by SARAH SQUIRES
If Winona Area Public School Board (WAPS) members follow the recommendation of the district’s newest iteration of a facility task force, an approximate $10-million facility referendum will be on the November ballot, followed by a request for more building funds in 2022.
On the last of the task force meetings as the clock ticked toward its scheduled ending, members were still debating key ingredients to the facility plan: should the district ask voters to invest in the two remaining older elementary buildings? How much money should WAPS ask voters to fund on this year’s ballot? With debt from the middle school about to expire, approximately $1.9 million annually will come off the books, and task force members debated whether to ask for more — which would amount to a net tax increase. In the end, the task force recommended the board seek $10 million for improvements over four years, which would equal about $20 more annually for a $100,000 residential property over what is being paid now with middle school debt included.
Near the end of the meeting, members had found consensus on the figure, but not the list of projects. They had all agreed that $1.3 million in security improvements, to include added technology, buzzers, cameras, and secured vestibules at all sites, was needed, and something that the community would endorse on the ballot. They’d also agreed upon $1.9 million for the district’s most critical repair needs, including roofs, railings, fire alarm systems, and a new parking lot at the high school. And added accessibility features, such as handicap-accessible doors, bathrooms, entryways and railings at a cost of $1.3 million were added to the list by task force members. In the end, the group asked Wold Architects and Engineers to examine a list of $13 million in building needs and choose approximately $5 million in what it considered the most crucial and add it to the total. It opted against HVAC and air conditioning additions to older buildings, stating the WAPS Board could examine what the district’s elementary footprint would look like in the coming years before deciding what to ask voters to fund in 2022.
Some of the $50 million in building improvements examined by the group were summarily dismissed. Adding kitchens to the elementary buildings, for example, would increase operations expenses with added staff to cook and serve in them. A multi-million-dollar new gymnasium at the ALC, which currently does not have its own space for physical education, was pondered, but when Paul Aplikowski of Wold queried the group about whether they thought it would help or hinder the November referendum’s passage, nearly all agreed it would turn some voters away from the plan.
“We have some pretty urgent needs, like security,” said one task force member. Some people might not consider the gym as urgent, she stated, adding that would be a better thing to consider for a phase-two ballot question in 2022. “That’s always the temptation,” responded Aplikowski. “How much can you sneak in, right?”
“I just don’t know if we can sneak in a $3-million gym,” she said.
“I think we’re slitting our throats in not asking for more money for some of these things,” commented task force member Laurie Lucas, “especially HVAC. Even if we can’t do all [of the buildings], at least if we can get better air quality in the elementaries.”
Aplikowski asked the group whether investing much into the older elementary schools would be deemed controversial by voters and found mixed views. “I think investing in the elementaries would be a big mistake,” noted former superintendent Eric Bartleson. “I wouldn’t want to vote for it. We shouldn’t do anything to the two elementaries, the old ones.”
The task force’s work and recommendation for this year’s property tax referendum comes after voters rejected a proposal last November that would have closed Jefferson and Madison elementary schools, expanded Goodview and W-K, and renovated the district’s secondary buildings at a cost of $145 million — $82.4 million plus interest over 25 years. More than 90 percent of voters rejected the plan. Faced with $1.7 million in budget reductions, board members turned the ax to Madison and Rollingstone schools. Now, the task force, and ultimately the School Board, must mull whether borrowing for the remaining older elementary buildings — W-K and Jefferson — makes sense in the long term.
Current superintendent Rich Dahman said borrowing millions more to fund HVAC improvements at elementary schools would mean longer-term borrowing, perhaps 20 years, which he said “really ties our hands” in the event the district changes course for its facilities during that timeline. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about how our new elementary footprint is going to play out over the years,” he stated.
“It’s all or nothing. You either pass [the referendum] or you don’t pass it,” said Aplikowski. “So how much do you want to risk not passing it? Because then you get nothing until you regroup again. That’s the brutal reality of it.” After the group came to a consensus on its $10-million option, which does not make major investments in WAPS’ elementary fleet, he told the group that would give the district greater flexibility as it plans for the future and the 2022 referendum. “That’s part of the beauty of this plan,” he said. “You don’t have to figure out what that second step is. You can see how it goes and then make a decision in three years or whatever. There’s a little bit of wisdom of time with that.”
The WAPS Board is expected to review the task force recommendation at its meeting on Thursday night, but is not slated to take a vote on the plan. Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.