by SARAH SQUIRES
Moving fourth graders to the Winona Middle School (WMS); moving eighth graders to the high school; cutting forth-grade orchestra, speech, hockey, the three-act play; scrapping Rollingstone and Madison elementary schools; having kids walk two miles to school — these are among a list of potential budget cuts that Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) will mull in the coming weeks.
The district is facing $1.7 million in necessary budget reductions for the coming year — and that won't even keep the district in the black without spending down its dwindling reserve account as well. An estimated $1.3 million is expected to be syphoned from WAPS' general fund reserves, which will leave 3.8 percent of annual expenses in the bank; just six years ago, the district maintained more than 20 percent of its yearly expenses. WAPS' inability to balance its budget in recent years led Standard and Poors to downgrade its credit rating by a notch last December, cast a "negative" outlook, and predict a one-in-three chance that the district's credit rating would fall again if it continues to draw down on those reserve funds.
WAPS' financial woes come amid a years-long debate about school closure. In November, WAPS put its facility issue on the ballot, asking voters for $145 million — $84 million plus interest — for a plan that would have closed Jefferson and Madison elementary schools, expanded Goodview and W-K and upgraded the secondary buildings. Residents offered a resounding "no," with more than 90 percent rejecting the plan. Now, WAPS leaders are eyeing a host of budget reduction possibilities, including closing Madison and Rollingstone elementary schools, but this time, without any extra funds to tailor the remaining buildings for the switch.
The WAPS Board met last week during a work session and were presented with the list of potential cuts. (See the full list on page 5a.) Next, a new committee will meet to examine which programs, buildings and employees should face the chopping block. The district will then host two required public hearings on the potential closure of Madison and Rollingstone, a survey will be mailed to all district residents asking for facility and other feedback, and the committee will meet once more before making a final recommendation to the School Board.
According to district estimates, closing Rollingstone and Madison would save the district $732,676, while leaving the elementary fleet in-tact and strictly adhering to class-size target minimums would save $303,233. Cutting speech, boys and girls hockey, and the three-act play along with reducing an activities clerical position by 10 days would save $43,142. Eliminating SLIP interns, an elementary math specialist, an elementary reading specialist, three elementary teachers, fourth grade orchestra and elementary gifted and talented programming would save $431,144. Funding shifts, including using more of the $1 million annual technology levy for staff members, freezing curriculum purchases, and using staff development funds for the school opening workshop day would save $425,350.
The district also offered other budget reduction scenarios, from closing and selling Central to trimming media center staff to eliminating the school resource officer and charging more for athletics and activities. On the administrative end, there were no proposals for the elimination of an entire position; instead, the proposed list of cuts included trimming time from the human resource director's schedule, cutting fractions from principal positions, and a three-day furlough for the executive cabinet. The three-day furlough would save $11,573.
Board members had not seen the list of potential cuts and did not discuss them in detail during Thursday's meeting. Superintendent Rich Dahman was frank about the effect any of the reductions would have. "All the items will have a ripple effect across different programs and aspects to our district," he told the board.
The public hearings for the potential closure of Rollingstone and Madison elementary schools are both scheduled for February 20 at WMS. The Rollingstone hearing is set to begin at 6 p.m. with the Madison hearing expected to begin at 7 p.m. The board took official action on Thursday to schedule the hearings; board member Allison Quam voted against the motion. "I don't think this is the right time to be talking about closing schools," she said, adding that the district was about to conduct a survey and begin strategic planning, both of which should be weighed in the facility decision.