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Council to vote on roundabout

The Eau Claire City Council will vote this afternoon on whether to continue pursuing a controversial roundabout project in the city’s 3rd Ward neighborhood near UW-Eau Claire after seeing rising opposition.

Fifteen city residents used their last opportunity at Monday night’s council meeting to give their opinions on the proposed roundabout for State Street and Roosevelt Avenue.

“Let’s go back while it’s on paper and rework this,” said Suzanne Nelson, who lives on Roosevelt Avenue just a couple doors down from the proposed roundabout.

The council will vote at 4 p.m. today on proceeding with a relocation order, the first step in the process to buy land from homeowners around the intersection to build the roundabout.

Owners of three of the four houses on the corners of the intersection spoke Monday night, with one stating that the final owner also won’t willingly sell land for the roundabout.

Stacy Haslow, an Eau Claire teacher who lives in one of the houses at the intersection, spoke Monday to give a face to families who would lose a portion of their property. She and her three boys enjoy living in their house on State Street, Haslow said, and are concerned about what they’d do if they lost a big chunk of their front yard.

“I worry about what this is going to do to my home,” she said. “I don’t want to sell. I don’t want to move.”

Matt McHugh, whose company Clear Water Real Estate owns one of the homes at the intersection, said he was persuaded by the testimony of families who live on the street to oppose the roundabout.

“That’s what has changed my mind strongly,” he said.

Others who live elsewhere in the 3rd Ward said they worry that reducing the value of the houses around the intersection would have a “domino effect.”

Former city Councilwoman Terri Stanley, who lives in the 3rd Ward, said while the city would pay those directly affected by losing their yards, the drop in value could spread.

“While these homeowners would be financially compensated for the loss, it doesn’t compensate the slide, the next-door neighbor and next-door neighbor,” she said.

Stanley and others anticipated that with the greatly reduced yards, the four homes would be converted into rental properties, likely aimed at university students.

“If you degrade these houses, really the only people who are going to live there will be students at some point,” said Kevin Rosenberg, chairman of the 3rd Ward Neighborhood Association.

He noted that more student rentals can have a bad effect on nearby homes that are still owner-occupied, prompting more people to sell and their homes to be rented.

Katherine Schneider, who lives a block away from the university on McKinley Avenue, expects the council will vote against the relocation order today, effectively negating their March 12 vote that added the controversial roundabout to the State Street project.

“I’m an optimist so I’m going to thank you for listening to the will of the neighborhood to not have a roundabout at the Roosevelt/State Street intersection,” she said.

She advised that the redesigned intersection include a concrete island between traffic lanes so pedestrians can more safely cross State Street. Signs alerting drivers to the crossing, including one with flashing lights that pedestrians can turn on by pressing a button, should also be included with the intersection, Schneider said. She added that the device used to activate the crossing lights also have features to let blind people like herself know by touch or sound when it is safe to cross the street.

Should the Roosevelt Avenue roundabout be effectively cancelled today, city engineer David Solberg said there will be meetings with the neighborhood and other stakeholders to discuss other designs for the intersection, which would be presented in early July to the City Council.

The council is also slated to vote on awarding a $4 million contract today to Haas Sons of Thorp to reconstruct nearly a mile of State Street. While the Roosevelt Avenue roundabout may get taken out of the project, there are three more roundabouts that would be created at other intersections along State Street, but the other ones do not require buying private land.

Could Wisconsin be the 'Silicon Valley of Water'? UW campuses trying to make it happen


Could Wisconsin establish itself as the “Silicon Valley of Water”?

That’s what the UW System is trying to do with the launch of a Freshwater Collaborative that will bring together its 13 campuses into a first-of-its-kind research hub focused on water topics. Individual campuses would distinguish themselves as experts in specific fields, come up with solutions, train the next generation of researchers and possibly recruit more students amid a decline in enrollment.

Whether the launch begins July 1 or later is in the hands of the state Legislature because college officials say they cannot start the initiative without money from the 2019-21 budget, which lawmakers are still crafting.

The system’s announcement comes at a time of bipartisan support from lawmakers to address Wisconsin’s water problems. Rural corners of the state are tainted by pollutants from agriculture, several areas including Madison are grappling with emerging chemical contaminants and Milwaukee faces a lead pipe crisis.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 the “year of clean drinking water” and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, formed a task force to study water quality.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, has expressed concern about drinking water wells in his district that are contaminated by a group of highly toxic synthetic chemicals commonly known by the acronym PFAS.

And UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone said Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chairwoman of the budget committee, told him that the Freshwater Collaborative is “too good to wait until the next budget cycle.”

An aide for Darling did not return a request seeking confirmation of her statement to Mone.

Aides for Vos, Nygren and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, also did not respond to requests asking whether they supported including $10.7 million in the 2019-21 budget biennium to fund the first portion of the $27.6 million, six-year plan for the Freshwater Collaborative.

Wisconsin’s geography — with the Mississippi River bordering the state’s west side and Great Lakes bordering its north and east portions — positions itself to be a leader in research on water science, economics, technology and entrepreneurship.

“The University of Wisconsin System has an unfair advantage when it comes to water and we need to take advantage of that,” Mone told the UW System Board of Regents at a meeting last week.

UW-Milwaukee will spearhead the 13-campus collaboration.

Lofty aspirations

By 2025, the program aims to enroll 1,000 new undergraduate students and 400 new graduate students, attract between $10 million and $15 million in new research funding from federal and private agencies, hire 100 new faculty and researchers and create 650 new jobs.

Val Klump, dean of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, said about a third of the money requested would go toward scholarships for undergraduate students and another third to hiring faculty and staff. The rest would go toward marketing, recruitment and office staff overseeing the collaboration.

“The whole idea is to recruit more students to Wisconsin and to offer them something unique to the nation,” he said.

Details aren’t finalized, but the program may encourage or require students to spend time on a different UW campus than their own institution. Faculty within the collaborative may also engage in inter-system sabbaticals, Klump said.

Practical strides

For example, a student studying at UW-Stevens Point, where fisheries management is emphasized, may spend a semester or summer taking courses at UW-Madison, where the Center for Limnology offers expertise on freshwater lakes. Researchers there study topics such as invasive lake species and harmful blue-green algae blooms.

The same opportunity could be available for a UW-Madison student, wanting to delve into Great Lakes resources, to learn more at UW-Green Bay or UW-Superior.

The collaboration will help the system’s regional universities — that is, all campuses aside from UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee — compete on a more national scale, Klump said.

Through the collaborative, UW-Madison may gain a freshwater sciences major, according to Steven Ackerman, university associate vice chancellor for research.

“Every UW campus has a lot to offer, but no one campus has everything to offer,” said UW-Madison professor and Center for Limnology director Jake Vander Zanden. “The goal is to glue the UW campuses together so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

'Homework gap' shows millions of students lack home internet

HARTFORD, Conn. — With no computer or internet at home, Raegan Byrd’s homework assignments present a nightly challenge: How much can she get done using just her smartphone?

On the tiny screen, she switches between web pages for research projects, losing track of tabs whenever friends send messages. She uses her thumbs to tap out school papers, but when glitches keep her from submitting assignments electronically, she writes them out by hand.

“At least I have something, instead of nothing, to explain the situation,” said Raegan, a high school senior in Hartford.

She is among nearly 3 million students around the country who face struggles keeping up with their studies because they must make do without home internet. In classrooms, access to laptops and the internet is nearly universal. But at home, the cost of internet service and gaps in its availability create obstacles in urban areas and rural communities alike.

In what has become known as the homework gap, an estimated 17% of U.S. students do not have access to computers at home and 18% do not have home access to broadband internet, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data.

Until a couple of years ago, Raegan’s school gave every student a laptop equipped with an internet hot spot. But that grant program lapsed. In the area surrounding the school in the city’s north end, less than half of households have home access.

School districts, local governments and others have tried to help. Districts installed wireless internet on buses and loaned out hot spots. Many communities compiled lists of wi-fi-enabled restaurants and other businesses where children are welcome to linger and do schoolwork. Others repurposed unused television frequencies to provide connectivity, a strategy that the Hartford Public Library plans to try next year in the north end.

Some students study in the parking lots of schools, libraries or restaurants — wherever they can find a signal.

The consequences can be dire for children in these situations because students with home internet consistently score higher in reading, math and science. And the homework gap in many ways mirrors broader educational barriers for poor and minority students.

Students without internet at home are more likely to be students of color, from low-income families or in households with lower parental education levels. Janice Flemming-Butler, who has researched barriers to internet access in Hartford’s largely black north end, said the disadvantage for minority students is an injustice on the same level as “when black people didn’t have books.”

Raegan, who is black, is grateful for her iPhone, and the data plan paid for by her grandfather. The honors student at Hartford’s Journalism and Media Academy tries to make as much progress as possible while at school.

“On a computer — click, click — it’s so much easier,” she said.

Classmate Madison Elbert has access to her mother’s computer at home, but she was without home internet this spring, which added to deadline stress for a research project.

“I really have to do everything on my phone because I have my data and that’s it,” she said.

Administrators say they try to make the school a welcoming place, with efforts including an after-school dinner program, in part to encourage them to use the technology at the building. Some teachers offer class time for students to work on projects that require an internet connection.

English teacher Susan Johnston said she also tries to stick with educational programs that offer smartphone apps. Going back to paper and chalkboards is not an option, she said.

“I have kids all the time who are like, ‘Miss, can you just give me a paper copy of this?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, no, because I really need you to get familiar with technology because it’s not going away,’” she said.

A third of households with school-age children that do not have home internet cite the expense as the main reason, according to federal Education Department statistics gathered in 2017 and released in May. The survey found the number of households without internet has been declining overall but was still at 14 percent for metropolitan areas and 18 percent in nonmetropolitan areas.

A commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, Jessica Rosenworcel, called the homework gap “the cruelest part of the digital divide.”

In rural northern Mississippi, reliable home internet is not available for some at any price.

On many afternoons, Sharon Stidham corrals her four boys into the school library at East Webster High School, where her husband is assistant principal, so they can use the internet for schoolwork. A cellphone tower is visible through the trees from their home on a hilltop near Maben, but the internet signal does not reach their house, even after they built a special antenna on top of a nearby family cabin.

A third of the 294 households in Maben have no computer and close to half have no internet.

Her 10-year-old son, Miles, who was recently diagnosed with dyslexia, plays an educational computer game that his parents hope will help improve his reading and math skills. His brother, 12-year-old Cooper, says teachers sometimes tell students to watch a YouTube video to help figure out a math problem, but that’s not an option at his house.

On the outskirts of Starkville, home to Mississippi State University, Jennifer Hartness said her children often have to drive into town for a reliable internet connection. Her daughter Abigail Shaw, who does a blend of high school and college work on the campus of a community college, said most assignments have to be completed using online software, and that she relies on downloading class presentations to study.

“We spend a lot of time at the coffee shops, and we went to McDonald’s parking lot before then,” Abigail said.

At home, the family uses a satellite dish that costs $170 a month. It allows a certain amount of high-speed data each month and then slows to a crawl. Hartness said it’s particularly unreliable for uploading data. Abigail said she has lost work when satellites or phones have frozen.

Raegan says she has learned to take responsibility for her own education.

“What school does a good job with,” she said, “is making students realize that when you go out into the world, you have to do things for yourself.”