by NATHANIEL NELSON
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board will take a final vote to ask for $9.4 million in property taxes to fund building improvements at its meeting this Thursday. District leaders and facilities task force have noted that an included $1.4 million in safety improvements are a selling point for the November referendum, but some members of the board believe the security issue needs to be addressed sooner. Last month, board member Allison Quam asked to add an iPhone-based buzzer system that would secure the entryways at all elementary schools to the list of state-funded facility projects so that the safety issue would not linger for another school year.
School security has been a hot topic for the last several months — entryways in the elementary school buildings are unsecured, and parents have spoken up about the necessity for a comprehensive security update. However, none of the security options included in the referendum would go into effect for the 2017-18 school year, leaving things in their current state for as long as a year.
Quam initially brought forward a motion to add an iPhone-based buzzer system costing around $26,000 to the long-term facility maintenance (LTFM) funding request to the state, but Superintendent Rich Dahman said the LTFM wouldn’t be the best fund for the project, explaining that a buzzer system would only be a stopgap to a larger solution. Additionally, he added that changing the proposal to include that security would be difficult for the board to add to see the state’s August 1 deadline for funding requests.
“Part of my concern is it’s kind of late in the game to change a document that the board has had for two weeks, so I think the best idea is to just do that out of our fund balance,” Dahman suggested at the July 19 meeting.
Quam said beginning to work on security options before the referendum would look better to the community, showing that the district is committed to increasing student safety. Several other options were thrown around, including locking the doors and requiring visitors to call to be let in until full security measures can be implemented. Dahman was skeptical, saying that not allowing people to just walk into the school and then leave would cause some backlash among the community.
“I want to make sure we’re not underselling the inconvenience of standing outside in the cold and rain, and how some people will react to that,” Dahman explained. “We have to weigh the risk of something happening versus the inconvenience.”
He also noted that adding locks to the doors would add an “unwelcoming atmosphere” for visitors.
Dahman suggested hiring full-time employees to watch the doors, and board members suggested adding a buzzer system, posting a phone list for visitors to call and bringing in a police force to secure the entrances. Additionally, Dahman said the district could use reserve funds to pay for initial security upgrades. The district is currently trying to increase its fund balance, which currently is at just over four percent of annual expenditures.
Dahman said he would prepare temporary options to the meeting this Thursday. According to the agenda, school safety options will be brought up after the votes on the special election and Minnesota Department of Education review and comment document on the referendum.
On Thursday, the board will vote on the approval of a special election to authorize the issuance of school building bonds and to ask the state to allow the referendum to be on the ballot in November.
At the July 19 meeting, the board voted, with Quam voting no, to ask WAPS’ voters to fund a $9.4-million referendum to provide building improvements to the current facilities.
The $9.4-million property-tax increase would fund security upgrades at the elementary buildings, such as adding technology, buzzers, secured vestibules and cameras to all sites, as well as $1.9 million for capital projects including roof replacements, fire alarms, a parking lot at the high school and railings. Additionally, $1.3 million was allocated for handicap-accessible features like new doors, bathrooms and a ramp at W-K, and another $5 million was added to cover the district’s most critical repair needs.
Thursday’s meeting will also discuss the resignation of board member Karen Coleman, who announced her departure last month as her family moves to Spain. It is unclear whether the board will appoint a replacement in advance of the November election. The board will also vote on a new draft of the strategic plan for the district, which includes a roadmap and three-year board agenda.