Jeni Benson and Eric Petersen said they took décor down from their walls because items were rattling and falling down.
Vaughn Kardashian has waited anywhere from minutes to hours just to enter his driveway, waiting for train traffic. Other neighbors nearby say their kindergartener wakes up in the middle of the night from noise.
It’s all part of the sights and sounds Chaska residents said they’ve noticed as of late, caused by the train tracks that run behind their homes.
“It is a problem,” neighbor Scott Morse said, adding to the myriad of other voices attending last week’s Chaska City Council meeting visitor presentation. The council took no official action on the issue.
Those in the Brooks Ridge and Tuscany Hills neighborhoods say train horns, rumblings, and other railroad-related nuisances have gotten worse in the last several months.
The rail "siding" sits west of Lake Jonathan, northeast of Bavaria Road and Pioneer Trail, where empty railcars are brought in. Sidings are separated tracks meant for loading, unloading and parking train cars. Others sit loaded and wait for other tracks to clear.
Cars carry corn, soybeans, wheat, ethanol — the list goes on, including products like animal feed, sugar, and coal, according to Twin Cities & Western Railroad President Mark Wegner.
City of Chaska staff have been in contact with Wegner, who says the line is willing to hear people out and come up with some solutions.
“We definitely want to be collaborative,” Wegner told the newspaper. “We are completely sensitive of residents’ concerns.”
Those concerns have neighbors frustrated and asking for a quiet zone to be put in place, which would add arms to the crossing so horns wouldn’t be used.
Neighbor Morse said in the last two years, noise has only grown in his neighborhood, including between midnight and 4 a.m.
“All hours of the day, and usually it’s the hours that we don’t want,” he told councilors. “It’s something that you never really get used to. It wakes you up.”
Others expressed frustration over traffic caused by train delays or spray-painted rail cars visible from inside their homes.
“Now we no longer have trees and wetlands. We have train cars. Sometimes they're getting decorated at night,” said Petersen, who lives closest to the tracks.
At the council meeting, City Administrator Matt Podhradsky said, since Chaska doesn’t have much jurisdiction over the railroad’s moves, solutions may be limited.
Still, he offered some suggestions.
Podhradsky said two or three neighbors could volunteer as representatives to meet with both himself and Wegner to discuss issues this month.
Part of that conversation would involve reviewing a detailed list of reported incidents, noise or otherwise, given to a representative. That’s one of the only ways Wegner sees things improving, he said.
“If I knew a date and a time, I could zero in what exact train (it) was and what was the circumstance.” Wegner said. “We can't fix what we don't know. We know anecdotally all of those things, but the key is getting the specifics down so that we can narrow it down.”
In addition, Podhradsky said the city will work with an engineer to start a feasibility study on a potential silent crossing, which would override legal obligations to sound the horn while crossing a road.
That’s the case at the Clover Ridge Drive railroad crossing installed in 2004. Podhradsky said it cost the city $750,000 at the time.
“They’re not the cheapest things to put in,” he said.
Nor are they the all encompassing-solution.
A quiet zone would only address train horn concerns, not clanging carts or visual qualms.
“It’s a function of echoing steel,” Wenger said of the train noise as they clank together during transit.
He said the company installed a quiet zone at four intersections in Eden Prairie several years ago, which took over three years. Still, he said it’s “a worthwhile endeavor” for Chaska to look into.
Several years ago, Twin Cities & Western Railroad rerouted its tracks to comply with the incoming METRO Green Line extension.
Trains used to be housed in St. Louis Park and Hopkins, but moved to Chaska, where the extra rail could be built inexpensively. In late summer of 2020, a new track was added to Chaska and began service in the fall.
“We have to land the train somewhere,” Wenger said. “It’s not like we're picking on Chaska, but we were looking for the path of least resistance of what we were able to work with.”
When asked about an increase in activity, he said the railroad service is strictly market-driven. When there’s increased demand — most-recently caused by a change in international tariffs — extra trains need to be sent out to keep up.
In the last month or so, Wegner said the company has sent out 10 to 12 additional trains due to a high demand for corn and soybeans.
“I tell people that we’re a faucet railroad, were either going drip-drip or were going full blast,” he said.
His company is down staff because of the pandemic, which puts additional strain on conductors.
The Pioneer Trail and Bavaria Road line acts as a holding ground of sorts.
Rail cars have an inch or two of slack between them, creating space for loads to run into each other and clank. Wegner said the sounds can be especially loud in the summertime when river commerce is bustling and people have their windows open.
“That one comment, ‘Well, it feels like a thunderstorm,’ I know exactly what he’s talking about,” he said, referring to a council meeting remark.
If a train farther away is rescheduled, it affects the Chaska trains, begging them to idle for hours on end sometimes.
In the winter, locomotives are left running at night since they’re water-cooled and risk freezing. Wegner said conductors may need to rev the engine for a few minutes to keep the equilibrium, which can be audibly jarring.
“The noise is absolutely absurd on this side,” neighbor Petersen said.
Though the community and railroad president agree a compromise could be made, incoming change is perhaps limited.
“As far as us telling (the railroad) that they are not allowed to keep these cars here, we have no real say in that,” Chaska Mayor Mark Windschitl said at the council meeting. “All we can do hopefully is work with that. They built that side rail. The cars are going to be there.”
Lisa Sayles-Adams reflected back on her interviews for the Eastern Carver County Schools superintendent opening.
She never imagined having to face a situation where a four-week period between Oct. 26 and Nov. 18 would produce 110 positive cases of COVID-19 among students and staff in the district. Quarantine rates were 36% of students and 29% of staff in the first three months of the 2020-21 school year — more than 3,700 people that work or study in the district.
She never imagined the potential of a school failing to have a nurse in the building. Or being able to only fill 58% of substitute requests one day. Or a principal in the classroom, needing to instruct math to cover an absence.
District 112, after 10 weeks of in-person learning at the kindergarten through eighth-grade levels, seven weeks for secondary students, was forced back into full distance learning to conclude the 2020 calendar.
Students in grades kindergarten through second grade will return to buildings beginning Jan. 19. Other grades will return to school, middle and high schools in hybrid, starting in February.
"When I interviewed for the position, the consideration of COVID remaining wasn't even on my mind. I never imagined the awesome responsibility in planning for three different learning models. Everything that goes into that. Knowing there is this great safety concern, being able to make accommodations to staff that needed them. And if we needed to shift into distance learning again, making sure that it was a better experience for students, staff and parents," Sayles-Adams said.
Six months into the position, a certainly trying timeframe for school administrators, staff and students, Sayles-Adams feels good about what was done. Decisions that were made. Feedback she has received about Distance Learning 2.0 has been overwhelmingly positive.
"We have such strong leadership and quality staff. I have met a lot of great people, connected with many different community leaders and groups. I've really enjoyed meeting people, working together to provide the best educational experience we can," she said.
Chris Commers, Chaska Education Association president for Eastern Carver County Schools, pointed to a November school board meeting to describe the "outstanding leadership" of Sayles-Adams and Assistant Superintendent Erin Rathke.
"To put that meeting together, having all of those people talk through every aspect of the decision to recommend distance learning, it was extraordinary. They provided the School Board with everything they needed and more to make the necessary decision," Commers said.
A teacher for 25 years in District 112, Commers' current role often times brings him together with Sayles-Adams in important decisions that affect teachers.
"She has this incredible capacity. I remember with the selection process, she did an incredible job of showcasing her leadership abilities, and that remains indicative in what she brings to the district. Day in and day out, she demonstrates that capacity. There isn't anything more we could ask of our district leadership," Commers said.
Strong leaders is something Sayles-Adams was exposed to growing up in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood.
Her dad's family included Judge LaJune Lange, who served on the Fourth Judicial District Court for Hennepin County. Her mom's family included a neonatal nurse, an accountant, a St. Paul School District teacher, an engineer, and her aunt, Sharon Sayles-Belton, the first African-American and first female mayor of Minneapolis.
"I come from a family with strong leaders, especially strong female leaders. I think my family's belief in me, their confidence in me, and their support was really nurturing," Sayles-Adams said. "Leadership was was always around me."
Sayles-Belton was mayor from 1994 to 2001 after representing the Eighth Ward on the Minneapolis City Council for a decade.
"My auntie had been in politics for a long time. She would take me everywhere, expose me to many different aspects of leadership and serving the community. When she ran for mayor, I was handing out leaflets, talking to people, helping her campaign, Sayles-Adams said.
"Being at her fundraisers, I had the opportunity to watch her grow in her leadership, to see her passion for community and education. Her connection with all people. That is something that has always stuck with me," she added.
After working in St. Paul Public Schools as an assistant superintendent for eight years, and one year most recently in North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale, District 112 chose Sayles-Adams over seven other candidates last spring.
The candidate pool included two superintendents with 15 years of experience and an associate superintendent from Minneapolis Public Schools. Sayles-Adams was among two female and two African-American candidates interviewed.
"We were absolutely thrilled," said Deb Henton, executive director for the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, of Sayles-Adams' hiring. "She is such a capable leader. She has this wonderful experience, and she is a person of such high integrity. Eastern Carver County Schools was so fortunate to hire a leader of her caliber. Really, we wish we could clone her."
Figures from the state of Minnesota show roughly 17% to 18% of superintendents are female.
About 76% of the country's K-12 educators are women. Though, when compared to school superintendent positions held, women represent just 24%, according to federal data and a survey conducted by AASA, the association of the nation's public school superintendents.
"(AASA) has identified that is an issue and that is something they are trying to work on with focus groups, having leadership development opportunities so women who inspire to be superintendents are able to get that mentoring, that coaching, and that support," Sayles-Adams said in a June interview. "Locally, we're starting to see more women get those superintendent positions, but we're working to get caught up."
"It's a problem we're trying to adjust," said Henton, an advocate for empowering leaders through high-quality professional learning, services and support.
Henton, a former superintendent in North Branch, said there continues to be a "severe shortage" of persons of color applying for district leadership positions as well.
According to the AASA, 8.6% of respondents identified as superintendents of color in 2020, compared to 6% in 2010 and 5% in 2000. Of the relatively small percentage who are African American, Latinx or other minority group, nearly 42% are women.
As the first day of the 2020-21 school year approached, teachers and staff from District 112 on Aug. 26 stood with signs along Highway 41 outside of Chaska Middle School West.
Cars honked in support.
Commers called the day an "informational picket." A day to call attention to the realities that teachers faced this summer in preparing for the upcoming school year.
"Our message really was, yes, we need to be in school. But our society can't make it safe. And it remains the same now," he said as a return to school date was established by Gov. Tim Walz in an Executive Order on Dec. 16.
Sayles-Adams said it has been striking a balance between the needs of staff and the needs of students.
"Last month we held two listening sessions with teachers. They had the opportunity to have face-to-face time with myself and Erin (Rathke). It was an open discussion. Whatever they wanted to us to hear, we wanted to hear. We listened, we took feedback. Whatever we can do to help out teachers, we certainly are trying to do that," Sayles-Adams said.
District 112 will phase in different grade levels back into the buildings over the next six weeks, based on guidance from the state and the Minnesota Department of Education.
"The reality, though, is still the same. We know more. We understand COVID-19 better. I really think that the governor is doing everything he can, but this goes beyond the school district on how our society is set up," Commers said.
"We've been working non-stop since the governor's announcement to find ways to bring students back. I feel confident that it's doable. But we want to make sure it's launched correctly," Sayles-Adams said.
Commers said he appreciates the collaboration between the teachers' union and the District.
"It's heartbreaking and devastating. It's really scary stuff. But, as teachers, we're also painfully aware our community faces the same challenges. We don't lose sight of the grief people are feeling," he said. "We see the struggle in other districts. When there's grief, when there's pain, it invites people to turn on each other. I believe our District is working so hard to sustain what we have done all along, and that's this close, tight community of love and caring for one another."
As the calendar flips to 2021, there's great hope for the year ahead. The potential for the light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic.
A return to a more normal learning setting.
Sayles-Adams's message to District 112 and the communities for the first six months was "growing stronger together." Now, she focuses on something slightly different for the rest of the school year.
"Staying stronger together," she said.