by SARAH SQUIRES
In a split vote, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board postponed calling for bids for Rollingstone Community School — and the prohibition against any new owner using it as a schoolhouse — as Rollingstone community members work to come up with a plan that would keep its doors open to kids. The vote to put Madison and Central elementary buildings up for sale with the prohibition against using them as schools went through, with bids expected to be opened on June 15.
Randall Sullivan of Rollingstone spoke to the board as co-chair of a Rollingstone committee examining a potential charter or magnet program at the school site. He said he and Rollingstone representatives had met with WAPS Superintendent Rich Dahman in April and discussed using the building as a school, on which Sullivan said Dahman seemed willing to work with them. He called Dahman’s recommendation on including the prohibition of the building being used as a school “troubling.” He continued, “That building is zoned as such that it cannot be [used for] commercial or multi-family, which will not change.”
Sullivan said the committee had sent out 1,800 surveys to gather information for the school plan, adding that more than 50 students would leave the district when the school is closed. If WAPS were willing to work with Rollingstone on a charter or district-sponsored magnet program there, he said, those students would be funneled into WAPS’ secondary programs, which would provide future revenue. Creative programming, he said, could attract outside students as well.
Other sites are being examined, he said, though the committee would prefer to work with the district to maintain a school at the site. The closing, continued Sullivan, has crippled the community, but it will proceed with WAPS or not. “You have to be willing to make some moves toward good will and have faith in the community that has always been good to you,” he told the board.
Board member Allison Quam made several unsuccessful attempts to postpone the sale of all three buildings, and to remove the clause that prohibits their use as schools. She said the district has not yet completed its strategic planning, and it should know whether it will need more future space — such as for early childhood programming — before it disposes of the buildings. “And I don’t see how we could successfully do that in three elementary buildings,” Quam stated. “I think that’s one of the best ways to get families invested in your school district, by getting into the buildings and having those relationships, with teachers, with staff.”
“I would strongly recommend that we continue to move forward with sales of all three schools,” Dahman told the board. He said that although he doesn’t refer to charter and parochial schools as “competitors,” students that attend other education offerings comes at a cost. “That lost revenue harms our students.”
“The board took the [school closure] vote that it did because of the sad realities that we face,” explained board member Steve Schild. “From the start I’ve taken no relish in supporting closing schools, but this is something that has been put off for at least 15 years.” He, along with board members Jeanne Nelson and Karen Coleman, voted against delaying the sale of Rollingstone decision until the next board meeting, and cautioned that the board should expect some firm plans from the Rollingstone group if it were to consider its proposal, such as expecting any funding for such a plan to be available now.
Board member Tina Lehnertz, who represents the Rollingstone community, said the board should at least listen to the proposal. “I agree that we needed to make the step in closing some buildings,” she said. “However, the buildings in Winona will easily be sold as compared to a building out in Rollingstone. You have a strong relationship with Ridgeway [charter school]; I don’t know why you wouldn’t want that same relationship with the community of Rollingstone.”
Board member Jeanne Nelson said the district needed to invest in programming, and these buildings have impacted what the district can offer in programs. “We’ve cut back so much over the years, it’s kind of like plucking a chicken,” she said. “If you take one feather at a time, you don’t notice it as much.”
Board member Jay Kohner stated that WAPS is “up against the wall” financially, but worried that losing so many students in Rollingstone could further harm the district’s books. “We lose 50 kids because we close a school, there’s revenue lost there,” he said. “Without a crystal ball, it’s really hard to know whether or not we really are, just financially, just looking at it purely financially, whether we’re going to benefit from that.”
Several residents spoke against the sale of the schools during the meeting. Allen Hillary said having only three elementary buildings would leave room for no new programming or unexpected space needs, and said taxpayer funded buildings should be available for use as schools. “I think the board needs to work with a consensus of the community, not a consensus with administration or the superintendent,” he said.
The WAPS Board is expected to examine Rollingstone’s plans and vote on whether to offer the school for sale, and whether to prohibit its future use as a school, at its meeting on May 17. Keep reading the Winona Post for more.