for corn is between April 21 and May 5, and after May 5 for soybeans. By this time last year farmers were already out laying down seed, spending up to 16 hours a day in the seat of the planter. Farmland makes up about half of Minnesota’s land mass.”

FYI, the radar is working. Stribber Tim Harlow alerts drivers using I-94 north out of Minneapolis, “This spring, the Minnesota Department of Transportation turned the nine-mile segment between Nicollet Avenue and Shingle Creek Parkway into a giant construction zone and slimmed the freeway down to two lanes. But apparently that has not stopped motorists from putting the pedal to the metal, even though the agency in charge of building and maintaining state roads has asked them to slow down. Motorists apparently thought MnDOT’s request was only a suggestion, and too many drivers have not changed their habits. So last week MnDOT turned to the State Patrol for help in bringing speeds down and keeping workers safe. MnDOT is paying the patrol $75 to $100 an hour to watch over the work zone at various times of the day and tag leadfoots.”

Very indirectly related. Andrew Hazzard for the Grand Forks Herald reports, “Trooper Sylvia Maurstad is well known in northwestern Minnesota. A sergeant in the Minnesota State Patrol, Maurstad has built a reputation in Roseau and Lake of the Woods counties for aggressiveness and having court cases dismissed. This year a northern Minnesota prosecutor labeled her as an unreliable witness. In February, Roseau County Attorney Karen Foss classified Maurstad as ‘Giglio impaired,’ meaning any testimony she gives in Roseau County can be taken into question.” I gotta work that into my expired tabs case.

Well, they’re for picking up a little walking around money, but mainly for networking. A very rarefied form of networking, but networking nonetheless. For the San Francisco, Chronicle Kathleen Pender writes, “Wells Fargo shareholders will decide at its annual meeting Tuesday whether some or all of the company’s 15 board members should lose their jobs for failing to stop the fraudulent account scandal before it blew up in September. … Wells Fargo’s 12 independent directors earned $326,002 to $485,630 last year. … All 15 board members are up for election at the meeting, which will be at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort and Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.”

 

How a Minnesota 'country boy' turned Pulitzer-winning historian is redefining American icons

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 2:43pm
Tim Gihring

Not long ago, T.J. Stiles was walking beside Lake Mille Lacs when he came across a historical marker. It said the area was the site of a large Sioux village as recently as 300 years ago, a fascinating fact for a place not at all associated with the Dakota Sioux people today. 

Stiles had grown up an hour away, with a sense that the region held no history worth knowing about. “We were living in buildings built in the 1940s in a town founded in the 19th century by a railroad that wasn’t even there anymore,” he says. “I didn’t think it was a very impressive place.”

But he has come to understand, better than anyone else, how wrong he was. Since 2002, he has published three major historical biographies that have earned him two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award — a near-perfect literary batting average. His 2016 Pulitzer, for Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (Knopf), made him the youngest living historian to have twice earned the prize, in the company of Robert Caro and David McCullough. And much of his writing has vindicated America’s mid-section.

“Historians are shockingly dismissive of people in ‘flyover country,’” Stiles says. They doubted that Jesse James, the Missouri farmer-turned-outlaw and the subject of Stiles’ first biography, cared about politics — though the evidence was easy to see. They doubted that General George Custer, who spent a lot of time in St. Paul and traveled through Brainerd on his way out West, could signify anything but epic hubris — though he encapsulates a certain white American angst after the Civil War. 

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“The fulcrum of American history is profound in places like the Great Plains and Minnesota,” Stiles says. “These are places where people were fighting and waging arguments that are at the essence of what America is all about.”

At Mille Lacs, standing before the historical marker, Stiles was reminded of his own youthful dismissal of the area. He could sense the great mysterious gap between the time when a Sioux village stood there and today, as well as the “enormous tides of history,” he says — wars of empire, mass migration — that must have flowed through it. That the gap remains so murky in the middle of America has helped relegate places like Minnesota to, well, flyover country. But it’s been a boon to Stiles. 

From Foley to a Pulitzer

Stiles was raised in Foley, a town of about 2,600 people northeast of St. Cloud. His father was the town doctor and the Benton County coroner, a Carleton College graduate who served as the team doctor of the Minneapolis Millers in 1958, when they won the Junior World Series.

T.J. vs. Trump

It’s tempting to think that T.J. Stiles is lucky. Not just in his success but in his vocation—the fact that he spends his working hours peering into the 19th century, presumably at a safe remove from the troubles of both that era and our own.

But lately he’s been troubled. As he travels the country promoting his latest book, about General George Custer, he’s also speaking out about another “ginger-haired, thin-skinned celebrity who is worse at business than he thinks he is and wants to take America back to an earlier time.” As a historian, Stiles knows something about precedents. And the Trump administration, he says, represents “a dangerous break in the shared values that go to the core of our democracy.”

After the election, TIME magazine asked Stiles for his thoughts on Trump’s win. “An earthquake,” Stiles wrote, “on a 150-year-old fault line.” He was referring to the passage of the 14th amendment, which erased racial requirements for citizenship. The amendment, he says, put racists on the wrong side of history and the federal government. But that tension was never resolved, and now the question of who’s an American has re-emerged.

“We often say the U.S. is defined by ideas not ethnicity, but that’s only partly true,” Stiles says. “We only arrived at this idea of equality—not discrimination by religion or genetic background—because of huge fights in the 19th century over injustices. And when people see who tends to benefit from government action and assistance, we’re right back to those same arguments.”

In speeches, essays, tweets, and in person, Stiles is clear how he feels the latest fissure happened. “Trump’s victory is the political triumph of a reaction against a fairly mainstream liberal presidency by someone who was black. This isn’t about principled conservatives enriching the argument over the shape of government or the markets—we need a healthy conservative movement in America. No, this is a reaction against a black man and black people in power.”

Stiles’ warning: Nothing is guaranteed. We could go back to those days of fighting over citizenship and equal protection, he says, because we never really left. “The idea that to be American is to be defined by an explicitly racial identity is more present in people’s thinking than we’re comfortable thinking about.”

In fact, the family has a Forrest Gumpian knack for inserting itself in history. As the founder of Carleton’s Young Republicans, Stiles’ father invited General Eisenhower to visit the college during his run for the presidency in 1952 — and, improbably, Ike accepted. It was the first time the stadium at Carleton was completely filled.

Stiles’ great-great-grandfather, Jonathan Dillon, was a watchmaker in Washington, D.C., and happened to be fixing President Abraham Lincoln’s watch in April 1861 when Fort Sumter was fired on, launching the Civil War. Dillon etched a message on the back of the dial: “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.” Then he closed the watch and returned it to Lincoln, who carried the secret message unwittingly for the last four years of his life. At least, that was the story passed down.

These stories gave Stiles a personal feeling for history, a connection to famous dead people. But still, he was in Foley. In high school, he poured concrete for a neighbor’s hog pen, picked rocks out of fields. Even when he followed his father to Carleton, in 1982, he felt “very much a country boy,” he says. “I was shocked to discover there were advanced placement honors classes that people took, and I ran into prep school kids,” he says. “I’d never run into such creatures before.”

He pushed on to New York, for graduate school at Columbia University (and to study with a certain traditional karate instructor; he now teaches karate), but his momentum stalled. The British historian he planned to study with delayed coming to Columbia for two years. Stiles sublet an apartment from a dubious family who dragged him into court to evict him before finally drilling out the locks and stealing everything he owned. He wound up living in West Harlem—at the height of the 1990s crack epidemic—where everyone, he says, “assumed I was an undercover cop.” 

His hopes of ascending academia slipped away. After earning two graduate degrees, he went to work in publishing, compiling historical anthologies, learning how to structure a book. And when he felt ready to write one of his own, he reached back to Jesse James, whose raid on Northfield — the home of his alma mater — he’d once dismissed as nothing more than the source of “a silly bit of tourism industry fodder.”

Jesse James, too, had a Stiles family connection — or so Stiles’ father liked to think. The doctor had a postcard of the bandits who fought alongside James in Northfield, and one of them was named Stiles; he even kind of looked like the doctor. But Stiles was more intrigued by James himself, the man behind the legend, and the fact that no serious historian seemed to take him seriously. He was “a figure of popular entertainment,” Stiles says.

Stiles saw something no one else did, through the lens of an aged Western historian he’d met named Richard Maxwell Brown, who ventured a scholarly approach to Billy the Kid and the fight at the OK Corral, and “was not embarrassed by the drama of these familiar figures and events,” Stiles says. “He situated them within various violent conflicts over the incorporation of the frontier into the U.S. political and economic system and drew out new significance. And that’s what I’ve tried to do in all my work.”

Stiles’ book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, made the cover of the New York Times Book Review in 2002. By his third book, about General Custer, he’d become so sure of his approach that he relegated the one thing everyone knows about Custer — his miserable death at Little Bighorn — to the epilogue, a choice that fellow historian Thomas Powers, in the Times, called “about the boldest purely literary decision I’ve seen in a long while.”

To dig around the lies

Stiles now lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and two kids. He named his son Dillon after his great-great-grandfather, the watchmaker who left Lincoln a secret message. Not long after Dillon’s birth, however, the story changed.

It was 2009, a month before Stiles’ second book — about Cornelius Vanderbilt — was due for release. Stiles’ cousin had persuaded the Smithsonian to open Lincoln’s pocket watch, and the museum did so at a public event, like Geraldo’s opening of Al Capone’s vault. And there it was: the secret inscription.

Except it wasn’t as the watchmaker had described. There was nothing about slavery, much less its demise — something few could have predicted on the first day of the war.

There were only these disjointed phrases: “Jonathan Dillon April 13, 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon,” and “April 13, 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.” Three attempts at a signature — as if that were the most important thing — yet he incorrectly dated the attack on Fort Sumter (which he also misspelled).

In retrospect, Dillon had enlarged his brush with fame to encompass what Stiles calls “the war’s great moral and historical accomplishment.” It was a reminder, Stiles later wrote in The Atlantic, “that family stories — even well-founded ones — are closer to mythology than to history.”

This is the job that Stiles has assigned himself: to dig around the lies — the lies we all live with, the great myths of America—in search of the stories that were scrubbed, the truths that didn’t serve the narrative. It can feel like dirty work. “History is messier than mythology,” Stiles concludes, “because it’s lived by human beings.” 

Minnesota at Large is an occasional series featuring Minnesotans making an impact outside the state.

‘The early signs are not encouraging’: a Q&A with former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr.

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 2:41pm
Erin Hinrichs

On Thursday morning, former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., delivered a keynote address to a group of educators gathered for a conference at the Doubletree Hotel in St. Louis Park. He attended as a champion of an evidence-based school improvement model called Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR). The innovative program, which began in Minnesota, secured federal funding under the Obama administration to scale up.

But future funding for programs like BARR may be in question under President Donald Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos. King has spoken out against his successor, who narrowly survived a contentious confirmation hearing and has many education advocates questioning whether she’s capable of being a good steward of the nation’s public schools.

In his current role as president and CEO of Education Trust — a non-profit advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. that's focused on closing achievement gaps for students of color and low-income students — King is poised to keep a watchful eye over shifting education policy and oversight. In an interview with MinnPost during his visit Thursday, he shared his thoughts on the current administration’s performance thus far, along with his thoughts on what may lie ahead. 

MinnPost: As MN continues working on its ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act] plan, what advice do you have on how to best use this opportunity to advance equity?

John B. King, Jr.: A few things. One is Minnesota does fairly well, overall. But when you look at the performance of African American students, Latino students, low-income students, Minnesota actually compares pretty poorly. So I think equity has to be the focus of the ESSA plan — figuring out how are they going to make sure that where schools have much lower graduation rates, that there are interventions and supports. BARR is an example of one strategy that they could employ to try to raise high school graduation rates. Will the state have an intervention strategy when a school maybe is doing well overall, but their English language learners are doing poorly, or their African American students are doing poorly? So the measure of whether ESSA actually works will be whether states like Minnesota use the flexibility they have to advance equity. The other thing Minnesota can do — and we’re seeing this in the initial state plans — is to broaden the indicators that they’re looking at to evaluate school success.

MP: In Minnesota, pseudo-voucher legislation is being considered that would give tax breaks to those who donate money that can be used as scholarships at private schools. How much traction do you anticipate school vouchers, or voucher-like initiatives, will get in the coming years?

JK: I’m worried about it. I think vouchers are not a scalable solution to the problems. In many parts of the country, they’re not even a relevant option because there are so few providers other than public schools. At the end of the day, the vast, vast, vast majority of kids are going to be in public schools and we’ve got to make sure our public schools are as strong as possible. So I view the voucher discussion as a distraction from the work, which is about making sure that every public school is high-quality, providing high-quality opportunities for kids, particularly focusing on closing those equity gaps. So I’m against vouchers. I hope that most governors and legislators will spend their time and attention on strengthening public education, not on the distraction of vouchers.

MP: You’ve mentioned before that you have concerns about the Education Department fulfilling its role as a protector of student civil rights moving forward. What are you most concerned about right now?

JK: Well there’s so many things. The first few months have not been very promising. You’ve seen a retreat on protections for transgender students, which I think is wrong, misguided, cruel. You’ve seen signals sent that they’re not going to hold a very high bar for states around whether they’re using ESSA to address equity issues. You’ve seen policy changes that are designed to make it easier for for-profit colleges and service providers to take advantage of students. And the victims have been, disproportionately, low-income folks and folks of color. So far, the message has been one of retreat from federal civil rights responsibilities. What I would worry about is the office of civil rights has a very clear statutory responsibility to protect students. The fear is if districts and states think that the federal government has abandoned this responsibility, they may be less likely to actually look out for the kids and families that are most vulnerable. Sadly, that’s our history as a country. States and local districts have not always done a good job. [For example], there was a district where there was as civil rights complaint because Latino students were vastly underrepresented in advanced STEM programs in the district. It turns out the reason was the information never went home in Spanish. So our office for civil rights worked with the district to address it. You know, we have districts that have a very disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline practices with students of color. Our office for civil rights has worked out agreements with districts to change that. So the question will be: those kinds of office for civil right efforts, will they continue under this administration. And will they also put out guidance and technical assistance and resources to help districts do the right thing for kids? As I said earlier, the early signs are not encouraging.  

MP: Given the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charters and Secretary DeVos’ support of them as a mode of school choice, they’ve become quite political, especially here in Minnesota. What’s your take on the role of charters moving forward?

JK: I’ve always thought charters done well can be a useful laboratory for innovation, as public schools. So where you have a strong charter authorizing law, like Massachusetts — where I was a charter school principal — it’s a very high bar to get a charter, there’s very rigorous oversight of academics and operations, and there’s a willingness to close the low-performing charters. What you have in Massachusetts, in Boston in particular, is really a thriving sector of innovative charters that are developing innovative instructional practices, innovative schedules, innovative staffing approaches — all of which then informs the broader work of trying to improve outcomes in public education, improve equity in public education. That’s why I believe in public charters, because I do think there's a structure in which, done right, they can contribute very positively to broader public education and improvement. Unfortunately, in contrast, you have a state like Michigan, where you have a terrible charter law. You have a proliferation of low-performing, for-profit charters. And the charters in Massachusetts that are doing a good job are now lumped in with these low-performing, for-profit charters in Michigan and I think the public, understandably, is at times having a hard time distinguishing between the different types of charter, or different types of charter laws. Unfortunately, my successor, she played a central role in the development of Michigan's charter law and it’s worked out very poorly for students and families. My hope would be that she and others have learned from that and, going forward, they’ll invest in strong charter authorizing and a high-bar for charter quality.

MP: Do you foresee the new education administration being able to move forward any initiatives you support, but weren’t able to address while in office?

JK: A couple of things I’m hopeful about. One is the Perkins Act reauthorization. That’s as much about congress as it is the administration. We’ve had conversations over the years about reauthorizing Perkins — Perkins supports career-technical education — and there was a strong bipartisan effort last year to try to do Perkins reauthorization focusing on strengthening the partnerships between high schools and higher ed institutions and employers, and making sure they’re working closely together to support student success. That is likely to come back up in congress. If the administration works closely with them, that could turn out to be a good bipartisan bill. I hope that’s the case. If there’s an infrastructure bill and a major investment in infrastructure, there’s an opportunity to do two things. One is do some of the important facilities work that is needed in high-needs communities that have poor facilities for their students. There’s also an opportunity to invest in educational programs and job training so that jobs in those infrastructure projects are available to low-income folks, folks throughout the community who have been historically underserved. Both of those are opportunities to work together. But I’d also love to see the administration change their positions on some of the core issues around civil rights enforcement in educational equity. I hope, as the new secretary spends time visiting schools and talking with teachers and parents and students, she will see the need to shift the approach they’ve taken so far.

MP: What issues do you think education reporters need to keep a particularly close eye on?

JK: A few things. This was talked a lot about at the Education Writers Association conference last year, is the issue of school diversity or, to the contrary, many communities where students are isolated by race or class and the ways in which that then results in limited opportunities for kids. The Century Foundation did a report on 100 communities around the country that are doing active school diversity initiatives, either by designing schools that are diverse by design, or creating district-wide policies — sometimes referred to as controlled-choice — where you try to ensure that there’s a racial and socioeconomic diversity across schools. That, I think, is an important question. Minnesota is not immune from those issues and it’s an important thing to look at. Second is what happens with ESSA implementation, particularly on the intervention side. So much of the conversation and coverage, nationally, has been: What’s the fifth indicator? How much is each thing going to weigh? California has this very complicated, multicolored dashboard. It’s very hard, I think, for parents to understand. But at the end of the day, what California, for example, hasn’t answered is: If everything on the dashboard is red, what happens? What happens next in that school? And if that doesn’t result in an improvement, what happens next? That’s where BARR comes in. Do you have an evidence-based strategy for improvement in the schools? So I think that’ll be an important thing to follow. And in the Minnesota context, is there a viable plan to improve performance in schools that are low-performing overall, or schools that have low-performing groups? The third thing, on higher ed, is this question around the for-profits. We did a lot of work under the Obama administration to try to reign in an industry that had been previously allowed to run amok. We would always say we’re agnostic about the tax status of an institution. The key question is: Are students getting a decent education? And are they leaving with opportunity? And, too often, the for-profit schools were running low-quality programs, or even worse, scams, that were just taking advantage of students and they were leaving with nothing but debt. All the early signs from the current administration are that they’re going to retreat from the accountability measures we’ve put in place and allow these institutions to again take advantage of students.

MP: Anything else?

JK: One other thing to pay attention to would be teacher diversity. If you look nationally, the majority of kids in public schools are kids of color. But only about 18 percent of teachers are teachers of color. There was just a recent study that showed that African American students who had at least one African-American teacher in elementary school were more likely to graduate from high school. So I think there’s emerging evidence of the importance of teacher diversity for students of color, but also for white students to see teachers and school leaders who are diverse. That’s another place where Minnesota has some work to do. There are some communities that are implementing smart strategies — early recruitment of college students to work at youth-serving programs so they can see potential in themselves to work as teachers, subsidies for teachers to go into high-needs schools or to go into high-needs subject areas. Some states are doing really smart things around that. Tennessee just put out a really great report that’s worth looking at, on their teacher prep. They basically looked at: What’s our real teacher shortage? They also looked at the issue of teacher diversity. Tennessee has a really good data system, so they can actually link teacher prep institutions to student outcomes — say how the graduates of a particular school are affecting students. That, I think, is a really interesting topic to explore.

MP: There are a lot of initiatives being considered at our state capitol right now to help diversify the teacher pipeline. But what works well in retaining teachers of color? What supports need to be in place?

JK: We did a report at Education Trust called “Through Our Eyes,” which is perspectives of African American teachers. It’s really interesting. In some communities, the pipeline of new teachers actually is somewhat diverse, but then retention is a problem. Some things that will come up: a lot of African American teachers, especially African American male teachers, are being expected to be the person to whom we send the kids who are struggling the most, the boys who are struggling the most. I wrote a piece for the Washington Post about this, “The invisible tax on teachers of color.” Because even if you want to do that, it’s still added work. Now you’re taking on this other responsibility in the school culture. Or the other phenomenon that comes up is teachers who are bilingual in a community that is bilingual. They’re expected to be the translator for the whole school. That’s a whole lot of extra work and responsibility. So one thing is: Are districts, principals, mindful of what else of being asked of their teachers of color and are they supporting them around those things? Another piece is are you creating a community amongst teachers of color so that folks know each other and have a source of support and mentorship, especially young teachers needing mentors? There’s also the question of equitable compensation. Are high-needs districts able to pay teachers enough? Are there incentives to stay for effective teachers? Are there incentives to become coaches and mentors for their colleagues? And career ladders? Because I think for a lot of folks, certainly folks who are under 30 or 40, they don’t expect to do the same exact job for the entirety of their career. So creating opportunities for folks who are really good, who can be teacher leaders without leaving the classroom, that can be a very powerful lever for retention.

By at least one standard, Minnesota’s political districting looks pretty fair

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 2:40pm
Greta Kaul

Congratulations, Minnesotans. Your state’s political districts probably aren’t unconstitutionally gerrymandered — at least according to a new equation that could become the gold standard for determining whether the shape of political districts unfairly favors one party.

In November, three federal judges ruled that Wisconsin’s state assembly districts were drawn in a way that unconstitutionally favored Republicans. The judges were convinced, in part, by calculations of Wisconsin’s efficiency gap, a simple equation that shows one party’s advantage over another in a district. Democrats in Michigan are planning to file a lawsuit on similar grounds.

The 2-1 Wisconsin ruling was a big deal for two reasons: first, because federal courts have never ruled that district lines have constituted gerrymandering based on party advantage (they have ruled on race-based gerrymandering cases), according to the New York Times. And second, because the courts have never used a mathematical determination for gerrymandering.

Now, the Wisconsin case is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the high court affirms the lower court’s decision, the efficiency gap could be used far and wide, including in Minnesota, to shape statehouse and Congressional districts during the line-drawing battles to come in 2021. Some say that could be a game changer for Democrats, whose number of seats has eroded in recent years, both in Congress and in statehouses nationwide.

What is an efficiency gap?

The efficiency gap is the brainchild of researchers Nicholas Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

To measure gerrymandering, the method relies on wasted votes. What’s a wasted vote, you ask? Not a vote for Jill Stein, at least in this case. Here, it’s any vote cast for the losing party’s candidate, or any vote cast for a winning candidate beyond the number of votes needed to win.

The whole point of gerrymandering, after all, is for the party in power to divide its voters into districts in a manner that allows them to win as many seats as possible. To do this, one has to either “crack” their opponents’ votes – breaking them up so they can’t win elections in a given district, or “stack” their opponents votes into a more limited number of districts the party in power can afford to lose. The nice thing about the efficiency gap equation is that it aggregates all the cracking and stacking in a state’s district map into one number.

To calculate the efficiency gap, you calculate all the wasted votes for each political party in all the races, find the net wasted votes, and then divide the net wasted votes by the total number of votes.

Researchers suggest anything above a 7 percent efficiency gap in one party’s favor or the other’s is potentially unconstitutional. With a 7 percent or greater bias in one party’s favor, it’s statistically very unlikely the district will favor the other party for the life of the district map, researchers have said. Wisconsin’s gap was 13 percent in favor of Republicans.

Minnesota’s efficiency gaps

Neither Minnesota’s state legislative district plans nor its Congressional District plan, set in 2011 following the last decennial Census, favor one party or another by more than 7 percent or by the two seat threshold set by the equation’s authors, according to MinnPost’s calculations of efficiency gaps using results from the November election.

MinnPost found that Republicans waste more votes across Minnesota’s Congressional Districts than Democrats, giving Democrats a 5 percent efficiency gap in their favor. The seat gap, then, is 0.05 multiplied by eight Minnesota Congressional seats, which works out to 0.4 — less than two. Five out of eight Congressional seats are currently held by Democrats.

The table below gives shows how we calculated the efficiency gap for Minnesota’s Congressional districts.

DistrictVotes for RVotes for DD wasted votesR wasted votesNet wasted votesTotal votes1166,526169,0742,547166,526-163,979335,6002173,970167,315167,3156,654160,661341,2853223,077169,243169,24353,833115,410392,3204121,032203,29982,266121,032-38,766324,331580,660249,964169,30380,66088,643330,6246235,380123,008123,008112,37110,637358,3887156,952173,58916,636156,952-140,316330,5418177,089179,0982,008177,089-175,081356,187Total:-142,7912,769,276Efficiency gap:-5%

The net wasted votes, which is negative because we subtracted Republican wasted votes from Democrats’, is divided by the total votes for an efficiency gap of -0.05, or 5 percent, in Democrats’ favor.

Repeating this process for Minnesota’s 134 House Districts, Democrats waste more votes than Republicans. The Republican advantage here is a 5 percent efficiency gap. Republicans currently hold the House majority 77-57.

In Minnesota Senate 67 districts, Republicans have a tiny advantage, in the form of a 1 percent efficiency gap in their favor. Republicans took control of the Senate in November and now hold it 34-33.

These relatively fair results might be a reflection of the way Minnesota’s current district lines were drawn. Rather than being determined by politicians, in 2011 a lawsuit forced redistricting into court, and ultimately, a five-judge panel ended up setting the boundaries.

In an analysis of the 2012 elections, the Campaign Legal Center found gaps greater than 7 percent in 15 state legislature maps (Minnesota’s not among them), the Washington Post reported. Of the 15, 13 favored Republicans and two favored Democrats, leading some to believe that if efficiency gaps become the standard metric for gerrymandering, Democrats’ electoral fortunes could improve greatly after 2021.

Congress should abandon the 20% consumer tax proposal

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 2:39pm

Why would Congress — including the west metro’s U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Third District — even contemplate a 20 percent tax on Minnesota consumers? If such a tax seems ridiculous, that’s because it is. Yet it’s the central component of a tax reform proposal working its way through Congress. For the good of Minnesota families and businesses, it should never see the light of day.

Jason Flohrs

This consumer tax — known in Washington as a “border adjustment tax” — would levy a 20 percent tax on every good imported into the United States. It’s estimated that it would cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion over the next decade to “pay for” a reduction in overall rates.

The reason many are calling this a consumer tax is because that’s who would ultimately pay it. Unable to afford a 20 percent tax on their own, businesses would more than likely pass much of the tax along to consumers in the form of higher prices. That includes goods we rely on every day. Gas, food, clothing — the price of all these items would increase substantially if a consumer tax is applied.

Gas price would be driven up

How much exactly? Start with gas. According to a December study from the Brattle Group, this consumer tax could drive up the price of gasoline by 55 cents per gallon,  assuming global oil prices continue their recent upward climb. For the typical family of four with two cars, that amounts to more than a $720 tax hike every year. 

And that’s just the start. Automobiles — many of which are either imported or have parts that are produced overseas — would jump in cost, too. According to a study from Baum & Associates, the price of an average Ford would increase by $282, Fiat Chryslers by nearly $1,700, and Toyotas by over $2,600. Although we don’t purchase new cars every day, not many people would volunteer to fork over that much more the next time they go car shopping to pay for a new tax.

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All in all, a study by the National Retail Federation found this new consumer tax could cost the average family up to $1,700 in higher prices for every day goods in the first year alone.

These price increases would be difficult for many to swallow, but especially those in retirement or otherwise living on fixed incomes. Minnesota has more than a million residents over the age of 60. And with baby boomers retiring in increasing numbers, that number will only rise. Congress shouldn’t add to their costs of living by adding this new tax.

Businesses would be harmed

Of course, consumers wouldn’t be the only ones harmed by this tax; businesses would be hit, too. As they are forced to raise their prices to pay for this new tax, they would likely see a corresponding drop in sales. Fully 85 percent of net importers — those who would  be hardest hit — also happen to be small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. That means it would be even harder for them to absorb all these added costs, which would have a direct impact on jobs and local economies all across the country.

A new study from my organization, Americans for Prosperity, details the devastating impact that a border adjustment tax would have on state economies. The study concludes that many importers would face massive new tax burdens under the policy. And Minnesota is especially threatened by the tax — over $34 billion of imports every year would be subject to the tax.

Despite these enormous harms, supporters of this tax argue the trillion-plus dollars it generates is necessary to “pay for” a reduction in overall rates. That’s simply not true. There are plenty of other options, including reducing federal spending by corresponding amounts. Washington has been financing wasteful spending for decades by raising taxes on hardworking families. It’s time for Washington to live within its means for once, just as Minnesota families have to.

Rep. Paulsen can help

Rep. Paulsen is in a unique position when it comes to this consumer tax. As a member of the House Ways and Means committee, he can help cut this proposal from the comprehensive tax reform plan —and he can help save Minnesota families and businesses from a harsh new tax burden.

As Congress debates tax reform in the coming months, Paulsen and others should keep their focus on lowering the total tax burden on family paychecks — not increasing it through a 20 percent consumer tax hike on everyday items. It’s what he and other Republicans in Congress have been promising for years. Now it’s time for them to honor their word.

Jason Flohrs is the state director for Americans For Prosperity-Minnesota.

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Candidate in Minneapolis’ 9th Ward accuses incumbent Cano of ‘Jim Crow tactics’

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 1:10pm
MinnPost staff

Sounds like a respectful, issues-focused campaign in Minneapolis’ 9th Ward. The Star Tribune’s Adam Belz reports: “Minneapolis City Council candidate Mohamed Farah is accusing Council Member Alondra Cano of ‘Jim Crow tactics’ after she questioned the credentials of many of the Somali-American delegates chosen in the Ninth Ward caucus earlier this month. … Cano's campaign filed challenges with the Minneapolis DFL saying 101 delegates elected in the near south Minneapolis caucus did not sign in to participate in the April 4 event at South High School. At least 27 delegates and alternates did not write down their addresses when they registered, Cano's campaign said, and ‘we have identified at least three delegates who do not live in the precinct they were elected in.’”

That’s a lot of canoes. The AP reports (via MPR): “A new report from the National Park Service estimates the local economic impact of visitors to Voyageurs National Park at about $24 million in 2016. … The park service says nearly 242,000 people visited Voyageurs last year, spending nearly $20 million in communities near the park. That spending supported 310 jobs and had a cumulative economic benefit of about $24.6 million in the area as a whole.”

Interesting story from MarketPlace about a surge in business for black-owned banks in the wake of the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Marielle Segarra reports: “Last July, Teri Williams was out of the office, helping her daughter move into a new apartment, when she started getting frantic phone calls. Williams is the president of Boston-based OneUnited Bank, the largest black-owned bank in the country, with $650 million in assets. Her employees were calling to tell her that people were swarming the bank. … The bank had gone from opening about 50 accounts a day to 1,000. … The sudden surge of interest stemmed from a call out to the community. Earlier that week, two black men, Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, had been shot and killed by police. Soon after, the rapper Killer Mike appeared on TV and on radio stations like Hot 107.9 in Atlanta, urging people to move their money to black-owned banks like Atlanta’s Citizen’s Trust Bank.”

Celebrate Prince Day with a visit to the Paisley Park archives. Michaelangelo Matos, in the New York Times, takes you there: “Last August, when Angie Marchese became director of archives at Paisley Park, the rock star Prince’s studio and residence, one of the first things she did was to get rid of all the candles. Festooning nearly every room of the compound, they came in all sizes, shapes, colors and scents (including a few of Prince’s own aromatic blends). … ‘We replaced all the real candles with artificial candles,’ Ms. Marchese said in an interview this week in an anteroom at the compound, as her team prepared for a series of events marking the one-year anniversary of Prince’s death on Friday. (Her crew cataloged and archived the originals.) ‘We still wanted the essence of the candles, and how they made the rooms feel, without the fire hazard,’ she explained. ‘Prince can burn Paisley Park down, but I can’t.’”

In other news…

Lend a hand if you can: “Emergency Food Pantry in Fargo says it's nearly out of food” [Inforum]

Strange and scary: “Girl Stabbed at St. Cloud Walmart” [WJON]

Vikings schedule: “Vikings' 2017 schedule littered with potholes, but has soft spots, too” [Star Tribune]

If you’re going to make an Old Fashioned with brandy, at least use Wisconsin brandy: “Wisconsin’s New Claim on the Brandy Old-Fashioned” [Punch]

Franken to propose legislation expanding career training pathways to all students

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 11:18am
Ibrahim Hirsi

Not everybody needs a four-year college degree to get a good-paying job.  

That was the conclusion of the Advancing Career Pathways Summit, a conference held earlier this week that focused on efforts to increase participation in career pathway programs for young people who want to obtain jobs that don’t require traditional higher education.

The event featured educators and high school students from Alexandria, Burnsville and Rochester who spoke about programs that prepare students for careers in construction, manufacturing, agriculture and health care — industries that are facing serious skilled labor shortages that will only be exacerbated as baby boomers retire. 

With that in mind, school leaders at the event showcased their collaborations with employers, educational institutions, and government agencies to create career paths for in-demand occupations.

But the most important participant might have been Sen. Al Franken, who used his visit to the conference to announce a plan to introduce federal legislation seeking to fund such career pathway programs for every student in the K-12 system throughout the state, not just high school students.   

“I’m not talking about a kindergartener going on a factory tour,” he said. “But it’s not too early to introduce them to computers … science, technology, engineering skills.”

The idea behind the legislation

Last year, while visiting several high schools that offer advanced career pathway programs, Franken met students who were receiving college credits while also working in construction, agriculture, health care and manufacturing in their cities.

By the time the students graduate and earn credentials in their chosen professions, he learned, they can transition to full-time jobs at the same or similar companies — without the need to attend four-year colleges.

Decades ago, those kinds of jobs — aka “middle-skilled” — only required a high school education or less. Today, they often require more than high school education, but less than a four-year degree.  

The middle-skilled occupations in Minnesota make up about 50 percent of today’s workforce, according to Kermit Kaleba, of the National Skills Coalition, who spoke at the Saint Paul College event.

That means the established career pathway initiatives, which are gradually becoming more common in suburban high schools, are helping bridge an important skills gap in the workforce.

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim HirsiEducators and students from Alexandria, Rochester and Burnsville public schools sharing their experiences with career pathway programs to more than 300 people at Saint Paul College.

For that reason, Franken came up with the “Advancing Career Pathways Innovation Act” in an effort to ensure that career programs are available to every student in Minnesota’s K-12 system — legislation he plans to introduce when he returns to D.C. next week.

The bill would seek to secure competitive grant funding for partner educational institutions and employers if they demonstrate their strategies to maintain career training programs and have the capacity to create good-paying jobs.

“This is really about America being globally competitive in the 21st Century,” Franken said of the legislation. “We see other countries, especially countries like Germany and Switzerland, who do this model very well. We can learn from them.”

Where the model works

Dozens of high schools in the Twin Cities metro area and Greater Minnesota currently boast a broad range of career training programs that are mostly available for junior and senior students who are on track for graduation.

St. Paul’s Highland Park High School, for example, has partnered with Saint Paul College where seniors and juniors take free career and technical education courses, including certified nursing assistant, business communications, computer repair and maintenance and web design.    

Similar programs are also offered to high school students in Bloomington, Burnsville, Minnetonka, Rochester, Alexandria and scores of other school districts across the state. 

At the conference, Alexandria Public Schools Superintendent Julie Critz took the stage to talk about her district’s newly designed The Academies of Alexandria, a program housed in the Alexandria Area High School that prepares students for college and career. “This model came about for us when we realized we had a number of disengaged learners,” Critz said. “We had students graduating from college, without jobs.”

Meanwhile, she added, local business leaders and community members in the city were sharing with Critz and other school leaders information about the growing workforce shortage and the skills gap in the region.

In response, Critz and her team at the Alexandria school district came up with new ways to engage with their high school students: They created a small community learning and career-focused space for their high school students in partnership with the local community college and businesses.

Today, The Academies of Alexandria offers a range of vocational programs, including technology information, construction, agriculture, manufacturing, corrections, security and hospitality.

In addition to those middle-skilled occupations, the school also offers a “personalized” learning service that equips students with the tools they need to thrive in four-year colleges and universities. 

“This is really about training people for your community,” Franken said of the career pathway program. “[It’s about] making sure that the businesses have skilled workers and that your kids will be able to get the skills to stay in the community and have a good, middle-class job.”