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Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune 

Jason Kiley, a world beard champion, spends up to four hours styling his beard for competitions. Kiley has a master of arts degree in ceramic sculpture and decided to try sculpting his beard.

Much of the La Crosse area is shut down Wednesday as dangerous deep freeze closes schools, cancels mail delivery

It might be time to add a caveat to the U.S. Postal Service’s unofficial motto: It turns out that bone-chilling, life-threatening cold as low as minus-31 degrees means the carriers can stay indoors.

That’s after the Postal Service announced Tuesday that delivery will be suspended Wednesday because of the brutality of the polar vortex.

While “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” a National Weather Service prediction of wind chill values as low as minus-52 means a day without mail.

Canceling school and postponing events are not big surprises during a cold snap, but Mount La Crosse? Even the playground of winter-hardy skiers and snowboarders was set to be closed a second day in a row Wednesday, as the daytime high is expected to be minus-13 degrees.

What’s more, the list of public facilities and private businesses — including the entire Valley View Mall and increasing numbers of restaurants — that will be closed Wednesday is growing faster than a roofline icicle.

Places of the Past: The early years of Valley View Mall

Valley View closed at 6 p.m. Tuesday, as did La Crosse’s three public library locations, and they will remain closed Wednesday. Valley View also was closed Monday. La Crosse County Library locations in Bangor, Campbell, Holmen, Onalaska and West Salem also closed early Tuesday and are expected to be closed Wednesday.

Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order to close all non-essential offices Wednesday, saying the weather presents "an imminent threat to the well-being of the public." Most emergency response, public safety and public health employees are reporting to work. The State Capitol will be open Wednesday.

Extreme weather conditions have prompted Amtrak to cancel all trains into and out of Chicago on Wednesday and most services to or from Chicago on Thursday. This includes service to La Crosse.

The Children’s Museum of La Crosse will be closed Wednesday, and several restaurants announced plans to close during the deep freeze. It’s advisable to call your destination in advance to make sure it’s open.

Darcie Breidel, Mount La Crosse’s general manager and marketing director, remarked on the fickle weather of late: “Three weeks ago the (ski) area was closed because of warm, rainy weather.”

Indeed, La Crosse set a record high of 54 degrees (above) zero on Jan. 5, according to NWS records that also indicate that the minus-31 overnight low Wednesday could flirt with the 32 below that three dates share: Jan. 19, 1970, and Feb. 9 and 10, 1899.

Those figures are far above the record low of minus-43, set on Jan. 18, 1873.

If the temperature dips to 31 below Wednesday and rises to a predicted 39 above on Saturday, that would be a 70-degree swing in just three days.

There is no magic number that triggers a closing decision, Breidel said.

“Management discusses a multitude of variables, including ambient temperatures and wind chill,” she said. “This time around, it was ultimately a combination of both, and, while the area is reluctant to lose a couple of days to the winter weather, erring on the side of caution when it comes to the safety of employees and patrons was the final decision.”

Making snow will continue, with plans to stock up enough of a supply to last through any warm spells through the typical end of the ski season in mid-March, she said.

Two employees, girded with layers and layers of clothing and taking breaks in a snow cat, were directing the snow cannons on Wednesday, said Don Polanowski, assistant manager of the pro shop.

The ski area could reopen at noon Thursday, depending on conditions, he said.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Students at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse keep their heads down as they walk on campus Jan. 29 in the gusty winds, blowing snow and bitter cold air.

Keeping the heat on

Heating companies were doing a brisk business Wednesday.

Cary Plumbing and Heating in La Crosse started with three calls Tuesday morning, and had tallied 19 by 1:30 p.m., said co-owner Marv Becker. During the weekend, Cary crews replaced a lot of motors that had worn out from running so long, he said.

“This time of year usually is slow, so we’re running ahead,” Becker said, noting that 40 to 45 calls a day were common during some blistering periods last summer.

Mark Schneider, co-owner of Schneider Plumbing and Heating in Onalaska, said business was brisk Tuesday, but “(i)t isn’t that crazy yet. I think it’s going to get worse today and tonight.”

The main things homeowners should watch for is frozen or covered vents and make sure filters are not clogged, Schneider said.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune 

A woman walks her dog through the swirling snow Jan. 29 on Fifth Avenue on La Crosse's South Side.

A wet weekend ahead

La Crosse utility crews will monitor snowmelt and rain conditions as the weekend approaches, with a forecast of a temperature as high as 39 and a chance of rain Saturday, said Bernie Lenz, the city’s utilities director.

The frozen ground, with a frost line of 18 inches to 2 feet for this time of year, won’t absorb water, although the snow will and lessen runoff, he said.

“If forecasts evolve to show there is significant rain coming Saturday, we’ll be out making sure critical inlets are open ahead of that — even in the cold weather, Lenz said.

“Every winter or early spring, we have to deal with rain or snowmelt on streets that still have ice or snow around,” he said. “We routinely clear corners of snow and ice to keep catch basins open. If a melt or rain comes soon after a snow, we do know the frequent problem areas and would hit them first, as we go around making sure the storm sewer inlets are open and water will drain.

Weather presents health, safety risk

Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare reported few weather-related visits to emergency rooms.

La Crosse police reported an increase in welfare checks and disabled vehicle calls, Capt. Jason Melby said. About 50 percent of those calls are weather-related welfare checks and vehicles malfunctioning in traffic, he said.

The number of disabled-vehicle calls to dispatch increased from two to 39 from last week, Melby said.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation issued a warning to be on the lookout for black ice, a thin layer of transparent ice that forms as melting snow refreezes on roads and bridges. The road may appear wet or look as if there’s no hazard at all, the department said.

“Black ice tends to occur most commonly overnight and in the early morning as pavement temperatures drop, but the Wisconsin forecast through Friday morning makes black ice a daytime possibility as well,” according to the advisory.

Motorists should be especially cautious at traditional black ice trouble spots such as underpasses, in areas where trees shade the road, at intersections or on interchange ramps.


Chances are a lot of jumper cables will be put to good use Wednesday.

Key links

Wisconsin road conditions

Minnesota road conditions

Iowa road conditions

National Weather Service office in La Crosse

La Crosse Municipal Airport

Xcel Energy outage map

Great Rivers 211


Wisconsin lawmakers resurrect expungement bill

Evan Goyke

MADISON — A bipartisan group of Wisconsin legislators is again trying to pass a bill that would allow convicts to ask judges to expunge low-level crimes from their records, drawing criticism from open government advocates who fear the proposal would seal too much information from the public.

Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, Republican Rep. Dave Steffen and GOP Sen. Alberta Darling introduced the bill during a news conference Tuesday at the state Capitol. All three said the measure would help convicts pass employer background checks and find jobs at a time when businesses are desperate for workers. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has remained at 3 percent or lower for nearly the last year.

“We’re talking about jobs. We’re talking about building the workforce. We’re talking about giving people a second chance,” Darling told reporters.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, questioned the need to seal the convicts’ records. He said officials continue to claim that criminal background checks are preventing convicts from finding jobs without any evidence.

“I wish there was some trust in the ability of the people of Wisconsin to be discerning in their judgments about the public records that they can see,” Lueders said.

Currently in Wisconsin, judges during sentencing hearings can order a convict’s record expunged upon completion of the sentence under several conditions. The convict must be younger than 25, the crime can’t be a violent felony and can’t be any more serious than a Class H felony, the second lowest level of felonies in state law, punishable by up to six years in prison.

According to the nonpartisan research organization Wisconsin Policy Forum, Wisconsin is the only state where judges must make expungement decisions at sentencing rather than after the sentence is completed.

Under the proposal, if the sentencing judge doesn’t order the record expunged, the convict could petition the judge for expungement upon completion of the sentence. Convicts would be allowed two requests per crime. The bill would do away with the age restriction, but the crime still couldn’t be a violent felony or any more serious than a Class H felony.

If the judge orders the crime expunged from a convict’s record, the physical file would be sealed and any record of the case on the state’s publicly accessible online court records database would be erased. The record would remain in the FBI’s national database as well as in the state Justice Department’s Crime Information Bureau database, Goyke said.

The public could request the record through the CIB for a fee and employers could still find the record in the database during background checks, he said. However, the crime wouldn’t be considered a conviction for employment purposes and asking a job applicant to supply information about the case would constitute employment discrimination, which helps convicts secure expungement.

Steffen, Goyke and Darling sponsored a similar bill last session. The Assembly passed a version of the legislation, but Senate Republicans refused to concur and the measure died.

Republican legislative leaders were noncommittal when asked about the new bill’s chances Tuesday.

Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, said the Assembly GOP caucus hadn’t discussed it yet but pointed out last session’s proposal passed the chamber unanimously. Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said Senate Republicans are focused on workforce development and plan to discuss the expungement proposal as a caucus in the coming weeks.

La Crosse to move charter schools to former downtown music venue
Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

The School District of La Crosse is eyeing The Brickhouse as a potential new home for 7 Rivers Community High School and the La Crosse Design Institute.

The School District of La Crosse plans to convert a downtown bar and music venue into a home for two of its charter schools.

Leaders from 7 Rivers Community High School and the La Crosse Design Institute presented the idea to the school board on Monday, confirming reports that the district was working to acquire The Brickhouse at the corner of King Street and Fifth Avenue South.


Troy Harcey, the associate superintendent, said the district has long hoped to merge the two schools — many students graduate from the Design Institute, a middle school, before moving on to 7 Rivers — and that the soon-to-close Brickhouse offers the perfect opportunity.

“The geographic saliancy of having a district presence right in the heart of downtown La Crosse … would be valuable,” Harcey said Tuesday. “You step out the door, and you can connect with our downtown business partners. You can have students working on real-world projects.”

Both of the schools are rooted in project-based learning, a model in which students effectively create their own curriculum, working on long-term projects instead of the typical cycle of homework and tests. Together, the schools enroll roughly 100 students.

7 Rivers is housed in the gymnasium of the Hogan Administrative Center, and the Design Institute is housed in the basement of Longfellow Middle School — arrangements that are less than ideal, Harcey said.

The Brickhouse, home to the La Crosse Eagles Club until 2016, has a commercial kitchen and a second-story ballroom, which has hosted concerts and private events including weddings. Keith Brown, its owner, said it is shutting down at the end of April.

Harcey said the kitchen is an attractive feature for the school district because many students are interested in the culinary arts, and that the ballroom could be used for student performances and presentations.

“Just the physical space,” he said of The Brickhouse, “would be a big improvement.”

District officials would not say how much they expect to pay for the property, saying negotiations are ongoing.

Harcey said the school board could vote on the potential purchase as early as Monday, and that students could move into the building as early as November.

While the building is structurally sound, it will require considerable work to suit the district’s plans — a process that could be phased over a number of years, Harcey said.

The district will also have to secure parking, since spots around The Brickhouse are few and far between.

And then there’s the current site of 7 Rivers, Hogan.

District administrators have used the former elementary school as office space since 1980, but the acquisition of The Brickhouse, Harcey said, might lead to additional reshuffling.

“This could be an important domino for other opportunities around the district,” he said, adding that administration has no immediate plans to vacate Hogan. “We always keep those options open.”