Hearings scheduled to shutter Madison, Rollingstone
by SARAH SQUIRES
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board scheduled two public hearings for February 20 that will fulfill state requirements for closing schools for the upcoming school year. Madison and Rollingstone elementary schools are on the chopping block.
Faced with $1.7 million in budget reductions for the upcoming fiscal year and scraping the bottom of the bucket in reserves, district leaders have said that everything — including school closure — will be considered as WAPS seeks ways to make the cuts. On Thursday, board members said scheduling public hearings to close schools doesn't mean the district actually will.
Board member Steve Schild said it would be foolish not to at least consider closing some schools. Declining enrollment coupled with aging facilities, he said, necessitated examining the district's facility footprint. And, if anyone out there has ideas for how the district could address the situation otherwise, "… as we've been asking for two years, please let us know."
Superintendent Rich Dahman said that he has heard from community members on both sides of the issue — some who passionately want to maintain the district's fleet of historic schools, and others who say the district must close buildings in order to be fiscally responsible. "I think we would be remiss if we're not looking at both sides of that argument," he said. He stressed that he hoped, when members of the public read about the hearings that allow them the chance to voice their thoughts on school closure, they wouldn't just assume Madison and Rollingstone closure is a done deal.
Board member Jay Kohner said that Rollingstone would likely be easier to consolidate into other district elementary buildings, but Madison, because of its SLIP, preschool and special education programming, would be more difficult. He said plans needed to be made for how those students would be transitioned elsewhere. "I need to know that before I can support a consolidation," he added.
Board chair Ben Baratto noted that there would be less savings in moving Madison students, because the SLIP classes and their teachers would remain the same, rather than being coupled with other students in the same grades to balance out class sizes. Dahman said the board would be presented with information about savings and programming adjustments before a vote is taken. He also explained that the public hearings are scheduled between the first and second meeting of a budget reduction committee, which will allow the committee and board to hear from residents before final budget cut decisions are made.
The $1.7 million in budget reductions and discussion of school closure comes on the heels of a failed November 2017 property tax referendum, which asked voters for $145 million — $82.4 million plus anticipated interest on 25-year bonds — to reconfigure and remodel the district's facilities. The referendum would have expanded Goodview and W-K, closed Madison and Jefferson, and renovated WAPS' secondary buildings. But more than 90 percent of district voters rejected the plans, and now WAPS leaders are looking for ways to consolidate buildings without millions of dollars to renovate the schools that remain.
The district learned last month that Standard and Poors had downgraded its credit rating a notch and cast a "negative" outlook, with S&P stating the district had a "one-in-three" chance of being knocked down another credit score if it couldn't reverse the trend of not balancing its budget. Even with cutting $1.7 million from next year's budget, the district will spend down $1.3 million from its reserves and doesn't anticipate balancing its books.
The public hearings for the closure of Rollingstone and Madison elementary schools are both scheduled for February 20 at the Winona Middle School. The Rollingstone hearing is only scheduled to last one hour, beginning at 6 p.m. The Madison hearing is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.
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