by SARAH SQUIRES
Grappling with the overwhelming rejection of Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) November 7 referendum question — which asked property taxpayers to fund a $145-million facility plan that would close elementary schools and add additions onto others — WAPS Board members met at the table on Monday night to sort through the ballot ashes.
The problem with WAPS’ buildings is not going away, and board members agreed that the November 2018 election is a good place to aim for another request of voters to fund a different plan. They shared varying ideas about how to find that better plan — revisit the “ignored” recommendations made by the Facility Task Force (FTF) they tasked with studying the issues for months; examine school closures during budget-cut talks on the horizon; reach out to the FTF, who board members said felt slighted but could serve as advocates for a new ballot question.
What the board agreed upon was a timeline to find a new plan: consider a consultant to conduct a new survey, get started on strategic planning to lead the way, connect with voters. WAPS Board members also hashed out what went wrong with an election that had 91 percent of voters turn their collective heads at the plan.
The board had asked voters for $82.4 million — $145 million with interest — to fund a plan that would have expanded and renovated Goodview and Washington-Kosciusko (W-K); kept Rollingstone open with minimal repairs; and provided millions in repairs and additions at the Winona Senior High School, Alternative Learning Center, and Winona Middle School; while closing both Jefferson and Madison elementary schools. Even board members, however, were split on the plan, with the referendum question coming after a 4-3 vote from the WAPS Board.
The FTF was formed to analyze district data and provide the board with a facility plan recommendation. After months of debate, the group sent two plans to the School Board — a Goodview/Jefferson plan and a W-K/Goodview/Jefferson plan. But the board ultimately struggled to find consensus itself, and ended up pursuing the plan that failed on November 7.
The FTF is a group that can help the district lobby for a facility plan, and it is important to make amends with its members, who can be WAPS’ allies, board member Karen Coleman noted. “One positive was the task force, and I think we blew it on that one,” she said. Board member Steve Schild, who sat on the FTF, concurred. “We did indeed ignore that report.”
Wold Architects and Engineers partner Paul Aplikowski, who served as a consultant to the task force, said he felt at the time as though the board was modifying the work of the FTF, though that was not the way task force members perceived the situation. He’s led other efforts where such a task force’s plans were altered, though not to the degree the WAPS Board strayed from its group’s recommendation, “or where the task force felt that disenfranchised.”
“I think the wake-up call was an important thing,” Aplikowski said of the rejected ballot question, adding that the board needed to develop a consensus among its members and do a better job with community engagement.
Board member Jay Kohner said the district needed to work on building trust in the community, explaining that it had lost ground when it did not support the FTF’s recommendations, and that some voters had concern about the recent discovery of $1.5 million the district had failed to levy for in health and safety projects, which is expected to further drain the district’s dwindling reserve fund. “I think people are a little unsure about that,” he said. “We really need to figure out a way to [build consensus]. I would not be in favor of another 3-4 split vote to run another referendum. I think that’s just not going to work.”
How will WAPS decide what facility configuration to pursue on the November 2018 ballot? Superintendent Rich Dahman is expected to research proposals for a new community survey, one that will gauge residents’ values and answer questions such as how important it is to the community that a potential new elementary school site be located in the city of Winona. The district will also begin strategic planning that can help inform the direction it should take. And, the board is expected to invite the FTF back to the table to examine survey data and help formulate a new plan. “Before we bring something else to the voters, we have to have more clarity about what our voters will support,” Dahman said.
It would be good to have voter data, Schild said, “but I wonder what it will look like to the public if we go out yet again and spend more money and ask for more information.”
Dahman explained that although the district had budgeted $100,000 for the November 7 election, it had actually only spent about $35,000, and some of the excess could be used to fund a consulting firm to conduct the survey.
Schild said he felt that the board spent too much effort in crafting a facility plan that attempted to avoid components that voters would reject, and ended up with a proposal that no one could support. The public needs to understand that the district cannot continue to operate as-is, he said, and several board members agreed that school closure will be evaluated as a potential budget cut during April budget reduction meetings. And, if the board pursues closure, schools could be shuttered as early as next school year. “We have avoided this for a long time, and now the piper has got to be paid,” Schild said.
Coleman said the board should pursue the FTF recommendations on the ballot, and if it doesn’t pass, the board should “fundamentally reassess” its facility approach. “If [another referendum based on FTF’s recommendation] doesn’t pass, I think the community is sending a message that facilities are more important, or as important, as programs,” she said. “We can scold the public all we want for choosing facilities over programming,” she added, but they “foot the bill.”
“I would hope that the board would be willing and interested in exploring creative options for buildings” including grants, long-term facility funding, and other possibilities that haven’t been fully explored, board member Allison Quam stated. The district needs to do a better job of providing accessible, easy to understand information, she added.
Board member Tina Lehnertz lamented hearing from voters who said they were too uninformed to cast a ballot on the question, wondering what more the district could do to help residents understand the district’s financial and facility issues. “Somehow we have to figure out how to reach these people that are too busy to know what’s going on, don’t know how to ask the right questions, whatever that may be,” she said.
Schild took serious issue with what he said was incorrect information printed on pamphlets and distributed by the Save Our Schools Committee — pointing to an assertion made that the district’s preschool partnership with WSU would end if the referendum had passed. He attempted to convince fellow board members to add an agenda item to Thursday’s board meeting that would allow the district to address that misinformation.
The strategy behind campaigns is to try to find weak spots and make them “larger than life,” Aplikowski said. And while there may have been incorrect information distributed by SOS, “It happened, but it didn’t make a 40-percent swing,” he continued. He suggested the board raise its conversation to a “higher level.” “If we go back to arguing about those smaller points, I don’t think we’re going to make any progress.”
Quam agreed. “I find spending any more additional time pointing out where community members have provided misinformation is unproductive and a negative use of our energy.”
The board agreed that it would perhaps address the issue at a later date, but for now, would focus on moving the conversation forward.
The board discussed potentially planning a referendum for earlier or later than the November 2018 ballot, but Dahman noted that the middle school debt would be paid off next year, and once that is done, any new bond questions would have a “perceived greater tax impact.” Finance Director Sarah Slaby explained that the district will make its last middle school debt payment in 2019, “So we would need to have replacement debt by 2020.”