by NATHANIEL NELSON
It’s official –– the former Rollingstone Community School (RCS) is now owned by the city of Rollingstone. On Thursday night, the city of Rollingstone closed on the purchase of the former schoolhouse from MC Properties for $125,000. The building, which is currently home to the city’s municipal office, may be transformed into a daycare or preschool in the future, but if the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board rescinds its restrictions on the building becoming a schoolhouse, Rollingstone may be one step closer to having a community school once again. With three new board members on WAPS’ seven member board, at least one of whom in favor of lifting the restrictions, those who dream of school-aged children filling the halls are hoping they will find a majority at the WAPS table.
Earlier this year, the WAPS Board voted to close and sell RCS as part of a $1.7-million budget reduction process. The closure was less than popular with some area residents, and the Save Our Schools (SOS) Committee was formed to challenge the closure in court.
When the school was initially put up for sale by the district, the city bid twice on the building for $5,000 and $25,000, but both bids were under the winning bid of $80,000 from MC Properties. Shortly after the school building was sold, negotiations began, with one of the major reasons being the need for rezoning of the property to be used as commercial or multifamily housing, and city leaders stating they were unwilling to rezone.
According to Rollingstone Mayor Paul Kreidermacher, the building will continue being used in its current state for the time being. “Right now, we’re using it as our community center and city office. We still want to get maybe a daycare and preschool, and see what happens,” he explained. Additionally, the outdoor field is used for Little League and other local activities, while a meeting room in the building is open to local organizations who need the space.
However, the goal for the city has remained the same –– bring back the elementary school.
When the schools were initially put on the market, the WAPS Board voted to add a clause that prohibits either RCS or fellow closed school Madison Elementary from being reopened as a k-12 school in the future. Board members Tina Lehnertz, who represents Rollingstone, and Allison Quam voted to rescind the restriction on RCS after a request from a Rollingstone group to build a charter school there, but the motion failed to pass.
Rollingstone City Council member Rachel Larson explained that the city is examining what it wants to do with the building in the coming years, but bringing back the elementary school is at the top of the list.
“It’s going to depend on a number of things. The deed restriction is in place, and that’s our next hurdle,” Larson said. “We intend to address it with the School Board. There’s nothing set at this point, but we plan to get together and make a plan. That would be the natural next step.”
In the case of a charter school, according to an initial plan provided to the board last May, students would be funneled from the Rollingstone school to WAPS for middle and high school, which could be a boon for the struggling district. In light of the closure, WAPS lost more than half of the school’s students to surrounding districts, so bringing the students back into the fray could stymie some of the effects of the continuing student exodus, which recently topped 180 students.
Board member Karl Sonneman, who was formerly the attorney for Save Our Schools in challenging the district’s closure of Rollingstone and Madison schools, has publicly voiced his support in overturning the board’s decision. In an interview following the election, Sonneman stated one of his biggest focuses would be addressing the stipulation that RCS cannot be reopened as a school.
“We need to support education in Winona, and that’s not a narrow concept. Every student in Winona needs an education, not just in District 861. We need to at least be accommodating to all the possible ways that they can get an education,” he said.
In an interview this week, he doubled-down on his support for the move, explaining that the board should closely examine the potential benefits a charter school may bring to the table.
“I hope the board gives it serious consideration,” Sonneman said. “It was a bad policy when it was adopted and we need to deal with it that way.”
It’s unclear how board members would vote if the motion to rescind the order came before the School Board, but with three new members this year and previous supporters still at the table, Rollingstone may have a fighting chance.
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