Sometimes when you want to move forward, you have to take two steps back.  That’s where I’m headed with this post – back a couple of months to an article that posted on the Morrison County Record’s website on June 15, 2007.  Someone said something at a Little Falls City Council Meeting that was simply appalling.  What’s more, this someone is an elementary school teacher in the community.

First, some background.  The LF City Council was approached by a developer about constructing an apartment complex on the northern edge of Little Falls, in what was Belle Prairie Township not that long ago.  A portion of this township was annexed by the city within the past couple of years. Because this area hugs the eastern shore of the Mississippi River, it’s historically been considered one of the more posh areas of the county.  It’s got some fairly nice homes, but nothing like what’s sprouted up on the west side of the river.  The east river bank was the earlier ritzy area.  The west shore of the river was discovered later by the well-to-do and consequently their homes are bigger than much of what’s around.  However; the river homes on the east side in Belle Prairie are nothing to sneeze at.

The planned housing complex was due to accept a percentage of low income occupants.  There’s nothing like the threat of a bunch of poor people moving into an upper class neighborhood to cause the pseudo wealthy to exercise their civic duty.  And, boy, did they.

According to the Record, Gwen Welinski, the aforementioned teacher, had her say at the City Council meeting.  The Record reported,

After saying that she and her husband had “busted their butts” to get out to the neighborhood, Welinski said she did not want it infested with people living in low income housing who do not share the same values as they do. She went on to say the children in the apartments would be smoking and using profane language-and she did not want her children playing with such as they would be.”

Let’s break this down a bit, shall we?  Ms. Welinski claims that she and her husband “busted their butts” to move to this neighborhood, yet her family owned a home in this area of town when she was growing up.  Whether it was truly that difficult for her to move into the neighborhood is quite beside the point.  Her implication is that she busted her butt, and those poor people certainly aren’t busting their butts or they’d have what she has.  Let’s not bother to look at who or what is holding poor people into their lower class stations.

Next, she indicates that if these poor people move in, it will be like an infestation, as though the poor are no more than mere cockroaches.  The disdain she feels for the poor drips from her word choice.  And, of course, because the poor are like insects, they can’t possibly have the same values Ms. Welinski has – you know, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the right to earn a decent living and not be judged by those of a different class – those minor values.  No, instead, the children of the poor will smoke and use profane language.  It’s obviously a given, regardless of all those stories you hear about poor people making good – oh, like Oprah Winfrey and J. K. Rowling.

What makes Ms. Welinski’s comments even more disheartening is the fact that she teaches in a public elementary school, where about 38% of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.  Mary Hanson, one of the other people mentioned in the article as opposing the housing development, is also a public school teacher.  Certainly both of these women know the percentages of poor students sitting in their classrooms.  The school district makes it a point to tout the free and reduced lunch statistics every time it seeks a tax increase, or every time the district’s students perform badly on standard tests.  The implication here is that it is the poor children who are dragging down the test scores, but how are we really to know that without an analysis of student scores on a case-by-case basis with a comparison of their parents’ incomes?

When a teacher makes comments such as those attributed to Ms. Welinski, you have to wonder how she can manage to keep her disdain for her poor students out of the classroom.  Surely she is communicating this, even if only on a subconscious level.  This attitude only makes those who are already disadvantaged more discouraged about their situation.

The City Council voted down tax increment financing for the housing development.  It is not clear from the Record article if their rejection of the project was due to the comments of Ms. Welinski and other area residents, or if there were other considerations.

What is especially sad is that no one ever submitted a letter to the editor of the Record expressing disapproval of Ms. Welinski’s comments.  Perhaps one was submitted, but not printed.  We’ll never know.  What we do know is that by allowing Ms. Welinski’s comments to stand without protest, the community of Little Falls is complicit in encouraging negative views of the poor.

I, for one, won’t stand for that.  Hence, the birth of Fish Wrap.

Finfully yours,

Phineas F. A. Pickerel