by SARAH SQUIRES
and ALEXANDRA RETTER
Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) students, teachers and administrators spoke with members of the Minnesota House of Representatives about funding issues, student and staff mental health, and teacher retention and recruitment on Thursday morning at Winona Senior High School as part of the mini-session held in Winona and nearby cities from October 2-4. The students, teachers and administrators called for more stable funding for mental health services and the recruitment and retention of teachers of color, saying WAPS could best serve its students and staff members by improving in the areas of mental health services and inclusivity.
“It’s important that the people’s House meet with the people,” Scott Halverson, co-president of the Winona Education Association and a math teacher at Winona Senior High School, said.
In relation to funding issues, challenges faced by the district — including declining enrollment, increasing local subsidies for special education services, aging buildings, budget cuts and recruiting and retaining teachers — were discussed.
In 2017, WAPS’ special education cross-subsidy was the fourth-highest in the state.
Faced with more than $5 million in budget reductions over the last three budget cycles, WAPS has had to lay off dozens of teachers as it waits to learn new enrollment and funding projections for the coming year. Many laid off teachers are forced to find other jobs, and when the district attempts to rehire them in the spring, they’ve moved on. Halverson said that cycle of layoffs and trouble retaining newer teachers has an effect on staff morale. “When you’re in scarcity, people go into their foxholes, and there’s a turf war and they fight,” he said. He said a possible solution is to have state funding levels based on the prior year’s enrollment, so districts can be more certain of their funding levels and avoid unnecessary layoffs over the summer. Halverson gave an example of how even a small drop in enrollment can dramatically affect the budget: if WAPS lost just three students in every grade, it would be about a $500,000 loss in funding. “That’s huge,” he stated, reiterating that if state funding were based on the prior year’s budget, it would help the district plan for such a loss in revenue.
WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit spoke about how when state funding is earmarked for a certain purpose, it can present a challenge for districts. She suggested that districts receive more general-fund revenue that is less restricted to certain expenses. “Having the flexibility to use our dollars the way that fits our students is something I’d really strive to get to in Minnesota,” she said.
State Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul) asked about funding dedicated to counselors, nurses and social workers versus more flexible funding for the general fund. Freiheit responded that different schools have different demographics and it would be best if funding were flexible to meet those varied needs. Some funds, such as those for early childhood education, are often distributed through a competitive grant process, which she called frustrating. “We’re competing to get our kids ready for school with other school districts,” she said. “And to me, that just doesn’t seem equitable or fair.”
Halverson said the district does need more general education revenue, but any added funds that address student mental health are needed. “I can’t think of a bigger issue that teachers deal with daily,” he said. If it has to be earmarked to garner bipartisan support, he said, do it.
Regarding student and staff mental health, Kelly Allington, who has been a kindergarten teacher at Washington-Kosciusko Elementary for 21 years, said she feels teaching does not look anything like it did 21 years ago. “There are students entering kindergarten and other grades, frankly, with needs we are just not equipped to meet,” she said. “It manifests itself in the form of behavior, and a lot of times it’s extreme.” She said it can look like screaming, swearing, throwing and door slamming, sound like breaking glass and feel unsafe. She stated that there is now more knowledge of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and diagnosing and healing from mental illness takes a lot of resources. She explained that she believes teachers need smaller class sizes and more counselors, social workers and behavioral interventionists. “We need more resources,” she said.
“Trying to deal with all of the extreme mental health needs is really taking a toll on teachers as well,” added Samantha Wagner, a counselor at Winona Area Learning Center.
Dwayne Voegeli, a social studies teacher at Winona Senior High School, recounted a quick survey he did with his students asking them to describe good and bad recent memories. Students listed suicide, parent drug use, homelessness, depression and anxiety as bad recent memories.
“We have invested heavily in technology, as we should,” Voegeli said. “We didn’t anticipate the implication it would have on our young kids and teenagers.”
Karen Whitney-Thrune, a counselor at Winona Senior High School, outlined students’ descriptions of depression and anxiety. She said she has traveled to the home of a student who had not left his room in three days. “These are the times that as human spirits we are very fragile and very strong in the same breath,” she said. “Support, in my world, that’s a moral responsibility.” She said schools need stable funding for staff members who provide mental health services. “We have a moral responsibility there,” she said. “We sit at this table today to have this conversation as human beings because somebody took the time to raise us up and support us so we could do something.”
Jen Whetstone, a Hiawatha Mental Health Care Center employee and a school-linked mental health coordinator for four counties and 20 schools, said she served 5,041 unduplicated students between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2019. Now, 30 days into the new school year, the waiting list has quadrupled to around 85 to 95 students.
McCarthy Leaf, a Winona Senior High School student, said counselors try their hardest, but a lot of students need help, and counselors cannot reach all students all the time. “A lot of kids with depression struggle 24/7,” she said.
In connection with teacher recruitment, WAPS is a district in which more than 20 percent of students are students of color, but only 2 percent of licensed staff members are people of color.
Tim Gleason, a band director and coach at Winona Middle School, said he just started his 27th year teaching with the district. “We’ve never had a black teacher,” he said about his time in the district. He stated that a graduate of Winona State University who is African-American helped with the track and field team he coaches, which had a big impact on students of color.
Tom Sawyer, a social studies teacher at Winona Middle School, explained that he is one of WAPS’ only non-white teachers. “Even though I grew up in Winona, I still feel like I do represent and want to represent students of color in our schools,” he said. As a third-year teacher without tenure in the district, Sawyer said he’s been cut during the summer every year, which adds uncertainty about his future with the district.
Emily Solheid, Director of Human Resources for WAPS, said that during the last round of budget reductions, $2.2 million in cuts meant the district had to let go of upward of 35 teachers in the spring, with no guarantee that it would be able to rehire them. “Sometimes we lose really good teachers because they need to have stability in their lives,” she said.
Board member Karl Sonneman said he feels declining enrollment has caused many of the issues with instability for teaching staff and funding.
“The state is still working from that basic concept [of the ‘Minnesota Miracle’, when enrollment was climbing] and trying to come up with patches here and patches there,” Sonneman said. “Maybe we need to think what do we do that 25 years from now, it looks like we did the right thing now?”