by SARAH SQUIRES
Two committee members selected the option of closing only Rollingstone. Six thought best to just close Madison. And 19 said they supported closing both Rollingstone and Madison elementary buildings — the closure option that garnered the most support among members of the Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) Budget Reduction Committee.
The committee met last Tuesday for its second and final time, and members penciled in their top selections for a host of proposed budget reduction measures that were prepared by administrators. Among committee members’ top budget-paring selections were restructuring the activity punch card to produce $22,243 in revenue and cutting $120,000 from administration. Some committee members scrawled comments next to proposed reductions. “No way!” one wrote of closing Rollingstone and moving fourth graders to the middle school and eighth graders to the high school. “No brainer,” wrote one alongside the proposal to cut $120,000 from the district’s over $2 million administrative budget. “Cut administration $600,000” wrote another; yet another committee member penciled in $400,000. Two others suggested district administrators take a $300,000 blow.
WAPS is working to reduce next year’s budget by $1.7 million — approximately $500,000 of which is due to health and safety spending mistakes in which the district failed to properly document the spending with the state and was not allowed to levy taxpayers for the bills when the projects were completed. Now, the state has required the budgets be squared up.
WAPS is also battling declining enrollment and aging facilities, and a referendum that would have closed elementary schools while expanding and remodeling Goodview and W-K failed in November with 90 percent of voters rejecting the plans. Now, the district is facing a budget shortfall, and eyeing school closures as a way to balance class sizes and save on instruction and maintenance.
On Thursday, WAPS Superintendent Rich Dahman presented the committee’s preferences to board members, who asked questions during a meeting that was at times heated. Board member Allison Quam, a proponent of neighborhood schools, suggested a host of other budget reduction measures not examined by the committee, including cutting at least $600,000 from administration. On Thursday, Dahman told her her proposals were unworkable, and when she asked for more budget data to study, he explained that in order to provide it, the district would have to hire more administrators to do the work. When asked whether non-classroom positions could take on a hiring freeze, Dahman said that would leave little flexibility in finding workable efficiencies, which his team does when faced with a vacancy, he said. “We’re constantly looking at ways that we can be more efficient and effective,” he said. “In our administrative team, we’re very lean right now,” he added of the district’s over $2 million in administrative spending.
Dahman explained several changes had been made to the list of proposed budget cuts since they were first aired. For instance, the hockey program was proposed to be cut for a savings of around $33,000 annually. Instead, administrators decided to replace the potential reduction with a change to the activities punch card that would raise around $22,000. Additionally, the initial budget reduction proposal included eliminating fourth grade orchestra and eliminating all music lessons. Dahman said that those cuts to music would go too deep, instead advocating for reducing music teachers from 12 to nine. He said that would still have WAPS at the top of the pack in student-to-teacher ratios among Big 9 schools.
The music reductions drew a crowd on Thursday, when parents and students flocked to city hall to plead the case for what a difference music education can make in a student’s life. “Winona is a music town,” said parent and teacher Matthew Schultz. “It has been the pride of our schools, year after year. Budget cuts have to happen, but cutting what sets us apart and putting music programs on a path to decline does not fit our district goal of educating the whole child.” Music engages the whole brain of the child, and “for a lot of kids, music is the best part of the school day and a chance to take part in something very emotionally and mentally healthy.”
Dahman is expected to consider the Budget Reduction Committee’s preferences when he crafts his own recommendation to the board, to be presented on March 22; the board is slated to take a vote on the budget reductions on March 29. During the committee meeting on Tuesday, Dahman hinted that school closure would be part of his recommendation to the board. “Where I’m at right now on February 27 is I have a plan that would keep our [kindergarten through fourth grade] class sizes in that target range,” said Dahman, adding his plan would reduce longterm facility costs. He said that changes now can “start us on a path to being the most sought-after school district in Southeast Minnesota, and maybe even in the state of Minnesota.”
During its two-meeting process, the Budget Reduction Committee examined declining enrollment figures and projections that showed WAPS has and will continue to lose students. Dahman explained that charter and parochial schools are also dealing with shrinking birth rates in the region, and that WAPS has gained a bit in recent years in terms of capture rate — or the percentage of overall students who live in the district who choose to attend the public school system.
Committee member Karl Sonneman asked why, last November, when the district was seeking the $145 million building referendum that would have expanded some elementary buildings while closing others, did its supporting information given to voters show a levelized enrollment. Dahman said much of the information had been prepared a year ago, and that was “the trend at the time.”
“I don’t mean to be cynical,” replied Sonneman, “but every time we do a proposal to bond and build new buildings [the district shows] good enrollment numbers, and when you talk about closing, all of a sudden the numbers are down. We talk about building trust,” he said. “This is the history of the district here in Winona.” He encouraged the district to hold back on school closure and study the issue more closely.
“I don’t consider the process that this community has gone through around the possibility of closing schools to be rushed or hurried,” Dahman said during the meeting. “That can has been kicked down the road. That’s come at a significant expense to our students.”
One committee member said her perspective, as a parent, was that the district should not continue to value buildings over programs. Every time a program is cut to reduce the budget, when savings could have been had by closing a school, “That’s really hard to watch. Every time it happened it’s like a punch to the gut.”
One teacher and parent committee member said classrooms are already tight, and that the school closure plan would add so many more students and programs, who come with educational assistants, interpreters and other staff, to rooms that are already full. She said she wasn’t arguing against closing schools, but “to me it seems irresponsible to make our elementary kids pay that price without any kind of plan to improve our facilities that we’d be left with.” Dahman said the district would work to address larger classes under the plan, and that it would be much easier to deal with if WAPS were working with a balanced budget.
As for the Budget Reduction Committee’s tally on potential school closure, administrators also took the total votes — two to close Rollingstone, six to close just Madison, and 19 to close both — and added and presented them on another slide. They took both the votes to just close Madison and added them to the votes to close both schools, showing 25; then took the vote to only close Rollingstone (two) and added it to the vote to close both schools, for a total of 21. This tally may have caused some confusion about how the committee actually voted.
All the committee’s documents, study information, vote tallies and a spreadsheet showing where students would be sent if one or more schools were closed can be found at the district’s website.
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School closure student movement
444 students stay;
346 change schools
493 students stay;
297 change schools
Madison and Rollingstone closed:
404 students stay;
386 change schools