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Rhodes vacates school board seat

A Hastings Public School Board of Education member has vacated his seat on the school board for missing too many consecutive board meetings, as per the board’s policies.

Brady Rhodes, who informed the school board in 2019 that he and his family would be spending time in Latin America to experience the culture for most of this spring semester, missed two meetings in January.

The school board policy says that a board member will vacate his or her position if he or she misses two board meetings consecutive. The board then will vote during the third meeting to determine if the member may be excused.

A resolution to excuse Rhodes for four meetings and/or 45 days was voted on and failed 3-4 at the HPS board work session Thursday night. Board members Jim Boeve and Rhodes were absent. Board members Becky Sullivan, Bob Sullivan and Sharon Brooks voted to excuse Rhodes. Board members John Bonham, Brent Gollner, Tracey Katzberg and Laura Schneider elected not to excuse Rhodes.

Prior to the vote, Bob Sullivan asked the other board members if they had received any public comment about Rhodes’ absence.

“I haven’t heard any, and what I thought is if I heard something, I would be concerned. But I didn’t know if anybody else had,” Bob Sullivan said.

Several board members said they had heard several comments from constituents. Bonham said he had about 15 comments expressing some concern.

Bob Sullivan then motioned for an an amendment to have the board vote on a meeting-by-meeting basis to excuse Rhodes, instead of the four meetings and/or 45 days. He said that way, the public would have the opportunity to express concerns and the board would handle the resolution based on public opinion.

Superintendent Jeff Schneider said that the four-meeting and 45-day parameter would allow the public to provide feedback and the board would not have to continue voting on the matter.

Bob then changed the amendment to excuse Rhodes for two meetings and/or 30 days.

Board members voted on the amendment, which failed 2-5. Due to technical errors, the amendment was voted on again, resulting in 2-4, with Brooks abstaining.

Following the amendment vote, the original resolution was voted on and failed.

According to board policy, if a vacancy occurs, it may be temporarily filled by appointment by the board within 45 days. If the board does not fill the vacancy by appointment, the vacancy may be filled by a special election or a school district meeting for that purpose. If the board does fill the vacancy by appointment, the position will be filled again at the next general election.

Following the board meeting, the school board heard a legislative update from Jeff Schneider about Legislative Bill 974. LB974 is being discussed by the Nebraska Legislature and would attempt to reduce property taxes by encouraging school districts to lower levies. Schools then would receive what has been referred to as “foundation aid” to assist in lower levies.

Schneider expressed strong disapproval for the bill, which would cause HPS to lose an estimated $1.6 million over thee years, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.

“It’s a bad deal for HPS; it’s a bad deal for education as a whole in Nebraska,” Schneider said.

Schneider said this bill has united school districts in Nebraska, as seen in the stance of several education coalitions in the state.

“Oftentimes when there is a bill, it splits schools apart because big schools might be against it but little schools are for it,” Schneider said. “This one is united. Nobody likes it, as far as in the education world.”

Schneider said the key problem with the bill is that every school district will begin to rely too heavily on state aid. Schneider said when the state Legislature runs into a shortfall, state aid gets cut.

“The best way I can explain this is it makes all schools more like Hastings Public. It makes all schools across the state more reliant on state aid,” Schneider said.

Schneider testified against the bill in January.

“Anytime you are more reliant on the state, those funds are less reliable.”

In other business, the board:

Heard an update from Educational Service Unit No. 9.

Received its quarterly leadership update.

Discussed re-affirming the district policies and rules.

Discussed approving the overall program plan, while hearing some changes since the January meeting when the plan was originally mentioned.

Discussed approving the 2020-21 negotiated agreement.

Discussed approving First National Capital Markets to carry out bond issues in the event a Morton Elementary bond is passed.

Discussed approving the 2020 summer school offerings.

Discussed approving a German and French class trip for 2021.

Discussed a paper bid.

Heard an update from the human resoucres department on the hiring process and hiring status.

Discussed approving the purchase of a used school bus.

With Hannah Jensen, it's all about the song behind the voice

As a singer-songwriter looking to make a name for herself, Hannah Jensen of Hastings is hoping her new EP will help get her latest work into the hands of artists looking for new and original material.

And if you happen to notice her distinct alto singing voice while listening, she’s OK with that, also.

Jensen, whose father is Byron Jensen, Hastings Symphony Orchestra maestro, has no desire to be the next pop or rock superstar. She’d much rather write the songs and let others make hits of them. A gifted multi-instrumentalist who plays piano, saxophone, ukulele and guitar, the 27-year-old is perfectly content working behind the scenes while others grab the spotlight.

“I don’t really consider myself much of a singer,” she said. “I can sing, and I think I have a nice voice, but I prefer to write songs and let other people sing them. If I’m performing, I’d rather just be playing piano and not singing.”

A more mature upgrade from her debut extended-play record, “Tell Me,” recorded in 2018, “Light as the Air” features a more sophisticated layered soundscape that includes the talents of her conductor father on bass and younger brother, Nathan, singing background vocals.

Produced by Dylan Parker at the Grid studio in Lincoln, the new record is available on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes and Amazon Music.

Subject matter focuses largely on relationships, both personal and those of friends. It’s a topic Jensen feels most comfortable writing about, one that reflects her longtime love of poetry and storytelling.

“I’ve always loved writing poetry,” she said “When I was in elementary school getting familiar with notes and rhythms and melodies, I eventually put the two of them together. I wrote a few songs in elementary school that were what you’d expect from an 8-year-old, but wrote my first what I considered a good song when I was 16, my junior year in high school.

“I played it for a few of my friends and was really nervous about it, but they loved it and would ask me to play it for them. That’s when it clicked that I could maybe be good at this.”

Jensen said there is little in her life that feels as natural as making music. It’s something she’s literally grown up around as the daughter of a symphony conductor and of a mother, Deb, who routinely sang to her as a child. It’s something she hopes to make a career of someday as a noted singer-songwriter.

In the meantime, she’ll continue to share her love of music with her 72 piano students at Hannah’s Piano Studio in Hastings. She’ll also continue to tinkle the ivories for Adams Central as an accompanist for the junior and senior high choirs and for the Hastings Symphony Orchestra whenever the score calls for it.

“It’s what I like doing,” she said of making music. “Music is what I’ve known since Day 1 of my life, the most constant thing besides my family and love that’s just always been around.

“I discovered that when I practice I get better and better and that I found something I was pretty naturally good at. It’s such a confidence booster when you find something that you enjoy doing and are good at. It expands your mind and exposes you to a lot of different cultures and ways of thinking.”

With plans to marry her fiancé, Damen Heitmann, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church and partner in the Steeple Brewing Co., in late 2020, she has no intention of moving to Nashville or any other songwriting haven to increase her chances of being discovered as a writer of hit songs. That doesn’t mean she won’t continue cranking out compositions worthy of a second listen, however, both in the studio and in live performances with some of her talented musical friends.

“There would be some benefits to moving to a place like Nashville with so many resources and talented people, but I’m engaged,” she said. “I can’t just take off and leave whenever I want anymore.”

Though she’s written all of her own material to date, Jensen said she is open to collaborating with other songwriters as she continues to hone her craft. The opportunities afforded her through social media will give her every opportunity to do just that whenever she’s ready to expand her horizons to include others, she said.

“The way that technology is now is really beneficial for collaboration and meeting others,”she said. “You can write with other people without ever meeting them, and can send that to somebody else to record without ever meeting the person.”

Should an opportunity to form or join a band come along, she’s pretty sure what her role in said lineup would look like.

“I would rather be a background person, someone who sings some harmony and plays some piano,” she said. “But it would be cool if they wanted to play some of the songs I wrote!”

Hernandez lauded by utility board

The outgoing director of electric production and wastewater facilities at Hastings Utilities was lauded at his final Hastings Utility Board meeting Thursday.

Mike Hernandez’s last day at Hastings Utilities is March 3. He is returning to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he worked previously and still maintains a residence.

Hernandez has worked at Hastings Utilities since July 2015. He was hired as director of electric production and later also became director of wastewater facilities.

“I wanted to acknowledge Mike for the time he’s been here, at least while I’ve been here, and I’m certain he’s benefited our operations from day one, and I wanted to thank him publicly,” said HU Manager Kevin Johnson, who started with Hastings Utilities in October 2017.

In his role as director of electric production and wastewater facilities, Hernandez oversees operations at HU generation facilities including the Whelan Energy Centers and the Pollution Control Facility.

He is accountable for employee and site environmental, safety training and audits; developing strategic facility business key performance indicator targets, goals and plans; and overseeing site compliance regarding water and emissions monitoring.

Hernandez has focused on process management throughout his time at Hastings Utilities.

“He’s done a tremendous job with morale and working out at the plant and changing things around,” Utility Board member Jeanette Dewalt said. “I really appreciate the work you’ve done.”

She served on the Hastings Board of Public Works, Hastings Utilities’ former governing board, when Hernandez was hired.

“I couldn’t have done it without the support of the old board and the new board we have here,” Hernandez said.

He also thanked his employees for buying into his plans.

“It wasn’t just me making things happen,” he said. “There were a lot of folks supporting my theories on how and where to go and how to make changes.”

Mayor Corey Stutte also thanked Hernandez for his service.

“It’s been really good working with you, Mike, especially through the reorganization,” Stutte said. “You were kind of the first piece of a culture change, which you really helped drive out there. I’m really appreciative of what you’ve done. You were kind of a visionary coming in. When I met you and sat down with you when I went out there for a tour, before I was mayor, it was very nice to hear your thoughts on where things are going and where they should be going. I appreciate your hard work, and best of luck to you in the future.”

The future of the director of electric production and wastewater facilities position was part of a personnel discussion in executive session.

Also during the meeting, board members voted 5-0 to recommend to the Hastings City Council approval of a $434,966 bid from Downey Drilling of Lexington for construction of four injection wells that are part of Phase III Aquifer Storage and restoration project.

Board members also unanimously recommended approval to the council a $1,091,285.34 bid from Van Kirk Brothers Construction of Sutton for construction of the water mains to serve the injection wells.

Van Kirk was the ASR Phase II contractor for the water main construction.

The cumulative $1,526,281.304 is much less than the $2.3 million was budgeted for the Phase III work.

HU Director of Operations Lee Vrooman also provided board members with an update of the city’s plan for a tree-trimming surge.

The city received one bid for extensive tree trimming, from The Green Tree Co. of Red Oak, Iowa, for $1,079,000 for utility work and $543,820 for street work. The work is to be done in 2020 and 2021.

Johnson and Finance Director Roger Nash provided a financial and operating report for the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2019 — July 1 to Sept. 30, 2019.

That report included a review of unit sales and cost analysis for the fiscal year.

While electric saw a net monthly receipt of 2.06 cents per kilowatt hour for revenue over cost over the course of the year, and water saw a net receipt of 61.75 cents per CCF, gas saw a net deficit of -9.43 cents per CCF.

March, April and May were the only months during the fiscal year to see a net gas revenue.

Buffett's son helps Colombia kick cocaine curse

TIBU, Colombia — With Colombian military snipers in position, Howard Buffett descends from a helicopter and trudges through the wet grass in steel-toe boots chewed through by his dog’s teeth.

Waiting under a tin-roofed shack is a small group of coca farmers. They’ve never heard of multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffett, but after decades of neglect by their own government they’re grateful for the outstretched hand of his eldest son, who they refer to simply as “the gringo.”

“There’s a saying here: The less you know, the better,” said Rubén Morantes, his leathery skin and calloused hands a testament to a lifetime of tillage in one of Colombia’s most-dangerous territories, where outsiders are traditionally mistrusted.

For nearly two decades Buffett has crisscrossed the world giving away part of his father’s fortune to promote food security, conflict mitigation and public safety. But his latest gamble is one of the most daunting yet: helping Colombia kick its cocaine curse.

He is focusing on Tibu, heart of the remote, notoriously lawless Catatumbo region bordering Venezuela where Buffett accompanied President Iván Duque.

Tibu has the second largest coca crop in all of Colombia — 28,200 acres, according to the United Nations. Drug production as well as violence has skyrocketed in the area since armed groups filled the void left by retreating rebels who signed a peace deal with the government in 2016.

The Howard G. Buffett Foundation has committed to spending $200 million over the next few years to transform the impoverished municipality into a model of comprehensive state building. Plans include strengthening security forces and helping farmers secure land titles and substitute coca — the raw material for cocaine — with licit crops like cacao.

The first component is building 185 miles of roads to connect the municipality’s 37,000 residents for the first time with national and international markets. It’s a challenge made more difficult by lurking guerrillas who last year detonated a homemade bomb as army engineers were working on the road, killing five people and injuring several.

“The only way we have confidence that farmers can grow legal crops is if they can get those crops to market,” Buffett told farmers during a visit last month with Duque to La Gabarra, a rural outpost in Tibu. It was the first time any Colombian president had visited the blood-soaked hamlet.

The plan envisions subsidies and training for farmers as they switch crops, as well as helping them find buyers. It also aims to strengthen infrastructure for local law enforcement.

But some experts worry Buffett’s enthusiasm for speeding Colombia’s development is no match for entrenched corruption in rural areas run like political fiefdoms.

There’s also the challenge posed by thousands of Venezuelan migrants who lack roots in the community and are being targeted for recruitment by criminal gangs.

A lot is riding on Buffett’s investment.

Not since the start of the U.S.-led Plan Colombia two decades ago have so many resources converged on a single geographical area, said Álvaro Balcázar, who helped the government negotiate with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia the section of the peace deal focusing on illicit crops.

“There’s no precedent for something on such large a scale,” Balcázar said. “But the region is strategic for consolidating peace in Colombia.”

Like his father, Buffett, 65, has a reputation for folksy, Midwestern plain speech and self-effacing humor. Although he’s a three-time college dropout, his father wants him to succeed him as the non-executive chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, the $550 billion conglomerate that owns companies such as Duracell, Dairy Queen and GEICO insurance as well as major stakes in leading U.S. airlines and banks.

But he’s spent much of his adult life roving the world taking wildlife photos and writing books. He’s also a corn farmer and made headlines in 2017 by briefly serving as the sheriff of Macon County, Illinois, where he lives and his foundation is based.

He began exploring the world as a teenager on a trip to Soviet-controlled Prague in 1969 to visit one of the many exchange students his mother hosted at their home in Omaha, Nebraska. But his love of travel hasn’t been matched by culinary curiosity: In Catatumbo, he carried around a blue, insulated lunch pack containing his requisite PB&J sandwich and a Dr. Pepper.

As a philanthropist, his priority now is helping Colombia and El Salvador, whose fight against drug trafficking has a direct impact on the U.S. Between the two countries he has already spent or committed $310 million, including the funding in El Salvador of a new police forensics center and a modern system to help the country’s prosecutors track criminal investigations.

As a volunteer police officer who logged 678 hours on patrol last year, Buffett has seen firsthand the human toll caused by drug addiction. A few weeks before traveling to Colombia, he and a partner were staking out a motel in Decatur, Illinois, at 1 a.m. when they arrested a man possessing crack. With him was a woman who said she had a drug problem, so Buffett paid for her to stay at the hotel two nights. Later, he referred her to a county rehab facility paid for with a gift from the Buffett Foundation in the hopes she would get help.

“These are people who need our help,” he said. “They’re not criminals.”

He has turned to Latin America after years of focusing much of his attention on Africa and especially Rwanda, where he works with the government on sustainable agriculture. He spent so much time at his farm in South Africa in the 1990s that he obtained permanent residency.

Buffett began working in Colombia in 2008 helping pop star Shakira set up schools in her hometown of Barranquilla. He’s also funded an army unit removing thousands of landmines strewn across former conflict zones. Leveraging his business contacts, he established a program to help around 100 families in southern Colombia switch from growing coca to producing high-quality coffee for Nespresso.

While an enthusiastic supporter of the 2016 peace deal, he has nonetheless struck a close relationship with Duque, a law-and-order conservative who rode into office attacking the agreement.

Duque has vowed to slash cocaine production in half by the end of 2023. Production of the drug skyrocketed after his predecessor — Nobel Peace Prize laureate Juan Manuel Santos — halted aerial eradication in 2015 due to health concerns over the herbicides used. But reaching that goal requires huge resources the government doesn’t have, as well as overcoming the indifference of urban voters who are removed from the conflict and have their own growing list of demands.

That’s where Buffett steps in.

The $200 million Buffett has pledged for Tibu is more than triple what the government has spent the past two years altogether on public works in 170 high-risk municipalities that are part of a rural development rescue plan mandated by the peace deal. The U.S. Agency for International Development spends $230 million annually in Colombia, although its projects are spread across the country.

Beyond the big check, long-time partners praise the Buffett Foundation for being independent and nimble. It’s funded from an annual gift in Berkshire Hathaway stock by Warren Buffett, so it can take risks few are willing to attempt, development experts say.

“We’re accountable mainly to the IRS,” jokes Buffett, who sees setbacks like a venture capitalist who must eat crow before finding wild success.

“If you’re a charity, and you’re going to have your annual banquet to raise a lot of money, you can’t stand up there and tell people how you had these five failures and this one success. People aren’t going to write checks,” he said. “We’ll make a decision in five minutes if we know what we want to do.”

He is skeptical of the U.S. government and United Nations, preferring not to work with either.

“The reason is because we can’t depend on them,” said Buffett, who said he was burned badly by USAID in 2011 when it abandoned a joint $10 million seed program for starving farmers in South Sudan just as fighting broke out in the world’s newest independent state.

“The bullets started flying and they pulled out. But it’s like, you’re in South Sudan, so of course bullets are going to fly,” he said.

Instead, the foundation relies on partners known for delivering results quickly with slim overhead — a combination he says is hard to find among the “beltway bandits” profiting from U.S. foreign aid outlays. One accompanying him to Catatumbo is Portland, Oregon-based Mercy Corps, which is helping farmers sort through Colombia’s bureaucratic maze to obtain land titles.

In a nod to his father’s reputation for common sense, Buffett seeks frequent counsel from the so-called “Oracle of Omaha.”

“He’s my sounding board, kind of like my conscience in a way,” Buffett said. “But he never asks, ‘Why are you doing that?’ or ‘Why you’re taking that risk?’”

In Tibu, after cracking a few jokes and planting a cacao tree, he seemed beside himself with joy even as the presidential committee hustled to quickly depart as heavy fog threatened to maroon them in the middle of nowhere.

“I know Emilio is very worried about leaving,” Buffett told the farmers through a translator, referring to Duque’s post-conflict adviser, Emilio Archila. “But I’m not, because there’s lots of chocolate here.”