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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

January 28, 2018

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jan. 24

As the snow fell, St. Paul schools failed the test

St. Paul public school leaders have multiple ways to communicate with students and their families. The district uses social media, email, text messaging and its website. The district even has a school bus app that’s supposed to let parents know about transportation delays in real time.

Yet during Monday’s storm that dumped about a foot of snow on the city, too many parents were left wondering where their children were well after buses were supposed to drop them off. Some families didn’t know whether their children ever got on a bus, whether they were still safe and warm at school, or if their bus was stuck or in an accident. And in some cases, students didn’t make it home until almost midnight.

That’s a communication problem that must be fixed. With all the tracking and other information-relaying technology that’s available, St. Paul schools should strive to do a better job connecting with families in emergency situations.

The district can’t be blamed for the heavy afternoon snow or the terrible driving conditions the storm created. Anyone who tried to navigate Monday’s conditions knows that it caused hundreds of vehicles to get stuck, slowed traffic to a crawl and created serious delays.

But the barrage of social-media complaints from St. Paul parents revealed in real-time how difficult it was for parents to get information about their kids. Some checked the bus app, which turned out not be fully reliable. Others called the district office or their child’s school, but in some cases phones weren’t answered or they couldn’t get through.

Some families waited hours for the last of the stranded — 300 kids from preschool through eighth grade — to be bused home between 10 p.m. and midnight. One group of 11 kids from Wellstone Elementary on the North End had to get a ride from police officers. And according to a district official, nearly the last of those to be transported home were homeless or highly mobile students who receive rides to wherever they’re staying through a contract arrangement the district has with taxi companies.

To their credit, St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard and Mayor Melvin Carter held a news conference Tuesday to own up to the communications failure and apologize. Gothard said he and his team made the decision to keep schools open Monday based on information that indicated the district could get kids home safely. With hindsight, he added, “We likely would have made a different decision.”

There were 10 minor bus accidents, and 20 buses got stuck in snow, according to a schools spokesperson. As the situation worsened, district leaders asked the city for help. Carter helped shovel out buses at Farnsworth and Wellstone elementary schools, and the city dispatched plows to help where possible. At a number of schools, staff and neighbors helped stranded children by providing food and watching over them until they could get home safely.

At the news conference, Gothard and Carter thanked those who had pitched in and said they would work together to improve the response to weather events. Topping that to-do list should be upgrading the GPS bus tracking and driver communication systems to make them more user-friendly and accurate for school staff and families.

Forecasters had been uncertain about the impact of Monday’s storm on the Twin Cities, and the heavy snow hit at the worst time. Nevertheless, what happened to some schoolchildren and their families in St. Paul should never be repeated.

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Post Bulletin, Jan. 24

Bravo to City of Lakes for name change

Lake Calhoun, the largest and best-known of lakes in the City of Lakes, is now Bde Maka Ska.

Pronounced “beh-DAY mah-KAH skah,” it means White Earth Lake in the Dakota language — and it represents a modest but important step in recognizing the Native American heritage and culture that’s all around us in Minnesota.

Tom Landwehr, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources commissioner, announced last week that the DNR will recognize the name change as approved by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Hennepin County Board, after years of public discussion.

The final decision for naming Minnesota lakes is left to the commissioner, according to statute, so Landwehr deserves a pat on the back, as do the park board members and county commissioners who chose to listen to community activists and replace one of Minnesota’s most familiar place names.

There were many reasons to listen, including that the lake was informally named nearly 200 years ago for John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina senator who was the nation’s seventh vice president but also one of American history’s most fiery and uncompromising advocates for slavery and states’ rights. Though he didn’t live to see the Civil War, he was a champion of Southern secession and a hero to the Confederacy.

That would be reason enough to rename one of Minnesota’s most beloved lakes. The change is like the removal of Confederate statues elsewhere.

But just as important is recognizing the long history and culture of the Dakota, Ojibwe and other Native American people who called this place home long before Father Hennepin arrived at St. Anthony Falls. (That was Hennepin’s name for the falls; the Dakota called it Owamniyomni, meaning whirlpool or eddy.)

Minnesota has many traces of Dakota and Ojibwe language and history in its place names, as it does the names and cultures of immigrant cultures over the centuries. It’s appropriate and adds richness and context to keep that heritage alive.

No doubt it’s a major change. There’s the inconvenience factor all by itself; a lot of signs, maps, websites, letterhead and more need to be revised and replaced. Others say the Lake Calhoun name is a deeply embedded part of city history and no one knows who Calhoun was anyway.

The latter isn’t true, or shouldn’t be true if you paid attention during American history class. John C. Calhoun was a seminal figure in American history, from the days of Jackson and the “nullification crisis” — a dress rehearsal for the Civil War — long past his death in 1850.

Names have meaning, and this name has a particular meaning.

The process was prolonged and couldn’t have been more open, as the name change worked its way through the park board and county board. There were strong feelings on both sides, and a lawsuit has been threatened. But the county board voted narrowly for a change that recognizes Native American heritage in Minnesota’s largest city.

This doesn’t mean that every non-native place name in Minnesota now should be reconsidered — that’s the kind of extreme reaction that makes dialogue and compromise impossible, as Calhoun himself knew. There’s as rich a history in the names “Zumbro River” and “Lake Pepin” as in Bde Maka Ska.

But in this case, as a Minneapolis legislator said in a written statement, “The Department of Natural Resources did the right thing, and they have helped us grow a deeper appreciation for the vibrant Native American Indian communities that still exist in Minneapolis and throughout the state. We can all be proud of this decision.”

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Mankato Free Press, Jan. 23

Open Government: Amazon bid should be public record

Minnesota recently lost its bid to land a second Amazon headquarters and a potential 50,000 jobs, but unfortunately Minnesota taxpayers won’t know much about the bid.

The state Department of Employment and Economic Development and Greater MSP, a nonprofit development organization that submitted the bid, have declined reasonable requests to make it public, even with the state no longer in the running.

That rejection of public disclosure goes against the spirit of the state’s open records law, if not against the letter of the law itself.

DEED rejected the request for disclosure from Public Record Media, a St. Paul nonprofit, saying first that it did not have a copy of the full bid and second that because it outsourced the job to a nonprofit, it wasn’t required to disclose the information.

The Minnesota Data Practice Act requires disclosure of the information in a contract between the government and a vendor if the vendor is performing a “government function.”

The bid contained state tax incentives and other details about infrastructure and other “government functions.” So to suggest Greater MSP was not performing a “government function” is a bit of a stretch.

Public Record Media also made a request of Greater MSP for a copy of the proposal. Greater MSP said it could not disclose the bid because it has signed a confidentiality agreement with Amazon. But now that the bid has been rejected, it seems disclosure would be the right thing to do in the interests of transparency.

No one is arguing that the bid should have been disclosed before the bidding process was done. That may have indeed tipped the state’s hand when it came to competitors. But even then, DEED could have applied for a temporary classification as “private” from the public disclosure law and may have been granted it.

The public has an interest in learning the details of the bid. There was a lot at stake with an Amazon headquarters and word was out that Minnesota submitted an underwhelming bid, possibly influenced by a desire for existing businesses in the state to avoid competition for wages and labor.

DEED’s response that it doesn’t have a copy is troubling and borders on obfuscation. Disclosure would serve all Minnesota taxpayers.

Why it matters:

The state of Minnesota seems to be dodging legitimate requests to disclose the details of its unsuccessful bid to secure a second Amazon headquarters.

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