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As reduced-price lunch applications decline, so does school funding

Litchfield School District missed out on more than $200,000 during the past four years, because families who might qualify for School Nutrition Programs — or free- and reduced-price meals — did not apply. 

“A lot of people, even though they can't afford it, are too proud to fill out an application to receive benefits,” Business Manager Jesse Johnson said. “It's not exactly a very proud moment for a lot of people to walk in our office, ask for (the) application and say, ‘We're struggling financially, and we need help.’” 

The free- and reduced-price meals program exists to help families, and they shouldn’t feel shameful for applying, Johnson said.

“Some people just don't have it in them to do that,” he explained. “They'll just roll up their sleeves and work harder — sacrifice things to make sure their kids get fed." 

But that can-do attitude might cost the district, as well as those families, who could benefit from a bump in qualified applicants for the program, Johnson said.

The school district experienced roughly a 5.12 percent drop in free- and reduced-price meals applicants from 2017 to projected 2021. The number of students receiving free lunch plummeted 27.94 percent. Meanwhile, students receiving reduced-price lunch is up 40.37 percent.

The drop in qualifying applicants affects the district’s compensatory fund, which is state money provided to help students meet state and local standards, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

“We've lost ($212,136) in that funding because we have fewer families qualifying for free- and reduced-price meals,” Johnson said, alluding to the compensatory fund dipping from $744,955 in 2018 to projected $532,818 in 2021. “That's part of the (effect of) the good economy we have right now. The economy gets better, schools get less funding." 

A declining compensatory fund doesn’t hurt the school per se, according to Johnson.

“We're going to get the money for the foodservice,” he added. “So it's either going to get paid by the family or the state or donors. But on the other side, the education piece is tied to those economic indicators that are going down.”

Johnson said if an additional 61 students applied and qualified for the program this year, the gap in compensatory funding experienced over the past five years would improve. Even if today’s economy is better and fewer people qualify for the free- and reduced-price meals program, there are still people who would qualify, he said. 

The district also is working on approving a policy Johnson created for determining the criteria of food service donations from private sources. The first step of the policy is responding to a donor’s wishes for how they want their money used to help in-need students, Johnson said. 

“(Donors) control how we spend their donated money,” he added. “The people with the greatest need, get addressed first. … Then we look at families that (are) just within $5,000 of being eligible for benefits, they'll get addressed next. And then we look at everybody else. … The ones that are more to do and have more means get addressed last.”

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John Lindstrom is part of a new generation of conservationists

Conservation has changed with the times. Gone are the days when ducks and hunting were the main driving force. The newest generation of conservationists have a different focus.

“I think the view on conservation would be a lot more focused on clean water and renewable energy,” said John Lindstrom of Hutchinson, a 30-year-old biologist with Meeker County Ducks Unlimited.

Though Lindstrom is young, he has plans that would make Hutchinson native and renowned artist Les Kouba proud.

As a biologist, Lindstrom, works with Ducks Unlimited to help protect and restore wetlands and natural habitats. His desire to preserve started with hunting at an early age. He recalled trips with friends and family to hunt geese, ducks and pheasants.

"It kind of instilled that passion for the outdoors and hunting,” he said. “That is definitely what laid the foundation for where I am today. From an early age, in high school, I had narrowed my focus for a potential career into something outdoors."

Lindstrom followed his passion after high school, graduating from Valley City State University in North Dakota with a degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences. He went on to graduate school to earn a master's degree in zoology and then worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in North Dakota before taking the job in Meeker County in 2016. He was recently featured by the Star Tribune as one of seven young Minnesota conservationists to watch.

While his work for Ducks Unlimited is focused on maintaining the waterfowl populations, he says much of what he does goes beyond benefiting hunters.

“We're able to impact a lot more than just having someone have the ability to hunt ducks in the fall by what we do,” Lindstrom said. “When we restore grassland or restore wetlands, there's a lot of ecosystem goods and services that aren't just focused on ducks and duck hunting.”

The most gratifying part of the job, he says, is seeing the effects of restoration projects not only on the wetlands, but the surrounding ecosystem. He takes pleasure in watching the transformation of lakes filled with toxins and invasive species.

“Building infrastructure to allow a temporary water level draw-down,” he said, “and then bringing the water back ... and seeing that water go from pea-soup green to crystal clear with wildlife everywhere … that's one of the more fulfilling parts of my job.”

It’s not always easy, though. Conservation projects are not without their politics. With many moving parts and issues such as permits, easements and disgruntled neighbors sometimes holding up projects, “it’s really disheartening to deal with,” Lindstrom said.

“That’s the hard part of my job,” he said. “When we have something tangible we can do, but for reasons beyond my control we aren’t able to do it.”

Despite the tough days, Lindstrom is determined to continue the fight. His major concern for the future is the continued degradation of wetlands and shallowed lakes, which has resulted in the loss of birds. He estimated about 90 percent of the state’s prairie wetlands and 99 percent of its native prairie grasslands have been lost.

And he says he’s not alone in his fight. He spoke highly of Minnesotans’ desire to conserve and protect natural resources, and pointed to the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment as proof of their commitment.

Lindstrom has a new reason for his work as well. With an 18-month-old son at home, he wants to make sure the same wetlands and hunting grounds he visited with his father are there for future generations.

“It’s not just what I want,” he said, “it’s what I think is valuable to Minnesota.”

School board approves construction contracts

Litchfield School District moved a step closer toward beginning school building improvements with tentative approval of two contracts Monday.

For about two months, district administration has been negotiating construction manager and architect contracts with ICS Consulting, the same firm that provided consulting services in the lead-up to the building referendum last year.

“The reason why they took this route is because of resources,” district Business Manager Johnson said. “The district doesn’t have enough resources to take on some of the responsibilities. So we have to contract out through our consultants.”

Litchfield School Board, during its meeting Monday, approved Johnson's suggestion to "marry" the contracts for construction manager and architect, a decision contingent upon the school district attorney’s final review. 

But the contract price hasn’t changed, Johnson explained, with some individual costs including:

  • Pre-referendum and referendum services at a cost of $15,000.
  • Program management, architecture, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering, structural engineering, kitchen design, the acoustical design will cost $2.543 million.
  • Construction oversight, site services, and management during a 24 months construction will cost $1.397 million. 

If the the two contracts are joined, the district can’t review “certain things as they’re happening,” during the construction phase, Johnson said.

The contract initially called for extra fees for general conditions, but negotiations reduced or eliminated those costs.

“They were asking a charge of 10 percent for administrative cost, all general conditions," Johnson said. "We got them done with zero percent on that. They were asking to charge a 10 percent administrative cost for processing payments and reimbursable. We've got them down to zero percent on that. But overall, the contract is as good as we’re going to get it through our negotiations.”

Board member Greg Mathews said that hiring local construction workers is a “high priority for us.” 

As a result, ICS Consulting provided the district a list of local electricians, plumbers, lumberyard and others to choose from, Johnson said.

“I think our local (workers) may surprise you,” Johnson added. “I mean, you break the projects out enough, where you just do electrical work for Lake Ripley Elementary School alone … I would say they have an advantage because they've been in our buildings, they know our buildings, they know what to expect.”

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Peanut Butter and Milk Festival set for Feb. 15-22

The Peanut Butter & Milk Festival Committee is getting ready for the 49th annual Festival Feb. 15-22 in Litchfield and Meeker County.

Eight residents of Hartford, Alabama – Litchfield’s sister city – will be in Meeker County touring farms and businesses and enjoying some outdoor winter activities. They will arrive February 15th and will return to Alabama on February 22nd.

This year’s group includes students Skylar Brannon, Cole Saunders, Will Birdsong and Jaxon Hess, who will be hosted by Abby Shoutz, Joe Carlson, Kole Bartlett and Cole Lawrence, respectively, and chaperones Jason and Carol Ann Saunders, hosted by Don and Sue Christofferson; and Todd and Kelli Dillard Brannon, hosted by Roger and Janet Huhn.

The southern guests will spend Sunday, Feb. 16, snowmobiling from 2-4 p.m. at the Roger and Janet Huhn Farm on Lake Manuella, and the public is welcome to join them there.

Dairy Day will be on Monday, Feb. 17, and will include stops at Dockendorf Dairy, First District Association, Polydome and Schiefelbein farms. The day will end with a chili/soup supper at 7 p.m. the Forest City Threshers building. The event is open to the public.

The Alabamans will travel to the Twin Cities Feb. 18 to see U.S. Bank Stadium, the State Capitol and the Mall of America. The group will be interviewed on KLFD at McDonald’s on Feb. 19, followed by a tour of Litchfield High School and some Litchfield businesses.

On Feb. 20, there will be a tour of Meeker Cooperative, followed by skiing and tubing at Powder Ridge north of Kimball. The Alabama visitors will tour more Litchfield businesses on Feb. 21, along with the Forest City Stockade. A farewell potluck banquet and silent auction beginning at 7 p.m. at St. Philip’s Catholic Church. The public is welcome – bring a dish to share.