Neighborhood schools: Good for communities — and kids


From: Karl Sonneman, Jerry Miller, Natalie Siderius, Kendall Larson, Emilio DeGrazia, Allen Hillery, and Gretchen Michlitsch of the Save Our Schools Association Executive Committee

We need to keep Winona’s neighborhood elementary schools open because these schools are good for kids and good for the community.

School District 861 should renovate and update our existing elementary schools to support children and teachers and to make the best use of our resources.

Together, Winonans can build a vibrant elementary school system that supports teachers and students in reasonably sized, fiscally responsible neighborhood schools.

Closing our current elementary schools to warehouse our children in one or two large buildings on the edge of town would be a financially irresponsible, stop-gap, short-term measure that would negatively impact the Winona community for years to come. In November, Winonans soundly rejected a referendum whose elementary portion would have cost us $50 million plus $38 million in interest while closing our neighborhood public elementary schools.

We have a better proposal:

The Save Our Schools Association supports a $30 million, 10-year capital funding referendum, with the funds to be allocated to individual schools over the span of 10 years.

This $30 million, 10-year capital funding referendum would enable a pay-as-you-go staged construction program that finishes renovating each elementary building in turn. This can be done with a combination of local expertise in the trades and design help from experts in the renovation of quality historic buildings.

At the end of 10 years, we can have new, up-to-date facilities in historic buildings and not have any debt to pay off over the next 10 to 15 years.

This reasonably priced capital referendum would enable Winona to follow recent examples of historic renovation of school buildings in Austin and Hibbing, and in Winona’s own Cathedral School.

Our existing elementary buildings are in good structural condition and in good locations. Instead of spending $38 million on interest payments to out-of-town entities over the next 25 years, Winona can invest in classroom teachers and smaller class sizes to benefit our own students and teachers.

In addition, the district should make wise use of the state-level increase in per student allocations to school districts for building maintenance and appropriate use of long-term facilities maintenance funding to stay on top of building maintenance as we move forward.

We trust that WAPS School Board members, administrators, teachers and staff, and the general public will find this proposal more practical, more desirable, and much less expensive than the one that was overwhelmingly defeated in the referendum vote in November.

For many years, Winona’s discussions of closures have obscured student out-migration to private and charter schools. District 861 has closed six elementary schools since 1980. As we closed elementary schools, we lost significant numbers of students and the losses continued into the secondary levels.

Today, Winona’s public elementary schools compete with a number of charter schools and private schools. Recent growth among these schools, which range in size from 40 to 200 students, suggests that students and parents prefer the benefits that smaller schools can provide.

As citizens deeply committed to the future of Winona, we see Winona’s elementary schools –– W-K, Madison, Jefferson, and Goodview in particular, and Rollingstone too –– as essential to the development of the city of Winona. Though improvements and upgrades are needed, the buildings of all these schools are structurally good and sound. We believe that neighborhoods with schools in them are more likely to contribute to a safe and prosperous Winona community.

Madison Elementary in particular is important because:

1. Madison is the only public elementary school in city’s center core.

2. Madison plays an important role in establishing a city core desirable to young families.

3. Madison is important for the city to maintain a vibrant city core.

4. Those who live and work in the city’s core value Madison’s location in a relatively pedestrian-friendly area.

5. Madison plays a role in offering preschool to core area families.

6. Madison is the home of the Spanish immersion program, and it is in a good location for this program for the long run.

7. Madison’s proximity to WSU makes it useful to the town’s universities and to the Education Village.

In addition, Madison Elementary is the district’s third largest elementary school, it is structurally sound, and it is by far the school district’s least expensive building to operate per student.

Elementary education is key because children who receive a good start in elementary schools can and will succeed at the higher levels of high school and beyond.

Good teaching and worthwhile programs matter most; reducing teachers and increasing school sizes and class sizes would undermine good education.

We have seen no reliable evidence that closing existing elementary schools would save the district money. Even if it did save a small amount for a year or two, a short-term fix based on saving a few dollars in the next budget will not serve our children in the long run.

We need all the elementary classrooms we have. The number of students in Winona’s public elementary schools has remained stable for the past eight years. We cannot afford to lose more elementary classrooms. Our current elementary population needs the classrooms it has, and the future likely includes additional prekindergarten classes and hopefully includes bringing fifth graders (10- and 11-year-olds) back into the elementary schools.

Strong and vibrant public schools are critically important to a strong Winona community. We need to prioritize students and teachers, not administrative convenience. We need to reinvest in neighborhood schools and to be responsible stewards of our resources.

Neighborhood schools are good for kids and good for our community.


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