By Cynthya Porter and Amanda Romaine
Winona Area Public Schools was dealt a solid blow by voters Tuesday who turned down a referendum question that would have put about $4 million a year into area schools.
The question, which asked voters to cancel the current levy amount of $486 per pupil and replace it with $895 per pupil, was defeated by a margin of about 2,000 votes. Of the approximately 18,500 people who voted on the question, nearly 10,300 said no.
The current levy will expire in 2006, and without a new levy, district officials have said public schools in Winona will have a shortfall of $3.6 million by the 2006-2007 school year.
Superintendent Paul Durand, in a letter to local papers, thanked voters for voicing their opinion in local polls, even if that opinion was that the district should not have the money. He said the district will need to enter a readjustment period to cope with projected lost revenue, and will "begin to further reduce the size of the district, shrink staff costs and explore new ways to cut expenses."
At Thursday's school board meeting, unanimous action was taken to support Durand and the administrative team in implementing three immediate cost reduction measures and to direct Durand and the administrative team to consider discontinuing programs, positions or school reductions or a combination to accommodate the projected shortfall.
Beginning immediately Durand and the administrative team placed a freeze on all hiring within the district, placed a moratorium on all travel to workshops, or conferences outside of the district and the district's maintenance building in Goodview will be emptied and relocated to the Middle School, thus allowing for the sale of the building.
These measures are three immediate steps, Durand said, and they demonstrate that the school board and administration have heard the public. Even though these measures and future measures may not be the way district officials wanted to move the district, it is the way the public wants it to move, Durand said.
Over the course of the next eight months, Durand said the district has to work through a budget-cutting process, but it will be done in a professional and prudent manner. Hopefully, Durand said, the district can be a place where the children can see a "model of manners, morals and etiquette" for how democracy works.
If it had been approved, funds from the new levy were to go toward restoring lost programs and developing new ones, as well as bolstering the district's fund balance to save on borrowing costs each year. But in the weeks before the vote, opposition began to spring up in letters to the editor. Writers accused the district of mismanaging the money it had and said officials should use various cuts to better live within the funds available.
At the October 28 school board meeting, Durand took issue with several letters that were propelling information that was false, including expenditures the writer claimed the district made that it did not.
Many other letter writers against the referendum expressed concern about district staff costs, saying they would not approve new funds if that money would be going into teacher and staff salaries.
Durand had said publicly that although the funds requested were not directly intended for staff, a budget that allowed the district to continue to pay staff adequately and fund new positions was important to the improvement of the district.
Many letter writers endorsed the levy, calling on the community to better support children who will be future leaders, business owners and workers in this area and others.
Writers in favor of the referendum also defended the district's fiscal prudence, calling attention to $5 million that has already been cut in the past several years and noting that good teachers should be paid well. In his letter to the editor, Durand also told the community, "Thank you for reminding all public employees that tax money should never be taken for granted and that we have a large responsibility to efficiently and prudently account for the taxes collected to support schools."