by SARAH SQUIRES
When Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board member Allison Quam told fellow board members that she had heard concerns from community members that WAPS was planning to ask voters to fund a new school in the coming years, she was quickly reproached. “High functioning school districts don’t operate on rumors and innuendo,” superintendent Rich Dahman said. “So to bring rumors and innuendo to the board table is pretty irresponsible.”
The board was discussing the $10 million in facility projects it plans to ask voters to fund on the November ballot, which would add security features at elementary buildings, accessibility improvements, and fund WAPS’ fleet of schools’ most critical repair needs. The list of projects was the result of a facility task force that met this spring to examine the schools and recommend a facility plan. The group was convened after last November’s $145 million referendum — $82.4 million plus interest — that would have closed Madison and Jefferson elementary schools, expanded Goodview and W-K, and renovated the district’s secondary buildings, which failed by a margin of more than 90 percent. Following that loss, WAPS leaders elected to close Madison and Rollingstone elementary buildings during the recent round of budget cuts, then turned to the task force for a recommendation about what to do next to address the facility debate that has been on the table for nearly a decade.
The task force recommended that the district ask for a relatively modest referendum package this fall, then follow it with another funding request in 2022. What the district will ask voters to fund down the road is still in question — task force members debated whether it would be wise to make major investments in the district’s older elementary buildings now, such as new HVAC systems, which Dahman said would “really tie our hands” in the event the district changes course on its long-term facility plans. Ultimately, the group did not recommend large-scale elementary renovations like new boilers and air conditioning systems. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about how our new elementary footprint is going to play out over the years,” Dahman told the group.
On Thursday, board member Steve Schild, who sat on the task force, said the “inference that there is a secret plan for a new facility [is] unfortunate,” in response to Quam’s statements about what she had been hearing from constituents.
“I don’t know where that came from but I’ve heard the same thing,” state board chair Ben Baratto, who was not a member of the task force. “People seem to feel that was something that that [task force] said.”
“I was there,” responded Schild. If people are spreading that rumor, added Dahman, then they are not being honest.
Board member Jay Kohner, who was also a member of the task force, said while there was not a plan to ask voters to fund a new school down the road, the task force did discuss whether it was a good idea to make major investments in the older buildings if the long-range plan might include a new elementary building. “[There is] no plan, but it was brought up,” he explained.
“It would be extremely irresponsible for us not to consider that that might be an option,” said Dahman of the potential for a new building initiative in the future. “It would be wildly irresponsible for the task force not to consider that that is something that could happen. Any work that we do now should leave open any possibility, because it would be irresponsible for us to tie the hands of any group down the road.” The task force discussed why a phase-two, longer-term plan needed to be studied, he explained, but that discussion will include all sorts of options involving current buildings, he said.
Quam said that it was important for the board to remember the history of the district and its facilities, adding that the “culture is that people feel that they are told one thing and then something else happens.” That sentiment has been present since the late ‘60s, she continued, when rural schools were added to the Winona district, and then shuttered. “These are the comments that I’m getting from people. They want to be assured that there is going to be a sincere commitment to our current assets.”
Schild said that talking about 50 years of mistrust in the district should come with particular examples, “rather than a generalized half century.” On the issue of rural schools being closed, “That story is never told in its totality. If you look at the schools closed in the ‘60s, they were wood-framed buildings. Some of those rural schools … were basically sheds.” Closing them was part of a nation-wide movement to improve education, he said, when students “came in and had gyms and music rooms and science and indoor plumbing.”
Dahman told the board that if they were approached by community members with such concerns, the board should direct them to his office. “Often we get in trouble because board members get those comments but don’t follow board policy and bring those to administration,” he said.
The WAPS facility task force plan will include security upgrades at elementary buildings, such as added technology, buzzers, cameras and secured vestibules at all sites. The group also recommended $1.9 million for capital projects such as roof replacements, railings, fire alarm systems, and a new parking lot at the high school. Handicap-accessible features like new doors, bathrooms, entryways and railings, as well as a ramp that would allow people with disabilities access to the front door at W-K, were added to the list at a cost of $1.3 million. Additionally, $5 million in repair needs on a list of $13 million were added to the recommendation for the November ballot list of projects.
Board members discussed how critical security upgrades will be for the district’s elementary buildings; currently, several schools do not have controlled entryways and rely on an honor system that visitors go to the office for a school pass. The bare-bones components of such a system — cameras and a buzzer-controlled entry way, could be done at a cost of around $10,000 per school, Wold Architect representatives told the board. Quam had asked that the costs of that system be provided and considered by the board.
Board member Jeanne Nelson said the $10-million plan was “specific and practical. I think it is one that the community will be very receptive to. These are very clearly identified needs that I just think that anybody who walks into these buildings realizes needs to be done.”
Schild added that the recent WAPS survey of district residents identified updated security as a priority, and that the list of projects were among those that surveyed residents said they value. “I think that’s a good, responsible start,” he said.
“Our children deserve to have updated facilities, and safe facilities in our district,” Dahman stated. You can’t expect the taxpayers to fund the entire list of deferred maintenance needs of WAPS’ buildings at once, because “it’s wise for us to see how our new facilities situation works out for us over the next few years.” The district should carefully study its facilities in the coming years to see “how it plays out,” and then plan for long-range needs, he said.