Monday, December 6, 2010

Laurens School "In Need of Assistance"

Acting under the infamous federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, Iowa officials have put Laurens-Marathon elementary and middle school on the state list of "Schools in Need of Assistance (SINA)." There are 356 Iowa schools on the list, including elementary schools in Spencer, Storm Lake, and Fort Dodge. One fourth of all Iowa schools are said to be in need of assistance, but few of them are small rural schools.

Laurens reached this list after being on the "watch list" in 2009-2010.
Also on the new watch list are Emmetsburg Middle School and Pomeroy elementary school.

"The reality is that every school will end up on the list [by 2014] because statistically it's not possible to reach a 100 percent (student proficiency ranking)." says Barb Besch, Spencer's school improvement director, quoted in the Spencer newspaper in August.

Laurens made the list because students were not testing well on reading. Laurens made a previous poor showing in a Des Moines Register comparison in April, 2008. The Register compared the grades of graduates who enrolled at UNI, ISU and SUI. Laurens was in the bottom half while West Bend-Mallard and Pocahontas ranked in the top ten.

The SINA list was made public in August, and was featured in the school publication Laurens-Marathon Update, December/January/February 2010-2011 which arrived in local mailboxes last week. The Update included two messages from superintendent Iner Joelson. While one message was indeed from Joelson, the second was boilerplate provided by the state officials who put Laurens on their SINA list.

In his personal message, Joelson said the SINA list "often stigmatizes the school and the community, not to mention the teachers, students and staff." But he added, "I am confident that we are not on the list because of bad teachers."

In the second, pre-drafted letter Joelson explained that students had not made "adequate yearly progress" for two consecutive years, but also alleged that L-M is "offering a top-quality education." The sentence "Unfortunately, our district is not able to provide school choices because there are no other elementaries in our district for students to attend" was also taken from the state sample letters. Presumably Joelson does not actually think it unfortunate that we lack a second elementary school.

However that sentence does reveal what many observers say is the ultimate effect of NCLB: not to educate children, but to create turmoil, even to the end of changing schools into cash cows.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cellulosic Ethanol Alters the Landscape

Here wait several hundred large square bales of cornstalks in a field north of Ware. The Poet ethanol plant in Emmetsburg now buys such bales for its experimental process of making ethanol from cellulose rather than from grain. This is the first year of the experiment which is funded in part by the Iowa Power Fund. Newly elected Republicans have been skeptical of the fund which was created by the defeated Governor Culver.

Meanwhile Iowa State's Bruce Babcock says the ethanol blender's credit should not be renewed next month. It does little to boost ethanol production, he says, and points to the way it subsidizes exported ethanol. At present the oil companies benefit from the subsidy as much as farmers do, according to Babcock.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Music Man Plays Laurens

With a cast of forty-six singing students, the L-M High School performed a musical before an audience of hundreds Friday night. It is the tale of Professor Harold Hill, a traveling salesman of musical instruments. He arrives in River City and tells the people they need him to form a band. Otherwise the town kids will get in trouble at the local pool hall: "Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool."

When the local school board asks for Hill's credentials he turns them into a musical group, too. Pictured are Trent Kischer, Will Cleveland, Jacob Rosendahl, and Colin Lind. Later he romances Marion the librarian. John Stumpf and Kelsey Slattery played the lead roles.

The musical is remembered for several songs including "Til There Was You" and the signature tune of "Seventy-Six Trombones." Hill may have been a peddler and a swindler, but he can surely sing. He's not alone in that regard.

The production was directed by music teacher Joan Enockson with piano accompanist Connie Dallenbach. There is an encore performance Saturday night at 7 p.m. for only seven dollars. Prof. Hill won't be back in these parts any time soon, so don't miss it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tom Shaw is State Representative

Laurens police chief Tom Shaw has been elected to the Iowa House of Representatives. Shaw rode to victory as part of a Republican sweep of Iowa election returns, spending more than $100,000 mostly on television attack ads against his school teacher opponent, Susan Bangert of Algona.

After midnight with one precinct still to report, the result was Shaw 66%, Bangert 34%.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Shaw's Campaign Flush with Mud & Money

Shaw Outspends Opponent 10-1

Laurens police chief Tom Shaw is attempting to bury his opponent under a mudslide in their race for the Iowa House. Documents released Friday show his negative television ads--which say nothing about Shaw himself--are costing nearly $90,000. They are being broadcast on Des Moines channels to the whole of Iowa.

Shaw's campaign has contributed only about five percent of the money needed to fund the ads. The rest is being paid by the Republican Party of Iowa. Shaw is a past president of the Pocahontas Republicans, but he began this race as an independent. Later he re-joined the party and won its primary election against an Algona physician. Many Laurens residents contributed to that effort, as reported by this website at the time.

Since then local contributions have been dwarfed by party funds and political action committees (PACs). In the last week checks of $1000 each were accepted from an Iowa bankers group and from Freedom First PAC, a creature of former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.

Shaw's advertising indicts his opponent for supposedly reducing Medicare to senior citizens. However his opponent, Algona educator Susan Bangert, has not been a member of Congress. The seat for which she and Shaw are running has no control over Medicare.

Earlier printed campaign matter had featured Bangert's photo over the phrase "Bad for Iowa". In the summer a flier insinuated that Bangert had voted to ban the flag from schools, an impossibility for someone who has not held office.

By contrast the Bangert campaign has been funded largely by individuals. There has been no net financial help from the Iowa Democratic Party. Bangert's two mailings have been straight forward with no false charges. Her campaign has cost about one tenth as much as the Republican campaign, according to the published reports both campaigns file with the state.

This race has received considerable coverage by various websites and the Des Moines Register. For a while it appeared to be the most competitive legislative race with so little spending. That changed this week with the big purchase of TV time for Shaw.

Update: BleedingHeartland says "In terms of hyperbole and deception, nothing tops a new commercial Republicans are running against Democratic candidate Susan Bangert in the open House district 8 race."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Music For A Full Moon

They must be having fun at the music festivals south of Laurens. For the third time this summer, Hidden Acres Music Farm is holding a weekend event. Many of the bands on the bill have appeared there before, arriving from Wisconsin, Minnesota, or farther away. For advance tickets or other details, go to the website.

The festival coincides with a full moon on Thursday night.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sheriff Calls 800 Homes at Midnight

Around 1:15 a.m. Sunday morning the Pocahontas County Sheriff placed two automated calls to eight hundred phone numbers near Laurens. The call advised people to collect their car keys and lock their houses while officers pursued someone four miles south of Laurens. It also directed people to not call back for more information. At 2:00 a.m. a second call said the person had been apprehended.

Today I called for more information. Here's how it went:

Caller: I got two calls in the middle of the night this weekend . . .

Sheriff spokesman (agitated voice): Yeah, you and 800 other people.

Caller: What was that all about?

Spokesman: We were looking for someone and we thought he might have a gun and we didn't know where he was. Do you have a problem with that?

Caller: Yes, I don't want to be called next time this happens unless it's in my neighborhood.

Spokesman: It was in your neighborhood.

Caller: It was 7 miles away.

Spokesman: Well we didn't know if he might have been picked up (by a motorist).

Caller: There must be lots of people who might have a gun and might have car. You don't know where they all are either.

Spokesman: I'll make a note of your call. It probably won't happen very often.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

POET Ethanol Plant Powered by New Federal Subsidy

Late this fall bales of corn stover will pass by Laurens on their way to become cellulosic ethanol at the POET plant southeast of Emmetsburg. The bales will have come all the way from Carroll. Eighty-five farmers have signed four year contracts to provide the bales. Most are within thirty-five miles of Emmetsburg.

POET held a kick-off celebration on site Monday. Governor Culver spoke to the crowd of about one hundred. Researchers from Iowa State and Idaho National Laboratory discussed positive findings that support the dream of cellulosic ethanol.

But what really makes it happen is a new federal subsidy tucked into the 2008 farm bill called the biofuels crop assistance program. It pays $45/ton to farmers who supply corn stover for ethanol. With that incentive POET had no trouble finding a supply of stover for this fall. Some 56,000 acres are under contract.

Without the subsidy the cost of baling and hauling the stover and the cost of replacing the fertility that is removed from the field would eat up the full payment farmer's could command from an ethanol plant. No subsidy, no ethanol.

The POET plant expects to need six times as much stover in a few years. New opportunities to supply the plant may be available next fall.

For this year the plant prefers large square bales. Balers from Kansas and elsewhere are expected to help in this area this fall, according to Aaron Bloom of Albert City, a financial consultant with Ag Performance of Buffalo Center, Iowa.

POET has abandoned earlier plans to use corn cobs. They were unable to convince farmers to slow harvest and separate the cobs. Now they plan to buy "whatever comes out the back of the combine." Corn stalks are not as desirable as the leaf, husk, and cob mixture that can be wind-rowed by the combine and baled without additional chopping or raking. An eight row corn head is said to work perfectly. About one ton of desirable stover can be harvested from one acre of corn in this manner.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

ISU: Keep Farm Rent Steady

Prices for crops and crop inputs have stabilized. Farm rents should do the same, according to Iowa State University extension farm management specialist Tom Olsen, who spoke Friday in Emmetsburg. "Steady as you go," Olson said.

The big picture is still one of national recession with a lesser effect on agriculture. Changes to a one-year-old lease are not really needed, he said, "But maybe the rent should be down a little bit." If the lease was negotiated several years ago when prices were more volatile, big changes may be appropriate.

Current cash rent rates in the Laurens area average near $190/acre for high quality land, according to an ISU survey. Two-thirds of the farmland in this area is rented to tenants. Since the 1920s more than half of Iowa's land has been farmed by tenants.

Land values have risen 8% in the Midwest according to the Federal Reserve Ag Letter of May 2010, but the number of land sales in 2009 declined 25% compared to a year earlier. The main driver of high land prices is low interest rates (see photo below). "Keep your head down. Don't leverage two farms to buy a third farm," Olsen advised.

Farm rent agreements automatically renew on September 1 unless either tenant or landlord cancels the lease in writing. Now is the time to decide if changes are needed.

Olsen also suggested farmers learn to use on-line resources such as the Web Soil Survey and the ISU Ag Decision Maker. Olsen can be reached at

Monday, July 26, 2010

Forty Years Since Wadena: Four Days to Jerry's Jam

Forty years ago this week Governor Robert Ray declined to enforce a court order banning the Wadena, Iowa rock festival. Thirty thousand people came. The skinny-dipping in the Volga River was the talk of the state.

Four days from now Bill Hertz's friends at Hidden Acres Music Farm south of Laurens will host Jerry's Jam. The two day festival is named after another musician of forty years ago, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead band.

Sixteen bands are on the bill for Friday and Saturday. Tent spaces are available in the shade! Tickets can be purchased on line at the Hidden Acres website.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Laurens Sun Has Another New Editor

For the second time this year the editor of the Laurens Sun is changing. Saying "I am at a point in my life where I have to think of myself first," out-going editor Brooks Taylor heads for a new job at the Mount Pleasant News in southeast Iowa. Taylor oversaw only ten issues of the weekly newspaper in Laurens.

This spring The Laurens Sun was sold by the children of Dar and Bill Chaffee to Jerry Wiseman, who also owns the Pocahontas Record Democrat where Taylor had previously worked.

The in-coming editors are Kevin and Nancy Verzich. They moved to Iowa from Ohio last winter and currently reside in Pocahontas.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

VFW Post Demolished

The building once known as the Veterans of Foreign Wars Archibald Southworth Post 3533 is being torn down. It is on East Veterans Road.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Music Festival Flying High

It was non-stop music last night at the festival south of Laurens. Two stages alternated their acts with barely time for the audience to move from one to the other without missing some notes. Everything was pretty electified Friday, especially that guy from St. Louis. Today's billings include some acoustic acts such as Jon Eric of Iowa City and The Brothers Burn Mountain from Wisconsin. The local Prairie Land Band plays today as well.

The musicians weren't the only ones itching to perform. One pair of dancers in front of the stage displayed their moves. Several hula hoop artists were very watchable, too. They were more memorable than the bands. They had apparently spent as much time practicing, too.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Local Music: Fire in the Flatlands

Bill Hertz is hosting another music festival this weekend at a farm south of town. The program lists twenty bands from around the country, including some who have played here in previous engagements.

Many of these bands are on tour. This stop in Laurens is just one in a series that makes up their road trip. Most of them can be previewed at their pages on

This is the third summer for these concerts. Previous festivals have not been well attended, so Hertz has let musicians know that they may only recoup their gas money if they stop here. Advance tickets cost $40 for the entire two days of music, or $25 for one day at time. They are available at Bill's website.

The photo was taken last summer. The music that night by "Useful Jenkins" of Mankato, Minnesota was excellent. They are due back this weekend.

I'll be there, at least part of the time, when it's not raining. See you!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

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