Rosenblum: Legislature gets in the swim of things on children's issues

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 26, 2012 - 10:44 PM

The 2012 Legislative session will be remembered by most Minnesotans as the Year of the Stadium. My heart was attached to two other issues.

One represents governance at its shining best. The other leaves me sad, but hopeful still. Let's go with sunny first.

More than 15,000 children in one of the poorest and most racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Minneapolis will soon have what many of us take for granted: A community pool. And what a stunning gathering place it will be.

Tucked safely into Gov. Mark Dayton's $566 million bonding bill was $1.75 million for reconstruction of the long-closed Phillips neighborhood indoor pool. Another $370,000 will come from Hennepin County.

Hannah Lieder, a longtime Phillips resident and founder of Minneapolis Swims (www.mplsswims.org), recounts the secret of the little-pool-that-could's success: "We had no position, no power, no money, no connections," said a laughing Lieder, who never took her eyes off the prize.

Her story is confirmed by Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, one of the bill's enthusiastic supporters.

"Of all the projects that had come to see us, of all the lobbyists in their thousand-dollar suits, this one rose for me to the top," said Howes, who grew up in south Minneapolis. "This was, simply, a fantastic idea. I set aside that real conservative side of me and said, 'This is where the money should go.'"

The Phillips building, run for 20 years by the Boys and Girls Club, closed in November 2008. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board took over ownership and did extensive renovations, including new heating, air conditioning and a roof. But a plan to cement over the pool sparked community protests.

Lieder teamed up with Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, who authored the bonding bill. Then Lieder got to work. She organized trash pickups to raise money, and had neighborhood kids write heartfelt pleas for the pool, which will include a warm water, shallow area for swimming instruction. "People need to learn how to swim like how a bird needs to fly," wrote third-grader Quentin.

Lieder schlepped neighbors to the Capitol, making a beeline for legislators on both sides of the aisle. She produced packets of materials about the benefits of swimming, handing them out to those who asked and many who didn't.

Education angle? Swimmers are tops in graduation rates and GPAs. Obesity problem? Swimming is a foundational skill for an outdoor-oriented active lifestyle. Public health? Swimming skills are urgently needed in urban areas, with blacks, Hispanics and American Indians drowning at alarmingly higher rates than whites.

Public safety? A community pool will cut down on crime by giving kids a healthy gathering place. Economics? The pool will create jobs. Collaboration? Augsburg College plans to use the pool for its women's swim team and physical education classes. South High School's swim team is considering it, too.

Most important, the pool will grant long-needed equality. Minneapolis has not a single public indoor swimming pool. The four public school pools are in the city's more affluent corners and far from Phillips.

"This issue grew out of the heart of the neighborhood and the suffering of neighborhood," said Rep. Clark, noting the proposal was cut out of the bonding bill a year ago at the last minute. That same day, a child drowned in north Minneapolis.

"I don't know if I've seen quite this willingness and collaboration before," Clark said, adding that the civil rights aspect "really got through to people. There was incredible persistence, and creative lobbying by common citizens."

Shared-parenting bill

That same persistence was demonstrated by supporters of HF322, the Children's Equal and Shared Parenting Act. The bill, which I have long supported, would have increased the presumed minimum amount of kid-time for each fit parent from 25 percent to 35 percent. It was particularly desirable to dads, who are too often marginalized after divorce. One hopeful father noted that the watered-down bill still meant 37 more overnights a year with his kids.

Family lawyers, among others who overwhelmingly oppose the bill, contend that each divorce has special circumstances, and should be dealt with accordingly.

The bill passed by sweeping margins in both the House and Senate. On Thursday, Gov. Dayton announced his decision to not sign it into law -- yet. In a heartfelt letter to legislators, the governor expressed empathy for stakeholders on both sides of the issue, but shared his concern about locking in equations, particularly with "the most challenging divorces."

But he graciously opened the door to legislation that he can sign in 2013. I look forward to covering a renewed and respectful discussion in the coming months.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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