What’s best for WAPS students


(3/28/2018)

From: Gretchen Michlitsch

Closing elementary schools would harm students, families, and the community. The data — when accurate, fairly presented and contextualized — does not support the closing of elementary schools at this time. Closing schools now would be environmentally harmful, fiscally irresponsible, and educationally detrimental. In addition, it appears that closing schools would lead us to violate state statutes related to elementary class sizes.

Our elementary buildings are structurally sound and are excellent candidates for modernization. Winona was a lumber town, and at one time, we built very well; today, we couldn’t afford to build as well as some of our school buildings were built in the 20s and 30s. We should follow the lead of districts like Austin and Hibbing, which have quite successfully renovated schools from that era. This would make the best use of current infrastructure, reinvest in our existing neighborhoods and communities, and create up-to-date learning environments in good locations.

Just because a school is old does not mean it will not be better than others in 30 years. Our district has poured millions of dollars into repairing our middle school and high school in the past ten years; in some cases, our newest buildings have required the most money in ongoing maintenance costs. We need to think strategically about the future.

For the coming year, Winona Area Public Schools will see several increases in annual funding revenue. The state has increased the amount it allots per student, which will be in the range of half a million dollars. In addition, the state has increased annual Long Term Facilities funding by $1.2 million, for a total of about $1.7 million. At the same time, we have additional funds from recently approved Technology and Operating levies. Our current financial dilemma is a result of administrative accounting and filing errors, not from operating our elementary schools, which actually cost less per student than our middle and high schools.

No proposed budget was presented to the recent “budget reduction task force.” No proposed 2018-19 budget appears to exist. No updated/current 2017-18 budget seems to exist.

However, it does seem that the school district plans to increase its fund balance by $700,000 during the next school year — $500,000 to compensate itself for failing to levy due to a one-time paperwork error and another $200,000 just to increase the fund balance. Let’s call that our rainy day fund. Which leads me to ask:

• Why in the world would we fire seven to nine elementary teachers, increase elementary class sizes in possible violation of state statute, close one or two elementary schools, move 50 percent of our elementary students to different schools, evict multiple pre-K classes, and threaten music education with teacher cuts in order to increase our rainy day fund by $700,000?

• Why in the world would we fire seven to nine elementary teachers, increase elementary class sizes in possible violation of state statute, close 1 or 2 elementary schools, move 50 percent of our elementary students to different schools, evict multiple pre-K classes, and threaten music education with teacher cuts in the same year that we have a major increase in per student funding from the legislature, a major increase in Long Term Facilities funding from the legislature, and continued funding from Operating and Technology levies?

• Why in the world would we fire seven to nine elementary teachers, increase elementary class sizes in possible violation of state statute, close one or two elementary schools, move 50 percent of our elementary students to different schools, evict multiple pre-K classes, and threaten music education with teacher cuts in the same year that we make no cuts at all in a $1.8 million technology budget?

Our elementary schools have an appropriate, healthy capacity that almost succeeds in meeting state statutes for student class sizes. Elementary enrollment has been stable for the past eight–10 years, elementary square footage is appropriate, and we have already closed multiple elementary schools in the last few decades. It’s time to find a new way. Instead of closing an elementary school while increasing administrative costs by 11 percent, we need to develop a vision that does not rely on losing students to meet capacity. Instead of evicting seven successful pre-kindergarten classes, we should increase pre-K offerings. We should work to bring the fifth graders back to the elementary schools.

Closing schools would leave the remaining elementary schools at excess capacity, even without the pre-K classes or the fifth graders. Closing schools and firing teachers would significantly increase average class sizes. State statutes for reserved revenue have been directed to achieving 17-student elementary school classrooms, and we would risk about $600,000 by violating that statute. Increasing class sizes is certainly harmful for education, especially for our neediest students. Perhaps we should keep Central and renovate that building as well; that might enable us to bring the fifth graders back into the elementary schools.

The administration does not seem to be acting in good faith. Administrators have presented misleading data and sent out a biased survey that misinformed the public. Written comments on the survey have not been made available to the board members. Surely if the real data supported the administration’s argument, they would show that data. Administrators did not present a viable budget cut process to the budget cutting task force. Surely if the administration were acting in good faith and honestly evaluating data, they would take seriously viable budget reduction ideas such as those submitted by a board member on February 15.

Last summer, the school board rushed into a bad decision on the referendum. The referendum was defeated by over 90 percent with high voter turnout on a single-issue ballot. I’d like to see the school board act more wisely this time. The school board should step back from this vote. We can certainly do better.

We need to use our resources well. We need to maintain our relatively low average elementary class sizes and not jeopardize $600,000 in annual state money reserved for achieving 17-student elementary classes. Larger class sizes would harm all of our students, especially those who need the most of our teachers’ attention. We need to serve all of our students. Rich and poor and middle-class. Disabled and abled. Average students and underachievers and overachievers. All of them.

The right thing to do is to keep our structurally sound elementary schools open, to keep the seven to 12 elementary and music teachers whose jobs have been proposed for cutting, and to keep the pre-K classes that communities have worked hard to establish and which meet very real needs for the families in our community. If we’re in such financial difficulty that we need to decimate our elementary system (and it’s not at all clear that we really are), don’t do it just to increase our rainy day fund.

Instead of taking a vote that might lead to school closings, the board needs to direct administrators to propose a 2018-19 budget; accept and take seriously some of the viable proposals that have been presented to make any cuts needed while doing the least harm; reconsider the expectation of adding $700,000 to the fund balance next year; and invest some of their hard work into finding ways to keep our schools open, to keep our teachers, to keep our special needs classrooms and our pre-K classrooms, and to keep our music programs.

Stand up for our schools. You have the power to make a difference. Take a stand now and do what it takes to keep our elementary schools open. You can take the vote off the agenda, you can table budget cuts until you have a budget, or you can just plain vote no.

For heaven’s sake, do the right thing for our neediest students and for all the rest of them. I’d like to see our school board members do what the data supports and what they can be proud of: Keep our elementary schools open.

 

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