by CHRIS ROGERS and LAURA HAYES
Should the city of Winona protect Winona's historic neighborhood elementary schools from being demolished? The Winona Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) took steps to do just that this summer, but a proposal to nominate the Central, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington-Koscuicko elementary schools as local historic places — which would bar future owners from tearing them down — has been put on the back burner since then. Now, the city's champions of historic preservation say there is no hurry to save the schools.
Over the course of 2015, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board has inched closer to making a decision on the future of its school buildings and whether to close any or all of the historic elementary schools. The HPC and many other Winonans have long been concerned about the proposed closure of these schools, and have been interested in saving them from the fate of the former Lincoln Elementary School, which was closed, sold, demolished and turned into a parking lot. In July, the HPC voted to nominate the remaining elementary schools as local historic places — they are already national historic places but that designation does not come with any prohibitions on demolition. That vote was intended to kick off a week-long process of public hearings and votes by the HPC and the City Council, who would have the final authority for local designation. However, city staff determined the vote did not count because of a procedural mistake — the HPC did not read an official resolution — and then Mayor Mark Peterson urged the HPC to wait to nominate the schools while he and the City Council met with School Board members and WAPS administrators. The HPC agreed to wait and decide whether to follow through on the nomination process — with a proper vote — after the council and School Board met in August. The city and school leaders met, but the HPC did not take up the issue again. During their meetings, members did not have a substantive discussion of whether to designate the schools until November, when the issue came up partly in response to Winona Post inquiries.
"I'm just wondering if we have any idea, what are the next steps for the schools?" HPC member Preston Lawling asked his colleagues. The HPC was encouraged to wait this summer, he continued, now what?
HPC Chair Kendall Larson posed the question to the group, too, saying "If we've done that [the July vote], then the question is, why aren't we just moving forward?"
HPC member Carolyn Larson said Peterson's urging that the HPC wait seemed to squash the group's momentum to nominate the schools.
HPC members have often said that they want to periodically nominate historic buildings because they deserve it, not because they are in danger. "We keep saying we don't want to be reactionary," Larson put it. At other times, members have not shied away from sending bold messages to school leaders or to try to save buildings in imminent danger of demolition. HPC member Andy Bloedorn said that, at this point, there is no getting around the fact that nominating the schools would be perceived by many as reactionary.
"I think we have time," Lawling said. WAPS is not expected to make a decision until February, and even then, it will likely be over a year before any schools would actually close, he observed. "There's no rush," he said. "It's not like we need to get this done before the end of the year to save them."
That is where the HPC left it.
WAPS is still gathering information to help the School Board make its decision, including a recent survey of school district residents.
Community Survey Results
Almost a month and a half after the community was interviewed, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board was presented with the results of a survey asking which of three facilities options they preferred: one, to keep all of the elementary schools open, two, to close only Madison, or three, to close Madison, Jefferson, and W-K, keep Rollingstone open, remodel Goodview, and build a new east-end elementary school.
The survey polled 300 residents who live in the WAPS boundaries. The survey asked community members which of the three options they preferred, gave callers additional information about each option, and after information asked if they were in favor or opposed to the options.
The results, which survey contractor Don Lifto of Springsted presented at a board meeting December 17, left the board without a clear-cut winner. According to Lifto, 50.6 percent of the callers were in favor of keeping all of the elementary schools open while 44.7 percent were opposed. 50.4 percent of residents were in favor of closing Madison and keeping the other schools open, and 48.7 percent were opposed. The least favorable option, 47 percent of callers were in favor of closing Madison, Jefferson, and W-K, keeping Rollingstone open, remodeling Goodview, and building a new school. Fifty-one percent of callers were opposed to this option.
Callers were then asked which of the three options they would prefer. Of the 300 polled, 30.3 percent favored keeping all of the schools open, 30 percent said they would prefer keeping all of the schools open and closing Madison, and 34 percent preferred closing Madison, Jefferson, and W-K, keeping Rollingstone open, remodeling Goodview, and constructing a new east-end elementary school.
Board member Ben Baratto said that he was encouraged by his first look at the results. “We’ll have to make some hard decisions,” Baratto said. “I’m more encouraged than I thought I would be.”
Board Chairperson Mohamed Elhindi said that while the survey is not the final decision, it provided good data to help. “The survey is one data element,” Elhindi said.