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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Basic Biittner: That Was the Week That Was

Monday, September 21, 2009

I attended two important meetings which were held in Cherokee County last week as a reporter for this newspaper. The two meetings had a combined participation of about 500 - 600 participants, considered an excellent turnout in both cases. Both meetings had to do with the future direction of venerable institutions which are more than 100 years old, so the amount of interest shown really shouldn't have come as a surprise. I mean, though most Northwest Iowa residents come from ethnic groups which are historically stoic and lack passion or fire, there are occasions which bring that passion out - especially if it involves one's family or livelihood.

Such was the case at the two meetings I attended. I stated earlier that I was there as a reporter, which means I was an objective observer. Reporters shouldn't be a part of the story - that's the reporter's credo. That's the theory, anyway - and that was certainly my intention at the outset of the week.

These two meetings, however, both hit me at the very existence of my life up to this point, so, though I tried to remain objective and, for the most part did, believe me, it was quite a struggle.

Meeting number one took place Monday evening at the Aurelia Communiy Center. The occasion was a community meeting, called by the School Board and Administration of the Aurelia School District, and the subject matter was the future of the district. The Board members, three of whom are Aurelia High School alumni, by the way, and Superintendent Lynn Evans, who is also an AHS alum, made a nice presentation, spelling out the financial and enrollment situation at Aurelia, and the significant relationship between the two, and then presnted the things the Board has done over the last several years to try and keep the Aurelia ship afloat, as it were. Included in that analysis, and - let's face it - the primary reason the 150 or so community people were there, was to hear about the contacts the Board and Administration has had with the Alta and Cherokee School Districts, the proposals each had made to the Aurelia district concerning sharing possibilities, and the perceived "pros and cons" of each of the proposed sharing arrangements for the Aurelia students, their families, and the community.

I did a fairly good job, I think, of remaining neutral and not getting directly involved in any discussions, despite these facts: 1) I have one of the longest - if not THE longest - continuous involvement with the town of Aurelia of anyone you could name. My great-great-grandfather Reuben was one of the town's first settlers and businessmen, and built the oldest house in town - the c. 1879 home now serving as the Heritage House museum; 2) Four (possibly five, I'm not totally sure)generations of the Whitney family graduated from Aurelia High School; 3) Reuben, his son W.G., WG.'s son Roy, Roy's son Rex, and Rex' son - yours truly - all served on the Aurelia School Board in the past; 4) During my time on the Board, I saw the Aurelia District begin sharing sports with the Alta District, increase the number of sports we shared, and then saw the whole thing disintegrate; 5) I was born in Alta, but only live there a few days; 6) I've never lived in Cherokee, but I have worked ther for 37 years; as the Chronicle Times' presence at Aurelia School Board meetings for the past 3 1/2 years, I have been very aware of the most recent sharing discussions.

A lot of passion was demonstrated by those attending that meeting. One of the Board's objectives was to get the message through to the community that the District was at the point where they need to start seriously planning for a future sharing arrangement - that the District could not continue as an independent district for much longer, barring some unforseen (and unlikely) miracle - and that planning for a smooth transition was the next step. I believe they succeded in getting that point across. The next step - and , admittedly, the hardest step - choosing the "right" sharing plan - the one which will be the best for Aurelia.

Having survived that meeting, I prepared for my next assignemnt - less than 24 hours later - at the Mental Health Institute. A state task force, mandated to visit the state's four Mental Health Institutes and make a recomendation to close one of them to the state legislature - visited that day, and at the conclusion of the day, community members wee invited to express their feelings and concerns about the MHI and the effect the closing of the Cherokee facility would have on area residents and businesses.

This, too, was a meeting full of passion - even more so than the Monday meeting. After the members of the Task Force, MHI superintendent Dr. Gillette and CAEDC Director Mark Buschkamp spoke, a line - literally - of others began to speak out. I sat in my chair, dutifully taking notes, but as the afternoon moved on, I started feeling something stir inside of me. I personally have a 39-year history with Cherokee MHI - in just about any capacity you can imagine - and as people spoke, I started feeling the urge to "put my 2 cents' worth" into the discussion. I remained seated, though, and as the intended 5 o'clock closing time approached I looked back at the line, and it was still pretty long. "Well," I thought to myself, "I guess I won't be speaking. Whew!"

And then... the Task Force members consulted with each other, and lo and behold, announced that they would stay as long as it took for everyone to say their piece.

"Okay - the ball's back in my court," I mused to myself. I really didn't want to attract attention getting into the line, but I was seated on the aisle, right where the speakers were lined up. When the line appeared to be ending, I snuck into the line myself. When I stepped to the microphone a few minutes later, I frankly shocked myself by speaking - not from my head but from my heart - I briefly (I hope) shared my history with MHI , and even declared my love for "this place." So much for objectivity and being impassionate, huh?

You know what, though? Sometimes taking a risk, and going out on a limb, is OKAY. Just one of the things I learned during my time "on the hill," and tried to share with others. Oops - I did it again.

As I told the Task Force on Tuesday, my hope is that I will be able to write a "happy ending" article for this story after they announce their decision. I also hope to be able to write a happy ending to the Aurelia school decision. Though it may be many years before anyone will be able to determine if the Board's decision - whatever it is - was the "right" one.

And how was YOUR week?

Dan Whitney
Basic Biittner