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"After all these years, still doing a great job!!" -Ron Hermanson
High hopes for $9.85 million referendum
By Lynda Berg Olds
On the heels of the Referendum Forum/Focus Group (and dinner) hosted for the Luck Community by the Luck School Board and administration on Nov. 11, the board met again directly after for a special meeting on Nov. 13. Superintendent Cory Hinkel, who had stressed to the board previously that he wanted to meet with them as soon as possible after the Forum while information and impressions were fresh on their minds, began the meeting.
“I made a guideline of questions that we need to address going forward. Do we want to go to referendum is the first question. And I have each of the three areas separated. We can start with deferred maintenance, then jump to the gym and then finally, the operational referendum – depending on what we want to do.
“There are some big things under those topics. I am assuming we are going to referendum and you all want to do something at least?”
This was met by a general chorus of agreement among the school board members.
“As we look at the deferred maintenance question and the scope of $5.5 million, from what we heard at the meeting the other night is there anything that we need to cut or add?”
Board member Rick Palmer observed that the number - $300,000 for the greenhouse – was no longer listed.
“The greenhouse was a huge amount,” Hinkel began. “That is something where we could just stay with the status quo.”
Palmer stated, “It came back to me that the only reason we want a greenhouse is so retired teachers can keep the flowers over winter.”
School Board member Sarah Cook noted that they had discussed cutting that $300,000 number down significantly.
“We cut it down to $300,000,” clarified Hinkel. “It was way higher,” he said. In addressing Palmer's remark, he stated, “That may have been the case three years ago. It is not the case anymore.”
“And that's what I told him, that I would ask tonight, but I'm sure it is not that,” Palmer said.
“Right now they are growing poinsettias in there to sell for the season – and there are Easter lilys in there and the school garden stuff. It is getting utilized way more. There may be a few house plants that people keep in there, but that's not the only thing in there.”
Palmer then shared that he was “100 percent on board” with all of the deferred maintenance that Hinkel and the board had talked about.
“So with the deferred maintenance – that is something we pretty much feel we need to go with.”
Again that statement was met with general assent.
The next big question was with regards to the gymnasium.
“I guess I liked what I heard the other night,” declared Palmer. “I thought it was very well supported...I would be much more of an advocate for that gym if we could also add the auditorium aspect in there.”
“I have that as part of one of those – for after we decide if we want a gym or not,” stated Hinkel, who then commented that in speaking with the CESA buildings facilitator, it was noted the voting public is in the 65+ category age-wise.
“And the farmers,” put in Palmer. “What a heard from a farmer in Laketown was, 'Why do we want to build something for those town kids.”
Palmer said he actually heard that comment from a few folks – that Laketown farmers don't want to build something for the town kids. “At that time farmland was being taxed at a pretty iffy rate.”
Hinkel wanted to know if that was because of the Wellness Center and Palmer said, “No, this was 15 years ago, but that is kind of the attitude of some of the Laketown people, is that, 'We're farmers and we're not going to support those town kids.' Laketown killed us last time.” [Meaning got the referendum defeated, which was by a very narrow margin of about 30 votes – mostly, evidently, from Laketown.]
“I tend to disagree a little bit,” stated board member Todd Roehm. “That was Luke's [Luke Schultz of CESA] perspective. There were a number of people at the Forum that I would say were 60ish years-old. And of those, there were a number of them that spoke...and I would say that more spoke up in favor than against [the referendum.] And we did these meetings to get an opinion from the public. If you had an opinion that was different than that, you should have been there that night to help.”
Board member Amy Dueholm observed that there were a couple of folks there that she thought were 'no' votes, but they did not speak up.
“That's not my fault,” Roehm lamented. “Here's where I'm at when it comes to whole gym thing and the auditorium. I am 100 percent in. I don't even need to really sit here and talk about it. I am 100 percent in on it and I think the auditorium should be a part of it. My opinion is we should decrease the greenhouse number and spend it on the auditorium. I think it would make a huge difference.”
Palmer stated, “I have exactly the same thought.”
Cook stated, “I think we still need to put quite a bit into the greenhouse. And I think the auditorium needs to be first and foremost. I actually talked to two families, who know of other families - if we actually have a performing arts center they would open enroll their kids from Frederic into Luck. So I think that needs to be a huge focus point.”
Palmer tended to agree. “I think enough of a focus point that it detracts from the gym a little bit.”
“Right,” Cook said.
“Here's my take,” Roehm began. “I don't know if what Sarah said is true, I'll be totally honest. I don't think there is a single kid who is going to open enroll here because we have a greenhouse.”
“No,” agreed Cook, “But an auditorium, totally.”
“That's what I'm saying,” Roehm stressed. “If we have to make a decision between the two, I'm spending $330,000 on an auditorium long before I spend $330,000 on a greenhouse.”
Palmer said he just doesn't understand spending so much money on a greenhouse.
“That greenhouse that is there cost $25,000.”
School Board President Jacob Jensen observed that if they spent [just] $100,000 on the greenhouse, they could improve it significantly.
Hinkel noted the auditorium seating is $300,000, so that may need to be a wash if you want to stay at $9.7 [million]. Or, you could go up to an even $10 million. Back to this though, so we do want a gym from what I am hearing - I have heard from three [of the five board members]. The gym is going to be included.”
“We had to change 15 people's mind last time,” stated Palmer. “And I bet we lost that many at least with the parking lot. At least.”
Bringing it back, Hinkel said, “Then, some things with the gym. Do we want to use the FEMA grant? Do we want to have that investment into the FEMA grant and handcuff ourselves into a dome structure? If we do a traditional structure it has to be built to a higher standard. It has to be able to withstand an E5 tornado.”
“Dueholm said she didn't think a dome would fly in Luck.
Jensen said, “Although it's a great idea, I'm afraid that the dome structure, and maybe my mind needs to be changed, but when I think of a dome structure I think of a white globe...maybe it could be blue and green...”
Hinkel said it would be over a 12-inch concrete wall dome, with windows and looking modern. But expressed concern that even with pictures out there for the public, it is hard to get past the perception, what people think when they hear 'dome.'
“I want to throw that out there as an option but I don't know. I think you might be right, that it might hinder, deter people from where we were.”
“Would a traditional structure cost $1.5 million more to make it, so then we wouldn't gain anything?” queried Jensen, getting to the crux of the matter.
“So then we wouldn't be gaining anything,” concurred Hinkel.
“Just to clarify,” began Roehm, “To do a normal-looking structure that meets the requirement of the FEMA grant, we believe it would add cost to the structure, but we don't know the amount?”
Hinkel said no, they don't know the amount. “But I would be very confident that if you are going to have your roof withstand an E5 tornado, you are going to have to put a little bit more money than what we currently have.”
“To do our due diligence, I think we should ask an architect what they think it would take to add to the building from a financial standpoint, to make it maybe meet the FEMA grant. I think we owe it to our public to say we tried,” said Roehm. “I'd like to know.”
Palmer concurred and added, “One thing we haven't explored that usually helps sell something is energy efficiency like solar power. Have we thought at all yet, if we do build a regular gym structure, about maybe putting up solar panels on the roof? I am saying that helps sell projects sometimes if you can say the solar power will generate x, y, z efficiencies. It is something to think about. We didn't have any trouble with our other energy projects here...you were talking about due diligence Todd...”
Roehm did think it is proper to do the due diligence, noting much has been done already, but said, “I agree, I don't think you put a dome off of a square building – and people are going be like, 'Well that looks awesome [not].'”
Jensen noted there will be pretty good southern exposure in the building itself.
Board members agreed that it has to be two courts in the gym. Jensen wasn't too keen that the football team, which was headed to State at that time, didn't have a place to practice as the gym times are so booked up.
Hinkel wasted no time and went and made a call about the FEMA grant and he came back and said it could also be used for the locker rooms, which could be added more easily by the architects, depending on if the grant was received.
“We could use that grant money for is to make things tornado-proof, compatible for the grant. So you could have your lobby and locker room areas built to that standard. You could add additional space with that money. It may be where our drawings are with the gym the way we want, but then also if we get the grant money, we are adding on locker rooms on the back side.”
“So the gym doesn't necessarily have to be tornado-proof?” asked Dueholm.
“Just something within the scope, we could use it for whatever. It probably would not be cost-effective to remodel something, we would be better off just building it to spec right away.”
Discussion ensued about the locker rooms and different configurations and the board agreed that minimal is better with the priority rather on more classroom space.
High School Principal Brad Werner noted that basketball teams use the locker rooms, while volleyball girls use the bathroom.
“I don't pretend to understand,” he said.
The board members became animated with various possibility-thinking and much free-form discussion took place.
With the new gym it was decided they don't need a lot of seating, just a place to practice and play.
“Alright,” said Hinkel, “two courts, minimal seating, enough though, we have to have enough for JV. Enough, but nothing fancy. As for lobbies and locker rooms, that may be contingent on the grant as an addition. So we will tell the architects, we want that to be something that if we don't get the grant, it is easily not part of it. So I don't know how that looks but we can have the architects work on that. There is going to be a small lobby no matter what and we are going to have access to that gym from both exits so you can come in from both ends – but I wonder do we plan on those locker rooms getting remodeled no matter what in case it [the grant] doesn't happen.”
Jensen said, “Another thing we could do is if we get locker rooms, then all of a sudden we just blow the walls out of those areas, fill in the plumbing and that becomes your weight room. Then we gain three classrooms here in the center of our building.”
“Saving the space for classrooms makes more sense from a public, logical perspective,” said Roehm, adding, “Maybe we leave the locker rooms in the scope of the $5.5 million referendum and we do a locker room that is tornado sound.”
“From what I heard earlier, the auditorium seating needs to happen if we are going to do the gym,” stated Hinkel.
Nods all around.
“Now do you want us to look at the greenhouse or different areas? Keep it at $9.7 million? Are you comfortable going up to $10 million if need be? I will get some more exact numbers.”
“Do we want to do the operational referendum?” asked Hinkel.
Again, yes all around. It is about safety and tech ed primarily.
Hinkel added a word of caution. “You heard that people still thought we were doing a walking track the last go round. When you add a second question, it muddles people's minds. I heard people thought they could not vote yes on both. They thought it was either/or – and they vote for the lesser one because of that. Secondly, we only get two [referendum] questions per year. We are in a presidential election year, so we can go in November for the operational referendum. If we use them both, then we are sitting back at this table waiting until April.”
Roehm said he was a firm believer of asking one question, getting the [tech] site ready to go, and then filling the seats.
“I don't agree,” stated Jensen. “I don't think we can get the site ready with the current staff we have in place. I don't think we can create the program. I think we have a lot of what we need already in place to start building that program – and that just pushes it out in terms of becoming effective. This work isn't going to happen until 2022. Then you wait a year after that...”
The conversation swirled after that as to what indeed would be the best thing to do. One question or two?
Palmer said he would not want an architect to tell them what their tech ed program was going to look like.
“I think I would want input from the teacher and a whole lot of other people before I start re-doing the space and then try to hire somebody to fit the program, instead of building the program around someone you've got.”
Palmer was in favor of having both questions on the referendum.
Jensen said the only way he would support asking just the one question, is if they figure out a way to say, “We are coming back in November for $200,000. One-hundred percent that we are coming back at that time. I want to see this happen. To me, it is more important, well, the gym is important I think, but that, and putting that together and getting a potential charter school together, is more impactful for our district and our school than any of this other stuff.”
“We also want to show Mr. Frandsen commitment on our part,” stated Palmer.
“I want us to have a clear vision going forward.,” stated Hinkel. “I don't understand how people don't understand the voting process.”
Jensen conceded it was more than once that it came up that people were confused by the ballot, so he decided he was okay with just the one question.
“We will publicly announce that we are coming back in November,” stated Jensen. Those were his terms and the board concurred.
“I am looking for direction from you guys and I will do whatever you want me to do,” stated Hinkel. “I will be there. I want to be deliberate about the process.”
So one question it is for the spring ballot, which requires legal services to comply with state law. At the end of this meeting the number was $5.5 million in deferred maintenance and $4.2 million for the gym.
The mil (tax) rate last year was 10.05. This current year, it has dropped to 8.9 due to a number of factors, including equalized value going up over three percent. For the $9.7 million referendum the mil rate will be $10.47.
However, by the “regular” school board meeting on Nov. 18, it came to pass that the exact cost of the telescopic bleachers for the auditorium came in higher than anticipated, bringing the total referendum question to $9.85 million, at the minimal additional expense of about $3 per year for taxpayers per $100,000 of assessed value.
November 27, 2019
Superintendent addresses school district members
By Lynda Berg Olds
Luck School District's Superintendent, Cory Hinkel, recently shared some thoughts with the Ledger/Enterprise Press, that he wanted to pass along to the greater Luck community school district members. What follows, in italics, are his words exactly, in their entirety:
“As you may be aware, the district passed a $300,000 operational referendum last April. We thank you for the support of our education system. The building referendum failed by a slim margin. Unfortunately, our building needs have not gone away since the last vote, and the cost of materials and labor continues to rise.
“Since the election, the board has carefully reviewed the district's strategic plan to determine the best way to meet the ever-changing needs of our students. A focus group was held with the public to garner input on the best direction to move forward. An online survey was also disseminated to gauge why community members voted the way they did in April. The board has continued to discuss referendum options and community feedback during both regular and special monthly meetings.
“The board will review all the information it's received over the past eight months and take official action at the December board meeting. More information and details will be released following that meeting. Please know, the board is taking this process very seriously to provide the best learning environment possible for students of the district.”
This earnest memo is signed: “Yours in Education, Cory Hinkel, District Administrator, School District of Luck.”
It should be noted that the aforementioned December meeting takes place this coming Wednesday to accommodate the Christmas Tea. The Dec. 18 meeting will be in the boardroom at the school at 2 p.m. (The Luck School Board regularly meets at 6 p.m. on the fourth Monday of the month.)
Of significant import on the agenda then, first, is the initial resolution authorizing general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $9,850,000. Next: “Resolution providing for a referendum election on the question of the approval of an initial resolution authorizing the issuance of general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $9,850,000.”
The referendum language is not deliberately obtuse, but rather a product of the legal system.
December 12, 2019
Northland Ambulance superstar retires as manager
By Lynda Berg Olds
Luck Trustee Mike Miller was first to the floor at Wednesday night's meeting of the Luck Village Board – with a special mission – to recognize Rae Ann Allen for her years of service as Manager of Northland Ambulance. She will continue on as an EMT (and also do coding and billing in her 'spare' time).
“Unfortunately for Northland, Rae has decided to leave us,” Miller began (with a catch in his throat), “but we wanted to show her how much we appreciate her. Thank you so much for your years of service.”
It was an emotional moment – and applause was sustained as Miller presented Allen with a Certificate of Appreciation “For Being an Outstanding Professional – We couldn't have done it without you. Thank you for your years of service.”
It was signed by Miller, as President of Northland Ambulance Service. It should be noted that Allen has been with Northland for some 28 years, and manager for 15 years. Luck Police Chief Monty Tretsven, who has worked closely with Allen since way back when, decided to share a photo he had of the ambulance crew, from when he and Allen were about 20 years old. It got passed around and nostalgia filled the room. Spirits were high, it's Christmas after all and the Village Hall was festively decorated.
Next up to bat was Tourism Director Sherrie Johnson, who said she would just give a quick update as a meeting of the Tourism Commission is coming up Jan. 6 (after which she would have more to share).
She gave a brief summary of the surveys she distributed and received back.
“But I really would like for the Commission to go over it in more detail and come up with some game plans that we want to go forward with. The overwhelming thing that we saw – that people thought about our town, that they were proud of and like about it – is the friendly, small town atmosphere.
“So we want to keep it a small town, but we can still grow. So that is the theme I think we will be leaning toward – and then really capitalizing on the name Luck.”
Johnson said they got a lot of good feedback, but one negative part was that 60 percent of the respondents were concerned that “what Luck would look like in five years” would be either a more depleted downtown, or that it would look the same.
“So 40 percent were hopeful that it was either growing or we could improve our Main Street. They did make comments about the improved Main Street and were happy to see that the streets were redone and the light poles and sidewalks, that's a real plus, but as far as the storefronts – not a lot of hope. So maybe, with the help of the Tourism Commission and the village board, get a little hope in the village.”
Johnson also noted that she is working with the school art class to come up with some ideas to beautify the empty buildings.
“We can put pictures of old Luck – what it used to look like when it was booming. They have banners and said they would do that and then we can maybe get the Community Club, the Big Butternut Lake Association and the Luck Lions to donate money to the school to help us do that.”
Johnson noted later that another area in which Luck residents were particularly pleased, was with the fire, police and ambulance service. She made a point of directing this last to Rae Ann.
In other business, election workers were approved for the five elections next year. They include Sandy Madsen, Susan Gilhoi, Judy Giller, Kathy Hanson and Wilma Holdt. A comment was made indicating this is a pretty solid group who has worked together for a number of years.
Chief Tretsven was asked to address the next item on the agenda – the hiring of a full-time officer – Chris Olsen.
“I have actually been pushing to hire someone full-time for a few years because there is a part-time police officer shortage. In the meantime, the school superintendent asked if we would be interested in partnering with them to provide additional hours at the school. So we worked out a deal, with Mike's help (Trustee Mike Broten) and we met with Mr. Hinkel and came to an agreement for a certain number of hours during the day and also some additional sporting coverage. (Of note, the school was particularly concerned with arrival and departure times.)
“They are basically going to pay for the daytime stuff and we agreed that we would provide additional coverage for the after school sporting events as well. It won't actually cost the village much to add police hours because we will use our part-time budget we had before and with the school's portion it will just about be a wash. So we will be able to hire Chris full-time and hopefully, with these additional hours, we will be able to have better afternoon and evening coverage, which will benefit the village and the school. I am actually kind of excited about it.”
Trustees quickly and unanimously approved the hire and the win/win situation.
Public Works Director Seth Petersen was asked to discuss the issue of approving contractor Don Clarke to do the interior remodel for the Village Hall. He said he couldn't speak for Don, except to say he highly recommends him – and then gave a run down on the work to be done.
“Pretty much all the carpet will be replaced; new blinds/window treatments; closet will go away and turn into a wall with windows; there will be a security-type vestibule with transaction windows built-in; and then a secure door that will be connected to a buzzer to allow somebody inside the actual office area; the entire building inside will be painted – and this includes all brand new ceilings and everything. It didn't cost very much more. The bid also includes all brand new lighting with LED lights replaced throughout the entire building – and that's most of it in a nutshell. It is a pretty big facelift and a fairly significant change in the transaction area. Plus, the men's bathroom turns into a unisex, complete ADA accessible bathroom.”
Petersen also discussed a separate issue with some water damage that Clarke will also take care of, and he said Don was available by phone if there are any questions.
Miller asked about a potential start date and Petersen said Clarke and his team are ready to go. Petersen noted Clarke would be happy to have the winter work – in town, and the board was also happy to keep it local – so again, win/win, with the job awarded to Clarke. Petersen said Clarke was also willing to work with the board should they decide to do some painting or something themselves.
The timeline will to some degree depend on subcontractors.
“Where are we going to get the money?' asked Trustee Ron Steen and Village President Dave Rasmussen, who made the motion to approve, said they would probably have to borrow it. He noted that the last time the village went out to bid for this job, there was only one submission, out of the Twin Cities, and it was for $155,000. Clarke's bid was $117,371.
“I know we didn't budget for it but something has to be done,” he said.
And there may be a bit of money here or there, but Treasurer Laurie Cook was not present, who would know the various balances. It was noted that at least one other loan was ending, so there is that.
Finally, the caucus was set for Jan. 8 at 5:45 p.m., just prior to the regular meeting at 6 p.m.
The trustees whose terms are expiring include Sonja Jensen, Mike Miller and Ron Steen. Each has evidently gone on record that they intend to seek re-election for another term, but there will be at least one individual running against them, Nick Mueller, who has filled out papers to run.
December 19, 2019
Rehabbing, rentals and single-level living
By Lynda Berg Olds
Within the Village of Luck, the recent housing study shows 64 percent of the homes are owner-occupied and 36 percent are rentals. The findings of the study suggest there is a slight need for more rental units with an estimated vacancy rate of 4.9 percent.
During the community forum, there was feedback that the rental vacancy rate was likely closer to zero than five percent, which is being examined further. Interestingly, the study concluded there is a definite need for more owner units with an “estimated vacancy rate of zero percent.”
One further determination is there is strong probability that many homes may need to be “rehabbed” (or replaced) as no less than 17.3 percent of housing structures were built circa 1939.
Affordability of home ownership was not determined to be quite as big of a concern as with some other communities in Polk County. The Village of Luck’s “housing affordability ratio” was 2.7 indicating that the median house is affordable for the median household income.
Conversely, a household is considered to be “cost burdened” if it pays 30 percent or more of its income on housing costs. In 2017, 28.5 percent of Luck’s owner households with a mortgage were cost burdened, an increase from 23.5 percent in 2000.
According to the most recent ACS (American Consumer Survey from the US Census Bureau) numbers, 44 percent of households in the Village of Luck were below the Federal Poverty Level or were classified as ALICE households in 2016* (*see definition below) ALICE households earn more than the Federal Poverty Level, but less than the basic cost of living for the county. Combined, the number of ALICE and poverty-level households equals the total population struggling to afford basic needs. The percentage of households in these two categories decreased 11 percentage points between 2014 and 2016.
*The term “ALICE” – Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed – more clearly defines this population as households with income above the official Federal Poverty Level, but below a newly-defined basic survival income level.
In terms of affordability for renters, the Luck study showed median rent in the year 2000 was $436, compared to $812 in 2017. Rent went up by 86 percent, but renter income only went up 33 percent from $19,688 in 2000 to $26,250 in 2017. Of note, the 36 percent of homes that are rentals in the village amount to 186 households.
The study also said Polk County fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $763, but what the Luck median income renter can afford is $656.
Three-hundred and thirty households comprise the 64 percent of homes in the Village of Luck that are owner-occupied. The study, which utilized realtor data, says that the median home value in the year 2000 was $79,600. By 2017 that number was up to $109,100. Comparatively, the median owner income in 2000 was just $39,632 - and in 2017 was $50,833.
The study, which is still in preliminary form (until the end of February), concludes with some key housing goals, noting the defined rental priorities based on market demand – and looking to the future to help predict Luck’s future demand for rental units. Identifying the trends over a course of time was basically step one in accomplishing this.
The findings suggest Luck “strive to achieve a balanced rental housing market with additional opportunities at the lower and higher ends, while providing 'higher income' households opportunities to purchase a home.”
The advice thus far (for rentals):
“Encourage quality rental housing choices that meet local demand, while complimenting the overall vision and fabric of the community. There is an identified need for family units along with quality rentals for entry-level young professionals.”
The final piece provided by West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (et al) and presented by Associate Planner Susan Badtke talked about key owner priorities (as opposed to rentals). Number one is market demand for homes: “Address the Village of Luck’s existing and future demand for owner units.” Number two is market priorities: “Strive to achieve a balanced owner housing market with additional mid-level and move-up home opportunities.”
Third and finally came market preferences: “With consideration of the market priorities and the market preferences, encourage quality owner housing choices that meet local demand, including single-level living options for the aging population.”
For the reader's edification, Polk County's overall household size is decreasing, but the number of households is increasing. The median age in the county (as of 2017) was 44.8 years. The 2017 median household income was $53,551 – with 46.6 percent of households having an income of less than $50,000.
The next steps for the Housing Study are to integrate the community input and ideas from the housing forums into the studies. Then, the Housing Study Wrap-Up Session will take place Feb. 17 from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Polk County Board Room at the Government Center in Balsam lake.
The final “deliverables and snapshots,” in essence the “takeaways” from the study will be provided to the county and municipalities, as stated previously, in late February.
January 9, 2020
Special program for special abilities
By Lynda Berg Olds
It was a red letter day at Jensen Furniture in Luck on Monday. Senator Patty Schachtner visited the store to see Luck School's Special Education Transitioning Program in action. Two students, Richard Lund and Caleb Greener work at Jensen Furniture five days a week (Monday through Friday) from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., learning real life skills – and a paycheck.
Senator Schachtner asked Sonya Jensen, who has day to day oversight over the two young men, “What's the best part about having them here?”
“I think it is great to have the collaboration with the school and I really like that they want to come,” enthused Sonya. “They can come in and do some jobs that maybe I can't get to right away. And it gets them out of the school for a little bit and out into the work force.”
The senator queried if this experience was what Sonya thought it would be.
“Yes, it has been great. So far it has been just great. They are willing to try new things and stick with the plan everyday, so yes, it is good.”
“So when you come to work do you know exactly where to go or do you check in first,” Schachtner asked, talking to the students directly, who were a bit shy at first.
Special Education Instructor Jeremy Jensen (no relation to Jensen Furniture's Jacob and Sonya Jensen), who has 10 kids in his transitioning program, gave Ricky a small prompt – and he said he checks in with Sonya first. Sonya said Caleb checks in with her first thing as well.
Senator Schachtner wondered what the protocol was if the students completed all their tasks ahead of time. The quick response was simply to find them something else to do.
“We keep them busy for the whole hour, don't we guys?”
They smiled and nodded in the affirmative. It was clear both boys looked up to Sonya (and pretty much worship Jeremy).
Schachtner asked Ricky and Caleb if they get paid and they proudly said yes. She asked them if they were saving their money – and it sounded like they did for the most part. Jeremy asked Ricky what he did with a recent paycheck for his family and he said, with a wide smile, he bought pizza.
“How did that feel?” Schachtner asked.
“That's important isn't it?”
“Yes,” Ricky responded.
Before the guys got into their work mode, everyone gathered for a group photo. It was quite a gathering. Among them were Michelle Heil, a leader of the job coaches, who works for Growing Opportunities and Resources; job Coach Lindsay Shomion; Luck School District Administrator Cory Hinkel, and of course Jeremy, Jake, Sonja, Ricky and Caleb, along with Senator Schachtner and her assistant Sarah Smith.
As the boys went off to work then, the Ledger/Enterprise had the opportunity to learn more about this program and began by asking what some of the job duties are. Jake fielded that question first.
“They both vacuum and clean and do some filing, putting away sales materials – fabrics, catalogs, etc.”
“A little bit of everything,” Sonja added.
Jake said he has been told by both boys that they like vacuuming.
“Right now, Caleb is on the hunt for the vacuum cleaner. He knows where it is typically left and he runs right to that spot. He also runs to the coat tree and hangs his coat up,” Jake said.
Everyone agreed that vacuuming can be fun because of the instant gratification it provides, seeing instant results.
Of note, this group was gathered at Jensen's giant warehouse, kiddie corner from their primary location on Main Street – so there is plenty to vacuum (and mop)!
Sonja said Ricky takes care of ancillary jobs for her.
“He goes to the post office for me. He sorts credit card slips. He sorted my delivery slips. Whatever I have for him that day that is good for him to do, that's what I have him do.”
While the senator and company continued to speak with Jake and Sonya after the boys got busy, the press had a chance to chat with Jeremy, the mastermind who has worked with these kids for years, and Superintendent Hinkel.
“The program initially started with the coffee shop at school,” informed Jeremy. “We received some donated materials like a coffee bin when Stop a Sec went out of business and it was actually kind of (high school principal) Mr. Werner's idea. He had heard about it from another district and thought it would be a great opportunity. So he built the coffee shop. We talked about it for about a year and finally said, 'Let's get this thing up and running.'
“Then over the summer when they were doing all the construction, he actually built the coffee shop that we have. Our boys started working there that September, which is how we worked with them developing communication skills – because it is difficult sometimes for our boys to communicate. It has really opened them up in their abilities to communicate with others.”
Hinkel concurred, saying in addition that the boys have helped with lots of tasks around the school.
“Yes, it moved on from there,” Jeremy said. “They clean our commons area. They wash windows, they clean the cardio rooms...”
Hinkel said they also clean the board room, which doesn't get used much, but they are in there making sure everything is clean.
“They also wipe down our in-school suspension rooms, the tables and chairs.”
It is all about life skills and activities of daily living.
“Yes this is all part of our life skills course,” Jeremy said. “Skills that will transition out into the working world for them.”
Hinkel commented that it is nice that it is helpful for the district as well.
Jeremy noted the kids did get paid through the district for these chores. Even though Ricky and Caleb have transitioned into the community, which is the ultimate goal, the district keeps those jobs open and Jeremy said he has two other students who have now moved in to the school jobs.
But Ricky and Caleb get their checks from Jensen Furniture now.
In a broader sense, Jeremy elaborated, with the Ledger's prompting, that he has a real focus on helping 'his kids' learn real world skills.
“We cook in the morning, we fold the laundry, they do the laundry for the basketball teams, we do the towels for the referees that come in, the kitchen has allowed us to come in and fold all of their towels...we have a washer /dryer system that was donated to us by the Petersen Autism Foundation. They have learned – as the washer/dryer are higher tech – they know how to push the buttons and put in the soap.”
The whole plan, the overall goal, is to get these young members of the community ahead of the game, making them productive, more confident and happy members of society.
As far as an actual name of this program, Jeremy said it is part of their adaptive life skills, and they have been partnering with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.
“With DVR, we actually went out to eight different spots in town to explain what DVR is and what DVR can do for them – and then we were looking for placement and Jensen's was one of the first to say, 'We want your boys to come here.'”
Jeremy was over the moon about the partnership with Jensen Furniture as it provides a really nice (and safe) fit for Ricky and Caleb. He said the two other special ed teachers at Luck are also working with DVR to try and get some of their students employed.
Hinkel echoed that sentiment stating, “This has been a great fit for these students.”
The Ledger wondered how many special ed students there are at Luck who would benefit from this type of partnership.
“In my program alone, there are 10 I am working with in my transition program. Some of them are younger. At 14 we can start, but we don't look at employment until probably their junior/senior year. But we get them involved with DVR when they are about 16 or 17. Of note, Caleb is 19 and a junior and Ricky just turned 18 and is a senior. He will be graduating this year.”
In terms of job responsibility, Jeremy brought up that Caleb and Ricky are expected to be at their job, whether or not school is in session – like last week when school was out Monday and Tuesday, both still had to show up to work. If for some reason they cannot make it to work, they are responsible for communicating with the store (between them and/or their parents or their job coaches).
Jeremy noted that Ricky and Caleb take their jobs “extremely seriously” and they are hoping that there are other spots in the community that can utilize the services of other Luck kids.
“We are hoping they can see the success we have here at Jensen Furniture and build other partnerships,” added Hinkel.
“We are on the forefront of some of this around here and so we are just trying to really push what our program can do,” concluded Jeremy.
“It is all about having great partners,” Hinkel said.
It was time to talk to Senator Schachtner and the Ledger found a window of opportunity to ask her if she had a special interest in this program.
“I have an uncle who has since passed away and he was special needs. He worked for the railroad for 25 years and then collected a pension. He didn't know how to read, but he knew how to work. From there, he worked at the workshop in the county until he retired, but it was always important for him to work. He knew that he had special abilities, but he also wanted to contribute. I think it is important for all of us to really embrace that and when we talk about inclusivity, that we really practice what we preach. Everybody has an opportunity to shine, we just don't know where that is. And when employers take that chance to allow people with special abilities to shine, we all win.”
Turning then to Jake and Sonja, the Ledger was curious about their observations of their new workers, who began their employment just after Christmas break.
“I think for all of us here, getting to know the boys likes and dislikes and what they do well and what they don't, and getting input for where they work best, helps them be comfortable while they are here,” Sonja said. “Hopefully, if they are not always working here, they can go somewhere else and do some of those same kinds of things.”
Sonja said every day is a little different, based on needs around the store.
“We know right away they are going to come in and vacuum – and then it might evolve from cleaning or going to the post office or filing or putting fabrics away. Just whatever happened over the weekend might determine how Monday goes and then each day kind of decides what the next day will bring.”
Senator Schachtner was listening closely and shared, “One of the things I am seeing is there are a lot of parents of kids with disabilities and the one thing they are most afraid of is dying and leaving their children and not having living skills. These type of programs give parents the faith that they know their child can go out there. Yes, they are going to need help. We all need help at one time or another. But this here gives a parent of a child with special abilities the faith that community is going to be there for them. And that is what we all need to know, that we are willing to do that. Because I never really thought about it until I started hearing from parents who actually said that, 'I am afraid to die because I don't know what is going to happen – and now you are seeing all these communities that are coming together and really working for these people, these special people. We are all humans.
The Ledger asked the senator about funding for special education, cognizant of the fact that the cost of which puts a big strain on school budgets – and aware there was some legislation pending to increase said funding.
“Governor Evers did have an increase in there but it did not pass,” informed Schactner. “So it is through work that community members are doing right now that keeps these programs going. And it is a huge decision for school board members, and a priority. If you make it a priority, also understanding that something else has to be sacrificed, it is a big deal.”
Jacob Jensen, who is also the president of the Luck School Board, stated, “It certainly is. We have done a pretty good job with our limited resources in our school to be able to offer some outside of the standard day-to-day activities – with the coffee shop that Jeremy runs that gives the kids an opportunity to be part of a business. It is a business with some of the same people they see very day, so they interaction that the boys get when they come here differs from what they get at the school, which we are happy to be a part of. It is a highlight for all of us. When I am able to be here when Ricky and Caleb get here, it is a fun part of my day and I think it is a fun part of all of our other employee's days. We are proud to be able to be a part of it and hope to be able to continue to...
“...In a pretty great sense, because of our small size, the (special abilities) kids are not treated any differently. When I was in high school, right, wrong or otherwise, the kids got on a different bus and went to a different place...”
It was awesome that the senator took the time to come to Luck, the Small of America, to show up on behalf of these kids and in support of these programs (and the Ledger told her so).
“Well, I think also understanding, especially from a school board perspective, is these kids are in our system and they have the same hopes and dreams when they graduate as everybody else. This is a bridge to give them a path to success to reach those. It might look different, but then when they get to be older, they can still have lasting relationships with their high school friends and still talk about the same things – about going to work, about buying things, about experiencing life. When we get that it is important for everybody to have a good experience in life, we all win.”
That makes a perfect conclusion to the story...but there's just a little more. Walking out the door with Jeremy, the Ledger asked him what it is like when “his kids” graduate. One could see his emotion was immediate, but he said he didn't know – it hasn't happened yet.
“I started with them in elementary and have progressively moved up. It's new ground for all of us and we are learning as we go too.”
When Ricky graduates this spring it will be a great thing – and no doubt it will be nearly as emotional for him as watching his own son graduate, which he will also be doing
Editors note: Bennett Jensen was recently accepted into St. Scholastica – and his parents couldn't be more proud.
February 27, 2020