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Entenza asks Bensen to serve on transition team

"Bemidji Leads!" President Jim Bensen (foreground) tells DFL gubernatorial candidate Matt Entenza (far right) about activities of the group during a Bemidji City Hall meeting Thursday. Next to Bensen is Bemidji City Manager John Chattin and next to Entenza are Mike Simpkins and Pam McCrory, both Entenza staff from Bemidji. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

While he has yet to win Tuesday's DFL gubernatorial primary, Matt Entenza is already thinking ahead.

Entenza, in Bemidji on Thursday to meet with government officials, business people and seniors, tabbed retired Bemidji State President Jim Bensen to help.

"Immediately following the Nov. 2 election, given the $6 billion deficit we've got, we can't go on vacation until January to start a new administration and say, OK, what are we going to do?" Entenza said Thursday, adding that he's already assembling a transition team.

"I've got about half of the (former Gov. Jesse) Ventura cabinet signed up," he said, adding that Ventura had a good cabinet, primarily because the Independence Party candidate wasn't tied to either Democrats or Republicans.

Bensen, president of "Bemidji Leads!," the group of community stewards shepherding Bemidji's destiny on quality of life issues, gave Entenza a briefing on the organization at City Hall.

Entenza must first hurdle DFL-endorsed candidate House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton before thinking of the general election against Republican Tom Emmer, and then a transition team should he win that.

"We're going to put together some transition teams, and I'd love to get you involved with that," he told Bensen. Entenza said he'd like him to work on economic development with former Ventura Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg.

"Things like urban forestry is a piece of economic development," the DFL former House minority leader said. "When you bring in people and they decide to invest in your community, they've got to decide they like your community."

Bensen told Entenza of "Bemidji Leads!" 17 destiny drivers, which includes planting 10,000 trees in Bemidji, making the city a tree-studded northwoods town.

It's also a development requirement in the city, said City Manager John Chattin. Menard's is spending $100,000 to reforest in the city for the trees it leveled for its building construction. He said Menard's has already spent $25,000 at the Boys & Girls Club of Bemidji for a Minnesota tree sample plot.

"If you don't have the economy, you can't have anything else," Bensen said. "You have to have that to support your community, and that is really critical for any community. ... Until you get the economy, the rest can't flourish."

Entenza said he was particularly impressed with a new "Bemidji Leads!" program to match a community mentor with each of 400 incoming freshmen at Bemidji High School.

"We're looking for companies that can benefit from the knowledge that's here," Bensen said.

"That's what I love about Minnesota -- people want to live in rural Minnesota, if we give them the chance," Entenza said. "Right now, our kids are our biggest export from rural Minnesota, but a lot of them want to stay. It really comes down to are we going to have the education and economic development infrastructure so we can grow the jobs so they do want to stay."

Entenza said he would ask the federal government for a waiver to let Minnesota revert back to its original state accountability system, rather than follow the No Child Left Behind Act.

In meeting with Bemidji School Board member Carol Johnson, he said the way NCLB is using standardized testing for all children, requiring them all to pass college-prep tests, will have all schools in the state listed deficiently by 2014.

"My concern is the legislative auditor said by 2014 every single school is going to labeled a failing school under No Child Left Behind," he said. "Whenever someone's labeled brilliant or a failure, that's a sign it's not a meaningful measurement."

NCLB "isn't designed to get to the issues of achievement but just to label public education," he said."I want to clear the brush and get rid of those tests."

Tennessee and other states got federal waivers, and so Entenza believes so can Minnesota. Kelliher wants to work with NCLB to improve it, something Entenza calls a defining issue of the campaign.

Under current NCLB tests, kids are tested in the spring with the results coming in the summer, so teachers and students can't benefit from the test results. Rather, the results are used to work with the next grade.

"One of the goals is we want special ed kids as much teaching as we can, but the standard is they have to be college ready," Entenza said. "Special ed kids know they're failing ... and that doesn't give them a sense of learning."

Entenza also discussed the need to keep Local Government Aid levels up to support core services in regional centers with Chattin, and similarly to maintain state-promised payments to counties for services with Beltrami County Commissioner Jim Heltzer.

"I'm so impressed with 'Bemidji Leads!'" Entenza said in an interview. "?I think Bemidji and Beltrami County are really leading the way in showing when we set high goals for ourselves, we can achieve a lot of things."

And discussions with Chattin and Heltzer reaffirmed his thinking on a state-local relationship.

"It's absolutely clear that Tom Emmer's to eliminate to Local Government Aid and just shift a limited amount of aid to counties will be very difficult and could mean in Bemidji we'd lose our full-time fire service, which I think would be very bad for the region."

Chattin said that if there are further LGA reductions, an option is to eliminate the city's full-time fire service and just rely on a volunteer force.

He also supports payment-in-lieu-of property taxes.

"When you have counties with so much state-operated land, we need to be respectful of the fact northern counties have some special needs, and it just isn't like the Twin Cities," Entenza said.

Beltrami County this year received $2.1 million in PILT payments, Heltzer said.

"What we've seen come out in the budget cuts of the last few years is they're not about shared sacrifice -- they hit rural communities particularly hard and northern communities harder than most because they do have so much state-owned land and because the regional centers like Bemidji serve a much broader area than they do in some of the southern counties," he said.

Entenza also spent some time meeting with business people in a walking tour of downtown Bemidji, and then met with senior citizens at Havenwood.

He said during the campaign he has visited every nursing facility of 50 or more beds in the state.