by LAURA HAYES
Several Winona City Council members said that they would support closing Seventh Street at Washington-Kosciusko if Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board decided to expand the school. Some said that expanding W-K may be more palatable for community members versus a new school on city land at Lake Park.
Other council members had concerns, asking WAPS Interim Superintendent Kelly Halvorsen whether the School Board had reconsidered keeping three schools instead of the currently proposed $90 million two-school facility plan that would expand Goodview and Jefferson and close the remaining schools, or whether the district had considered asking the voters to foot the bill for its recent $1.5 million in budget cuts.
Halvorsen told the council that it was “overwhelming” for the district to operate five elementary schools. “We can’t continue to cut $1.5 million from our budget. The only place we’re finding that is in our operations of our elementary schools,” she said.
Just weeks ago, the School Board approved $1.5 million in budget cuts, and board members are anticipating cutting over $5 million over the next five years. Some community members called on the board to close schools instead of cutting teachers and programs.
For the past year-and-a-half the School Board has flip-flopped on exactly what it would do with its elementary schools. Initially, the board approved an estimated $90 million facility plan that would expand Goodview and Jefferson. However, during a recent March meeting, some board members were interested in a new two-school facility plan –– W-K and Goodview. “A presence of an elementary on the east side is important to this community,” Halvorsen said.
She asked City Council members if they would be interested in closing a block of Seventh Street between Mankato Avenue and High Forest Street and turning High Forest into a one-way street where parents could drop off their students. Under conceptual drawings prepared by Wold Architects and Engineers, a new two-story addition would be added to the back of the building where the current playground is located. The addition would include space for offices, a new entrance, and a gymnasium and house around 580 students. The area at the closed Seventh Street would be used for parking and play space. Although the costs weren’t finalized, in March Wold partner Paul Aplikowski estimated that the addition and expansion would cost approximately $22 million.
In addition to closing Seventh Street, Halvorsen said that the district reached out to the owners of some of the properties on the block between Seventh and Broadway. Some of the owners were interested in selling to the district, she said. Halvorsen cautioned that the purchase of any property, however, would be contingent on voters approving a multi-million dollar property tax increase.
Council member Al Thurley asked Halvorsen about alternatives if property owners refused to sell. The School Board has been clear that it did not want to use eminent domain to take over property, Halvorsen said. “Eminent domain usually doesn’t create any good feelings,” Thurley added.
Some City Council members supported WAPS’ proposed street closures. Council member Pam Eyden said that expanding W-K seemed like an easier sell to people than building a school at Lake Park. “I don’t personally have an objection to the closing of part of Seventh Street to accommodate students if this is one of the plans you move forward with. It’s hard to say until [the School Board] votes on what schools they’re going to keep open,” council member Michelle Alexander said. She said that she saw the appeal of having an elementary school on either side of town, adding that Jefferson had its own benefits, including the size of the property on which it sits and its surrounding facilities.
A one-way street, however, would require further discussion with the city’s engineering department, Alexander added. City Engineer Brian DeFrang that there was a sewer on Seventh Street that served one property and gas and power lines. “It’s certainly feasible,” DeFrang said.
Other council members were not as supportive. “If we even start to agree with some of these conceptually, then we’re agreeing with the overall concept of reducing school numbers,” council member Gerry Krage said.
Has the board considered asking voters for the $1.5 million that was cut from the budget? council member Paul Schollmeier asked. Halvorsen said that asking the community for the money wouldn’t solve the problem unless the district asked for the money annually. “And we would continue to spend in operational costs for our elementary schools,” she added.
Winona Mayor Mark Peterson called his own feelings regarding what the district would do with its elementary schools “irrelevant” to the conversation and said that he would be willing to consider the School Board’s proposal. “I don’t want this to be the council being complicit in helping the School Board close schools. That’s your decision to make. If you decided to do that, you’re going to need some help from this council,” he said.
The School Board is estimated to take a final vote on its facility plan on May 4.