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Maxwell Dunn, Trego

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Kids, teachers reconnect at Marengo Valley drive-by

For the past seven weeks, Heather Kriskovich's children, Ruby, 9 and Tiko, 6, have been going to classes, kept out of school as a precaution against the coronavirus.

While they understand why they have to go to school at home in front of a computer rather than in their familiar classroom, but its still difficult not to be among peers and staff at Marengo Valley Elementary School.

"I miss my friends and my teachers," said Ruby.

The feeling is mutual. The school is a hub of the community for families who live in the area. Teachers and parents alike describe it as a more of an extended family than a building and staff.

So when the idea came to have a drive-by event where students and parents could drive into the school's circular driveway and greet the teachers from a safe distance, teachers and families immediately got behind the plan.

On Thursday, the cars were lined up on the driveway, and spilling over into Highway 112 in front of the school.

"We thought it was important to bring them over," said Heather Kriskovich of her children. "They have been really happy to see everybody on a perfect day."

Marengo Valley Principal

Angie Parduhn said the drive-by idea was really pretty simple.

"We have been doing a lot of online learning, and teachers have been connecting through online tools or phone calls to kids, so we just wanted to let the kids know that we miss them a lot, and it's good for the teachers too, to see the kids, because we miss the smiles and the laughter and the shenanigans," she said.

Parduhn was astonished to see the line of cars, scores of them, full of kids eager to reconnect with teachers.

"It's amazing, but nice to see the support," she said.

Parduhn said families are really the key to Marengo Valley. Parents often volunteer their time at the school, and teachers regularly reach out to families.

"There is a lot of collaboration here," she said.

Parduhn said one teacher couldn't make the event because she was in Ripon. However that didn't mean she missed out. Her colleagues simply set up a laptop with a video camera and she greeted the students as they drove by.

The teachers greeted the drive-by students and their families with signs expressing their feelings.

Typical was the sign held by third-grade teacher Janelle Seeger, which declared that she missed her students "this much" featuring a cartoon figure with arms extended to the edge of the poster board.

"We will be together again, just not quite yet," the sign said.

Seeger said the event struck a chord with teachers and staffers.

"We miss our children so much; it's so hard, and just to see them makes you cry," she said. "It is a very emotional day."

Casey Dietrich brought her two sons, Carter, 7 and Logan, 5, to the drive-through and said the event was typical of how closely knit the Marengo Valley community is.

"When we drove up here, my eyes just filled with tears," she said. This is just amazing, that they are doing this for everyone. All of the things that they are doing during this horrible time — it is just an awesome job."


Bewley hopes new role brings new focus to Northland

Erpenbach

State Sen. Janet Bewley and the folks she serves back home are hoping that her new position leading the Senate's Democratic caucus will bring increased attention and recognition to the challenges of the Northwoods.

"It's wonderful for the rural north — the communities that typically feel they don't get what the rest of the state gets," Bewley said. "I get to educate my colleagues in Madison, because of my leadership roles on the issues that are not just in the lower two-thirds of the state, but what is going on in the northern third, what is going on in forgotten rural communities that don't have the dense populations of the larger cities. It will give me an opportunity to shine a light on things that I might not have had before." Bewley was elected unanimously as Senate minority leader April 24 after former leader Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse stepped away from the post, announcing she would not be running for reelection.

The 68-year-old Mason resident, who represents the 25th Senate District that covers parts of 10 counties in northern Wisconsin, has served as assistant minority leader since 2017. Her ascension to the top leadership role in her party is somewhat meteoric after just five years in the Senate.

Colleagues say Bewley already has a track record of serving her constituents.

Ashland Mayor Debra Lewis said the city has always enjoyed a good relationship with Bewley, who served on the Ashland City Council before being elected to the Statehouse.

"I think Sen. Bewley does a good job of representing our interests already, but being one step closer means that she is engaged in final negotiations in terms of how legislation gets put together. I think it can only help us; she is one step up from where she was before," she said.

Bewley said she doesn't expect her relationship with the district to change. What will change is that with her in a leadership role, there might be more access, a greater ability for her to express the needs of the 25th District when legislation is being considered.

A new role

The minority leader position into which Bewley has stepped has two primary responsibilities. "One is to guide the agenda of Democrats in the Senate when we are in session, and inside the (capitol) building," she said. "That has to do with public policy and legislation and the important issues of Senate Democrats and their constituents."

The even more challenging portion of the job is guiding Democratic efforts to wrest control of the Senate from majority Republicans.

That involves working with organizations that assist Senate candidates, especially those in purple districts — swing districts most at play in the election — helping to raise money and identify strong, qualified candidates to challenge incumbent Republicans.

Though Bewley is taking on the thankless job of leading her caucus when it is in the mi nority, the unanimous vote electing her as leader is an expression of the Democrats' confidence in her. Fellow Democratic state Sen. John Erpenbach of West Point near Madison said he is certain she's ready for the responsibility.

"I think Janet is going to do a great job," he said. "She is coming in at a tough time. It is going to be a fairly tough election cycle for us, but we'll recruit good candidates and work really hard, so I am glad that Janet is going to be involved with that."

Erpenbach said Bewley's insight as a leader and a politician give her a leg up in the new role.

"She has a very clear mind about what it is going to take, and certainly has the energy to get the job done," he said. "You can have all kinds of good ideas, but if you're priorities are not right, you won't succeed. I think she'll do a good job with that. She has the ability to cut through the clutter and recognize what is important."

Bewley herself said she's not intimidated by the challenges she faces.

"I know the job, I know the role. I have already have quite a few of the relationships in place, and that will allow for a smooth transition," she said. "You have to learn a lot of skills, and some of them are that you've got to have a tough skin, you've got to be ready to stand for what you believe in, but you have also got to have compassion and diplomacy, but you've also got to know when to go to the mattresses."


Budget cuts likely as virus ravages taxes

Once the COVID-19 outbreak has finally come under control and closures caused by the virus are rescinded, there will still be an economic price to pay throughout the United States and in the Bay Area.

In Ashland County the costs could be staggering. The county government relies heavily upon visitor spending and resultant sales taxes and has a large number of workers who depend on the tourism industry.

Just how high a cost is a matter of speculation so far, but County Administrator Clark Schroeder projects it could be substantial.

"We are anticipating between a $100,000 and $200,000 decrease in county sales taxes which go to fund county services," he said. "We would anticipate long term that there might be more people not paying property taxes, foreclosures on property, which would affect the county, obviously, if it doesn't collect property taxes."

On top of revenue hits, the county finds itself with increasing costs in the area of health and human services and jail operations brought on by the threat of coronavirus.

The county has also had to have as many people as possible work remotely, which also increased costs, as has the need to step up sanitizing of public spaces and provide protective equipment for jail and health and human service staff.

Schroeder said he fears that state shared revenues are likely to be cut as a result of the commitment being made in the fight against COVID-19.

"The state is going to have a significant couple billion dollar budget hole," he said. "My gut guess is going forward in 2021 that we would anticipate less money coming from the state, due to less property tax and less sales tax," he said.

How the economy will play out in a world disrupted by the coronavirus is hard to predict, Dale Knapp, an economist for Forward Analytics, a Wisconsin-based economic research organization that is a division of the Wisconsin Counties Association, said.

"It's the right question to ask, but it's really hard to answer," he said.

One problem is that government has never faced the circumstances brought on by global shutdowns, soaring unemployment and increased costs.

"There are so many unknowns; we don't know if this is going to go away quickly or not," Knapp said. "We don't know how people are going to react. We know they are going to be a lot more cautious. There are going to be significantly fewer people going to the Wisconsin Dells, to Ashland County, to Bayfield County."

The bright spot is that tourist destinations in the Northland could prove to be more attractive than visitor hotspots downstate because northern attractions generally are less crowded than places like the Dells, and the north hasn't had the same concentration of COVID cases as southern Wisconsin.

"But, there is no doubt that there are going to be significant impacts; we just don't know how much," Knapp said.

In March, Knapp prepared a pair of projections, one calling for a pulling back of restrictions in a month, and another projection looking at two months of the current halt in economic activity.

"The second longer projection is now my minimum at this point. We don't know what the economy is going to do in terms of bouncing back; we are starting to see some data that gives us some clues, but nothing solid," he said

No matter the date, his projections have both Bayfield and Ashland Counties seeing significant losses in sales tax revenues. In Ashland County, sales tax contributes about 7% of overall revenues, while in Bayfield County the total is about 4% percent and the state the average is about 9%, which seems to bode well.

It will be worse for municipalities like Ashland and Bayfield, which are also reliant on 5% hotelroom tax revenues, which have been dramatically cut.

Another wild card: How many businesses might never reopen. Knapp projects revenue hotels and motels to fall 95% in April, to remain 60% below normal in May and 40% below normal in June. He projects similar declines in other businesses — 70% below normal for bars and restaurants, and 25% for retail sales. How many survive will have a major impact on the restart of the economy, he said.

The ultimate fallout is still in the future when sales tax declines hit. Schroeder said the county is trying to prepare. Gov. Tony Evers this week ordered all state offices to cut spending by 5%; the county has not yet made such cuts though they are likely.

"I think we will probably be making some adjustments this summer," Schroeder said.

That could mean delays in county purchases or maintenance work, he said.

Schroeder said road construction for this year has already been budgeted and that construction for next year was more likely to be affected. But beyond that, until revenue numbers firm up, he won't make predictions.

"We can't go for one month and say 'here is where we are at;' we need to see a trend line before we can make decisions," Schroeder said.


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