by SARAH SQUIRES
It’s official: Rollingstone Community School is for sale — and, according to a clause approved with a 5-2 vote by the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board, new owners will not be allowed to use it as a schoolhouse. The vote came before a packed crowd of Rollingstone residents who implored the board to allow the city to bid on the building for use as a charter school. They asked that the clause be removed and that the board reconsider its vote to close the school next school year and keep it open while the group organizes the charter operation.
The board will learn whether the sale opening with the clause will attract buyers when bids are opened this summer; Rollingstone city leaders have said the school’s zoning prohibits its use for commercial or multifamily housing.
Rollingstone Community Charter School Committee Co-Chair Randall Sullivan told the School Board that the committee would proceed with the charter planning with the district’s support, or without it, but that the group wanted to work with the district. He said the group had examined other sites that could also house a charter program in the city, and stressed that a partnership with WAPS would feed more students into the district’s secondary schools. A survey conducted by the group showed that the bulk of current parents planned to leave WAPS for other school choices after the district shutters the schoolhouse.
Dr. Lisa Snyder, executive director of the nonprofit EdVisions, pitched the charter plan to the board, stating that a charter model could offer attractive choice programming for families and draw some of the students back who currently attend Lewiston-Altura through open enrollment. “There is no doubt that this is a challenging time for public schools in America,” Snyder said. “Many agree the model is simply unsustainable.” A redesigned charter model allows schools to operate less expensively, she stated. A retired educator of 30 years, Snyder first began her career at WAPS Junior High School, then later served as superintendent of Lakeville Public Schools. She said seven years ago, Lakeville was in a similar budget crisis now faced by WAPS: after a slew of budget cuts, failed referendums, slashing staff by 20 percent, and losing students to open enrollment, teachers in that district wanted to start a charter magnet program in a school slated for closure. “Rather than continuing down a path of reductions, the board focused on innovating,” she explained. The district partnered to form the magnet program at the site, gained its lost students and more, and now has a waiting list for the school.
However, promises of future secondary students did not win over board members, who said the request — in particular, of keeping Rollingstone open as a district offering next school year while the group plans — did not offer any guarantees that it would not be a financial loss for the district. The district just cut $1.7 million from its budget for the next school year, and board members said keeping Rollingstone open for another year would mean it would have to find several hundred thousand dollars to subsidize operations. Superintendent Rich Dahman said he’d hoped the city or charter planning group “would have some ways to minimize the risk, because those are real costs to our district.” He said he’s enjoyed hearing the enthusiasm from the Rollingstone community about its school. “I think it’s awesome. But strong feelings don’t help us meet our financial need.”
Board member Tina Lehnertz, who represents Rollingstone, decried fellow board members’ unwillingness to partner with Rollingstone on the plan, and said the community support for the school there was exactly what the district wanted from the public it serves. “I do believe that not partnering with you or working with you would be very hurtful for the district. I think that we will lose out in the long run,” she said. WAPS has refused to market Rollingstone, refused to bus outside students to fill it, and it is time for the district to focus less on cutting and more on finding innovative ways to attract more students — and the revenue they bring, she said. “We have to start figuring out how to bring students to this district, because the state is not helping us,” she added. “We’re never going to get better if we’re always cutting.”
There is no guarantee that future Rollingstone charter students would attend WAPS’ secondary schools, board member Jay Kohner said, and no guarantee that the students it might attract would be from outside programs and not WAPS’ other elementary schools. “This is a very difficult thing,” he stated. “What I’m struggling with is I don’t see how, financially, it’s going to put us in a better situation … I don’t understand why Goodview [Elementary] is not an option for families, too.”
“Give Goodview a chance,” echoed board member Karen Coleman. She said that WAPS has subsidized Rollingstone’s school for the last 20 years. “And when the district is in financial straights, and we ask everyone to make sacrifices, [we] close Madison, Rollingstone jumps ship,” she said. I ask for good will from the Rollingstone community … We have declining enrollment; we can’t afford to be spending money that we don’t have.”
“There is no question that we will be taking away from the other people who are part of this district [if we keep Rollingstone open],” board member Steve Schild added. “We would have to backtrack on budget decisions.”
Board member Allison Quam cast her vote with Lehnertz to remove the clause preventing the building’s use as a school so that the city of Rollingstone could bid on it. She said that while there are no guarantees that allowing the charter would benefit the district, there were no guarantees it would harm it, either. “Our rural communities have been damaged and hurt time and time again,” she said. “This has been going on for decades.” She said the vote was an opportunity to support a rural part of the district and affirm that it was a truly part of WAPS. “If we have strong school cultures, strong early programming … there is no need to worry about competition, because we will attract them,” she said.
The rejuvenated WAPS Facilities Task Force will host a listening session for community members on May 21 from 6-8 p.m. at the Winona Senior High School. A short presentation will be followed by time for questions from parents and community members. The session will be live streamed on the district’s Facebook page.