Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A winter's tale: property and placemaking

A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves. - Wendell Berry


With sidewalks running along two sides of the property, those of us who live on a corner lot owe the city a bit more civic duty when it comes to clearing snow. On one side of our lot is a long block where we share an equally long stretch of sidewalk with the neighbor who lives behind us on the next corner.

When the grass grows in the boulevard strip or the snow covers the sidewalk, we both know where our property, and thus our civic duty, ends. Pretty basic knowledge really, but it’s just the sort of thing that keeps the peace in any neighborhood. It’s the kind of understanding folks living in close proximity depend upon to keep the “civil” in “civilization”.

Simple as it is though, you pull on that thread and you risk unraveling the social fabric. Property lines are drawn. You keep to your side; and, you keep up with the upkeep. In the case of snow, keeping up means you have 24 hours to clear the sidewalk as per city ordinance:

72.02. Responsibility and Penalties. Subdivision 1. All snow, ice, dirt and rubbish remaining on a public sidewalk more than 24 hours after its deposit thereon is a public nuisance. The owner and the occupant of any property adjacent to a public sidewalk shall use due diligence to keep such walk safe for pedestrians. No such owner or occupant shall allow snow, ice, dirt or rubbish to remain on the walk longer than 24 hours after its deposit thereon. 

And so, there arises a web of personal obligations, social mores, and civil law that frames, defines, and dictates our right conduct as it pertains to homeownership and snow.


Several years ago, soon after we moved to Rochester, I was out removing snow from the sidewalks along our lot. I have to say I rarely do so with any real cognizance of the social and legal conventions that make it a duty to do so. The snow falls and then I go out and move some of it out of the way. I guess I know I am supposed to do this thing. Sometimes I am more inclined to do so than at other times - well, mostly less inclined.

I shouldn't complain. It’s not like I’m having to shovel the snow. I start up the Great Winter Wonder Machine and walk behind it as it hurls snow to this side or that. It’s not effortless, but save for the end of the driveway where the city piles its civil service, it’s pretty much just a trudge.

On this occasion, years ago, as I trudged down the long block we share with our neighbor, I kept going and cleared the snow down to the next corner.

I don’t now why I did that. Pretty sure it wasn’t altruism. I was probably just grooving to the rhythm of the trudge or maybe didn't want to rassle with turning around the Great Winter Wonder Machine to head back when I hit the property line. Whatever the reason, I had cleared the snow the whole length of the block.

The next snow came soon after. When I went out clear the walks I found that the sidewalk along the long block had been cleared already. I suppose I figured that my neighbor had returned what he thought was a favor, but whatever his reason there it was, done.

Next snow, I got out first and cleared the long block. Next time, he did. Over the seasons an unspoken compact formed: whoever gets out first, clears the walk. It’s nobody’s turn, it’s just who gets to it first. We’ve never spoken about it. There was a winter I knew he wasn’t well. That season I turned the corner down at his end of the street and cleared the walk in front of his house right up to where I gauged his property ended.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Schools dazed

Three major local education institutions end 2015 on shaken and shaky ground. All have some work to do to begin to restore firmer foundations in 2016. Let’s review:

ISD 535: coming up short on the vision thing and civil rights

Rochester’s K-12 public education provider went to the voters in November asking for more money to keep doing no more than what they were already doing. Where other districts in the state received a resounding “YES!” to similar requests, ISD 535 district voters proclaimed, “… meh …”

With a margin of victory measured to the right of a decimal point, the district won the money vote, but fell far short of a vote of confidence for what they were going to do with the money they won. Not surprising since apart from vague references to taking stuff from students, little was said about what we might get for the money. The referendum campaign affirmed no vision, posed few substantive choices, and did little to engage the community in a conversation about how to meet the needs and aspirations of students and families.

One can only wonder how the outcome of the referendum might have been different had a recent Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights report regarding ISD 535 been more widely known beforehand. Though the report was issued in early September, it was underplayed by the district and not widely reported until a few weeks after the November referendum. The OCR report made clear that black male and female students are disparately impacted by ISD 535 student discipline practices. Sufficiently so that ISD 535 will be subject to OCR oversight for the next three years.

RCTC: c suite turmoil and accreditation at risk

Though the recent resignation of the president might address the most immediate leadership concerns of students and staff,  Rochester Community and Technical College faces serious challenges in the aftermath of her brief tenure.

Some of these challenges are not a consequence of that tenure: low graduation rates, declining enrollment, high costs, and budget cuts are endemic in higher education across the country. Despite the structural, systemic, and demographic nature of these problems, addressing them are first and foremost the front line responsibility of local higher education leadership.

These challenges are exacerbated by RCTC’s current poor performance in addressing its pending status as an accredited institution and compounded by continuing uncertainty regarding the senior leadership. With another interim appointment underway, other changes in the administration are quite likely. Already the responsibility for overseeing the accreditation process has been taken away from the person recently hired to do so.

UMR: niche marketing for a small, private, liberal arts college 

Some folks might be surprised to find the University of Minnesota Rochester on a list of local educational, institutions on shaken and shaky grounds. UMR has certainly not had the sort of media scrutiny received by ISD 535 and RCTC. Nor has there been nearly as much reason to warrant such attention. But for UMR it’s not its problems that are worrisome, but their solution.

Like RCTC, UMR faces many of the same structural, systemic, and demographic challenges of higher education - most notably declining enrollments. The news coming out of UMR has been about enrollment shortfalls and its new recruitment plans. Though it generally takes at least three data points to catch sight of a trend, after two years of not meeting their recruitment goals, UMR did not wait for the third shoe to drop. It leapt into action with some restructuring of its leadership, some budget tightening, and of course a marketing consultant.

First of all, it may be worth considering what it means for a publicly funded branch of a state university to characterize itself as a small, private, liberal arts college. Though UMR prides itself on being innovative, does it risk becoming simply idiosyncratic? When does its appeal cease to be be unique and just end up being limited?

Whatever the case, to its credit UMR does have a clear vision for what it is and hopes to become. It has thus far delivered pretty well for its students. It appreciates its challenges. It is acting transparently to address them. It remains accountable. UMR also knows the persistence of its vision is at stake. After all, small, private, liberal arts colleges (and probably the simulacrum of same) are an endangered breed.

ISD 535, RCTC, and UMR share the problems and bad breaks that come with the times. They also confront problems of their own making that make the times in turn more problematic. We all should take an interest in what they do next.