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Looking at the capacity question of the 2019 Referendum (UPDATED)

Question 2 of the 2019 Eastern Carver County Schools Referendum is a request to spend $111.7 million on capital projects – the largest of which is $35 million on a new elementary school to built on district-owned land in southwest Chaska.

Opponents of the referendum have indicated that there is already enough capacity in our schools to handle the projected growth in our district, and that a new school is unnecessary. Let’s start our analysis by looking at the district’s actual capacity, rolling back the clock to before the 2015 referendum and seeing how that compares to today.

Capacity Over Time

“Program capacity” as defined here is the capacity of the school based on the current use of its space. So, as an example, an area used for special education purposes would have a lower program capacity than a similarly-sized area used for a typical classroom setting.

Historical program capacity by building

As you can see from the numbers, program capacity since the 2015 referendum has every level of the district. At the elementary level, La Academia and Kinder Academy have relocated from their previous locations at the then-Kindergarten Center and Bluff Creek elementary to the former Chaska Elementary building. Carver Elementary has opened, and additions created more capacity at Clover Ridge and Victoria (while allowing some common spaces to be reclaimed). Changes at the secondary level occurred as well, most notably Chaska High School reclaiming one of its houses which was previously being used for early childhood education.

Where are we at today from an enrollment perspective?

Current enrollment and capacity by building

Based on enrollment figures, there are about 185 open seats at the elementary level (excluding the specialized programs of La Academia and Kinder Academy), and comfortable capacity numbers at the middle and high school level. Which brings us to the projections for growth.

Under the district’s projections (done by consulting firm Davis Demographics), elementary school enrollment will top current elementary school capacity by the end of the 2020-21 school year and be nearly 800 students higher than current enrollment by 2024-25.

Even less optimistic estimates of growth (such as a somewhat discounted growth rate on the Davis projections or using the last five-year trend of just over 1% growth) show that the district will be over capacity at the elementary level in less than five years.

The bigger question

Opponents of the new school have pointed out there is significant capacity at the middle and high school levels. Why can’t we just move kids there, they ask? Even under the most optimistic projections of growth, the district would not risk being over capacity in total until nearly a decade from now.

Enrollment projections and capacity by school levelyellow cells indicate where enrollment is larger than capacity

Well, we’ve answered this question before. From 2012-2014, I worked on a district facilities task force that dealt with the same sort of question – how to deal with rapidly rising enrollment at the elementary level.

The task force produced three options for the School Board and senior administration to review.

The first option was called “Cram”. It involved not building any new schools but just redrawing elementary boundary lines to balance enrollment across schools. Class sizes would get progressively larger, but boundaries could be redrawn – yearly, if necessary — to spread the pain evenly.

The second option was called “Shuffle”. It too, involved not building any new schools, but instead solved the elementary school problem by shuffling kids – among the options looked at were moving some 5th graders to middle schools and moving some 8th graders to high schools.

The third option was “Build”. This was the option selected at the time, and after the 2015 referendum passed, Carver Elementary opened in 2017.

Most people probably don’t remember the public feedback around those three options, but as a member of the task force, I do.

The “Shuffle” solution, which referendum opponents seem to be favoring in some fashion, was broadly unpopular. It was even more unpopular if people discovered that it was their kids who were going to be “shuffled” as opposed to someone else’s kids. The reality is that it’s easy on a spreadsheet to shuffle kids and balance enrollments, but there are real world consequences to doing so.

Middle school buildings are not equipped today to deal with elementary school students. Even if there is classroom space, scheduling of common facilities is problematic. For instance, Chaska Middle School East struggles with physical education space during the 3+ months that the dome in not available during the school year and adding several sections of fifth graders to the mix wouldn’t make it any easier.

Other parents balked at their fifth graders riding the bus with eighth graders or having to share school start and end times with middle schoolers. In the end, most folks agreed that a “shuffle” plan was not the best answer for our kids, and the 2015 referendum to build a new school earned 69% of the vote.

I’m not telling you to vote “yes” here — that’s up to you. I’m just suggesting that the question of whether the elementary capacity is needed goes a lot deeper than just putting the numbers on a spreadsheet and seeing if Column B is less than Column A.

UPDATE (9/18):

I was alerted to some comments on Facebook by referendum opponents regarding this post, and just wanted to post some clarifications and additional comments.

  1. One of the complaints was that I did not include the current Family Learning Center (former Kindergarten Center) in the current elementary school capacity. Yes, it is true that we could choose to put elementary school students back into that facility. However, I don’t feel that would be prudent. That building is lacking two critical components: a gymnasium and a kitchen. It is better suited to its current use housing early childhood and preschool programs that don’t require those amenities. Besides, if you do move those early childhood and preschool programs, you still need to find somewhere else to put them and would incur additional expense to utilize that space.
  2. Accusations were made that the data above did not come from the district. That is not true, with the exception of elementary school enrollment projection scenarios #2 and #3, which were generated by me as described in the original post. Some of the enrollment figures in these files received from the school district on September 12, 2019, are either more recent or pull enrollment at different dates than what has been published in other district documents. In the interest of transparency, I have attached the three source files received from the district below.
  3. The issue of program capacity versus absolute capacity was raised. It is true that program capacity does not reflect the maximum capacity scenario for a particular school. What is does reflect is the reality that not every space in a school — whether a traditional classroom or a special education room or a science lab or a music room or an art room — has the same practical capacity per square foot. Not every inch of the school is going to be able to be maxed-out from a capacity perspective.
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Insulin makers should fund program

As someone with close relatives and friends who are insulin-dependent diabetics, the most disappointing outcome of this year’s legislative session was the failure of Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act to be enacted into law.

Even more disappointing was the fact that our state senator Dr. Scott Jensen – who was a co-author on the bill – ended up voting against it when it mattered most.

Alec’s bill – named after a 26-year old restaurant manager who died in 2017 after rationing his insulin because he couldn’t afford the high cost – is a common-sense solution to this problem that has been vetted through months of consultation with legislators, health and pharmacy industry experts, and the diabetes community.  It relies on existing technology infrastructure and has a simple enrollment process. Under the terms of the bill, low- and middle-income Minnesotans with incomes too high to qualify for public assistance can get a 90-day emergency supply of insulin at reduced cost.

The program would not be funded by taxpayer dollars. Instead, the program would be funded by a fee on insulin manufacturers. This is an important component of the program, and let me explain why.

Insulin manufacturers are a major cause of this problem. Even though insulin has been commercially manufactured for the treatment of diabetes since 1923, the three companies that control the patents have exploited loopholes in the law to prevent an inexpensive generic version of insulin from being available to patients.

And those companies have fully exercised that leverage – the price of insulin has more than tripled in the last decade. Over this time, the three insulin manufacturers have all recorded record revenue and profits.

But because of these skyrocketing prices, about 25% of patients have been forced to ration their insulin to make their supply last longer– a practice that can lead to complications such as kidney failure, blindness, or in some cases (like Alec Smith) death.

American diabetics also pay far higher prices for their insulin than most other countries in the world. A box of insulin pens that costs $700 here costs $73 in Germany, $65 in Canada, $61 in Italy, $57 in Israel, and $40 in Taiwan.

Since the legislative session ended, Sen. Jensen and some of his Republican colleagues have come forward with a new plan. While this plan shares many of the same elements of Alec’s bill, it has one key difference.

The new GOP plan would principally rely on donations to supply the emergency insulin to patients, with taxpayers making up any shortages. It should be unacceptable to leave taxpayers on the hook for a crisis that is largely created and sustained by the practices of insulin manufacturers and the pharmaceutical industry.

Jensen and the rest of the Legislature need to make insulin manufacturers accountable for their out-of-control profiteering. The Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act is one necessary step to make that happen, and I urge Jensen to support it.

This piece appeared in the June 13, 2019 edition of the Chaska Herald.

Greg Boe: stripping away the moderate mask

A couple of weeks before the 2018 election, I made this remark about GOP House District 47B candidate (and eventual election winner) Greg Boe, who won his Republican primary and based his general election pitch on being a “moderate” choice:

Greg has always seemed like a pretty moderate guy — some may not know that he caucused with Democrats back in the late-2000s/early-2010s. So it’s fair to say that seeing Greg line up behind Donald Trump — a guy who is the antithesis of Greg’s “Reasonable. Thoughtful. Respectful” slogan — has been a bit of a shock.

Brick City Blog, Donzel Leggett for State House 47B

Boe ended up winning the election — by a slender 117 votes, or about one-half of one percent.

Well, we’re now one legislative session in the books. How did Rep. Boe do in his first few months around the State Capitol?

Sadly, I have to report that the results aren’t good.

Let’s start off by looking at some basic productivity metrics. Boe only chief-authored four bills during the session (and two of those were different versions of the same bill). Only one rank-and-file legislator (Rep. Nolan West) — excluding districts where a vacancy occurred mid-session — authored fewer bills. None of those four bills were passed into law or rolled into a larger omnibus bill.

But the most surprising — and disappointing — part of Boe’s performance this session was his hard right turn into extremism and bigotry on certain issues and incoherence and dishonesty on others.

Let’s start with abortion. Boe started off the session grandstanding with his fellow House and Senate Republicans in a photo-op designed to protest proposed laws in New York and Virginia. Unfortunately, Boe chose to lie about the content of those bills, claiming that they permitted infanticide. (They do not.)

Boe followed that up with legislative action, becoming a co-author on a version of the so-called “heartbeat bill”, which would ban all abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected (usually in the six- to eight-week range), with the only exception being to prevent the death of the mother or where there was “serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function” — a more restrictive definition of the health exception than exists in current state law.

The impact of this is remarkable — Boe is in favor of prohibiting abortions in all but the most threatening circumstances at a point in the pregnancy where some women may not even yet know they are pregnant. And if you’re a victim of rape or incest, Greg Boe would tell you to go pound sand.

Not only would you have to deal with the physical consequences of your attack, but you would be required to carry the baby to term — and under the policies Greg Boe advocates for, you wouldn’t have a right to health care, a right to take time off of work to handle your prenatal appointments, and no guarantee that you could keep your job or have paid leave after you gave birth to a child conceived because of a criminal act.

Reasonable, thoughtful, and respectful is not how I would describe that set of policies. But there’s more.

In March, Boe stepped into a pile of trouble when he tried to explain his vote against the Equal Rights Amendment. The focus of his explanation was around the point that using the word “gender” instead of “sex” would open up a world of complications citing his own personal internet search where he claims to have found 63 different gender definitions. But, in reality, “gender” is used 91 times in 68 separate state statutes without things turning into a free-for-all. When challenged by his constituents on that matter, he began illegally blocking them — by the dozens — from his Facebook page, eventually relenting after several hours and without an apology.

Boe has doubled down on that logic subsequently, using the scare tactic about transgender participation in athletics as a cloak for his vote. Note the snarky language and use of quotes around the bill’s name.

Greg Boe posting about the “so-called ‘Minnesota ERA'”
on a local conservative Facebook group

It should be pointed out — for the record — that the Minnesota State High School League has an established policy on transgender athletes that prevents the sort of fever dream that Boe and other conservatives seem to fear.

These sorts of positions are indistinguishable from the sort of nonsense that legislative radicals like Glenn Gruenhagen or Steve Drazkowski push (Gruenhagen, in fact, was Boe’s second-most common co-author on legislation this session, sharing authorship on over 20 bills.).

Despite representing a 50-50 district, Boe hasn’t even shown the courage to buck his own party from time to time the way that his Senate counterpart Scott Jensen has. The results our district has received from Greg Boe would be no different than if one programmed a robot to vote the default Republican position.

Boe has engaged in the usual sorts of political shenanigans, too, which I guess should be expected. Like many Republicans, he obfuscates on transportation funding, pretends to support increased education funding, and demagogues on taxes.

Beyond his performance at the Legislature, though, Boe missed some opportunities to provide leadership within the community. The Eastern Carver County School District has been rocked this year by a series of racial incidents. In April, the district held a community forum on equity in the district at a school literally kitty-corner from his house. While over 150 community members were inside the school working through tough problems, Boe and his wife were spotted walking on the sidewalk outside not knowing or not caring about what was happening on the inside.

Boe is already starting to try and build the coffers for his re-election campaign. It may be even harder this time around, though, because the mask has been stripped away. “Moderate” Greg Boe is no more.

Breaking points: Jim Bach and ROAR

To say it was a challenging year in our Eastern Carver County School District would be a major understatement. A spate of racial incidents – most at Chaska High School — has alienated many minority students and their parents and left them feeling unsafe. For the past six months — since December — those parents and their allies have been appearing at school board meetings to demand action.

After months of promises that weren’t followed up with action at both the school and district level, these community members organized themselves into a group called ROAR (Residents Organized Against Racism). In April, ROAR introduced an eight-point petition calling for specific steps to reform how our school district and its schools handle equity issues.

One of those eight points, a call to “change the leadership of Chaska High School” has become a flashpoint. A counter-petition on change,org was started and a contentious debate has begun on social media. This issue merits additional conversation in full context. That’s my purpose here: to discuss why some parents and community members have reached a breaking point with the current leadership of Chaska High School.

The school’s response has been problematic, here are some examples:

In September, three Chaska High School students attended the football game versus Chanhassen wearing blackface (one of these students also wore an Afro wig). Despite the presence of school- and district-level employees at the game, no action was taken in the moment to prevent the display of this harmful racial stereotype. Even after a second blackface incident in February — both being called “teachable moments” by Principal Jim Bach in media reports — there has yet to be a schoolwide discussion of the history and meaning of blackface.

In February, black students at Chaska High School approached school leadership about doing a series of posters celebrating Black History Month, because it is otherwise not memorialized at the school. Principal Bach rejected some of the poster themes, suggesting that they required additional context and dialogue. For a district that prides itself on “personalized learning”, this was a failure to give the necessary support to a self-initiated activity designed to help educate others — one that would have been especially valuable given that by that point in the school year, Chaska High had already suffered the two blackface incidents and a highly-publicized racial incident at Chaska Middle School East. A few weeks later, an overflow crowd filled the Chaska Event Center — which had been rented out by the parents of the black students who created the posters — to view the exhibit in its entirety. While many teachers and staff members were there, no members of the school- or district-level leadership teams attended this event.

In April, two white Chaska High School students were responsible for the creation and distribution of a fake Google Map that featured the faces of about 25 black students on a location labeled “Negro Hill”. The pictured students were subsequently called down to the office via the loudspeaker, where they were required to listen to a forced apology from the students responsible for the image — thereby further disrupting the students’ learning and not affording them the agency to decide whether they wanted to participate in such a “restorative justice” session. A few days later, one of the pictured students who did a media interview about the incident was subject to retaliation, where an obviously photoshopped social media post was reported as a threat by a parent of one of the students who distributed the “Negro Hill” image. Despite recognizing the threat report as not being valid, members of the Chaska High leadership team reported it to the police anyway, resulting in the student losing an entire day of learning and being needlessly subjected to the stress of being questioned by police investigators.

These are just three examples of how the school’s responses to these incidents – not the incidents themselves – have been less than optimal. Members of ROAR have identified several more such school-level responses that they feel have been similarly handled inappropriately.

Unintended harm is still harm

Much of the discussion surrounding these events by community members has focused on the unintentional nature of them. It is frequently referred to on social media that the boys dressed in blackface at the football game “just went too far” and “there were no racial intentions whatsoever” and “calling it a racial incident implies that it was done with intent”.

We need to dispel those mistaken notions.

When you dress in blackface (and, in one case, wear an Afro wig as well), you are engaging in racist behavior. Whether your intent was malicious or not doesn’t lessen the pain that the perpetuation of that harmful stereotype inflicts.

Similarly, decisions made by the Chaska High School leadership team may not have been made with malicious intent, but still caused harm. The failure to remove the three students dressed in blackface at the football game is to me the clearest example of this, but not the only one. Choosing to deny certain Black History Month poster topics may seem defensible to some people when viewed in isolation, but when placed in a larger context (such as the other racial incidents earlier in the year and leadership’s past support for other potentially divisive student-led initiatives like the pro-gun control protests after the Parkland shootings) one can understand why many would feel that this decision was not a wise and consistent application of a principal’s broad discretion to limit speech within a school setting.

Accountability must be modeled

A lot of the focus following these incidents from school leaders has been directed at making sure students have clear expectations for their behavior and an understanding of what the consequences will be going forward. That’s all well and good, but it only addresses part of the problem at this point.

As detailed above, the decisions made by Chaska High School leadership have opened up a trust gap between it and a significant portion of the students and parents in our community. Moving forward requires the administration to model the behavior it claims to expect of its students.

These issues are difficult, and we all should have the grace and space to make well-intentioned mistakes. But this requires more than the bland “we can always do better” sort of responses that the Chaska High School leadership team have offered so far.

At a minimum, this means a forthright accounting of where the Chaska High School leadership team has missed the mark in its handling of these incidents, an acknowledgement of the pain those actions have caused, an action plan for addressing those gaps next school year and beyond and clear evidence that the plan is being deployed. For a district and a school that has promised proactive communication and transparency on equity issues, this would be one useful step on a long road to where we need to be as a community.

Regardless of who is the principal at Chaska High School, real reform is required

As we finish the school year, the district administration and school board is facing hard decisions about how to move the district through the controversies that have marked the last few months. 

At a personal level, I struggle with the call to replace the Chaska High School leadership. Like many white people in the community, I too have had several good interactions with Jim Bach. I served on the district’s E-8 Facilities Task Force from 2012-2014, when he was still principal at Chaska Middle School East. I found Bach to be open, inclusive, and a strong strategic thinker over my time on the task force. At the time, I was excited that my kids were slated to go to CMSE (and still felt that way when Bach took the job at Chaska High).

But I can’t stop fielding questions from friends, relatives, and work colleagues who see our schools splashed on the news all too frequently for racial incidents.

And I also can’t unhear what other parents and students have told me about their experiences this year – experiences that don’t correspond with what I thought I knew.

In April, I sat at a meeting organized by the school district to discuss equity issues where minutes after district leadership promised transparency on equity issues, two black girls sitting at my table passed around their phones showing us the “Negro Hill” image which had been circulating for days but had not yet been communicated by the district. I was appalled and angry and embarrassed. But what really broke my heart was the reaction of the girls, who — while upset — seemed sadly resigned to this sort of thing as a regular part of life in our schools. They didn’t trust that the leaders at the school would stand up for them because they had been let down before. No one should have to feel that way at Chaska High School or anywhere else.

In recent months, I’ve heard variations of that story from many other parents and students. Some parents have pulled their children out of our district because they fear for them. Others are worn down from fighting this battle for years. And some worry about retaliation if they tell their stories publicly. If you haven’t talked to someone who has had one of these experiences, you should. Watching the April school board meeting is a good start. Once you’ve heard these stories, you can no longer deny the seriousness of this issue.

If no one in the school or in the district office is going to have the back of those two girls who sat at my table, all their black and brown classmates and their families, then it’s up to us — all of us — in the community to do so. For these reasons, I’ve joined with these parents and community members in ROAR to help lift the voices of those who have been ignored for too long and to call for real reform in how our district operates.

The other points on the ROAR petition (measurable accountability, restructured equity leadership & advisory groups, anti-racism policy & protocols, trauma-focused & victim-centered protocols, updated curriculum, more diverse faculty & staff, and monthly updates from the district) have received broad support – even from many of those who have signed the change.org petition. I’m glad they are supportive of measures to improve the equity in our schools, and wish they had been there since December (or even since April), too. The district’s response to the ROAR petition shows that they now understand that these steps are necessary.

No, the school district and Chaska High School leadership are not solely responsible for these incidents happening. (Although, one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the early incidents had been handled more effectively.) But it’s not acceptable for minority students to suffer additional damage every time because the staff at our schools don’t know how to respond to these incidents properly. These students should not be further victimized by leaders who are behind on the learning curve.

We must demand better for the sake of the entire community. The trust gap must be closed. It is up to the district to take any and all necessary steps — including personnel changes, if needed — to ensure that the leadership team at Chaska High School is properly equipped to handle such incidents and that they will no longer engage in behaviors that make the problems worse instead of making students feel safe and welcomed.

And it’s up to us — all of us — to hold the district accountable for doing so.

[ROAR logo from the group’s public Facebook page. Edits for clarity on 6/7, 6/9, and 6/12]

A Chaska Continuity Crisis? Not so much.

At the December 17 Chaska City Council meeting, the city said its formal farewells to departing Councilors Chris Schulz, Greg Boe, and Paula Geisler, for it was the last meeting for all three.  Jay Rohe, who resigned from the Council in October, was also there to mark the occasion. There was much discussion at the meeting about how the sudden turnover of all four Council seats is unprecedented in the 50-year history of Chaska’s current council structure.

Already there is some muttering and questioning in the community about the lack of continuity and experience on the Council. But is that the right question to be asking? And is the current situation really so unprecedented?

Let’s take the second question first. The notion that Chaska has always had an experienced Council is one that is largely manufactured. In fact, we only need to wind the clock back to 2010 to find another highly inexperienced Council. After Mark Windschitl won the Mayoral Special Election in January of that year, he joined four other Councilors – Gino Businaro, Boe, Schulz, and Rick Ford – who were all in their first term.  Not to mention the fact that City Administrator Matt Podhradsky had been on the job for only a little over a year at the time. Looking back on that time, I think we can all agree that the city survived that “inexperience” on the Council.

Why is that? Well, it goes back to the first question. Continuity in anything can’t – and shouldn’t – only be judged by ensuring that specific individuals are present. No one is irreplaceable and no one is immortal. True continuity is created not by returning the same people to the same seats over and over again, but rather by the hard work of building a common set of values, a shared sense of mission, processes that have been refined with learnings over time, and a commitment to building community.

(And let’s also not forget that the folks who should get to decide how much continuity and experience are valued are the citizens of Chaska – not the Council itself. Keep that in mind should the Council decide to appoint a new Ward 2 Councilor instead of having a special election for the seat.)

Yes, we’ve lost a lot of experience from the Council in recent months. But, we’re also gaining a lot. Mike Huang and Jon Grau both served for nine years on the Planning and Parks & Recreations Commissions (including multiple years as the Chair for both), respectively. Both have been excellent public servants in those roles. McKayla Hatfield is a lifelong Chaska resident and small-business owner who demonstrated her devotion to the city and her willingness to work hard in her victorious campaign this fall.

They bring new perspectives and new areas of focus – just as the group a decade ago did. After all, Chaska has never stood still. It’s never looked backwards. Each wave of leadership has built on the foundation that has been left and moved our city forward into the future. I’m confident that Mike, Jon, and McKayla will do that, too. After all, they’re the product of the hard work put in over the years by generations of Chaska leaders to build that true continuity – one that transcends any individual.

So, don’t despair, question, or mutter. Instead, talk to your City Council members and let them know what you think! Help them move our city forward in a constructive way.

It’s Time for a Special Election, Chaska

Chaska Ward 2 City Council Member Greg Boe eked out a narrow 117-vote win in the race for State House District 47B on Election Day, meaning he will be forced to vacate his position for the final two years of his City Council term. This comes after Ward 4 Council Member Jay Rohe’s resignation in October. Both terms aren’t up for re-election until 2020.

With the pending vacancy in Ward 2 combined with the existing vacancy in Ward 4, the city is in unique circumstances.  It is not healthy for half of the city to be represented on the City Council by unelected Council Members for the next two years. It is critical that the replacement of these seats reflect the views of citizens in Wards 2 & 4.

The current composition of the Council only complicates the scenario. With three of four current members departing, it only makes it even more imperative to turn these decisions over to the citizens via special election.

These positions are elected for a reason. We have the time, resources, and capabilities to hold a special election. Per my non-lawyerly reading of election law, we could have new council members sat in time for the second council meeting in February, which realistically means at the most four council meetings with only three members. With the Planning Commission having relatively light agendas in October/November, it seems like there’s not a significant backlog of activity coming to the Council for final approval in January.  (I realize this can change quickly.) The costs of a special election are fractions of a percent of the city’s $16M general fund budget.

The city is already far along in the appointment process for Ward 4 – a process that began before the election results. I salute the Chaska residents who have stepped forward to be considered for appointment, and I thank them for their desire to serve. This effort is not about being devaluing them, but rather about putting the people of Ward 4 at the center of the conversation. Circumstances have changed, and wise leaders adjust when the situation changes.

In my time on the Chaska Park Board, one of the mantras we have heard and lived by – and one that has been echoed by the City Council — was making sure that “we did things right” even if that sometimes meant taking a little more time or even spending a little more money.  We don’t just pick the quickest, easiest or cheapest way when we can give our citizens something lasting and of value from choosing a different path. It’s our responsibility – and the City Council’s – to do the right thing for our city and there’s nothing they can do that has more value than giving the citizens their voice and their choice as to who will represent them.

A special election to fill the Ward 2 and Ward 4 vacancies is the right thing to do for the city of Chaska.

Don’t just take my word for it. 100+ Chaska residents have spoken up and signed their name to a petition just over the last two weeks to support a special election. They’ve raised their voices, I encourage you to listen to them, to join them, and tell the City Council:

Authorize a special election to fill the vacancies in Ward 2 and Ward 4.

If you agree, sign the petition at ChaskaSpecialElection.com! Join the Chaska Citizens for a Special Election Facebook group! And come to the City Council meeting on Monday, November 19 (7 p.m. at City Hall), where we will deliver the petition — and the message — in person to the Council!

Endorsements: Stone, Wetterlin, and Laube for District 112 School Board

As a parent, I have struggled with the district’s rollout of standards-based grading and Empower. I wondered if I was alone, so I talked to some other parents, and discovered I wasn’t. Together, we started a group called Even Better Eastern Carver County Schools, devoted to making out schools, well, even better than they are today. Last spring, we did a survey that discovered that large numbers of parents (nearly half, in fact) were also struggling with Empower and standards-based grading.

Also last spring, students at Chanhassen and Chaska high schools organized to complain about their concerns with the rollout of personalized learning and Empower.

Finally, the district’s own community survey last year found that questions related to standards-based grading and Empower were (by far) the lowest scoring questions.

Three points of feedback from three different sources. All pointing in the same direction: there’s something wrong with how the district is rolling out standards-based grading and Empower. What has the response been?

Sadly, it’s been incremental changes only. Yes, there is some new functionality in Empower that is helpful. No, it’s still not “good”. Not even close.

Also sadly, the current school board does not appear to be sufficiently engaged in solving this problem. The system is blinking red, but no one is taking action. I’ve watched the meetings, and the only significant discussion on these issues took place in July, far too late to respond to what happened last year and make the sort of changes required for this year.

We need to step back, take a fresh look at the rollout approach and be prepared to fundamentally change directions. To do so, the School Board and district leadership are going to have to break out of their dependence on self-selected task forces and seek broader input from the community. None of the incumbent school board members have expressed a willingness to do what is needed to bring this process back to where it needs to be.

Fortunately, we have three qualified challengers who can bring a fresh set of eyes and new perspectives to our School Board.

Jenny Stone is a former District 112 teacher who left in part because of the district’s approach on some of these issues. Her performance at the League of Women Voters forum demonstrated a complete understanding of the sort of issues the Board will face over the next four years.

Delane Wetterlin is a former district employee who worked for years in our schools and understands what’s going on both in the classroom and behind-the-scenes. She is concerned about how we are measuring progress under standards-based grading, and vows to make improvements.

Cecilia Laube is the head of the district’s Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) and as a Chilean immigrant, she would provide a voice for diverse populations that is missing on the Board today.

All three of these candidates have prioritized improving school district communication as well, which is another area of serious concern.

And what about the fourth spot on the ballot? If you’re picking among the incumbents, I would urge a vote for either Fred Berg or Tim Klein. Berg is a retired teacher who could stand to regain some of the skeptical nature he showed before joining the Board eight years ago. Klein has shown a keen analytical eye, particularly on fiscal matters, that he should apply more critically to the issues discussed above.

Endorsement: Jon Grau for Chaska City Council, Ward 1

I’ve served with Jon Grau for the last eight years on the city’s Parks & Recreation Board. Jon has been the chair since 2016. Jon’s actions as a member and as the chairperson of that board have been in alignment with the four values he lists on his campaign page: Honesty, Transparency, Respect, and Service.

In our time on the Park Board, we’ve tackled a lot of significant projects, Firemen’s Park and the Dog Park preeminent among them. On these projects, Jon has sought to be a consensus-builder and he has always valued and prioritized public input.

We’ve dealt with the turmoil last year of the investigation of the Parks & Recreation department leadership. Jon was a steadying force as Chair during that time, working well with the interim leadership and the Board to make sure progress continued on our key priorities.

When I look at how Jon has campaigned for City Council this fall, a few things in particular impress me.

First, his emphasis on improving city communications. I was motivated to get involved with the Park Board because of poor communications from the city during the development of the original Veterans (now Sunset) Park. A decade later, some of the commonsense suggestions made by neighbors during that process still haven’t been implemented. We can and must do better. I believe Jon when he says that this will be a priority for him when he reaches the Council.

Second, Jon’s campaign has modeled how he would behave as a member of the Council. He’s done the work — knocking on over 1,000 doors by himself. If you listen to the League of Women Voters candidate forum, you’ll see he’s thought carefully about the issues. Jon has run an inclusive, forward-looking campaign respectful of Chaska’s values but looking to grow and make it great for future generations as well. Without dwelling on the issue, I would suggest that Jon’s opponent (and her supporters) haven’t always been at the same level.

Finally, Jon would provide a perspective to the Council that’s missing at the moment. Families with school-age children aren’t represented on the Council right now, and three of the four councilors (4/5 if you include the recently resigned Jay Rohe) have been there for nine years or more. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a Council that works well with itself, but is not as open to outside views and opinions (especially if they are dissenting) as they once were.  It’s time for some fresh views and new ideas.

Jon Grau will bring a much-needed openness to the Council, respecting and listening to all in our community. If you live in Ward 1, I encourage you to vote for Jon on Election Day.

Endorsement: Donzel Leggett for State House 47B

There are a lot of critical elections on the ballot in 2018. While the statewide races are getting all of the attention, there are extremely important local races as well. So, after a five-plus year hiatus, I’m dusting off the old blog to comment on some of these races.

The first race is the race for State House in District 47B.

For eight terms, this was a safely Republican seat in the hands of Rep. Joe Hoppe. But with Hoppe’s retirement, everything has changed, and this district which has shown signs of becoming more purple (supporting marriage equality and Amy Klobuchar in 2012) is suddenly on the map of races to watch.

The DFL has an incredibly qualified candidate in Donzel Leggett running this cycle. Donzel is a Vice President at General Mills, a former Purdue football player, a husband, and a father of four. By all the metrics — campaign fundraising, doors knocked, social media impact — Leggett has the most energized Legislative campaign seen in this area in quite some time.

Donzel is also a leaderHis positions on the issues are clear. Seriously! Click the links and listen to his own words.

Donzel promotes an inclusive, forward-looking vision for our community and our state. He’s criss-crossed the district this year, meeting people of all ideological stripes where they are. What other candidate in this district is holding open town hall meetings? (Joe Hoppe couldn’t even be bothered to do that after he had been elected!) Electing Donzel Leggett is critical to keeping this state and our community moving ahead.

There’s a clear choice on November 6. I’m picking Donzel Leggett for State House 47B, and you should too.

A quick note about Donzel’s opponent. For the last 15 years, I’ve lived in Chaska’s Ward 2. Since 2009, Greg Boe has been my City Council representative. I know Greg. I like Greg personally. And I’ve voted for Greg.

Greg has always seemed like a pretty moderate guy — some may not know that he caucused with Democrats back in the late-2000s/early-2010s. So it’s fair to say that seeing Greg line up behind Donald Trump — a guy who is the antithesis of Greg’s “Reasonable. Thoughtful. Respectful” slogan — has been a bit of a shock.

Even beyond this, Greg’s issue positions as described on his website are word-salady nonsense that are impossible to accomplish. Cut taxes, keep education a priority, build more roads and continue the GOP giveaway to heath insurers all at the same time? Good luck with that!

Many of his answers at the League of Women Voters forum are the same. Take for instance, these 90 seconds of him talking in circles on the minimum wage. How about this answer regarding education funding? Anyone able to discern an actual position there, because I can’t.

It’s sad that Greg — a three-term city councilor who has worked for 20 years in country government — appears to be that out of his depth on policy or he’s trying too hard to say something that sounds good to everybody. Neither explanation does his candidacy any favors.

Again: there’s a clear choice on November 6. I’m picking Donzel Leggett for State House 47B, and you should too.

Fixing the problem of NSA spying

There’s been lots of talk about the problem of NSA spying the last few days, and some partisan braying about it.  But the real question is: what do we do now?  The reality is that the majority of Congress stands overwhelmingly in favor of these programs, and Presidents of both parties have supported these programs, which makes it highly unlikely that they’re going to be stopped completely.  What are practical things that can be done to ensure that the privacy impacts of these programs are limited while still giving the government the data it needs to investigate potential terrorist plots?

Realistic policy options fall into two categories:  1.) reduce what data can be collected and 2.) improve transparency.

Reducing the data the NSA can collect

Changing the data the NSA can collect would require Congressional action to modify the relevant statutes in place (principally Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act), and three primary ideas for accomplishing this have come forward:

  1. Allow the data collection to continue but require a warrant based on probable cause to access any of the records for a U.S. citizen.  This approach was introduced as legislation by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and would raise the legal standard for accessing the collected data.
  2. Limit data collection to eliminate purely domestic calls.  Raised as an alternative to the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, this would limit the collection of data to calls where at least one of the callers was foreign, except in cases where a definitive connection to terrorist activity could result in a warrant to acquire that data.
  3. Limit data collection to a suspicion-based standard.  Instead of doing a dragnet of all calls made, data collection could only occur records based on a reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity — of someone suspected of being a terrorist or spy, someone called by a terrorist suspect, or potentially somewhat broader searches, such as calls made from a building where terrorist activity is suspected of taking place.

Improve transparency of current programs

If none of the options above are taken to limit the data collected, perhaps the least we could expect is a better understanding of what sort of data collection is being done in our name.  Here are some of the options available to accomplish this:

  1. Declassify Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) decisions interpreting Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.  Introduced today as a bill in the Senate by a bipartisan group of eight Senators, including Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, this bill would compel the release of these decisions, so the legal logic could be evaluated and debated.  President Obama could also choose to do this via executive order.
  2. Release more details about how these programs work.  Can the NSA listen in on calls?  If so, when and why?  What is the standard for accessing the collected call metadata?  How long is the data stored?  Has the data ever been accessed for “routine” police work, or is it access limited to solely terrorism/national security related issues?  How are the programs audited for potential abuse?
  3. Permit court challenges towards these programs to move forward.  Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the government over warrantless wiretapping and data collection, but all have failed to reach the trial phase.  This is because the government (under both the Bush and Obama Administrations) have fought these cases on a standing issue.  What this means is that the government has alleged that the persons bringing the lawsuit can’t prove that their data was collected or their calls listened to, so they can’t prove they were harmed by the activity.  With no harm, they don’t have standing to sue in court.  The Verizon allegations — which cover millions of Americans — may make it impossible for the Department of Justice to continue these sorts of claims going forward.  If the Administration feels they are on solid legal ground with these programs, they should allow these cases to go to trial and win them definitively.

None of these six ideas provide a definitive firewall between government and your personal data, but they are practical approaches that could work incrementally to improve the current situation.  Getting them accomplished, though, will require application of political pressure on politicians in both parties.  Calls and e-mails to your Senators and Representatives will help keep the ball moving forward.

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