City suggests schools may face wrecking ball


(1/3/2017)

by CHRIS ROGERS and LAURA HAYES

 

Two governments control the fate of Madison and Washington-Kosciuko elementary schools: the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board and the Winona City Council. For years, the School Board has spoken about closing these historic neighborhood elementary schools, and for years, city officials have talked about protecting the schools from the wrecking ball by naming them local historic sites. 

Last month the School Board moved ahead with a plan to close three schools, but a city decision on whether to protect the historic schools is still in limbo. Late last month, Winona City Council members discussed ideas that would allow the historic buildings to be torn down.

Council member Gerry Krage said most of his constituents in the Madison school neighborhood want the school to remain open, but if it is ultimately closed, “having 10 new lots in that neighborhood would be a benefit.”

The discussion came after outgoing City Council member Paul Double proposed a last-minute idea for a new elementary school that would replace W-K, Madison, Jefferson, and Central schools. His idea came too late to change the School Board’s plans, but Double said at a council meeting afterward, his ideas for redeveloping closed schools were still worth talking about.

Most of Double’s redevelopment ideas involved demolishing the historic school buildings. Krage, too, talked about redevelopment opportunities that assumed the historic buildings would be razed.

If Madison and W-K are closed, two whole city blocks will be available for redevelopment, Double observed. “It’s a great potential site for housing, whether it be families, townhouses — whatever,” Double said. Double also spoke about the potential for apartments to be developed at the school sites. That could occur without tearing down the historic buildings, but his other ideas — single-family homes and townhouses — assume that demolition is in the school buildings’ future.

It will be up to the council to decide whether the historic buildings must be preserved or whether they can be demolished, Double noted. Plus, he pointed out, the council controls the rules for what sort of new construction could occur at the sites. The council and School Board should start talking now about development opportunities for the properties so marketing the school buildings does not turn into “a fire sale,” he added. “There will be two city blocks for housing, and a discussion needs to start,” Double stated.

“Yes, two city blocks may in fact, may be becoming available,” Krage responded, with an emphasis on the “may.” “That is a long way in the future, and if so, everybody will be working together and certainly we can start working on making sure that is not a fire sale and it can wind up housing potentially 20 families on full city lots.”

The demolition of those historic school buildings is exactly what the council’s subcommittee, the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC), has hoped to prevent for years. Multiple times in years past, the HPC has geared up to nominate the schools as local historic sites — a move that would queue up a council vote on whether to allow demolition — but each time, the HPC never actually took action. In July 2016 the HPC voted to nominate the schools for historic protection, but because city staff have not done any work to follow through on the HPC’s vote and because the HPC has not made it a priority, the issue is still up in the air.

Later this month, the HPC plans to discuss the nomination and whether to direct city staff to move forward on it. Even if the nomination moves ahead this month, a months-long review and public hearing process must be completed before the council can make a final decision.

 

Double’s plan

On December 5, Double proposed a new idea for the future of WAPS’ elementary schools. Double suggested a trade: the city would give WAPS land in Lake Park and WAPS would give the city its closed elementary school properties. WAPS could build a new elementary school in Lake Park, and the city could sell the closed school properties to developers, he suggested. Before settling on their current plan, to expand Goodview and Jefferson elementary schools and house all of the district’s grade-school students there, WAPS officials studied the possibility of building a new elementary school. Finding a good site for a new elementary school was one of the sticking points. Double said his plan would solve that problem. However, Double brought up the idea just 10 days before the School Board was slated to vote on plans that were months in the making.

“I’m here to ask you to postpone your vote this evening,” Double asked the School Board during at its December 15 meeting. 

During the board meeting, several board members expressed interest in postponing the vote pending discussion of Double’s plan the following week. Board member Jay Kohner expressed interest in hearing what the council had to say. “That [discussion] could either totally eliminate that as an option or it might open the door for some more discussion on it. There are a whole lot of unknowns with that site. A whole lot,” he said. 

Other board members expressed concern whether Double’s idea was “serious” or even possible on the proposed site. “I cannot take this seriously given the 11th hour nature of it and given the fact that it’s not from the City Council itself,” board member Steve Schild said. 

Chairman Ben Baratto said that there were problems with the site. “Number one, it’s one of the busiest intersections I think in the city,” Baratto said. “It’s a nice concept, but to get there, there’s a lot of roadblocks.” 

Lake Park is surrounded by unstable soil, and building an adequate foundation in that area often requires a significant investment. Over the years, the city has launched multiple studies of potential roundabouts and other roadway changes to alleviate traffic problems at Mankato Avenue and Sarnia Street, one of the most congested intersections in the city.

Baratto said that he heard rumors several months ago about Lake Park being a potential facility site. Board member Jeanne Nelson expressed concern that she was not aware of Lake Park — or any other properties considered — being available until recently. “I feel that as a board member, I should’ve had some knowledge about that,” Nelson said.

WAPS Superintendent Stephen West told the board that administrators had been looking for potential school sites across the city — including land at Lake Park. West said that he met with city officials including Mayor Mark Peterson and City Manager Steve Sarvi to discuss potential facility sites. “The mayor categorically said that [Lake Park is] not going to be available. Done,” he said. “If there was something there, it would’ve been before [the board]. But when the mayor says that’s not an option, then that’s not going to be a viable option.”

From the post office to the hospital, Winona has a controversial, decades-long history of trading away its parkland for development. Most recently, a 2014 proposal to allow Winona State University to build a new college baseball field in Lake Park drew the ire of some Winonans, who opposed the use of parkland. Mixing school closures with selling part of the city’s most popular park “would make a very emotional charged discussion even more emotionally charged,” Krage said at the December 19 meeting. He told Double, “Since [school leaders] are not talking about a new school, let’s not muddy it with the confusion and the emotional pushback of the parkland.”

Wold Architects and Engineers partner Paul Aplikowski said that Lake Park was one of the sites that they looked at as a possibility. Aplikowski said that the idea of getting the Lake Park site and divesting of the district’s property was good. “The real question you have to answer for yourself is, can that happen in a timely fashion such that you can make that part of your facility plan? That is really the trick,” he said. 

Aplikowski told the board that it’s often common for two government bodies — like the School Board and City Council — to propose to collaborate on a project. “In my experience, that’s very difficult to get to come to fruition,” he said. “I can’t say that it won’t happen in your city. Again, I say that’s a great idea to try to do that. I just don’t know that you can do it and be on a timeline to run a referendum in the spring. You would have to have an awful lot of things come together and some very strong commitments that might actually be a possibility.” 

While Kohner and Nelson were willing to wait to see what the City Council had to say about Double’s idea, others resisted. “Honestly, I love the opportunity, but I’m a realist on this one. I just don’t see it happening,” former School Board member Brian Zeller said. “We can’t flip flop back and forth. We’ve done that a lot.”

He said that the board hesitated when Aplikowski asked them a month ago if they were willing to purchase more land. “We have given a very distinct direction to [Aplikowski] and his group a month ago on what we thought on that. I urge caution,” he said. 

 

Some hope to

avert closures

City Council member George Borzyskowski, who represents the W-K neighborhood, echoed Krage’s sentiment that many constituents want their neighborhood schools to remain open. "A lot of people — their schools are their home to them,” Borzyskowski said. Many people are asking why the School Board would close W-K, when the area around it — the East End and southeastern Winona subdivisions — is one of the most populous parts of the city. So many people live near that school, why would the district close it, he questioned. “Our friends on the School Board, we all know they have tough decisions,” he said. “I hate to see [the schools] close … I would love to see something happen where that school could perhaps remain open,” Borzyskowski added.

Double, a former School Board member himself, acknowledged there is reasonable chance that voters will not pass the referendum that the district needs to fund its plan for school closures and renovations.

“If [the school closure plan] moves further forward, we need to have more discussion collectively, but I know what I’m hearing loud and clear from — I can’t say everybody — but the majority of the calls I’m getting in my neighborhood is they would certainly like to keep that school open,” Krage said last month. 

Both WAPS and city leaders expressed interest in discussing the fate of the district’s schools together. The last time that the two government bodies met as a whole to talk about the issue was in August 2015. 

“This is not just a city issue or a School Board issue,” Peterson said last month. “We will be working alongside them.”

 

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