Slaggie Foundation, Hiawatha Education Foundation donate to building, tuition needs
by NATHANIEL NELSON
For 108 years, Cotter Schools has been a staple of the Winona community, educating thousands of students and enriching the lives of families across the world. And now, several of those former students are giving back in the form of the largest gift in Cotter’s long history.
The Slaggie Family Foundation announced that it will gift $15-$20 million to Cotter Schools for the construction of a new state-of-the-art middle and high school building at the site of the current Roger Bacon Hall, to be open as soon as fall 2020. Additionally, the Hiawatha Education Foundation has offered to increase financial support for its family tuition program so that Cotter can continue to offer tuition at its current affordable rates.
“From the Slaggie Family Foundation standpoint, Cotter Schools is obviously near and dear to our heart. That is a direct result of the experience my dad had when he attended, and when my siblings and I attended,” said Mike Slaggie. “The environment around the school is so uplifting and positive.”
Mike’s parents, Steve and Barb Slaggie, explained that being able to give a gift from the family of this scale is “unbelievable,” and that giving back to the school where Steve was taught in his childhood was the first priority.
“We all felt supremely strongly about what we received from the good sisters, and what our children received from the excellent teachers at Cotter,” said Steve Slaggie. “Never would I have dreamed to be able to exercise philanthropy like we’re doing, and we’re obligated to return it to things that pique our interest –– education being first and foremost among them.”
“It’s a wonderful blessing we’ve been given, so it’s great to give back and share,” Barb Slaggie added.
According to Mike, the gift was conceived over several years of talks with Sister Judith Schaefer, president of Cotter Schools, who explained that the school has been dealing with significant deferred maintenance costs in recent years, on top of not having the 21st-century facilities needed for cutting-edge education.
“Right now, the building has about $15 million in deferred maintenance costs. That would not be addressing the costs for all the new things, like science labs. The infrastructure is really in need of reworking,” Sister Schaefer said.
Instead of just covering the deferred maintenance, Mike explained that the plan will involve a brand new building that will help fulfill all of the needs of Cotter Schools –– from new infrastructure to new classrooms, updated lab spaces and a new cafeteria closer to campus.
“We saw an opportunity to address the deferred maintenance issue and give Cotter Schools the chance to step up and step forward with 21st-century classrooms for the students there,” Mike said.
Bob Kierlin, founder of the Hiawatha Education Foundation, which provides tuition relief for local students, said, “We appreciated the educational opportunity that Cotter provided us and wanted to maintain it as a quality educational program, at an affordable price for local students.”
He added that the gift from the Slaggie Family Foundation is “both a huge gift and a huge opportunity” for Cotter and WACS.
“Buildings don’t educate students; only people can do that. But modern facilities and a welcoming environment are tools that dedicated teachers and involved parents will use to develop children into productive citizens of their communities and countries,” Kierlin said.
The Hiawatha Education Foundation gift comes at an important time for Cotter. In recent years, Cotter has experienced a 40-percent drop in its international enrollment and, as a result, has lost additional funding from those students. Cotter isn’t alone in this, either –– the U.S. has had a drop of 43 percent, as visas continue to become more and more difficult to obtain.
“It’s certainly [a result of] pieces of the rhetoric around people from other countries and gun safety. We’re working to try and counter those with a positive message, but it’s a little hard to do when that message is so loud,” Sister Schaefer said.
To combat this, the gift is two-fold. Kierlin explained that his foundation will help assist Cotter in keeping the tuition costs affordable for local residents to counteract the recent loss in international student tuition funds. The tuition assistance will be available to all local students, regardless of religious affiliation.
“The generosity of Hiawatha Education Foundation unquestionably makes Cotter Schools what it is. It makes them able to offer that education at a tuition level that is unapproachable for any private school in the Upper Midwest,” Mike Slaggie said.
On top of that, Cotter is hoping to grow its international student population, a population of whom the school has been vocally proud for decades. Mike Slaggie explained that the new building, and particularly the new labs and classrooms, will be a selling point for Cotter to potential students. STEM education is crucial, he said, so bringing the school into a new era will breathe new life into programs. Construction will begin later this year, and by next fall, the first classrooms and new cafeteria will open their doors to students.
While the building itself will be new, Sister Schaefer explained that the skyway –– the long hallway straddling Vila Street between the Roger Bacon building and the main Cotter schoolhouse –– will remain in some shape or form.
“We think it will make Cotter an attraction for its international students boarding program. It makes not only Cotter Schools, but the entire community a better place for having those students in town,” Mike Slaggie said.
Sister Schaefer explained that Cotter’s board is ecstatic about the gift, filled with overwhelming gratitude –– particularly because the donors are alumni.
“It’s a real testament not only to the education they received, but also the spirit of generosity that was imbued,” Sister Schaefer said.
The donations will prove to be a turning point for Cotter Schools, as the new building will be the largest addition to the school since its move to the Saint Teresa campus in 1992.
“What a treasure the Sisters of Saint Francis created in the Saint Teresa campus. With this new development and dreams of what else might be possible on the campus, Winona continues to see how good people can do great things,” Kierlin said.