Six children picked up hammers and pounded holes in a plasterboard wall Tuesday on the lawn outside Lincoln Elementary School.
The kids, wearing helmets and goggles, enjoyed it so much that Principal Shawn Galvin had tell them twice that it was time to stop.
The wall bashing was part of a ceremony to mark the start of referendum-funded projects at most of the Janesville public schools, which will continue for about 15 months.
Much fun was had by all, as adults also took their turns at the two 4-by-8-foot walls that JP Cullen & Sons, the construction manager, had built for the occasion.
But there was a deadly serious reason for the millions of dollars in spending.
Superintendent Steve Pophal said all the schools were built in the pre-Columbine era, when people could freely enter any school.
Columbine is the name of a Colorado high school where a mass shooting shocked the nation in 1999. Schools have been beefing up security ever since.
The Janesville School District in 2007-08 installed video monitoring systems with intercoms at all elementary schools so office staff could talk to visitors before buzzing them into the building. The rest of the schools followed.
But officials have learned more since then, district spokesperson Patrick Gasper said.
One thing they learned is there’s a flaw in the system in some of the schools: Anyone who is buzzed in can walk by the school office without checking in.
School entrances that were updated in the early 2000s still lack a holding area, where people would be forced to register with staff before being allowed inside. That’s the point of the new renovations, which will provide two locked doors that all visitors must pass through.
“That’s the standard, that’s the norm in today’s schools,” Pophal said.
In November, 67% of district voters approved a $22.5 million referendum. Most of that money will pay for the new entrances in a plan the district calls secure sequence pathways.
The rest of the money will be used to replace old boilers at Harrison, Kennedy, Lincoln, Madison, Monroe and Van Buren elementary schools and for some intercom and fire system upgrades.
Bidding on the boilers and other work comes later. The re-building of school entranceways begins in about nine days, in three phases:
Phase 1 low bids came in at $3.08 million, which was $391,975 under budget. Bids have yet to be let on the rest of the work.
District CFO Dan McCrea said officials are worried about the recent spikes in the costs of some construction materials, so the under-budget bids give some relief.
Some of the schools will see more alterations of their main entrances than others. Less work will be done at those schools that got updated entrances 14 years ago, such as Parker High and Van Buren and Harrison elementary schools, Gasper said.
Among the speakers Tuesday was longtime school board member Greg Ardrey, who said the board is working with a list of needed capital upgrades estimated to cost $100 million.
“This is really the beginning, an exciting beginning,” Ardrey said.
Pophal told a group of fifth-graders who sat on the grass during the ceremony that they were being prepared to be this community’s next generation of leaders.
“You guys are what this is all about,” Pophal said. “We’re here to make sure that we give you a bright future, that we provide every opportunity for you to be prepared for college, career and life, and we try to do that in a way that brings joy to you each day in the work that you do as students.”
Archaeologists have unearthed human remains of Native Americans who lived up to 2,500 years ago during excavations of the Sheboygan County site along Lake Michigan where Kohler Co. envisions a golf course.
A UW-Milwaukee team in 2018 and 2019 inadvertently encountered fragments of human bone and teeth from at least seven locations beneath the privately owned wetlands and forest where Kohler is planning to have its third championship golf facility in Wisconsin, according to documents recently obtained by Wisconsin Watch. The disturbance came while recovering tens of thousands of ceramics, tools and other artifacts at the 247-acre site during a study required under federal historic preservation law.
The human remains and most of the artifacts belong to Woodland-era Native Americans who lived between 500 B.C. and 1200 A.D., according to Jennifer Haas, director of UW-Milwaukee Archaeological Research Laboratory Center. The team did not encounter definable graves that might trigger additional development restrictions under state burial protection law.
Archaeologists did not examine multiple Native American burial mounds on the Kohler property beyond proposed golf course boundaries, Haas said. The 36,000-employee company—which is known for its plumbing fixtures but also manages resorts and golf destinations—vows to protect the mounds and offer public access.
Haas said her team worked closely with state officials and concerned tribal members to follow laws and protocols.
“As you can imagine, there is tremendous cultural sensitivity surrounding the findings of human remains at the site,” she said in an email.
Ho-Chunk Nation historic preservation officer Bill Quackenbush is among tribal representatives monitoring the archaeological project. He notes that state and federal laws do not bar development under such circumstances. Still, it leaves him uneasy.
“Tribes are always reluctant to talk about that one ugly aspect—of having to deal with our ancestors being dug up as somewhat of a commodity,” Quackenbush said.
Dirk Willis, vice president for golf, landscape and retail for Kohler Hospitality, said the company remains “committed to creating a world-class golf course that respects the property’s natural character, and opens up private land to the public for the first time.”
“Our public golf course will be an asset to our region,” he said in a statement. “The archeology work on the site represents an important historical opportunity for public education about those who came before us and our state’s rich history that could have remained unknown.”
Barriers to the project remain: Lake Michigan’s fluctuating water levels and winds have eroded key portions of the site, and pending lawsuits are delaying construction.
The grassroots group Friends of the Black River Forest is challenging approvals under former Gov. Scott Walker. Those include a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources permit to fill 1.5 acres of rare wetlands and a deal in which Wisconsin swapped 6.5 acres of Kohler-Andrae State Park for 9.5 acres of Kohler property with a house and several storage buildings.
Meanwhile, the archaeological work illustrates the challenges of balancing cultural sensitivities, historic preservation and property rights in Wisconsin, where most of more than 2,600 known Native American burial mounds and 9,000-plus known burial sites sit on privately owned land.
Wisconsin is home to the most burial sites in North America, according to the DNR. The state in recent years bolstered protections for these sites, largely as awareness spread of the wide-scale destruction of the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 earthen burial mounds that Native Americans built before Europeans arrived.
But that didn’t prevent tribal officials’ unease about treatment of human remains at the Kohler site—concerns that reached UW System officials, emails show.
Belle Ragins, a UW-Milwaukee professor of management who lives near the site and opposes the golf course, shared the emails with Wisconsin Watch. She and her husband, Erik Thelen, received them through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is evaluating Kohler’s application to discharge materials into 3.7 acres of federal wetlands.
Ragins said she was surprised to learn Kohler was forging ahead even after archaeologists identified a group of burial mounds and an initial cache of Native American artifacts several years ago.
“It’s just heartbreaking because they would never do this if it was their grandmother’s cemetery,” Ragins said.
The Kohler site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and the company funded the archaeological work to address the project’s “adverse effect” on the historic location—a federal requirement before the Army Corps issues its permit.
Kohler must eventually present a plan to educate the public about how Native Americans and others long ago lived and worked at the site. Any human remains disturbed during the process “must be treated with the utmost dignity and respect,” according to an agreement between Kohler and state, federal and tribal agencies.
Multiple tribal historic preservation officers objected as the UW-Milwaukee team temporarily stored the human remains rather than allow for an immediate reburial, emails show.
The dispute escalated in July 2019 when a Wisconsin Historical Society official emailed a notice that the UW-Milwaukee team encountered an adult molar tooth.
“This is another part of one of our ancestor’s human remains that was found at this site,” replied David Grignon, a historic preservation officer for the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. “Did the project stop or is it going to continue or does the Kohler Company have too much influence to stop it?”
Leslie Eisenberg, a compliance archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society’s State Historic Preservation Office, responded that Kohler had clear authority to request to disturb the “uncatalogued” burial site, and her office granted that permission. The tooth couldn’t be left in place because archaeologists found it in a sifting screen rather than directly on site, she wrote.
“I recently reminded everyone working on this project that if human bone is found during the remainder of the excavation, it should not be moved until every effort is made to avoid, if possible,” she wrote.
The next day, Quackenbush asked to halt the excavation to discuss broader concerns.
“I strongly feel little cultural sensitivity has been given to us tribes … no one seems to take into account these remains are being pulled from the ground against our continued requests not to do so,” Quackenbush wrote in an email.
Speaking to Wisconsin Watch, Quackenbush said differing cultural perceptions can create tension: Archaeologists and agency officials seem to view them as items to be analyzed, while tribal officials see them as ancestors who need a swift return to their resting place. This dynamic is not unique to the Kohler excavation, he said.
“We’re so tired of people analyzing and reanalyzing and trying to make something of use out of our ancestors,” he said. “It’s at a point where we just jump into consultation and try to create an (agreement) to expedite the process.”
The complaint about the Kohler excavation reached university leaders. The UW System and the Board of Regents arranged a conversation between Quackenbush and UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone, email correspondence shows.
Days later, university staff promised to place tobacco with all recovered human remains, wrap them in white cloth and hold them in secure storage pending reburial—while expediting that portion of the analysis.
Ho-Chunk, Menominee and Potawatomi representatives ultimately reburied the remains nearby in summer 2020. The reburial and additional assurances satisfied the participating tribes, Quackenbush said in an interview. But it was a lesson that state and federal law sometimes falls short in protecting cultural dignity.
“I think protection of human remains and burial on site is a higher priority than the creation of a golf course, for example. But, that said, (the Kohlers) are landowners, and they have the right to do as they see fit,” he said.
Haas said archaeologists commonly disturb human remains during their work, and that special protocols, state burial law protections and professional decorum “helped to ensure ethical and culturally sensitive treatment of human remains.”
Haas’ team is still analyzing roughly 38,000 historic and 214,000 prehistoric artifacts. It won’t file a draft report until spring 2023, Haas said, which the Wisconsin Historical Society must approve.
That’s just one hurdle Kohler must clear to fulfill its vision.
In the 1930s, the company purchased 468 acres of land along Lake Michigan and donated nearly half to what is now the Kohler-Andrae State Park. The rest is now slated for the golf course.
Kohler worked with city of Sheboygan officials to annex the land after key officials in the town of Wilson, the original jurisdiction, openly opposed the project. The annexation sparked a legal battle in which the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2020 sided with Kohler. Months later, the Sheboygan Plan Commission granted the company a conditional-use permit.
To build the course, Kohler says it must destroy nearly 4 acres of wetlands. The company plans to cut down half the trees on the property, create an irrigation pond, golf cart paths, a clubhouse, a maintenance building and an entry road.
Kohler vows remediation through programs that allow it to sponsor the restoration or creation of wetlands elsewhere.
But some scientists say the development will permanently alter ecosystems across the rare landscape. And one former DNR wetland ecologist told Wisconsin Watch in 2018 that DNR managers pressured staff to approve a deficient wetlands permit application.
An administrative law judge revoked the permit in 2019; Kohler appealed, and the case remains in Sheboygan County Circuit Court.
Separately, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals last September reinstated Friends of the Black River Forest’s challenge of the state land swap.
Kohler faces yet another challenge, this one from Mother Nature: the eroding Lake Michigan shore, which could leave part of the course under water unless designs change.
Any redesign would likely require the company to return to Sheboygan’s Plan Commission, although the exact process would depend on the specifics, according to Chad Pelishek, the city’s planning and development director.
Willis said the course’s initial routing and design “remains unchanged.”
Plenty of job opportunities await students and other employment seekers this summer in the wake of a worker shortage in the hospitality industry.
“Every hotel and restaurant is looking to hire people immediately,” Visit Beloit CEO Celestino Ruffini said. “It seems like the demand for travel is there and has returned, but we have to have the staff to work front desks, in restaurants and serving, cleaning, and offering a positive customer service experience. ... It could become a significant issue this summer if our local businesses are not able to fill all the positions.”
Wisconsin’s return to near pre-pandemic unemployment levels has brought with it a workforce shortage, spurring Republicans to demand the state end its participation in enhanced federal pandemic unemployment benefits. The most recent stimulus legislation, the American Rescue Plan Act, expanded benefits to provide qualifying Americans with $300 a week in addition to state unemployment benefits through Sept. 6, 2021.
Some GOP-led states are ending the benefit, claiming it keeps people from returning to work. Liberals are citing the need for higher wages and adequate child care in order to get more people back to work. Bars, restaurants, hotels and the tourism industry are facing the greatest shortages, according to The Associated Press.
April data shows that Wisconsin’s total non-farm jobs increased by 9,300 over the month, while private-sector jobs increased by 8,200 over the same period. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate in April was 3.9%, while the national unemployment rate in April was 6.1%, according to the Department of Workforce Development.
Fabian Gonzalez, general manager of the Milwaukee Grill at 2601 Morse St., Janesville, is one restaurant operator who is seeking summer help.
He said he needs two hostesses, a bartender, a full-time manager and two people to bus tables but that no one is applying for the positions. Gonzalez said Milwaukee Grill is one of the higher-paying restaurants in Janesville, starting at $15 to $16 an hour for its rookie cooks, and that he is a bit perplexed.
“We are one of the busiest places in town and have a good reputation. At least 75% of customers are regulars we see up to five times a week,” Gonzalez said.
Milwaukee Grill closed at the start of the pandemic for two months with employees being laid off. It then reopened for curbside pickup for 28 days before fully reopening with 12 fewer tables to give people more space. At the time, the restaurant brought back about 85% to 90% of its staff.
In mid-January, typically a slower month, the number of customers started to significantly increase. During April and May, sales are back to the level of 2019.
“Because we have a patio, I’m expecting a killer summer,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said he believes the additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits has affected staffing.
It has also been a challenging year for BOXCARS Pub & Grub, 108 Allen St., Clinton, which was seeking employees before the pandemic.
“It’s been a constant battle of trying to find people that want to work,” owner Tim Pogorelski said.
Pogorelski said business remained stable during the early days of the pandemic with deliveries and carryouts. The last few months, he said business has increased significantly as the restaurant opened its outdoor theater, known as The LOT, where groups can gather for live music. The spot will have some country music artists this summer, with capacity for more than 300 people.
BOXCARS currently has openings for dishwashers, stockers, bussers, and bartenders.
While Pogorelski said there wasn’t much turnover in the past with employees working there for eight to 10 years or more, it’s changing.
“One person got hired only to not show up again or even call,” Pogorelski said. “We are trying to get people in, and it’s rapid withdrawals.”
Pogorelski said he believes some of the problem stems from additional unemployment benefits available.
The lack of workers has made it difficult for existing employees.
“We have people working here as a second job, and it’s hard to ask much more of them than what they already do. You don’t want to burn them out. and the remaining employees deserve time off,” he said.
Geronimo Hospitality Group Chief Operating Officer Jeff Whiteman said the company has about 30 job openings at its restaurants, including Merrill & Houston’s Steak Joint, Lucy’s #7 Burger Bar, truk’t, Velvet Buffalo Cafe and Hotel Goodwin in Beloit and Bessie’s Diner at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville.
“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, and I’ve never seen it like this,” Whiteman said.
Whiteman said some staff left the industry at the beginning of the pandemic and found other work.
“And there is a percentage of people who chose not to go back to work as long as they receive benefits,” he said.
It’s especially challenging for Geronimo restaurant managers who are starting to see banquet business and dining room traffic return. Whiteman said the demand for employees is almost triple what it typically is. Positions are open for servers, bartenders, cooks and more. Whiteman said there have been employees telling the company they won’t return until their benefits run out, and he believes it plays a role in the worker shortage.
Those with the company are working with current employees to help recruit, and they are putting the plea for help out on every social media platform.
“We are trying a little of everything,” Whiteman said.
Whiteman said there is a perception that restaurant work is a “stopover” rather than a place to build a career.
“We are proud that half of our general managers started out in an hourly role. It’s a great opportunity for people who like to be of service to others. The more people we can find and develop and grow the better,” he said.
Bessie’s Diner general manager Jamie Keraka said it has been challenging when more staff are needed, although the team is making the best of it. Some former employees found other jobs. Also, some employees who are parents have been challenged as they return to work because they have had to do online schooling with their children this year.
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