by WAPS Superintendent Richard Dahman
For Winona Area Public Schools, the upcoming decision regarding our building bond referendum is incredibly important, which makes it vital that we have open and factual discussions about the issues. For this reason, we’ve worked tirelessly to get accurate information out to members of our communities. Over the past two-plus years, the WAPS School Board, administration, and the Facilities Task Force have spent many hours compiling and analyzing data, holding public presentations, and sharing information, including over 20 information and question and answer sessions for community members. With all of these efforts to promote discussion, share information, and answer questions, it’s disappointing that inaccurate information is still floating around and being repeated.
As people prepare for election day, I want to address a few of these misconceptions. The first is around WAPS’ enrollment decrease, with some believing that WAPS is losing an increasing number of students to other area schools. This is incorrect, as data shared publicly shows that our enrollment decline is based on fewer births and the resulting smaller groups entering kindergarten. As a matter of fact, WAPS’ portion of the students entering kindergarten has stayed very steady over the past 14 years, and has even seen an uptick over the past three years. As someone who spent my own grade-school years in a non-public school, I see value in school options and consider the other schools within our district as our partners in providing high-quality education options for families. I’m pleased that the portion of families that are choosing WAPS is staying steady.
This enrollment decline has placed a strain on our district, both financially and educationally. With school funding being based on enrollment, our 36 percent decrease in K-12 students since 1996 has had a significant impact on our budget. As facility costs rise, and maintenance repair needs continue to mount, we are in a situation where the status quo is not financially or educationally sound.
As I’ve frequently mentioned, much has changed about education over the past years. Students’ learning styles and social-emotional needs are not the same, and expectations for graduates have shifted. With declining enrollment and facility expenditures remaining high, our revenues and expenditures are out-of-balance. Past decisions to maintain all our current buildings have funneled tight funds away from students, making it increasingly difficult to adequately address areas like inequitable class size, access to student support, and growing mental health needs.
Another piece of misinformation that I would like to address is that WAPS is proposing large, “mega schools” at Goodview and W-K. When I search online for top elementary schools in Minnesota, the first list that popped up shows schools in the top five that range in size from 635 to over 800 students, in communities like Wayzata, Minnetonka and Edina. With family members in that area, I know the high quality of these schools. The school size proposed for Goodview and W-K would allow us to have the best of both worlds: four-section schools which meet our educational and financial needs. This renovated space would allow efficient operations, promote staff collaboration and personalized learning, and allow for improved meals, student support and ability to address mental health needs.
An example from our fifth grade at Winona Middle School demonstrates our more efficient operations. Our middle school and high school have borne the largest brunt of our recent budget cuts, as inefficiencies in our elementary schools have resulted in larger class sizes in grades 5-12. That said, having all fifth graders in one building allows us to have more equal class sizes and to staff that grade much more efficiently. The 2017-18 fifth grade class has 230 students in eight core sections, with most classes ranging between 26-28 students. Last year, those same students as fourth graders had 232 students in 11 sections, with average class sizes ranging from 14 to 25. It also is important to note that our fifth grade students at Winona Middle School performed extremely well on their most recent MCA tests, finishing at the top of the Big Nine in science and near the top in math and reading, thus negating the argument that our students cannot succeed in consolidated schools.
Yet another misconception that I want to address are some clearly inaccurate statements about Wold Architects that were in previous letters to the editor. One stated that Wold could potentially be “paid more if it wins the bids to manage the construction” and could get “another $23.4 million” from WAPS. Yet another claim was that Wold has “very little experience in renovation.” I was shocked to see these inaccuracies in print, as they are clearly untrue. Wold is not a construction management firm, and thus have no ability to bid on any of these projects. They also are widely respected for their many school renovation projects, having shared many excellent examples at open meetings. When individuals or groups present misleading information, rather than arguing for their own cause, it seems that they are “attacking the messenger” when they don’t like the facts that are presented.
One last item that I would like to address is an idea which has been presented as a “better way” to meet our significant needs. The idea as shared would be to ask taxpayers for $6 million per year over the next 10 years to address our deferred maintenance items, while ignoring other areas. This piece-meal approach would clearly not meet our financial or educational needs. Financially, this plan would not even attempt to address the continued operational costs of keeping all of our buildings open, forcing us to continue to sink money into buildings, rather than students. With deferred maintenance costs for all buildings currently at over $62 million, and these costs expected to face inflationary increases of an estimated four percent every year, waiting 10 years to complete all of the projects could not be done for anything close to the proposed plan’s $60 million. A similar plan was brought to the voters by the school board in 2005, with a proposed $25 million being raised over 10 years for facility repairs. This was defeated by the voters at that time, although it does demonstrate the increased repair costs due to aging buildings and inflation.
Educationally, this “better” plan would do nothing to renovate current instructional space, provide more secure entrances, allow for meal preparation on site, modernize our learning environment, or allow us to better meet student support needs. Doing building projects with annual levies is not a common practice. While it can be done, it would require stretching projects out into multiple years, with multiple contracts that would result in inefficiency and wasted dollars, not to mention put our students through construction projects for many years to come. Bonding for major capital projects is common practice at the federal, state, county, and city level for good reason, especially at a time when interest rates are relatively low.
If the referendum fails, none of the many benefits of the current plan would be in place. We would continue to have to sink taxpayer funds into buildings, rather than being used for students and classrooms. The cost of needed repairs will increase over time, and they cannot be put off forever. WAPS would be forced to continue to make significant budget cuts, which will result in larger class sizes and loss of programs. Our students have many educational needs which are difficult to address, in part because of the $1.14 million that we are spending inefficiently on our schools.
I urge everyone to consider these issues as they are deciding how to vote. I would be happy to continue to answer questions, so please get in touch with me. We hope to see all of you at the polling places on November 7.