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Students and a robot make clouds part PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 29 June 2011 15:37

The news about Ozaukee High School in last week’s Ozaukee Press was much like the weekend’s weather when the sun returned after a depressing string of gray days and everything seemed better with the world.

The news was that a team of science students from Ozaukee High won a robotics challenge at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Tex., and achieved an overall ranking of second in 2011 MATE International ROV competition against very smart students from eight countries.

This wonderful achievement is more than a fleeting moment of pride for the Northern Ozaukee School District. It is an affirmation that in spite of troubles that have hung over the district like the leaden clouds of a low pressure system that refuses to move, Northern Ozaukee schools and their students and teachers have the wherewithal to excel.

It was a needed confidence boost. The school district has been going through a particularly rough patch, with shrinking enrollments (not just as a result of demographic factors but the flight of students whose families live in the NOSD but choose to send them to public schools in other districts under the state’s open enrollment program), more serious financial problems than most districts face, periodic displays of dissatisfaction with school policies by parents and the recent housecleaning of top administrators, including the school superintendent.

Sometimes it seems turmoil is part of the district’s DNA. The district was born in the 1960s in a cauldron of controversy that boiled over when Fredonia was chosen as the location for Ozaukee High School. NOSD’s story since then has been one of ups and down, advances and setbacks.

It can be said, though, that through it all the NOSD schools have performed with steady competence in doing what they exist to do—teaching the district’s children. But what happened at the Space Center’s neutral buoyancy lab June 16-18 goes a long way beyond steady. 

The victory in world competition by Ozaukee High science students reflects an optimistic light on a challenged school district.

The 12 seniors and two juniors of Oz Robotics started in the competition as one of more than 400 teams and then earned a place as one of the 28 elite teams from public and private schools from the U.S. and abroad that survived to reach the finals in Houston.

The competition was held in an indoor pool, said to be the world’s largest, that is used for astronaut training and features a model of the international space station. It was an appropriate venue, because the challenge demanded a grasp of highly sophisticated space-age technology by the students.

The challenge was to use remotely operating vehicles the students had designed and built to stop the flow of oil from a simulated deep-water well that had failed. The Ozaukee students solved the problem better than any other team.

The Oz team members are all advanced physics students, but the competition demanded more than what they had learned about physics and mathematics and their understanding of complex engineering. Their success also derived from their ability to write a 20-page technical report describing how the ROV systems were developed and make an oral presentation to a panel of NASA engineers. OHS senior Nick Vogt was so good at giving a difficult speech before a very tough audience that he was honored as the best presenter.

There is no need to look for broader significance in the team’s success—in itself it was a terrific accomplishment by bright, imaginative, extremely hard-working students, their teacher Terry Hendrikse and mentor Randy Vogt—but the fact that it does say something about Ozaukee High School and the school district should not be overlooked.

It says that when students of a small, rural school can outperform students from large American school districts and high schools in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, China and other countries in an intellectual competition, that school is doing something right.

The team’s success won’t solve NOSD’s problems, and surely there are more dark skies ahead, but for the moment the district is basking in the bright, warm light of a notable success, and it deserves it.

Unreasonable fear of farming in Fredonia PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 22 June 2011 14:54

The Village of Fredonia Plan Commission and the Village Board should not let objections by residents who seem to have an unreasonable fear of farming persuade them to block a developer’s plan to grow alfalfa crops on unsold subdivision lots.

Given the appeal of open green-space and the widely held admiration of the beauty of the countryside, it would be a fairly safe bet that many homeowners would be delighted to live next to fields of alfalfa.

But some residents of the Stoney Creek Meadow subdivision have been quite vociferous in their opposition to letting vacant land in the development be used for agriculture, citing such worries as reduced property values, the annoyance and danger of farm machinery and even damage to curbs and gutters.

When they bought property in Stoney Creek Meadow, the residents naturally expected they would soon be living in a completed subdivision, with houses all around, groomed lawns and other features of a residential neighborhood, so it is understandable that they are surprised and disappointed at the news that they could have farm
fields for neighbors.

The reality of the recession got in the way of those expectations, and developer Phil Lundman found himself with 28 unsold lots and annual expenses of almost $50,000 for taxes and mowing the weeds growing on the lots. He came up with the idea of using some of the empty lots for crop production to reduce those costs and generate some revenue.

Even though changing the use of the land to agriculture would reduce the property tax revenue it generates for the village, there are good reasons for village officials to approve Lundman’s request. The most important one is that it’s better than one possible alternative, which could be the failure of the development if the housing malaise drags on.

It’s doubtful, despite the residents’ fears, that alfalfa fields would have a negative effect on property values, but you can bank on it that foreclosure would.

A plan to use the no-till farming method to put vacant subdivision lots to a productive use deserves village approval.

Alfalfa fields would likely be an improvement over the weed-covered vacant acres of the subdivision, thanks to the no-till farming method that would be used. No-till means no plowing, none of the dust and mud of fields of exposed earth. In no-till agriculture, seeds are planted in tiny trenches without turning over the soil. The land would have a cover of vegetation the year-around, and it would not be weeds. During the growing season, deep green alfalfa is pretty looking and nice smelling.

Granted, there is bound to be some nuisance associated with farming the land, but the noise of harvesting the alfalfa two or three times each summer is not likely to be much worse than that of the frequent mowing of the weeds or of the racket produced by a homeowner employing the usual array of decibel-rich lawn equipment—garden tractor, weed whacker and leaf blower.

The safety of children in the subdivision, however, is a valid concern. Village officials should not approve the plan unless they are convinced farm equipment in proximity to homes poses no danger to residents.

And certainly another restriction is warranted—no animal manure allowed.

And one more—no deviation from no-till farming allowed. This enlightened method, so good for the environment that it is considered an antidote to the effects of global warming, reduces the impact of farming operations on nearby areas. Besides helping the developer, it could well improve life in the stalled subdivision by controlling the weeds that now fill the air with pollen and seeds that take root in nearby lawns. Besides that, it would give the subdivision an appealing countrified look.

Lundman should follow the good advice of the Plan Commission and make his case directly to the Stoney Creek residents before the issue is revisited by the village.

The point of that case is that the no-till farming plan would offer an agreeable transition to the day when the housing market recovers and the fields of Stoney Creek Meadow can once again grow houses instead of alfalfa.

A beautiful swan and an ugly crow PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 15 June 2011 14:57

It is a shame the Port Washington Historical Society will not become the steward of what may well be the most architecturally distinctive historical building in the city’s downtown. Hopes that the former firehouse and Senior Citizen Center on Pier Street could be rented or bought by the society evaporated when the city decided to sell the building to the highest bidder.

Putting the firehouse in the hands of the society would have ensured that the character of this splendid example of Mediterranean Revival design, with its roof of Spanish tile and such grace notes as arched windows and decorative balconies, would not be tampered with.

Money, naturally, is the problem. The city needs to generate cash from the building to offset the cost of the new senior center. The Historical Society doesn’t have enough money to buy it.

The firehouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, but that recognition, which speaks to the importance of the building, offers little or no protection. Restrictions the city will add to the sales contract may guard the look of the facade, but probably will not deter an owner bent on making other changes or additions to the classic design.

If the old firehouse is the downtown’s beautiful swan, the former M&I building is its ugly crow. Even so, the two structures have something in common—together they illustrate the importance of being selective in the preservation of old buildings.

The firehouse merits careful and respectful preservation. The M&I building merits the wrecking ball.

Yet city officials have refused to take the logical course, which was strongly encouraged by a court receiver, and force the demolition of the crumbling eyesore that has been a blight on the downtown since it was purchased and mutilated by irresponsible developers. Members of the Historical Society urged the city to preserve the building for its historical value.

The historic 1929 firehouse and an unsightly bank building illustrate the need to be selective in preservation.

Nostalgia makes a poor urban-planning tool, but that seems to be what is at work here. That the Businessman’s Club met in part of the M&I building in the early 20th century is a historical factoid of passing interest, but it hardly qualifies the property as one that must be preserved and restored.

Trying to keep the M&I building alive when in fact it has been a zombie for years seems to have been supported by both the belief that everything old is valuable and the fear of having an open space downtown that someone would fill with a new building.

Downtowns are supposed to evolve, and that means blending new ideas with the old. Does anyone seriously believe downtown Port Washington should resemble a theme park of old buildings?

When owners have the means and motivation to restore worthy buildings to their original character, the results can be a marvelous enhancement of business district aesthetics. The Baltica tea shop is a lovely example.

But not every old building is a candidate for that treatment. To be close-minded to the idea that a new building can improve the downtown is to say that today’s designers and entrepreneurs lack the vision and imagination of their counterparts of
generations ago.

It is true that contemporary architecture has not served Port Washington very well in recent years, judging from the high-rise condo at the north edge of the downtown and the lake view-clogging development around the west slip.

But these are as much failures of the city government as they are of the developers. The city’s Design Review Board should have the expertise and the power to guard against aesthetic blunders.
The way things stand with the M&I building is that the city has given the owners six months  to try sell it. If they don’t succeed, the building will be razed.   

We’ll believe that when we see it, but it is pleasant to contemplate the positive outcome of an open piece of prime downtown real estate becoming the site of a new building that would be a symbol not of Port Washington’s debt to its past, but of the economic vitality of its future.

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