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Board approves new activity
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Falls High School students next year will have the opportunity to compete in One Act Play after action taken by the Falls School Board Tuesday.

The board unanimously agreed to allow the activity for the 2021-2022 school year, after a group of students expressed interest in the offering.

Mitchell Erickson, a freshman at FHS, said he wasn’t an athlete, but loved fine arts and urged the board to consider more options for students in similar situations to his.

“It’s an opportunity to get involved in the school, in the community,” he said.

Erickson’s classmate, Evie Conat, agreed.

“(Fine arts) help people feel like they belong,” she said. “This is going to give kids who aren’t basketball stars or football stars a chance to belong somewhere.”

In addition to the freshmen, Community Education Director Dan McGonigle said he would be interested in advising the group, noting he had experience in the community where he lived before moving to International Falls.

“I think our team would have a strong, solid base of talent,” he said. “There would be a pretty competitive square right from the start.”

As an activity under the Minnesota State High School League, Falls High School will join Section 7A and compete against schools in the region including Littlefork-Big Falls, Mountain Iron, and others.

Costs will be minimal, said Superintendent Kevin Grover, who voiced support for the action.

The cost for the adviser, for which the district will need to advertise, would be about $600 or $700 for the season, which is comparable to what the speech adviser makes; and $500 for scripts and any associated transportation costs for out-of-town competitions.

“I’m in favor of trying it,” Grover said. “I would like to get the ball rolling and recommend we budget a little money for it and give it a try.”

Board members expressed concern about performance and storage space, but will continue conversations with Backus Community Center officials about what potential there could be at that building.

Clearing the books

In other action, Tuesday the board approved writing off uncollected debt in an effort to “clear the books,” report officials.

The action, which Grover said hasn’t been done for a few years, included $12,037 in preschool fees; $4,245 in food service meal accounts; and $686 in Falls Elementary School student fines, totaling $16,968.

Grover explained because some of the debt dates back a few years, the final amount is large, but the intention is to get caught up and stay caught up to keep the annual amount in the $2,000 to $3,000 range, or lower.

“There are things that get turned over to collections, but you still have to write it off,” he said. “At some point you have to clear the books.”

Some of the fees included in the listed amounts have already gone to collections and once paid, the amount will be placed into miscellaneous revenue.

Stacy Grover, district business manager, said while the district will do everything it can to work out payment schedules with families in need, there are times sending overdue fees to collections is the only way to get paid.

“We need consistent payments,” she said, adding calls cannot be made every time a payment is due.

Still, efforts are being ignored.

“If we can’t collect, we’re going to have a shorter tolerance rather than have it carry over year-after-year,” Stacy Gover said of outstanding debt. “We’re taking a more proactive approach to current year fees.”

Venue rental

The board also Tuesday on a 6-1 vote agreed to allow Jon McDonald and Tylyn Nault to rent Bronco Arena for their wedding Aug. 21 at a rate of $50 per hour.

Board member Jennifer Windels voted against the motion, citing concerns of COVID-19 regulations.

Under the rental agreement, McDonald and Nault will provide insurance coverage and obtain a liquor license permit from the city of International Falls.

“I really want to support this couple,” Windels said. “(It’s a) really tough year to host that type of event on campus... so many other things have not been able to happen on campus.”

The board added an amendment to the motion that the couple will be required to follow COVID-19 guidelines at the time of the event.

Public open forum

Shelly Koenig spoke on behalf of the FHS prom committee, urging the board to consider options when it comes to holding prom this spring.

Koenig, who said she is the parent of a senior, posed different questions to the board regarding if prom will be held on site, if grand march can be held, would funds raised by the prom committee be able to be used if the event was not on school grounds, and more.

“It’s important to remember how much has been taken from theses students,” she said. “It might not seem a big deal to adults in this room, but it’s a huge deal for these children.”

Koenig acknowledged the difficult decisions the board has been faced with in the past year, and thanked board members for the work they do.

Also Tuesday, Mark Lessard asked the board to never allow male students to compete in female sports.

“As a citizen, I think that is wrong and I think you should do everything you can to avoid that situation,” Lessard said. “It’s just wrong.”

In addition, Lessard said he understands the difference between education and indoctrination, and that “the moral questions are really for the parents to address,” he said.

Board Chairperson Ted Saxton encouraged the public to come to school board meetings to address the board and voice opinions.

“Some times it is appropriate to come in here and bend our ear,” he said.


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Challenge accepted
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After what seemed like an endless streak of sub-zero temperatures, Borderland embraced some warmer air this week.

Monday’s high of 5 degrees snapped a nine-day streak of below-zero high temperatures.

The prolonged cold resulted in a friendly Facebook challenge for reporter Emily Gedde to find out what the record is for the number of consecutive days with below-zero temps.

Two of Gedde’s former teachers – they know who they are – thought finding out the record would be a good research project for the 2005 Falls High School graduate.

And while the last nine days reminded Borderland why it is dubbed the Icebox of the Nation, it only comes in fourth place for consecutive days below zero on record since 1897.

With a little help from a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth, Gedde discovered the record for consecutive days of temperatures reading zero or below was a 14-day stretch from Jan. 1-15, 1912.

In second place was 13 straight days of bitter cold from Dec. 16-29, 1924.

Taking the bronze was 10 days testing local furnaces’ abilities, from Dec. 7-17, 1919.

Then, of course, follows 2021 in a fourth-place tie with 1963 and 1968. The 1963 nine-day streak ended Jan. 26 and the 1968 run ended Jan. 7.

While Gedde thought the quick, efficient delivery of the information should earn her an A+ grade, one of the teachers in question pointed out while her grades cannot be changed, it may apply as extra credit for her daughters as they move up through the local school system.


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Local flag stir resolved
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International Falls resident Sal Diquinzio said he agreed to take down a flag on his property, when asked nicely by a local police officer.

The flag included a word considered profane in the English language, and offensive by many people.

Diquinzio told The Journal he didn’t want to make a big deal about the request, but he said there may be principals, such as the constitutional right to free speech, at stake that are larger than the flag that described his feelings about President Joe Biden.

He said he understood that some people might not want their kids to see the word on the flag, but wondered where it would stop, because what’s offensive to one person may not be to another.

International Falls Police Capt. Mike Kostiuk said a concerned citizen who drove by Diquinzio’s residence on Third Avenue East complained about the flag, prompting the police to discuss it with Diquinzio.

“We are obviously cognizant of First Amendment rights and Sal was generous enough to agree to take it down,” Kostiuk said, adding no citations were issued.

Kostiuk said the situation would have been handled the same, regardless of the name or political affiliation, as the main concern was the profanity.

“We have not received a complaint of this nature prior to this, but would advise anyone that they have the same right to call law enforcement with any concerns they may have,” he said.

In the meantime, Diquinzio said he has again raised the flag, but after making a minor modification, involving a one letter change, and it still conveys his feelings about the president.


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City puts demo program on hold
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The city of International Falls has put its demolition program on hold.

The Falls Council Tuesday approved a moratorium on building demolition applications until it can consider and adopt a property maintenance code.

In November, the city agreed to close its demolition site, following a recommendation from the city's Public Works Director Ted Brokaw. Brokaw told the council it would be a challenging application process for a 10-year permit, and the long-term financial ramifications of a site are just too great for the city.

Mayor Harley Droba said Tuesday a council committee agreed to recommend the council adopt a property maintenance code, which outlines how to establish demo policies.

"We want to remove the city's demo policy and use the International Building Codes demolition policy, with ordinance changes," he said.

Meanwhile, the council denied on a 4-1 vote a building demolition application from owners Teri Hart and Lisa and Ben Mortenson on non-homesteaded property at 1418 Main Ave.

Droba noted the city does not have the capability of placing any demolition in a city site.

Councilor Joe Krause voted no, after question whether the owners would need to resubmit an application following adoption of a new demo policy.

Councilor Walt Buller said he did not favor the application because it involved non-homesteaded property, with Droba adding that the request would have come to a council decision regardless of whether a program was in place because of the non-homestead factor.

Other business

Also Tuesday, the council agreed to increase rates for water and sewer service. The new rates are in effect after publication, and for the water use starting March 20 and billed on April 20.

The resident water base is now at $21.25, and will increase to $21.68. Each additional 1,000 gallons, up to 2,000 gallons, is now $1.12, and will increase to $1.14.

Nonresident water base is now $25.50, and will increase to $26.01. Each additional 1,000 gallons, up to 2,000 gallons, is now $1.34 and will increase to $1.37.

The last increase was in 2019, when the resident base rate increased to its current rate. The resident base from 2015-2018 was $20.14.

In addition, the council agreed to send letters to delinquent water utility customers and encourage payment. In March 2020, the city council recommended that the disconnection of delinquent water accounts be put on hold due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past 11 months, the city's water department has neither penalized nor disconnected the services of those with delinquent water accounts.

The council agreed to seek quotes for a job classification and compensation system study for the city's positions. A contract is expected to be awarded in April, with the study completed by July 1, 2022.

The city has not conducted a thorough compensation review since the 1980 when it paid for a system that would be compliant with pay equity legislation, explained city Administrator Ken Anderson.

Since then, he said there have been a lot of changes in duties and positions, and the new study would ensure reasonable compensation between the various job classifications, both internally and externally.

Meanwhile, Droba provided a dramatic build up to votes that approved a temporary on-sale liquor license and raffle permit for the Annual International Falls Bass Championship Tournament held Aug, 26-28, at Smokey Bear Park.

He told the council since the championship had not been held last year, some excitement should be surrounding it this year.

Reports

Police Chief Rich Mastin reported department activities in January. There were 428 calls for service, of those 84 required new case reports; officers conducted 151 traffic stops, issued 61 citations and made 24 arrests.

Fire Chief Adam Mannausau reported January department activities:

  • 2 fire department call outs
  • 2 city responses
  • 2 residential structure fires
  • 2 CO alarms
  • 0 rural fire responses

His Ambulance Service report showed

  • 70 - 911 calls
  • 65 - transfers

Anderson reported tax abatement for the proposed Cobblestone Hotel, which has forwarded to a financial adviser information about its request for tax abatement from the city and county. Anderson said he expected to know more later in the week.

Cobblestone has signed a franchise agreement with IFalls Group, LLC, has sought city permits for construction.

Attorney Steve Shermoen announced Tuesday he set a new court record that day: 52 criminal cases heard Judge John DeSanto, adding the cases were completed in time for him to attend the 5:30 p.m. council meeting.

He suggested, and the council approved, use of a administrative penalty between the citation and court process phase in blight issues.

He said the step may help keep cases from getting bogged down in court when people understand they have seven days after a ticket is issued to correct blight issues or will pay $150, which can be assessed to property taxes.

"It may quicken the lessening of blight in the community," Shermoen said.

Droba said the administrative penalty fits into the maintenance code discussed earlier.


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