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School-start date debate rekindles; big hiring bump anticipated as spring approaches; 8 more Wisconsin stories

MADISON -- A nearly 20-year-old debate over when Wisconsin schools can start their fall classes is being revived again.

La Crosse Superintendent Randy Nelson wants the state Legislature to end the requirement that schools wait until September first to start their new terms. To help force the issue, 26 La Crosse area school districts plan to ask for waivers, so that by 2015, they can start in mid-August.

An area senator, Democrat Kathleen Vinehout, has proposed ending the September start date as an amendment to a bill that's up for state Senate approval today. That bill would end the 180-day requirement for schools to be in session -- though they would still have quotas for classroom hours. Vinehout said she was told by Senate Education chairman Luther Olsen that the entire bill would die if her measure was included.

The La Crosse Tribune notes that Olsen's district includes Wisconsin Dells -- where business leaders first urged former Governor Tommy Thompson in the mid-1990's to require a later school starting date, so they could keep their summer help through Labor Day. Thompson allowed schools to open in August with local input -- but so many schools did it, that former Governor Scott McCallum locked the barn door in 2001 and made it much harder to get waivers to open in August.

Another bill to be considered Tuesday would no longer require Wisconsin schools to hold 180 days of classes each year. Classes would still have to be held for certain numbers of hours -- but schools could hold longer days to get those hours in.

The issue came to the forefront in January, when most Wisconsin schools were closed for at least four days due to the coldest winter in two decades. Small-town schools say it would also be a big cost-saver for them, because it would save on busing costs over land areas which are much larger than bigger-city school districts.

Jerry Fiene of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance says even one fewer class day would save a rural district thousands of dollars in busing costs. He also said fewer school days during the coldest months could save thousands for cash-strapped schools in utility bills.

The bill would change the state's funding system for summer courses, and create funding for new interim courses. The state Department of Public Instruction supports the measure.

Republican Senate Education Committee chair Luther Olsen proposed the bill, and reports say at least a few Democrats support it.

Mass transit use declines slightly in Wisconsin

The number of Americans riding mass transit is the highest since 1956, but Wisconsin is bucking that trend.

The American Public Transportation Association said riders nationally took almost 10.7 billion trips on public buses, trains, and subways last year. That's up 1 percent from 2012. Statewide figures for Wisconsin were not part of the report, but it did say that Milwaukee County buses attracted 2 percent fewer riders last year, for a total of 43 million.

The new data also shows that ridership was down in Racine and Port Washington, and up a little in Madison.

Racine transit manager Al Stanek blames a 10 percent cut in the state's transit aid in 2012. He said Racine had to increase fares and reduce services. Stanek said Racine's mid-day bus service was cut to one run per hour.

A federal grant helped Milwaukee County avoid such reductions, but a spokesman for County Executive Chris Abele said the system has been cutting service and raising fares for a decade.

The head of Milwaukee's Public Policy Forum, Rob Henken, says Wisconsin discourages mass transit by commuters with a lack of express bus lanes and rapid transit. The current state budget does increase mass transit funds by 4 percent next year, with additional increases to serve elderly and disabled riders.

Bill would require ongoing certification for private schools to get vouchers

MADISON -- It would be harder for private schools to join Wisconsin's tax-funded voucher program, under a bill that was to be up for a vote in the state Senate Tuesday.

The measure would force private schools to maintain accreditation from legitimate review bodies, to keep getting state vouchers to serve low-income kids.

Under the current law, schools must become accredited but they do not have to keep that status. As a result, officials many unstable and ineffective private schools to keep getting tax dollars.

The private school choice program now runs statewide on a limited basis, after starting in Milwaukee over two decades ago.

Also Tuesday, the Senate was to consider final legislative approval on a change involving lawsuits that allege improper exposure to asbestos.

The bill would require plaintiffs' attorneys to disclose how many businesses could be liable, instead of hiding the parties in multiple claims to maximize awards.

Veterans' groups are among the bill's opponents. They say it's designed to delay cases, in the hopes that plaintiffs die before they could get damage awards.

The Senate was also scheduled to act on a bill to limit liability against parents for their mistakes of their young drivers. Children under 18 must get parents or other sponsors to sign their driver license applicants, forcing them to be liable for drivers' misconduct. West Bend Republican Glenn Grothman wants to limit that liability to $300,000.

Many ice cave visitors plan to return with kayaks

BAYFIELD -- The immense popularity of the Lake Superior ice caves will pay big dividends this summer for tourism in the Bayfield area.

The local Chamber of Commerce reports an increase in summer lodging reservations. Officials at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore say they're getting inquiries from kayakers who want to return to the sea-caves this summer. The National Park Service estimates that over 120,000 people have seen the ice caves this winter, normally the same number of visitors at the Apostles for an entire year.

The ice is melting, but the caves are still attracting large numbers of visitors until the ice conditions for hikers change.

This is the first time they've been open to the public since 2009. This is also the first time they've become a famous attraction, thanks to social media and international news coverage.

-- Larry Lee and Dave Kallaway, WSAU-WIFC, Wausau

State expecting big hiring bump in coming months

If you're looking for a job, your chances of finding one in Wisconsin could improve greatly over the next three months.

A quarterly survey by Milwaukee's Manpower Incorporated shows that 21 percent more companies plan to add employees from April through June than those expecting layoffs.

Manpower calls that difference the "net employment outlook," and Wisconsin is the nation's fourth-highest.

North Dakota has the highest net improvement at 25 percent, followed by Alaska and Utah. In Metro Milwaukee, the Manpower survey calls for a 22 percent net employment outlook.

Twenty-seven percent of Milwaukee area firms plan to add workers this spring, while 5 percent expect layoffs. Sixty-six percent expect no changes, and 2 percent are undecided.

Chris Layden of Manpower says companies are getting more comfortable operating in "an environment of global uncertainty."

Nationally, Manpower says 13 percent more companies plan to add workers than to lay-off people from April through June.

If the predictions hold true, Wisconsin could see a real turnaround in its job growth.

Federal figures show that the Badger State has created new jobs at only half the national pace in the government's latest quarterly employment census.

Wrong-home invasion suspects all behind bars

MADISON -- Six people have been arrested in Madison for a violent home invasion in which the wrong house was apparently targeted.

Police said Monday that the assailants were armed when they forced their way into a north side Madison residence on Feb. 23rd.

Officials said they beat and robbed an innocent couple inside and several men sexually-assaulted a woman who was six months' pregnant. Police said the attack went on for 40- to 50 minutes before the couple went to a nearby business to call 9-1-1.

Officials said two of the suspects were later caught on video trying to hide or destroy items stolen in the home invasion.

Dane County's Crime Response Team has been providing services to the victims -- the woman and a 30-year-old man.

Police said they believe the suspects knew they were in the wrong house very early during the ordeal, and they carried it out anyway.

The suspects are all 20- to 23 years old. Police said they could face numerous charges which include armed robbery and first-degree sexual assault.

Parents who spanked kids with dowel face sentencing

MADISON -- A Dane County couple who spanked their children with wooden dowels in accordance with their church teachings will be sentenced May second for child abuse.

A jury convicted Matthew Caminiti, 29, of Black Earth last Friday on four felony counts of child abuse, and he was acquitted on another count. His wife Alina, 27, was convicted on all three of her abuse charges.

Matthew is the son of Philip Caminiti, who led the Aleitheia Bible Church. The church taught parents to strike children on their bare bottoms with wooden dowels in order to teach them proper behavior.

The couple's attorneys said there was no evidence that spankings actually took place. Their trial was delayed due to constitutional challenges which claimed that the Caminitis had the right to practice religion and discipline their children as they chose.

Several church members were arrested in 2010, and Philip Caminiti was convicted two years later for conspiracy to commit child abuse.

Suspect in murder-dismemberment case found competent to face trial

WAUSAU --A 27-year-old man has pleaded innocent to allegations that he shot and dismembered a Minnesota man in Wausau.

Kou Thao was found mentally competent Monday to resume his court case, after defense lawyer Steven Kohn said he would not challenge the findings of a third doctor who examined his client.

Marathon County Circuit Judge Michael Moran then ruled there was enough evidence for Thao to stand trial on charges of homicide, hiding a corpse, and illegal firearm possession.

Thao then issued his pleas. A date for further proceedings was not immediately set.

Thao is charged in the death last spring of Tong Pao Hang, 58, of St. Paul.

Prosecutors said Thao shot Hang between the eyes, cut his head off, and then drove the body parts to Milwaukee where they were found a week after Hang was reported missing.

Former Abbotsford teacher facing sex charges, accused of trying to continue relationship with one

ABBOTTSFORD -- A former high school teacher charged last month with having a sexual relationship with two students is now accused of having later contact with one of them.

An arrest warrant was issued last Friday for Andy Follen, 25, of Spencer and he was found and brought into Clark County Circuit Court Monday.

He's free again after posting a $7,500 cash bond on two felony counts of bail jumping and a misdemeanor count of intimidating a witness.

Follen resigned in late January from Abbotsford High School, where he taught math before the original sex allegations surfaced.

He was charged in early February with five felony counts of sexual assault by a school staffer.

Prosecutors said he later claimed to be with an Eau Claire softball team when he got one of his victims to set up an instant messaging account so the two could chat. Officials said he later told the girl he loved her, and urged her to call the district attorney's office to ask that his charges be reduced.

Follen is due back in court March 25th for a pre-trial conference on all eight of his charges.

Child-care provider facing felony abuse charges

WAUSAU -- A central Wisconsin child care provider is due in court a week from Thursday, after she allegedly cut and bruised a baby while spanking her.

Carla Blood, 45, of Birnamwood is charged in Marathon County with felony child abuse.

According to prosecutors, a grandfather of the eleven-month-old victim was told that the girl was out of control, and that Blood spanked her because she quoted, "needed discipline." The grandfather took the girl to a hospital in Antigo.

Police said a doctor found that the injuries came from a foreign object which struck the baby.