by SARAH SQUIRES
By the end of the night on Thursday, music students and faculty breathed a sigh of relief. Hockey players filed one by one in front of Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board members, respectfully offering handshakes. But some parents clustered outside the board room, wondering what they would do, after the WAPS Board voted 5-1 to close Madison Elementary School and 4-2 to shutter Rollingstone. An estimated 386 students across the district are expected to be displaced from their current school with the change.
The closure of two of the district’s five elementary schools came as part of $1.7 million in budget cuts, which will include an estimated $189,854 in building operations costs and $541,852 in staffing savings. Those were coupled with $95,000 in administrative reductions and a host of other cuts which strayed from eliminating any entire programs save the district’s speech team. Music programs were left intact, the district’s drama offerings were removed from the list of cuts along with the elementary gifted and talented program.
Dozens of district students and residents spoke out on behalf of WAPS’ music programming, asking that the board not cut music teachers and lessons, and the board listened for hours to area parents who objected to the closure of elementary schools. Rollingstone residents in particular objected to shuttering the district’s newest elementary building, wondering why WAPS hasn’t done more to market the school and fill its classrooms. Others threatened to take their children out of WAPS entirely if their neighborhood school were closed. “We do not need school closures,” former board member Ted Hazelton said on Thursday. “There are plenty of other areas to look at in the budget, provided people get to see the budget. If Rollingstone ended up being closed, you can bet your bottom dollar it will be a charter … Look at what happened with Ridgeway. You will lose students, it’s been proven over and over.”
Board member Karen Coleman, who sends her own children to Madison Elementary and who introduced both motions to close the schools, said she joined the board with the mission to find out whether she was right about how the buildings should be saved. But, she said, the evidence in work from the district’s facility task force and budget reduction committees in particular showed her the right path forward. “To be a mature adult you sometimes have to give a little,” she said. “I’m trying to rise above my own personal interest in this.”
Board member Jay Kohner said he joined the board in 2010 as a proponent of keeping five schools open, but he said that programming had to be prioritized. Recalling the November 2017 referendum that asked voters to find $145 million to close Madison and Jefferson and expand W-K and update the remaining buildings, he said the district was now in a corner and forced to consolidate without the revenue to update the remaining schools. The budget, he said, is “down to the bone.” “Another reason I’m reluctant … I’m concerned we’ll be putting almost 1,000 kids in three elementary schools, and I’m concerned about capacity issues … This is going to be tough, there’s no denying that.” He hopes, he said, that the district will be able to pass a new facility referendum this November.
Superintendent Rich Dahman told the board that there are 44 sections of kindergarten through fourth grade that will be served under the new configuration, and that there are 70 large classrooms in the remaining three buildings and 19 smaller classrooms. Those will be enough to serve the elementary population, along with art, physical education, music, special education, and other programs. However, the district will not have room for the two classrooms it currently provides for a collaborative childcare program with Winona State University, he said; that program will have to be placed outside the district.
“If we close schools tonight, I see that as phase one,” said Board Chair Ben Baratto, adding that programming was his number-one concern. “What happens in those buildings is very, very important to me, and phase two, I think we have to go to the public and get some money to renovate the inside of these buildings and move forward with our programs.”
Board member Allison Quam, who is an outspoken proponent for maintaining the district’s neighborhood schools, was the lone vote to keep Madison and joined board member Tina Lehnertz in voting to save Rollingstone from the chopping block. She said consolidating the district’s youngest learners would harm education and wouldn’t foster the relationships that families build in smaller settings, and that she wanted a longer-term vision and solution, not just what would solve the district’s budget problems now.
Lehnertz spoke passionately about the community support for Rollingstone Elementary and the way the school has collaborated with the city and area organizations to provide more for students there. “That’s what we talk about on this board,” she said. “If that isn’t collaboration … what we’re looking for on this board, I don’t know what is.”
Board member Steve Schild said he commended the administrative team for its budget research and work on evaluating facility and finance options. “This is painstaking work,” he said, “and I know that they took every line [on the budget] very, very seriously. I know, in the abstract, what an effort that was.”
During the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, local attorney Karl Sonneman said the legal process for closing buildings had been “fatally defective,” citing the initial legal hearing on the closures had been postponed due to weather but that the board had failed to take a second binding vote to reschedule it. He also explained to the board that the action it was taking was “quasi-judicial,” requiring board members to be impartial and to weigh all the information before making a decision about closing buildings. He pointed to Schild’s letters to the editor and public statements about the need to close school buildings and his criticism of the Save Our Schools group’s plan to keep them open as violating his quasi-judicial responsibilities to remain impartial. In response, Schild abstained from voting on the school closure, stating, “I’m going to abstain so as not to taint the process.”
“We have an incredible staff at Winona Area Public Schools, and I don’t think we always do enough to recognize them,” said Dahman.
An estimated 386 students are expected to change schools as a result of the Madison and Rollingstone closure. WAPS is expected to put new attendance boundary information at winonaschools.org next week. Some special education and SLIP students may not be in the school of their attendance boundary; information regarding their school of attendance is expected to be mailed out directly. An open house will be held on April 23 from 5:30-7 p.m. for more information. Parents may also call 507-494-0861 with questions.
Visit winonapost.com for a complete list of budget reductions.
School closure student movement
Madison, Rollingstone closed:
404 students stay; 386 change schools
• 29 Goodview to Jefferson; 16 Goodview to W-K
• 39 Jefferson to Goodview; 70 Jefferson to W-K
• 3 Madison to Goodview; 29 Madison to Jefferson; 79 Madison SLIP to SLIP at Jefferson; 40 Madison to W-K
• 56 Rollingstone to Goodview; 2 Rollingstone to Jefferson
• 10 W-K to Goodview; 13 W-K to Jefferson
A small number of students appear to be moved across several school neighborhoods; those are due to students currently living in an attendance area farther away from school, but whose families have requested they attend a school within another attendance boundary. For example, two students will be shifted from Rollingstone to Jefferson because the families currently choose Rollingstone over closer elementary buildings.
Additionally, because WAPS plans to offer STEM programming district-wide among its elementary buildings next year, Jefferson’s STEM will no longer be a magnet program. Current Jefferson STEM students who come from other parts of the district will be moved to a school closer to their home, save for some students whose home school has closed. To further complicate the changes, the SLIP program will move to Jefferson, leaving less room for students who live in that neighborhood.
Families will still be able to file a formal request between April 1 and June 15 for their child or children to attend a school outside their attendance boundary for the coming year. If such a request is granted, parents will be responsible for transportation to and from school.
Additionally, the board has changed several bus policies in recent months, and will no longer allow families to request busing to more than one residence — daycare, coparents who live in separate residences, grandparents, or otherwise.
In January, the board was briefed by administrators on a policy change that will mean WAPS’ busing service would no longer allow kids to be dropped off and/or picked up in different locations, save two separated parent households who reside within the same attendance boundary and maintain a consistent schedule. The district will no longer provide busing for kids who need to go between childcare and mom and/or dad’s house, or between a grandparent’s home and their parents. Essentially, families must choose one busing location. If that one location is a child care facility outside the attendance boundary, parents must also make an application to request bus service to the district between April 15 and June 1 for consideration.
The attendance boundary policy also states that the district must inform families of attendance boundary changes no later than April 1.