Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Proposed I-35/Hwy 19 Development Area 4th Monday LWV Discussion

"This is a problem brought about by a change in tax law, which puts pressure on cities and counties to encourage more commercial development." remarked Dixon Bond, Northfield City council member. Dixon's comment, referring to proposed 1,080-acre commercial development, gives a larger picture to an issue that has been troubling many Forest Township residents. Residents who feel their concerns have been completely disregarded by the actions of the County Board. I have had some conversations with my friend Chuck Von Ruden who can't believe what is proposed for the property he has owned for a number of years. Chuck has done a great job working with his neighbors and alerting them to the coming trouble. You may have driven along Bagley Ave. and seen the signs of protest. "Urban development for urban areas," reads one hand painted sign. Several at the discussion Monday agreed with that sentiment. "Development should really follow along established cities where infrastructure is already built up," said Loren Abraham, architect.

The evening began with a welcome form Kathleen Doran Norton, League President, who explained that the League intended to host open discussions on issues of local concern once a month. The hope was to allow members and citizens a forum to express their views and ask questions that is not often possible in a forum. This evening however, at the request of Forest Township resident Charles Skinner the discussion would include a presentation by Loren Abraham, a consultant he hired to look at the environmental impact of the proposed development. The planned development area stretches along the I-35 corridor in Forest Township from highway 19 and Union Lake to County Rd. 1, divided into three separate parcels mixing office space, retail stores, technical buildings and showrooms, comprising 3.2 million square feet.

Some historical background was provided by County Commissioner, Jessica Peterson and local attorney, Carol Overland who has been working with citizens in the area for sometime. They explained that this process began before the new County Board had taken office.

A plan for rezoning and commercial development passed in December of 2004 and does not go into effect until the end of this year. Three committees have been formed, though not all of them have met, to study various aspects of the development and create the plan to implement it. The County board hired a consultant group, RLK-Kussisto, to study the feasibility of the project and make a preliminary design. Copies of the design footprint were passed around. It was explained that currently no business is seeking to relocate to the area, it is assumed that developing the land and the footprint will entice the desired commercial development, which it is likely no one wants in their backyard. It is hoped that the proposed plan will be given environmental review by several governmental agencies. This plan, as stated, will transform porous terrain into a land surface that is 80% impervious with buildings, pavement, etc.

Commissioners seem bound and determined to move forward regardless of what citizens who live in the area think. Several of them at the meeting spoke of their efforts to speak at various meetings only to be silenced or cut off. As Charlie Skinner introduced Loren Abraham, he explained that Loren had only been allowed to present 9 minutes of his 20 - minute presentation.

Abraham, who specializes in environmental design and ecologically sustainable development, displayed several maps showing the history, vegetation, wildlife, geographic, and hydrological data of the area. He described the proposed development area as a mix of agricultural and wetlands. Several huge questions arose regarding the viability of this project the first being the soil make up which is ideal for agriculture but wrong for bearing the kind of weight and traffic that commercial sites described in the zoning plan would generate. In order to develop the stretch of land Abraham pointed out that the soil, mostly clay and soft sandy loam, would have to be removed and replaced with less porous fill, a costly endeavor. Another obstacle would be the impact on drainage, and surrounding wildlife habitat of a plan that would replace wetlands with nonporous pavement and roof surface. Two creeks, Heath and Wolf provide wildlife passageways from surrounding lakes and wetlands. The stretch of the Cannon between these two creeks is on the '04 TDML watch list of impaired waters for Mercury and Fecal Coliform bacteria pollutants, so why don't we have the data on these two creeks.

Although no one spoke in favor of the project a recent article in the Startribune quotes Arlyn Grussing, the county planning director, "the land was rezoned as a long-term strategy to help the county boost its ailing commercial tax base. Commercial property accounted for 26 percent of the county's tax base in 1993, he said, but it dropped to 16 percent by 2002 . . . the county is doing an environmental study of the area, which remains zoned for agricultural use until Dec. 31. Public comments on the study could be taken from July 18 through Aug. 17."

That's thirty days for public input on a project that would be by far the largest commercial/industrial area of the county and transform the nature of the land forever. The costs are likely to be astronomical and it is not yet known who will be asked to pay for it. The next step will be for the committee to draft an Alternative Urban Areawide Review (AUAR), which should look at many of the concerns Abraham delineated in his presentation. After listening to the discussion and background on the proposed development in Forest Township I wonder how the development has gotten this far. The biggest concerns I have are:
1. It seems a dubious plan to sacrifice prime agricultural land for commercial development.
2. The costs of transforming the land to a suitable form for development and providing infrastructure, water, sewage, utilities, etc.
3. The environmental impact on surrounding wetlands and wildlife.
4. The lack of citizen input due to the behavior of the board.
5. The departure from the plan of developing on land contiguous with urbanized land where infrastructure exists.

It is imperative that citizens stay informed and involved in this kind of development. Rice County needs a better plan that allows for commercial development but also preserves the agricultural and rural character of the area.

In addition to vibrant and growing cities Rice County has numerous lakes, wildlife and recreational areas as well as prime farm land, which deserves preservation as well. Our water resource, which not only provides quality of life for people, but also for many species of plant and wildlife can be destroyed and lost forever. It takes vigilance to protect it. You can help by staying informed and speaking out. The League of Women Voters should be commended for their interest and promotion of open discussion.

Just this morning several blogs have appeared with comments on the meeting and two articles in the Northfield News:

Responding to I-35 master plan
Staff Writer

LWV hosts Fourth Monday forum on issue
Staff Writer

You can also learn more about various citizen resources by visiting the following sites:

DNR Stewardship in your backyard

Rice County Soil and Water

Rice County Planning

Environmental Planning

Rice County Board

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Lower Mississippi

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, water


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Education Funding
Rep. Ray Cox is proving that old adage that a little information is a dangerous thing. In a recent blog he shares data from the State Auditor's School Finance Report. He makes it sound as though things in Minnesota Schools are going along swimmingly except for the fact that across the state there are almost 12,000 fewer students enrolled. The decline in student enrollment has been predicted for some time. It is a result of the 'baby boom' bulge moving through the age groups. Most of the children of the baby boomers have now graduated. Ray is right in saying that declining enrollments hurt school budgets, but so does stingy investment from state government. Northfield's student enrollment has had a tiny increase in spite of competition from Charter schools.

Form his reading of the Auditor's report Rep. Cox makes the statement, "Teacher salaries went up 13.6% in districts over 1,000 students and 11.2% for all school districts and charter schools. During this same time period the benefits paid teachers as a percent of salary steadily increased, reaching 28% in 2004." Rep. Cox fails to mention as the report does that inflation for this time period has increased 13.8% and an average teachers salary increased only 11.2% so over the time period teachers have seen a decline in earnings of -3.1%, while the cost to the district of benefits has increased by 12.4%. His read of the information implies that schools get enough money and teachers are generously compensated. To his credit Rep. Cox does mention the increasing cost of healthcare insurance as a major expenditure issue, though the Auditor's report does not spell this out it does point out that the cost of benefits far out paces the cost of salaries. Rep. Cox did not read the report carefully and neglects to mention some of the pressures placed on school districts through Federal and State mandates in a time of declining enrollment and flat revenue increases. As a former School Board member I would expect greater understanding and a better reading of this data from Rep. Cox. It makes me wonder what purpose does it serve to argue that things are just fine when they are not.

Some things the report mentions but does not analyze or explain are increases in minority and low-income students across the state, increases in special education spending, and class size (teacher/student ratio). The reason these are important is that under the mandates of NCLB it costs more to educate minority and low-income students. I in no way mean to suggest that we should not spend what it takes to do the right thing by these students but neither the State nor the Federal governments will admit this fact. The fact is that when one increases the cost of education without increasing revenues it forces districts to prioritize. The priorities get lost in averages and percents. Class sizes in some classes and subjects go up a great deal while others remain small to better serve those high risk populations (the law requires it) and the average makes it look as though schools are in good shape on paper.

To study the Auditor's Report yourself click here.


Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Teaching of History

Not too long ago I had a conversation with my Uncle Ted about the teaching of History. He wondered why the teaching of History has to change, what is the difference between Social Studies and History and why there is so much disagreement about what ought to be taught. This is a topic others have asked me about. I have long been interested in history and on occasion have had the chance to teach it at the ALC. In my study of history, it's my sense that it always changes. I think of famous displays of photos I've seen from Soviet history where politicians who have fallen into disfavor were erased entirely from public record or around the globe how we struggle whether to or not to name public buildings or streets after people. In Northfield recently there was disagreement about what to name the new Northfield Middle School.

Years ago I discovered an interesting story dealing with this issue in a book, published in 1951, by mystery writer Josephine Tey. In her book "The Daughter of Time" she has her detective, Inspector Grant, forced to take time off from work while recuperating in the hospital research the reputation of Richard III. A friend inadvertently brings him a challenge with a portrait of Richard III, which he studies and finds he can't reconcile with the commonly accepted history of the tyrant king accused of murdering his successors, the young princes in the tower. The detective, who considers himself a good judge of a face, can't accept that the man captured in the portrait could have been the murderer. He explores the history, and reads Shakespeare's play. He learns that, almost all that is conventionally accepted about Richard III was written by his enemies. More friendly appraisals or even more neutral ones were never considered.

The detective begins to apply his skills, which also are as it turns out the skills of good historian to the search for a more accurate picture. Searching anecdotes, letters and any recorded data he might have his assistant find for him he begins to piece a very different picture of the maligned King, as well as a list of likely suspects for the murder.

Today one can find several websites and societies dedicated to the restoration of King Richard's reputation. Now it is true that a society for this purpose existed before Tey's novel it gained much greater attention by this popularization.

History because it is a story attempting to tell the truth must rely on observations of past and present, and therefore point of view. But it also cannot be ignored that history has as its charge not only to discover the truth but to make the truth. It has become a tool to instruct, to imbue others with a point of view, a set of beliefs that someone wants them to have, because it serves a political or educational or literary or even financial purpose.

It is this dual nature that causes us trouble and difficulty as we think about how and what to teach. Today we not only have novelists re-imagining history but also Hollywood. Oliver Stone has been taken to task several times for his interpretation of our common story. Several filmmakers who have tried to tell the story of Christ run into angry criticism from all sides. As political winds change so does history, and at times the changing winds of history can change politics. Historians and politicians know this. They also know that who controls the national story controls what is perceived as the truth and the direction we ought to head in. Both sides use historical figures from the past to give life to their beliefs and values. These folks want to see history as decided and concrete as granite.

This could be seen in the debate recently over Social Studies Standards right here in Minnesota. Because the notion of these standards is based on the illusion of concrete facts verifiable data when history is an open book not a closed one, it is a search for answers that often reveals more questions. The very idea that we can or should teach everyone the same point of view and then test them, on that point of view ignores nature.

There is disagreement for example about the values that founded our country some argue that it was 'resistance to taxation' that prompted the colonists to rebel against the mother country; while others say it was rejection of the arrogance of power and aristocratic values supported by the belief in the divine right of kings countered by a belief in natural law and the equality of all men regardless of inheritance. Whether taxation or the right to self-govern is the reason or both becomes an issue when politicians want to persuade the public of a certain point of view.

Some argue a national story, which teaches virtues and values through the stories of our great leaders is a necessity to pass on the moral values every citizen should hold, an idea promoted by William Bennett author of "The Moral Compass" and "The Book of Virtues" who proposed to tell us how to teach others moral behavior while he was indulging in ruinous behavior himself, uncaring or oblivious to the impact of his behavior on his personal credibility and the acceptance of the validity of his beliefs.

Author and radio personality, Sarah Vowel, was recently asked about why she was interested in history and why so many young people find the study of history boring. Her answer revealed a different approach to Bennett’s laudatory moral stories and his own denial and compartmentalization of his behavior. She said that too often the history books have excluded the whole picture of a person, which leaves the reader with the sense that these people in history were not real people. They could not have had real struggles. She uses the example of Thomas Jefferson, and argues that the story of the author of the Declaration of Independence is not diminished by the reality that he had slaves and took advantage of his power over them, but rather his story is enriched when we know that he had these real struggles balancing the highest ideals with baser realities. It is good for us to know the world is messy and full of harsh conflicts and in spite of it we can strive for ideals that make us better and challenge our failings and inconsistencies.
Some argue we can't tell children the whole truth, but I am often surprised how quick young people are to pick up when they are being told a half-truth. I think they find history boring when it doesn't ring true to them, when they know it is something removed from real life and what they experience, like a list of facts or names of dead people they must memorize. I believe when they are confronted with moral dilemmas and they can see themselves struggling with a question of what to do, they are very interested.

Dick Fox, a history teacher in Belle Plaine, who unfortunately passed away recently, understood this well. I visited his class a couple of times during my campaign and he explained the importance of making history real to his students to confront them with struggles they could relate to. During my campaign, Dick came up with a slogan for me to usethat was based on his observation that our leaders are taking us in the wrong direction by following the guiding principle of 'what's good for me is good for you.' Dick said we have to replace 'me' with 'we', and pursue a path that considers the common good and the common story. He believed all of his students contributed a valuable perspective on our common story. He wanted to hear what they had to say.

What I learned from him is that we all long for the concreteness that a certain history might offer us, as we long for certainties in life. We wish that the past would give us a clear path to the future. But the closer we look we discover that the past is almost as murky as the future. There is little we can know with certainty, so we must rely on each other's point of view. It is the collective story that is important not the single story. But the collective story can only exist by the recognition of many very singular individual perspectives and stories. We must be open to change and open to each other, and yet hold to our experience and our beliefs. Where there is conflict we must share our points of view and from that dialogue forge a path to the future for all of us.