by Publisher Patrick P. Marek
Ladies and gentlemen, it might take another “Minnesota Miracle,” but we may be about to witness a comeback for the ages. With a performance record that includes the hiring, enabling, extending the contract of, and then awarding a healthy compensation package to the former (whose name shall not be mentioned) superintendent of schools, disregarding the recommendations of their own Budget Task Force, and then crafting a referendum that was so ill conceived and poorly executed that it was rejected by the voters by a 90 percent margin, the current ISD 861 School Board had a chance to go down as one of the most ineffective, divisive, and dysfunctional in Winona’s history.
However, the School Board now has one last chance to turn things around and regain the trust of voters. Right now a group of dedicated Winona citizens are serving on another Budget Task Force and are charged with the difficult and sometimes heartbreaking task of finding a way to cut $1.7 million out of the ISD 861 budget. It would be a great start if our School Board could put its differences, sacred cows, and personal agendas aside and seriously consider and implement the cuts that the task force recommends.
Cutting programs that affect the education of the children of the district should be only a last resort, and won’t be necessary if the School Board can think out-of-the-box and make some difficult, but substantive changes that will have a lasting and positive effect on the district’s financial future. Obviously closing a school or schools has to be considered, but for a meaningful (but painful) area to trim, the WAPS Board doesn’t need to look any farther than its bloated administration budget.
A Winona Post investigative report published last Sunday revealed that according to WAPS’ own auditors (Cliffton Larson Allen), WAPS spends 10.33 percent more on “district and school administration and support services” than the state average of all school districts, and 24.55 percent more than similar-sized districts. That translates to $1,121 (in 2017) of the funds WAPS levies per child spent in these areas. And while district executives would have you believe that the trend in higher administrative spending is only due to having more elementary principals than other districts, that isn’t true. The Winona Post investigation calculated Department of Education data from similar-sized districts that only included central administrative spending — and no principals, and found WAPS consistently rose to the top of the pack for spending dating back to 2012. Additionally, although WAPS has made budget cuts in recent years that include reductions in teaching staff, and programming, the district’s central administration spending has increased.
Now the district is eyeing more drastic cuts, including closing schools, cutting librarians, using more of the $1 million tech levy for staff, increasing activity fees, eliminating band lessons, fourth-grade orchestra, and hockey. Cuts currently proposed for the central administrative office are more modest: shifting duties and paring off FTE fractions for the human resources director. This is an unacceptable and unbalanced proposal that will hurt the quality of our children’s education.
And despite years of enjoying the fruits of an overly generous budget, the WAPS administrative team hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory. It delayed budget cuts for years, and spent nearly all of the district’s reserves to push off inevitable reductions. It bungled the last election filing so badly that it had to take itself to court to find a remedy. The administration failed to properly dot the Is and cross the Ts to levy for more than a million dollars in health and safety spending that should have been covered by regular taxes years ago, exacerbating the deficit today. It spent tens of thousands of dollars on AVID and its warm-weather winter conferences on a program geared toward “middle of the road” students in a district where kids are not learning how to read and do math. In some grades and subjects, less than half of WAPS students are considered proficient. Over the last few years, as it has diminished programs, staff, and failed to address its very serious academic cancers, the administrative staff has protected itself from meaningful cuts. It’s time for a reckoning.
WAPS Board member Allison Quam recently proposed a budget-reduction plan that included trimming overall expenditures for WAPS’ licensed and non-licensed administrators by up to or over $600,000. This would be a great start, and is the kind of thinking that the WAPS Board needs to adopt and implement if it is going to lead the district out of this budget crisis. It’s time to put aside private agendas and make the number-one priority the education of the district’s children. If the WAPS Board can work together and create meaningful financial change, members can create a new, positive legacy for themselves and lead the district into a bright and financially secure future. The clock is ticking. You can do it!