by SARAH SQUIRES
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board will hold a special meeting on Thursday to discuss an appeal filed by the Save Our Schools (SOS) Committee with the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which asks that the court consider reversing the School Board’s recent vote to close Madison and Rollingstone elementary schools, as well as its decision to sell them with a clause the buildings may never be used as schoolhouses again.
The board may close the meeting to the public under the attorney-client privilege exception to the Minnesota Open Meeting Law that allows public bodies to meet privately to discuss litigation strategy. The Minnesota Court of Appeals has not yet decided whether it will consider the appeal.
SOS has argued that, with the closure of the two elementary buildings, WAPS’ remaining elementary fleet will be overcrowded, with no room for flexibility if class sizes or programs are different than projected. “It seems like [school closure and sale of buildings] is not what the community wants, and it would be good to wait until November, slow the process down a bit and let voters have a chance to say what happens with our school children,” said SOS member Gretchen Michlitsch. SOS claims the board rushed in its decision to close the schools, and that closing and selling them leaves the district without options as it plans for the future.
Current board chair Ben Baratto admitted that the district’s remaining elementary schools will make for a tight fit ahead, but said the board did not rush its decision to close Madison and Rollingstone. Elementary school closure, he said, has been a topic of debate for at least the last eight years he has sat on the board. “I’ve said this is phase one,” he said of the decision to close schools and the district’s consideration of seeking a referendum on the November ballot to fund building improvements. “We’ve said that some work needs to be done, some work inside of those buildings to make them 21st-century buildings, so I hope the discussion continues along those lines.” Without the closure of some elementary buildings, Baratto said WAPS would have been forced to make even more painful budget cuts than it did in its recent $1.7-million budget reduction for the upcoming fiscal year. “We would have to reopen the cuts, and like I said, what was I going to cut? Classes? Programs? We went through all that … Nobody wants to be cut.” He continued, “When you’re looking at those big numbers, a million or more, I don’t know what you cut.”
The board is expected to meet early on Thursday, June 7, at 5 p.m. at Winona City Hall in the council chambers for the special meeting. A portion may be closed to the public before the regular meeting begins at 6 p.m. A public comment session is held before every regular meeting beginning at 6 p.m., when members of the public may address the board.
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