Members of the Burlington High School girls volleyball team celebrate their WIAA Division 1 state championship in early November. Catholic Central High School’s team captured the Division 4 title to make Burlington the only city to simultaneously hold two state volleyball titles.

Burlington’s top 20 news stories ranked by newspaper staff

Time magazine selected the protester as its person of the year for 2011.

And while the protester as depicted by Time may be too strong a term for the type of political activists that stepped to the forefront of Burlington area’s news in the past year, it isn’t far off.

Whether it was in opposition to a proposed school tax levy hike, or to collect recall signatures against a Democrat senator or a Republican governor, or to march for or against changes in the state’s collective bargaining law – grassroots political activism filled more pages of this newspaper than any other issue during 2011.

Tough times tend to bring out the protester in otherwise docile people. And more often than not, these were the acts of people who were fed up with the situation and vowed to do something about it – even if that meant standing on a street corner for hours in freezing temperatures in an attempt to get their message out.

Here’s a look at those stories and others selected as the top 20 local news stories of 2011 by the Standard Press editorial staff:

 

1. BASD budget battle

What the Burlington Area School District Board of Education believed was a needed 3.6 percent hike in taxes turned into the mother of all budget battles late last summer.

At the BASD annual meeting Aug. 29 – a meeting where electors vote to certify the tax levy – a concerted effort by a conservative-minded voting group left the School Board without an approved tax levy.

The board voted in a special meeting two days later to certify the levy anyhow, but those same conservatives got enough signatures on a petition to force another special meeting Oct. 31 – the day before tax levies were required to be approved by state law.

But that’s where the momentum stopped. District residents packed the Burlington High School gym to vote down a proposal to freeze the tax levy at the previous year’s level – a proposal that would have forced the district to cut student programs.

In the meeting, more than 750 people voted, with the margin 518-246, to reject the tax levy freeze. The electors then voted 511-194 in favor of approving the tax levy of $20.37 million as proposed by the school board.

A day later, the levy was certified by the School Board. The actual impact on tax bills was expected to be about $.41 per $1,000 of property value, depending on other factors impacting property tax bills.

 

2.  Town of Burlington disbands police department

Facing a cut in state aid, the Burlington Town Board members believed their best chance to the budget this year was to reduce costs of the town police department, which is the biggest item in the budget.

In the end, that meant entering a contract with the Racine County Sheriff’s Department, where all seven of the remaining town police officers – Bruce Oldenburg retired and Chief Mike Sevick remained with the town office in a liaison position – became sheriff’s deputies.

The Town Board remained adamant throughout the process that the switch would not only save the town about $100,000-$150,000, but was the right choice to make. Opponents argued that town residents might have supported a tax increase voted on by referendum to keep the department, or suggested going with a contract offered by City of Burlington police.

The City of Burlington contract would have contracted just six of the seven officers and not retained Chief Sevick.

 

3. Saga of the former DPW building and ChocolateFest lease

When the city finally completed work on its new combined Department of Public Works building and moved in early 2011, it seemed all that remained was selling the land – and possibly the building – that belonged to the DPW on Milwaukee Avenue.

However, in an oftentimes testy debate by the City Council, objections were raised in selling the property to local businessman Craig Faust, who planned to eventually develop the Milwaukee Avenue parcel and donate the rest to ChocolateFest. Finally, after the epic snowstorm on Feb. 2 delayed the vote by two days, Faust withdrew his offer before the council could formally vote.

That offer drew objections because of the involvement of former mayor Claude Lois in the sale and the fact the city had never formally marketed the property. A competing offer from local real estate agent Paul Mueller also failed to gain traction over concerns about the portion of property used annually by ChocolateFest.

Months after the echoes of the debate faded, the land at the front of the parcel was sold to a company that will be placing an auto parts store on the lot, and the building was finally torn down in the final weeks of the year.

Last July, the city approved a 30-year lease with ChocolateFest for the continued use of the festival grounds. The festival committee agreed to pay the cost to demolish the former DPW buildings and in return the city forgave the festival’s remaining two lease payments. City officials said the lease produced a net savings of roughly $20,000 for taxpayers when the cost of demolition was weighed against the remaining lease payments.

 

4. Blizzard paralyzes area

The dire forecast had been blasted across airwaves for days and officials had already announced school would be closed, but many people throughout the area were still surprised by the winter wallop that the Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011 delivered.

Snow started falling late in the afternoon of Feb. 1 and kept up most of the night, accompanied by strong winds that whipped up drifts topping 10 feet.

By 8 p.m. Feb. 1, roads both in the city and the town of Burlington had become impassable. Racine County’s executive declared a state of emergency, saying, “Most roads are impassable and motorists are abandoning vehicles.”

By 2 a.m., police departments in both areas had numerous reports of stranded cars and vehicles in ditches.

About an hour later, squad cars were getting stuck themselves when police went to help.

The weather forecast for the big event was right on – in fact, it might have been understated a bit.

According to the official total from the City of Burlington Department of Public Works, 22 inches of snow fell in Burlington over the duration of the storm.

The City’s Director of Public Works Connie Wilson admitted, though, that the snow totals were estimations at best.

“It depended on where you put your stick in,” said Wilson.

In addition to schools, government offices and many businesses – including Nestles – were forced to close Feb. 2.

“It was a complete whiteout,” Wilson concluded.

 

5. City liquor license controversy

In late June, Burlington Brewing Company (BBC) turned in its full liquor license at City Hall, making it available for someone to claim.

Over the next two months, who actually had the right to that open license became the topic of bitter debate as Lucky Star Restaurant and the owners of the building that housed the BBC battled over who would receive the license.

Lucky Star co-owner Jesse Aguirre applied for the license first, and claimed he had the right to it based on past policy. However, officials with WAN LLC claimed that they – the owners of the building – deserved it and shouldn’t have lost it in the first place.

The city’s so-called “reserve” license was regained by the city, leaving it as an option for whichever party did not get the open license – for a fee of more than $10,000.

In the end, Lucky Star got the regular license by a 3-2 council vote, and WAN LLC paid more than $10,000 to claim the reserve license. As of the last week of December, however, neither entity was actively using its license.

 

6. Local schools win two state volleyball titles

For the first time in WIAA history, a pair of schools from the same city won the WIAA state girls’ volleyball titles the same year.

The historic day was Nov. 5, when in the day’s first state title match, Catholic Central defeated Owen-Withee 25-19, 25-21, 25-23 for the WIAA Division 4 title. In the day’s final match, Burlington High School downed Fond du Lac, 25-21, 25-20, 25-8.

Both squads were led by strong senior classes, and were ranked at or near the top of their respective divisions all year long. However, the Demons suffered through a number of injuries throughout the year and really only got their line-up back together for the postseason, while the Lady ’Toppers were at full strength most of the year.

BHS junior Kaysie Shebeneck capped off the postseason honors in December by being named the Gatorade Wisconsin Player of the Year.

 

7.  Mass retirements and new hires for the school district

Depending on who you asked and how, the nearly 30 retirements faced by the Burlington Area School District last spring may or may not have had anything to do with Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair law that limited collective bargaining to wages only.

However, because of the relatively high number of retirements, BASD avoided most layoffs due to a budget deficit. Administrators, though, after a two-year freeze in compensation increases, were awarded raises – the largest going to BASD Superintendent David Moyer, who had been hired just a year earlier.

The administrative raises – which, thanks to the elimination of an assistant superintendent position, didn’t actually increase costs to the district – became a point of debate as the district faced its budget crisis in the fall.

 

8. Budget Repair Bill stirs local political pot

Introduced in early March as the innocuously named Budget Repair Bill, Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to balance the state budget touched off a political firestorm that reverberated to every corner of the state and across the country.

The Burlington area was right in the middle of the fray that continues to rage to this day as Walker’s opponents remain busy collecting signatures in an attempt to recall the first-term Republican.

Walker, who eventually succeeded in getting the bill passed and balancing the budget, pushed massive cuts to school districts and local governments and attempted to balance those cuts by curtailing the ability of most public employees to collectively bargain for their benefits. The governor said the change would give local governments the tools needed to cut costs.

The proposal drew swift and steady opposition from public employees, labor unions and their supporters.

Shortly after the bill hit the floor of the legislature, 14 state Senators – all Democrats – fled the state to avoid having to vote on the matter. Included in that group was Robert Wirch of Kenosha, the Burlington area’s longtime representative.

Wirch was one of several senators from both parties to face recall elections as a result of the wrangling. He survived a special election in August with strong support from the Kenosha area overwhelming the sentiment of Burlington area voters who favored ousting him.

The past nine months since March have done little to salve the political wounds. Burlington’s Echo Park has become a regular battleground for those gathering signatures to recall Walker and a counter protest group expressing support for the governor.

To their credit, the groups have gone about their efforts with few, if any, conflicts requiring police intervention.

 

9. Dunham’s in; Kmart out

The changing face of retailing in the Burlington area continued at a fast pace in 2011 with the Fox River Plaza on Milwaukee Avenue as the focal point.

Regional sporting goods retailer Dunham’s came to the city in March seeking approvals to renovate the former Pick ’n Save space at the east side of the center into a new store. After several bumps in the approval process, the city reached an agreement with the shopping center’s owner, clearing the way for Dunham’s. The store opened a week before Christmas.

At the other end of the shopping center the struggling national retailer Kmart announced in mid August that it would close the local store. Kmart staged a months-long clearance sale before closing the doors for good in mid November.

While local officials would love to see the vacancy filled soon, they took a pragmatic approach by acknowledging the market – not government – will determine if and when a new store comes to town.

 

10. BHS trapshooting team wins national title

After traveling to the Scholastic Clay Target Program nationals in Sparta, Ill., for the last six years, number seven turned out to be lucky for the Demons.

The No. 1 varsity squad of Ethan Kerr, Myles Walker, Christian Jensen, Adam Tuinstra and Jordan Hintz shot a 979 of a possible 1,000 targets – and topped not just the high school teams at the tournament, but every other varsity squad (which included All-Star teams that encompassed whole states) as well.

The national title was the crowning achievement for a program that has risen to national prominence over the last six years. For the last few years, BHS’s varsity squad has headed to the national tournament hoping for a national title, but has run into the All-Star squads and come up short.

Burlington led after the opening day of competition by three shots, shooting rounds of 120 (of 125), 123, 124 and 122. Hintz and Jensen both had 99s the first day.

On the second day, the squad came back with scores of 123, 121, 125 and 121 to seal the win. The perfect third round had scores of 25 of 25 from all five shooters.

 

11. City installs facilities to remove radium from water wells

After discovering more than two years ago that the city’s wells were falling out of compliance with federal regulations for the amount of radium in the water, the City of Burlington had no choice but to build radium removal facilities on wells No. 9 and 10.

Radium, a naturally occurring substance, can cause cancer if consumed in large amounts. Federal regulations say the amount must be at least than five picocuries per liter, and the two city wells were 2-3 points above that.

City officials maintained throughout the process that people would need to consume almost an impossible amount of water per day to risk cancer, but at the cost of about $2.2 million (up from the original estimate of $1.7 million), the filters were installed and expected to be online by the end of the year.

 

12. City retains Cannella Response Television

City officials scrambled to come up with an incentive package to keep the headquarters of Cannella Response Television – a national direct-response media marketing firm – in the city.

CRT officials approached the city for help late last winter when it was unable to find suitable existing office space for the growing firm and said it would likely move closer to Milwaukee at the urging of the New York-based investment firm that is majority owner of the company.

Working with the Racine County Economic Development Corp., the city came up with a package that included giving away land in the Burlington Manufacturing and Office Park and offering a loan that could be forgiven in increments based on the number of new jobs created by CRT.

The package touched off some debate among elected officials over the benefits-vs. -costs of the incentives and whether it was a good deal for taxpayers.

In the end, the Community Development Authority approved the package. CRT moved into its new headquarters last month.

 

13. City Council approves Child Safety Zones

In an attempt to protect youngsters from sex offenders living in the area, the City of Burlington Common Council approved the creation of child safety zones in June.

The zones effectively limit where sex offenders may loiter – mainly around schools and other places where children gather – but stopped short of restricting where sex offenders could live. The ordinance went back and forth between the council and City Attorney John Bjelejac a number of times before the final language was worked out.

There were numerous legal concerns involved, mainly in making sure no constitutional rights would be violated by creating the ordinance, and that the ordinance would stand up to any legal challenges.

The council approved the zones by a unanimous vote, with Alderman Jeff Fischer not present for the vote.

 

14. Sturdevant named state Teacher of the Year

One moment she was swept off her feet with the surprise announcement that she is Wisconsin’s Middle School Teacher of the Year and the next she was back in her classroom.

And as she considered the stark contrasts of those two scenarios on last September, Donna Sturdevant, who teaches math to seventh graders at Karcher Middle School, made it clear she’s much more comfortable in front of 20 students than in front of an all-school audience that includes the state superintendent of public schools.

As part of the Teacher of the Year honor, Sturdevant received $3,000 from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation. She was one of 100 teachers – including Karcher physical education teacher Marilee Hoffman – to win Kohl Foundation Fellowships last spring.

That award started the process that led to the Teacher of the Year honor. Sturdevant is one of four Wisconsin Teachers of the Year for 2011-12 selected from various levels of education.

“Teachers who receive this award are recognized by their peers, students, and parents as caring, committed educators, state Superintendent Tony Evers said. “They are representative of the quality educators who make a difference every school day for our students.”

 

15. Little League wins second straight state title

The Burlington Little League 12-year-old All-Star team won its second consecutive state title this year, earning the right to compete in the Great Lakes Little League Regional in Indianapolis.

And while the team didn’t make it to the semifinals, the squad still boasted some top talent. Everyone involved in the program said the 2011 team was a more balanced and overall more effective team than the one that had qualified for the regional tournament in 2010.

The team clinched the state title with a 6-1 victory over West Madison in a game played at a facility just a few miles from Burlington.

 

16. Problems with crosswalks

After placing new crosswalks on West State Street earlier in the year, the City of Burlington Common Council was forced to revisit the issue this fall after the new crosswalks created a safety hazard.

The concerns centered on situations that occurred when drivers stopped for crossing pedestrians, but other vehicles coming up from behind proceeded to pass on the right – making it dangerous for those in the crosswalks.

The council finally decided in December to remove crossing signs at West State Street and Maple Avenue, leaving just the crossing at Elmwood and West State. In addition, there will be pedestrian crossing warning signals places, with push button activation.

The lights will be similar to the crosswalk at Veterans Terrace on Milwaukee Avenue.

 

17. ChocolateFest Turns 25

Time used to be that when ChocolateFest had a bad year, the annual festival was immediately in trouble.

Now, though, after several years of strategic planning designed to sustain the festival, ChocolateFest is looking to establish more permanent footings as it plans the future.

Whether or not this year’s 25th anniversary attendance of more than 32,000 will change any of those plans remains to be seen.

The festival, which began on a shoestring budget 25 years earlier when the local newspaper owner and his cronies wanted to come up with something to put the city on the map, has come a long way.

Festival leaders say the switch to the four-day Memorial Day weekend has been a major factor in the recent financial success.

In July the City of Burlington granted a 30-year lease for the festival grounds to ChocolateFest. That, according to organizers, will give the festival the option of adding permanent amenities to the site.

 

18. New combined DPW building opens

After suffering through numerous delays – including one because of back-ordered doorframes – the city’s combined Department of Public Works on South Pine Street officially opened in January.

The new facility houses the streets, parks and utility departments, as well as various administrators. It cost an estimated $3.2 million – down from an initial estimate of $4.4 million. While the city still had a punch list of items needing to be fixed in the new building through the summer, general reviews were positive. Concerns expressed about the size of the building by city employees were downplayed by the mayor and city administrator.

 

19. BHS wins concert from an American Idol

In November, students and Burlington High School discovered that hard work for a good cause has its rewards.

The school, after collecting the most toys in the Christmas giving drive sponsored by a Milwaukee radio station, was awarded a concert by 2011 American Idol winner Scotty McCreery.

The deep-voiced teen crooner was greeted by shrieks and camera flashes when he took the stage in the school gym for a four-song set on Nov. 14.

Several of the students who were instrumental in helping the school collect more that 2,700 new toys for the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots campaign got a chance to meet McCreery, get an autograph and pose for photos prior to the show.

 

20. CCHS wins another state baseball title

For the Hilltoppers, trips to the WIAA state baseball tournament in Grand Chute have seemingly become routine.

But while it may have become commonplace, it doesn’t mean the Hilltoppers couldn’t take time to appreciate their second straight title – and third title in four years – in June.

Grant Alderman hit a three-run homer                                    in the sixth inning to secure Catholic Central’s 9-2 win over Chippewa Falls McDonell for the championship.

The Hilltoppers were led by seven seniors, including Rex Morrow and T.J. Floyd – who pitched in the state semifinals and finals, respectively.