Contractors lay down a layer of dirt on the new parking lot at Winona Senior High School. The parking lot is one of several projects included in the district’s $9.4-million referendum that was approved by voters last fall.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
While students are relaxing at home and summer is in full swing, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) is abuzz with the sounds of heavy machinery, construction equipment and contractors working to get the schools ready for the fall semester. The district has begun work on its first phase of projects stemming from last year’s $9.4-million referendum, and in driving by Winona Senior High School (WSHS), the changes are already evident –– what was once a large parking lot is now a monumental sand pit.
Everything is moving along according to schedule and on-budget, explained Mike McArdle, director of buildings and grounds at WAPS. The vast majority of the first-phase projects will be completed by the time students return from the summer, he said, with the last few details to be ironed out in September. The intention with this, McArdle explained, iss to keep disruption across the district to a minimum.
“We want to get the deconstruction and construction phases done before school starts or after hours at the beginning of the school year,” McArdle said.
Currently, the district is working on more than a dozen different referendum projects in conjunction with Wold Architects and Engineers, the firm hired to complete the projects. These include renovating the office at Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) Elementary, replacing the Jefferson and Goodview fire-alarm systems, adding accessibility to the bathrooms at Goodview, adding a kitchen grease interceptor at WSHS, replacing the roof at Jefferson, laying new carpeting at Winona Middle School, constructing an accessibility ramp at Jefferson, and –– the most visible of the projects –– repaving the WSHS parking lot.
“[The parking lot] was beyond its useful life,” McArdle explained, adding that this year made the improvements even more necessary.
This winter was a tough one for many Minnesotans, including those here in the driftless region. Despite the onslaught of wintery destruction, McArdle explained that the district is still on track for all of its projects –– however, the winter weather only exasperated the problems with the lot, making the cracks and potholes even more of an issue.
The parking lot was one of the first referendum projects to kick off, starting right after the school year ended, and finishing that before students come back is at the top of the district’s priority list.
“We have roughly 280 parking spaces, and if we have to find new homes for 280 cars, that would be very disruptive,” McArdle said.
The parking lot project is indicative of many of the first-phase projects –– a necessary renovation, but nothing too wildly revisionary. For the most part, the parking lot will look the same as it did before, with minor changes like increased space between spaces and the removal of the concrete barriers.
The exception, however, is the office at W-K –– the first step of a multi-step project, the change will completely revamp how the entrances work at the East End elementary school. The office is being reworked to be a part of the school’s new secure vestibule, with a wall being knocked out for a transaction window and the office itself re-vamped to be laid out more appropriately.
“What we want to do is give all of our public and parents one point of entry,” McArdle said.
The visual change will be more pronounced than at the other elementary schools. For instance, both Jefferson and Goodview schools already have a main entrance with a window, so staff can keep track of who’s coming in and going out. At W-K, the office –– where visitors have to sign in –– is located down the hallway and out of sight.
Reworking the office is the first step toward a new entrance that will be located on the west side of the W-K building, paired with a new accessibility ramp that will be constructed as part of the second year of projects.
The Jefferson accessibility ramp, despite being held up by the Historical Preservation Committee for a short time, is slated to start construction next week and go through the end of the summer.
“By the first day of school, we have to have at least half [of the Jefferson accessibility ramp] usable for path of egress,” McArdle said, adding that the ramp construction will need to go into the school year to account for the final touches including railing installation and landscaping.
This first set of projects is only the beginning for the $9.4-million referendum, which covers projects in safety and security, accessibility for students with disabilities and deferred maintenance. Next summer, the second phase will kick off with projects including the replacement of water distribution piping and the construction of secure vestibules, while anything leftover will be finished in year three.
As of now, everything is going according to schedule, McArdle explained. There haven’t been any hiccups or hurdles, and even looking at the numbers, everything at the district is on track.
“We have preliminary numbers, and at this point we are at or under where we should be,” McArdle said of the project’s budget. However, the final tally won’t be known until the projects are completed.
WAPS Board Chair Nancy Denzer said the board is pleased with how the projects are progressing, and spoke highly of the communication on the part of Wold.
“We are making progress on all of the pieces of the referendum that we have wanted to see happen. I see daily progress being made,” Denzer said. “We’re just happy that the weather is good and the people are coming together for the things we need to have done.”
“In our minds, they’re all small projects. None of these are what we would consider large,” McArdle explained, while adding that the importance of the changes cannot be understated.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the people in our community,” he added. “They made an enormous investment in our youth.”