See more of the story

Minneapolis Star Tribune. November 21, 2021.

Editorial: Closing St. Paul schools is painful, necessary

SPPS' smallest-enrollment schools are not equitable or sustainable.

It's rarely easy to shutter a school and force students to relocate. Closing beloved schools can be devastating for communities that identify strongly with their neighborhood institutions.

That's why emotions are running high in St. Paul as communities are pushing back against a St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) plan to close some schools. In passionate appeals to district leaders, some parents say they want to keep their children in nearby neighborhood schools.

Others argue that the schools under consideration are better for kids because they're smaller. Still others think that because the changes would affect so many kids of color and immigrant families, the moves are discriminatory.

Yet the big-picture reality for SPPS is that its smallest-enrollment schools are not equitable or sustainable. They simply don't have enough students to generate the budgets needed to provide the same range of classes and programming as larger schools.

At the heart of the Envision SPPS restructuring plan is getting the district's elementary schools to a size that ensures access to a well-rounded education for all students. That includes specialist teachers in areas like art, music and science — programs currently unavailable at some schools. And not that long ago, some families protested against the proposed elimination of those programs in some schools.

The plan would eliminate five schools as well as shift students and staffers from other buildings that would be repurposed. The schools that would close are elementary schools Highwood Hills, Jackson, John A. Johnson and Wellstone, as well as LEAP High School. Several other schools in the district would be affected by the changes, which would have an impact on a total of nearly 3,000 students.

The closures and restructurings are tough calls but ones that should be made. SPPS enrollments have fallen dramatically during the past decade, driven by declining birthrates and a rise in school choice options.

In an early October report, board members learned that 16,058 of the city's school-aged children who could have been in district schools in 2019-20 instead attended charter schools or schools in other districts. The district's enrollment dropped from 36,872 in 2019 to a projected 32,594 this year. That resulted in too many schools with too few students to bring in the per-pupil funding needed to hire specialists, district leaders say.

To maintain ideal staff levels and provide equitable class offerings, the administration argues that the district should have a minimum of 450 students in every elementary school and 720 in middle schools. District officials say that if they do nothing, St. Paul will have twice as many low-enrollment schools by 2024.

As Superintendent Joe Gothard told board members, the changes would be difficult for staff and the school communities, "But it is something we must do based on the reality of our current and future enrollment."

Students, families and others will have at least one more opportunity to make their thoughts known to board members at a public hearing 5:30 p.m. Nov. 30 at district headquarters, 360 Colborne St., St. Paul. To sign up to speak and for specifics about the proposal, go to spps.org/Page/31813.

Though it's heartening that so many families and community members feel so strongly about their schools, many may have to accept that students will have to change buildings. We only hope that parents and others will be able to channel their passion over closures into building and supporting successful programs at their new locations.

___

St. Cloud Times. November 21, 2021.

Editorial: COVID fight is now in the hands of the coalition of the willing

Minnesota was first in the nation last week, but not for anything to brag about. Our overconfidence led us to the dubious distinction of having the nation's highest rate of new COVID-19 infections.

We learned that federal military personnel will be deployed locally to help provide patient care in hospitals and health facilities.

And CentraCare issued a statement with an unusual tone, practically imploring the rest of us to take steps to stay well and stay out of their hospitals — because they're full. A respected ER doctor detailed to Times reporter Becca Most the stresses medical staff are under as the pandemic keeps coming in waves. That, too, was very unusual among a profession defined by stoicism.

In other news, the Minnesota prison system upended its normal intake protocol after the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud (the normal intake site for the system at large) was found to account for 94% of the 251 active COVID-19 cases in the state corrections system. While about 80% of Minnesota inmates were fully vaccinated as of Nov. 10, the rate among staff members was about 60%.

In Austria, where the government had restricted the movement of unvaccinated people earlier this month, the situation escalated Friday to include a nationwide vaccine mandate and a full lockdown as cases surged.

And in still more headlines from this week: Vaccine boosters are being rolled out right away to any adult who is six months past their second COVID-19 shot. And Gov. Tim Walz won't be declaring another emergency.

Some will read all of that as proof that nothing works in this fight against COVID-19. Not vaccines. Not masks. Not avoiding crowds or getting tested or social distancing.

Those folks are wrong. There are many pieces of credible evidence that show those small steps are very effective at reducing the risk of spreading the disease, falling seriously ill, being hospitalized or dying.

Those neighbors of ours may be wrong, but they are also entitled to be wrong. So be it, moving on...

So the circumstances at hand mean the coalition of the willing (to borrow an old GOP slogan) must rally. People who have had two shots should rapidly get their boosters to make their own body a less hospitable host and vector for new variants.

Masks seem to be reappearing in public with the latest surge. They can't hurt, so let's get them back on en masse. (No really, they can't hurt. If masks led to oxygen deprivation we all would have seen people collapsing in the streets over the past 18 months. Believe your own eyes.)

Maybe ration your time in crowds, get some takeout from a local restaurant when it's more about "not-cooking-tonight" than "date night," and keep the curbside pickup trend going during this holiday shopping season.

Because two things have become crystal clear this fall:

— The doubters are unlikely to adopt proven infection-control best practices at this point, short of a stint on a ventilator themselves.

— Throwing up our hands in defeat because no solution has proven to be a silver bullet is not only hurting people, it's not a good look for a state that prides itself on common sense, resilience and doing the right thing.

So it's up to some of us to do our best to take care of all of us: Vaccinated people, get your booster. Pharmacies have shots available right now, and they'll be glad to see you.

Parents, talk to your pediatrician about getting your kids vaccinated. Talk to your schools about whether their COVID strategies are working, or just not rocking the boat.

If you're sick, get tested. If you don't feel well, stay home.

If you can avoid a crowd, do so. If you wear a mask in the grocery store, thank you. If you can stand a few feet back from the cashier, they'll be grateful.

Do what you can. Because some will do nothing.

___

Mankato Free Press. November 21. 2021.

Editorial: Housing: Rent help plan needs urgent boost

While the pandemic has disrupted daily life for almost two years, its latest victim may be the disruption of stable housing for those who've not been able to pay rent due to pandemic related job loss.

An in-depth report in last Sunday's Free Press showed just how fragile housing is for those who lost jobs due to the pandemic and who still struggle to pay current rent and owe thousands in back rent. It showed 1,800 people in the nine county Mankato region have requested $9.4 million in rent aid.

The state of Minnesota and Gov. Tim Walz, seeing the enormity of the oncoming problems last year, set up a system to identify and assist renters and landlords to help them stabilize housing and get landlords the rent they're owed. But with thousands needing assistance and hundreds of millions of dollars to be distributed, the system has been slow and bogged down at times.

The RentHelpMN system has allocated only about two-thirds of the total of $300 million it received from the federal government in April. Housing advocates at the Housing Justice Center had in September criticized RentHelpMN for a complicated and cumbersome application system fraught with technological glitches. And with the eviction moratorium lifted Oct. 12, many renters remain at risk of losing their housing.

The Free Press in-depth report showed how that was playing out locally. One MSU international student from India lost financial support from her parents as the pandemic raged there last year. As an international student, she can only work 20 hours a week, which she was doing. She appeared in eviction court worried she would be thrown out of her apartment even though she had applied for RentHelpMN. It was the small detail of not having documentation that nearly cost her.

Fortunately for her, a RentHelpMN worker got her the documentation she needed the night before court.

But other students were just as confused in other court hearings The Free Press observed. Several ended up having to "settle" with landlord lawyers on past due rent and had to be out of their dwellings in seven days.

It's clear housing advocates and RentHelpMN are doing all they can to help renters and get those dollars out the door, but the lifting of the eviction moratorium in October put pressure on a system that lacked the capacity to catch up to rising eviction cases.

RentHelpMN is making more progress and getting money into the hands of landlords and tenants. From its launch in April through September, the organization doled out $91 million in rental assistance. It allocated $100 million in the month of October alone.

And Minnesota Housing Finance Agency has deployed staffers to courthouses in each of Minnesota's 10 judicial districts to help notify those in eviction court they have an option to delay their eviction by simply applying for RentHelpMN.

RentHelpMN is not perfect. It appears to be getting better. If it's a matter of staffing, we should increase staffing. If the computer programs don't work, we should fix them or get others.

And the courts should understand there needs to be some flexibility getting renters signed up and legally certified for RentHelpMN.

Landlord attorneys did not appear fond of this kind of help "interfering" with a court proceeding, but the outcomes will ultimately be better for everyone if renters are assisted. Landlords will be paid. And more important, renters will have stable housing.

Homelessness, as we have seen in a year-long in-depth report in The Free Press, can have debilitating effects on people and the community. Housing security affects one's ability to get a job, earn income and maintain physical and mental health.

We urge legislators and Walz to do whatever is necessary to get RentHelpMN serving the most Minnesotans in the quickest way possible.

END