by NATHANIEL NELSON
After being plagued by a sudden drop in enrollment following the closure of Madison and Rollingstone elementary schools, the amount the state will allow Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) to levy from property taxes is expected to drop for the first time in recent history, according to WAPS Finance Director Sarah Slaby.
Unlike Minnesota counties and cities, school districts are very limited in the amount of money they may levy from local property taxes. Each year, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) uses a complex formula to determine the maximum amount districts may levy, and each year, most Minnesota school districts levy that maximum amount. Typically, that maximum amount is a single-digit percent increase over the amount taxed the year prior. However, WAPS is now down more than 100 students than it projected for this year’s enrollment, and because school funding is so closely tied to enrollment, Slaby said the levy would decrease this year. She declined to provide the numbers and said MDE is still working to finalize its report for the district. The WAPS Board is expected to vote to approve the preliminary levy amount on Thursday night.
The WAPS Board is also expected to go into closed session to discuss potential offers for Madison and Central schools after the open session on Thursday, where Dahman is expected to share more about potential offers from buyers.
The board initially attempted to sell the buildings using a sealed bid process, and awarded a high bid to Building Value Partners, LLC, for $131,000 for Madison and $171,000 for Central. However, that process was derailed after district leaders realized the bids were flawed and had strayed on several points from the bid parameters that had been advertised. Other potential buyers threatened to sue, and the WAPS Board voted to reject the bids.
Last month, board members voted to attempt again to sell the school buildings, this time using a process of direct negotiation with potential buyers. Superintendent Rich Dahman hired Ritch Jacobson Realty of Winona to assist in the sales. The board has yet to vote to approve the contract with Jacobson, which is on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting. Dahman said at the board’s last meeting that he expected several offers to be on the table by the September 20 meeting. It is unclear whether those offers will be shared with the public before the board enters closed session to consider them.
The city of Winona is also expected to make a pitch on its interest in Central as the new home for the city’s senior center, the Winona Friendship Center. The city initially voiced its intent to look into Central at a council meeting earlier this month, where Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi announced that city officials were studying the concept.
At the same meeting, city officials stated that before any redevelopment proposals or rezoning needed for development at Central or Madison would be approved, they would need to perform a reuse study on the properties, which would last until mid-December.
On Monday night, City Council met in closed session to discuss a purchase offer for Central in time for the School Board to consider on Thursday.
Another enrollment update is also included in the WAPS Board agenda for Thursday — this time, included in the consent agenda, which is a list of routine action items that are normally approved by the board as a group and not discussed. At the last board meeting, board members learned that enrollment was down by 96 students under projections, offset by an unexpected 47-student increase in 12th grade. According to the newest numbers, nine more students have left, bringing the total loss to just under 105 pupil units. The district is also required to count students who have not been in school from the start of the year, until they have missed 15 subsequent days of class. According to an update from Slaby at the last meeting, nine seniors are expected to be cut at that time. It is unclear how many students from other grades may also be cut in the same process.