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Locals on left and right agree: Political discourse needs fixing


The spring after Donald Trump took office in 2017, Sue Conley was interviewing a high school student for a scholarship.

The scholarship was for students of color to encourage them to choose a career of teaching in Janesville.

Conley asked the man to describe adversity he had to overcome.

He told of coming to school the day after Donald Trump won the election the previous November. Things had changed.

Before the election, no one used racial slurs to address him. The day after, that changed. Students felt emboldened to use those words, Conley said.

Conley sees the violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as another example of Trump inflaming an already damaged system of American political discourse.

Bill Sodemann, a former Janesville School Board member and stalwart Republican, said Democrats share the blame for the personal attacks and name-calling in political speech.

Sodemann pointed to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who in June urged supporters to confront administration officials in restaurants and other public places.

Sodemann agreed political discourse needs fixing. He sees lies and misrepresentations repeated in news media as part of problem.

Sodemann said he never liked Trump’s personality, but the president could never get a good word from Democrats, even when he accomplished good things, such as the recent peace treaties between Israel and some Arab countries.

“I don’t mind people attacking different views. It’s when it gets to the personal level and the personalities of it that it’s crazy,” Sodemann said. “Maybe it takes people on all levels to see how bad it looks.”

Conley, the newly elected state Assembly member from Janesville, agreed Democrats are guilty of bad-mouthing, too.

“We all have become enveloped in that same frame of mind. We need to learn how to talk to each other again,” said Conley, a Democrat. “We’ve lost empathy and compassion for people who are different than we are.”

Sam Liebert, a former Janesville City Council member and campaigner for Barack Obama, agreed.

“The rhetoric needs to be toned down on all sides—left, right and center,” Liebert said. “I’ve always said people don’t care if a Republican or Democrat picks up your trash. ... I think we’ve lost sight of that.”

Duffy Dillon, a Janesville attorney who became outspokenly anti-Trump in the past year, said politics have become so toxic that winning is everything and compromise is a dirty word.

Dillon hopes enough people realize the problem and decide to defeat Republicans at the polls so that the Grand Old Party has to come back to reality.

“And if it doesn’t, we and our children are going to be fighting this authoritarian streak for the rest of our lives,” Dillon said.

The best thing now is for Trump to be impeached and removed from office, Dillon said, because, “That makes the record clear we don’t stand for this.”

This country has a “fantastic” system of government, Dillon said, “And if we just decided to run it in good faith together, we’ll be fine. But it takes a commitment to run the system we have, no matter what the outcomes may be.”

Yuri Rashkin, who was a victim of political name-calling when he was wrongly called a socialist while running for Rock County clerk last year, sees some hope in the recent election.

“There’s a reason why Joe Biden won because he was perceived as more centrist and less extreme. I hope this was a very sobering event (Wednesday),” Rashkin said.

Tim Cullen, the former state senator from Janesville, points to partisan gerrymandering by both parties as the root of the problem.

Electoral districts drawn to the advantage of one party means incumbents don’t have to worry about challengers from the other party, Cullen said.

The only thing some Democrats have to worry about is a primary challenge from the left, while some Republicans worry about the same from the right, Cullen said.

To stave off challenges, politicians try to satisfy the extremes, Cullen said, which leads to the vicious demonizing of the other side.

“I hope cooler heads prevail going forward,” Liebert said. “I’m curious to see if Republicans go the Trump path or if moderates prevail. I think the Republican Party needs to work that out. … We’re going to get through this. Americans always get through it. I hope we learn something from (Wednesday’s violence.)”

Rashkin said he would like to see more focus on issues and respect for others.

“But politicians only learn from losses, so it will be interesting to see in the next two or four years if this using of insults backfires on people, if they stop using them because it doesn’t work,” Rashkin said.

“We need get back to respectable discourse with dignity and respect,” Conley said. “I don’t know how we’re going to do it.”

Cullen said big-money interests want an end to the situation: “It’s better for their business to have peace than to have constantly a political war.”

But for now, the damage remains, Cullen suggested, saying:

“We would be a little naive to say that (Wednesday’s violence) is over and can’t happen again somewhere else.”

A lone tree south of Janesville remains covered in rime ice Thursday after multiple days of the icy coating blanketing southern Wisconsin recently.

A lone tree south of Janesville remains covered in rime ice on Thursday after multiple days of the icy coating that’s blanketed southern Wisconsin recently.

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Janesville City Council examines options for potential transportation utility


The city council has narrowed its options for structuring a transportation utility tax, an idea that council members are exploring but to which they have not yet committed themselves.

Council members met Thursday to narrow the scope of possible transportation utility structures with the idea of having a transportation utility ready for 2022 if the council decides to pursue it.

Council President Sue Conley and member Jim Farrell were absent.

A transportation utility would function like a water, stormwater or trash utility, using a user-based fee to pay for road repair.

Members agreed that the current system for funding road maintenance is not sustainable, but they all want to learn more before committing to a utility.

No council member has firmly pushed against the utility at this point.

Since 2016, the city has committed to repairing 12 miles of road each year, a task Finance Director Max Gagin said is becoming increasingly expensive.

The city borrows money to pay for road maintenance. With increasing costs, the city is looking at significant increases in debt—and therefore interest payments—over the next 10 years.

Three options for structuring a transportation utility were presented to the council, and all three would provide long-term savings for residential taxpayers compared to how the city currently pays for road repair, according to analysis by an independent group hired by the city.

Ten percent of the utility would be fixed cost. The other 90% would be based on a rate that depends on a property’s classification: residential, commercial, industrial, etc., Gagin said.

These options were presented:

Option one:

  • Create a transportation utility fee, keep the city’s wheel tax and debt finance 25% of transportation costs.

Option two:

  • Create a transportation utility fee, eliminate the wheel tax and use no debt financing.

Option three:

  • Create a transportation utility fee, eliminate the wheel tax and debt finance 25% of costs.

Thursday’s presentation focused on the financial impact to residential property owners for each option.

A transportation utility would place more of the financial burden for roads on commercial properties, which some officials said is fair because those properties draw more traffic and therefore require more road usage.

Council members ruled out option one. Several members said they don’t think they should implement a transportation utility while keeping the city’s $20-per-vehicle wheel tax.

Option two would be the most expensive for residential property owners off the bat, but increases would get smaller over time. In 10 years, the second option would be the least expensive for residential taxpayers, according to the analysis.

Option three would start out slightly more expensive than the status quo, but over time it would be more expensive than the second option.

Here are the estimated annual fees residential taxpayers would pay for the combined road charges (utility fees, wheel taxes and property taxes, when applicable):

Option one:

  • $78 in 2022, increasing to $185 by 2032.

Option two:

  • $80 in 2022, increasing to $140 by 2032.

Option three:

  • $54 in 2022, increasing to $162 by 2032.

No changes:

  • Less than $50 in 2022, increasing to $217 by 2032.

Council members asked Gagin to prepare a model showing the cost to residential taxpayers if the city took a hybrid approach: starting off in 2022 with a utility fee and debt payment then slowly weaning off the debt payments over five years until there is no debt financing for roads.

Members also re- quested cost scenarios for other types of properties.

Council member Doug Marklein said he has concerns about the higher financial burden for business owners, many of whom have struggled during the pandemic.

That could lead to businesses failing or having to raise their prices, Marklein said.

Council member Paul Benson voiced support for shifting the burden to commercial properties, particularly big-box retailers, many of which have challenged their property assessments and caused the city to miss out on tax revenue.

Council member Susan Johnson raised concerns about charging residential properties the same usage rate despite some groups—largely the elderly—using the roads less frequently.

City Attorney Wald Klimczyk said creating a utility is legally sound, but applying the utility differently for protected demographic groups could get the city in legal trouble.

Obituaries and death notices for Jan. 8, 2021

Theresa M. Blackmon

Yvonne Theresa Bradford

George Leroy Case

Johanna M. (Wellnitz) Cash

Jimmie M. Collicott

Lorraine (Huffman) Davis

Florence M. Dobson

Donald J. Eckert Jr.

Mary Jo Fox

Tina “T.T.” Hulick

Michael Edward Lansing

Roger C. Larkin

Vincent C. McKeown

Deborah Ruth Millard

James “Jim” Reed

Rollin Lawrence “Rollie” Royce

Austin Miles Sbonik

Steven A. Teubert

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‘Coolest teacher' hears from students as he faces final days


Teachers spend careers without knowing how they affected the lives of the kids who passed through their classrooms.

Mike Dean, who spent 38 years in the Janesville School District, is hearing from dozens of former students at a time when he needs the words the most. He is in a hospice, suffering from an inoperable brain tumor.

Dean’s son, Steve, set up “Mr. Dean Memories” on Facebook in November, and memories flooded in from former students and colleagues.

“I have never met anyone as dedicated to the craft of teaching as my father was,” Steve said. “He truly cared and immersed his life in his true calling. Whether it was writing in-depth, personalized comments on the paper of every student, lending an ear or an encouraging pick-me-up to those in need, jumping on top of desks or dressing up like Zeus, there is nobody like him. He left a lasting, positive impression on so many, and I am glad I have been able to share these memories with him.”

Steve has read the comments to his father, eliciting many smiles as the old teacher remembers.

“His short-term memory has taken a humongous hit. He’s not walking. But his long-term memory is pretty good. … He’s remembered students, he says, back to 1968,” Steve said.

“He’s gotten emotional a couple of times, and I asked him, ‘Do you want me to stop?’ And he kept saying, ‘One more.’ … It’s been really good for him.”

Dean taught in Janesville from 1966 to 2004. Most of those years were spent in sixth or seventh grades at Monroe Elementary and Franklin Middle schools.

He spent long hours, not only preparing innovative lessons but in informal counseling, coaching and supervising early-morning basketball.

“I think you saved me,” a former student wrote. “I was a hot mess of emotions and confusion, and you never judged me. I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t fashionable, and I was just a little too different. But when you took the time to sit in a desk across from me after an exhausting day of trying to get through to little degenerates, it gave me the attention I needed to feel loved.”

Dean taught history in a way that made it real for students. He was remarkably creative, said longtime Franklin principal Kim Ehrhardt.

One of his best-remembered assignments was to create a fictional “Mythlandia,” complete with maps.

Dean’s classroom was where Ehrhardt would send visitors to see a master teacher.

“Some teachers are very friendly and engaging, but he taught school, too,” Ehrhardt said. “He really was the best. He had high academic standards for everyone.”

Comments posted by former students and colleagues are heartfelt, compelling and inspiring. A sampling from longer posts:

  • “I remember his enthusiasm, often seeming to speed-walk around the classroom or standing on desks because he was so passionate and excited about whatever topic he was teaching. I remember him breaking into song in the middle of a lesson because something reminded him of a particular song.”
  • “I remember when it was ‘cool’ to use or say the phrase, ‘That’s retarded.’ Mr. Dean educated us from day one on the negative impact that word has, and how hurtful it can be. Because of him, that word has no use in my vocabulary and I am sure a lot of kids remember the same.”
  • “I was in class on September 11 (2001). He was the only teacher who was able to explain what was happening, almost spot on. He was able to teach through the extremely emotional day to ensure all of us students could truly understand what was happening and the future impacts of it.”
  • “It was the first class I ever had where blurting out was encouraged. Mr. Dean orchestrated group conversations in a marvelous fashion, darting up and down the rows of desks pointing, questioning, pulling words out of students’ mouths, trying to get everyone to participate—part Socratic method, part evangelist, part Broadway actor.”
  • “To this day I often wonder, ‘Did we really read Homer in the sixth grade?’ Ray Bradbury? What else? Writers and stories that any sixth grader would have to reach to the stars to comprehend. But we did ... because Mr. Dean believed in us. … And because he believed in us, we believed in ourselves.”
  • “I’ll never forget he taught us how to order a hamburger, french fries and a coke from McDonald’s in sign language.“
  • “I only saw him angry once, and that was when he witnessed a bullying situation.”
  • “I remember him always staying after school on top of a desk with staples in his mouth, hanging up a display of our work or creating a new interest point. I remember how passionate he was when engaging young minds, pieces of chalk sticking out of his teeth, or running backwards, arms in full flair and eyes alight with fire. I remember Mr. Dean dressed as a knight for King Arthur’s feast or nursing a bloody lip into class after being kidnapped by aliens in order to inspire a story. His laugh was infectious and his warmth covered me like the comfort of a blanket. He taught me how to express myself in writing and to cherish the written word.”
  • “Mr. Dean knew I was struggling, and he took the time to show me that he saw me and I was important. What I didn’t know until this (Facebook) group was how many other people he was helping at the same time as me. How did he do it???”

“He always ended the Pledge of Allegiance with “play ball!” I still say this in my head every day when I do the Pledge of Allegiance with my students. It still brings a smile to my face.”

  • “Middle school was rough, and you helped me believe in myself. You made learning fun and provided so much life guidance. You would talk about Steven and Katie (Dean’s children) and make us all feel like part of your family. … I am currently a special-ed teacher at Janesville Craig and have you to thank for being a role model of what a teacher should be and how to engage and care about my students.”
  • “He told us about his daughter (who is deaf and has cognitive disabilities) and taught us sign language. This opened up conversations about disabilities that some of us may not have had the opportunity to have back then. His energy and passion ignited us students. ... To say Mr. Dean was the coolest teacher is an understatement.”
  • “I also remember Mythlandia and how proud I was of my country of Fruitopia. It might surprise you to hear that I’m hoping to get a job in the spring in mapping as a draftsperson or GIS (geographic information systems) analyst!

Guess that seed was planted long ago in that second-floor classroom in Franklin. … Most of all, I remember your big smile and how welcome I always felt in your classroom. … Clearly, one doesn’t need to be the president to change the world; you can simply be like Mr. Dean.”

  • Matt Fiedler remembered an all-school talent show in 1986, when he, Toby Kubler, Adam Hefty and Derek Winn did an air-band performance of Sex Pistols’ songs:

“I capped the performance off by smashing a wax bust of Abraham Lincoln on the stage,” Fiedler wrote. “Most students seemed very confused by what they were seeing. Most staff seemed appalled. … But not Mr. Dean! He was grinning from ear to ear, pumping his fist, and bobbing his head to the music. He gave us a huge applause and praise as we finished. He always seemed to appreciate the rebels.”