by SARAH SQUIRES
Faced with more than $1 million in budget cuts, dwindling reserves and a failed facility referendum, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) has scheduled school-closure hearings for next month, with Madison and Rollingstone elementary schools potentially on the chopping block.
But on Tuesday, a group of community members organized as the Save Our Schools (SOS) Association brought forward another plan: a $30-million capital referendum aimed at fixing the district's historic elementary flock over 10 years without incurring long-term debt.
"People support neighborhood and community schools," explained SOS Executive Committee member Gretchen Michlitsch. Given the headlines generated by years of school-closure talks and information provided by the district, "A lot of people are surprised to learn that [school closure] is not a done deal," she added.
SOS' plan would have the district ask property taxpayers to fund $3 million annually over 10 years that would be used to rehab the district's buildings. To do that, the group would have to gain the support of the WAPS Board. The board attempted the November 2017 referendum that would have closed Madison and Jefferson elementary buildings, remodeled and expanded Goodview and W-K, and renovated the district's secondary buildings at a cost of $145 million — $82.4 million plus interest on 25-year bonds with an estimated $1.14 million in annual savings. That failed, with more than 90 percent of voters rejecting the multi-million dollar building plan. More recently, the board voted to hold legally required school-closure hearings in February as part of its process to identify budget cuts for the coming year. Board members have stressed that no school-closure decisions have been made, but holding the hearings will allow district leaders to hear feedback before those decisions are made.
But the SOS Executive Committee, which includes Karl Sonneman, Jerry Miller, Natalie Siderius, Kendall Larson, Emilio DeGrazia, Allen Hillery, and Michlitsch, disagrees with the notion that WAPS must consolidate its historic elementary buildings and put students into larger schools or face financial disaster. The group penned an opinion piece to go along with its facility proposal (read the full opinion piece on page 4a and visit winonapost.com to view a spreadsheet on its spending proposal). Pointing to the fact that WAPS has closed six elementary schools since 1980, the group states that long-term school-closure discussions have made the district's competitors — charter and private schools — more attractive to families seeking a smaller school environment, and doubt the projected financial savings in closing buildings. "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," they wrote. "We have seen no reliable evidence that closing existing elementary schools would save the district money … 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 pre-kindergarten classes and hopefully includes bringing fifth graders (10- and 11-year-olds) back into the elementary schools."
Mitchlitsch said if the WAPS Board were willing to put the issue to voters, support for neighborhood schools among community members would become clear. "We hope that people throughout the community, throughout District 861, will speak up and contact their School Board members and the school superintendent to support this project," she said. "Let them know that we value our neighborhood and community schools."
WAPS is expected to host the Rollingstone and Madison closure hearings on February 20 at the Winona Middle School. The Rollingstone hearing is only scheduled to last one hour, beginning at 6 p.m. The Madison hearing is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. SOS is expected to also host meetings to gather community input; keep reading the Winona Post for more.