Winona Area Public Schools: Bamboozle me this


(8/20/2018)

From: Darrell Downs
Winona

Few can live up to Socrates’ admonition that an unexamined life is not worth living. But taking the time and effort to question authority — too often a slogan — is a basic act of citizenship that protects us from bamboozlers.

Sadly, it may be too late to undo the WAPS School Board’s damage. We have been bamboozled on key issues of enrollment, pre-school, special education, miscellaneous shenanigans, busing, a phony community survey, and real estate irregularities. In the eyes of the School Board, it all leads to a shameful narrative that school closure and consolidation are necessary and good. They are neither.

Enrollment

A majority of the School Board is convinced that lower enrollment means that the current elementary schools are financially unsustainable. There is extensive data on the WAPS’ website on enrollment, and it has declined overall. But just because it is raining in Minnesota, does not mean it’s raining in Winona. Consider the enrollment pattern of the two schools the board is closing.

October 1 enrollments

Year Madison Rollingstone
2017 194 71
2016 188 69
2015 193 68
2014 189 70
2013 178 69
2012 184 57
2011 198 57

(WAPS’ demographic data from selected years: https://www.winonaschools.org/district/aboutus.)

No reasonable interpretation of this data suggests a declining trend. Rollingstone enrollment is on the rise and Madison enrollment is stable. Moreover, a case could be made that new housing projects and an expansion of Fastenal in the core of Winona is an opportunity for growth.

Planning for the future is not WAPS’ strong suit, however. To develop a sustainable enrollment plan for all schools would seem to require knowledge of why families are heading for charter schools and why 699 resident students (last year’s data) are choosing to attend other districts. Is it too much to ask district staff to answer these questions, rather than camouflaging the problem with “rightsizing” rhetoric? Apparently, the School Board is as bamboozled as we are when it comes to having the staff examine difficult questions. The result is that WAPS is rapidly becoming a feeder system for the charter schools and other school districts.

Pre-school

Pre-school education has proven its value as a solid preparation for elementary schools. But we have been snookered again by the School Board’s retreat on past commitments to area pre-school programming. Just how many slots for pre-school will be lost due to the school closures? At present, that number is 48. Maybe the district will get more state funding to fund pre-school options in the future, but in a post-closure world, where would the students go? Maybe area families should have been informed of the pre-school impact prior to the closure-driven divorce between WAPS and the WSU Maxwell Program.

Special education

Special education is critically important for WAPS’ families. It is a valuable public good that needn’t hamstring the district’s budget. Not long ago, WAPS collaborated with Hiawatha Valley Educational District (HVED) in a cooperative with other school districts to offer special education services. WAPS separated from that cooperative in 2013 with hopes of saving money. It subsequently hired several full-time special education specialists and shifted more administrative responsibilities to the district staff. Perhaps it is time to reconsider that arrangement. A School Board that cannot muster the will to explore better ways to address the growing needs of special education and, at the same time, obsesses over school closure is a School Board that is bamboozling us.

Miscellaneous shenanigans

Sometimes there is just something fishy going on. Former Superintendent West had an alleged plagiarism problem. Administrators and principals seem to exchange jobs on a regular basis. Then in 2017, Finance Director Sara Slaby stated for the Winona Post that $1.5 million in health and safety funding was not levied by mistake, and the error meant that the district had to cover the gap out of the general fund. Oops! Mistakes happen, but million-dollar errors by the district staff should not be taken out of the hide of the elementary system. That is a bamboozle of the highest order.

Of lesser but also fishy concern is why School Board members are so quiet about the impact of their votes on programs that directly affect their own children. For instance, during the board’s school closure discussions, School Board members were quick to note the value of “programs,” such as the Spanish Language Immersion Program (SLIP). I agree. But I think board members should have publicly disclosed that protecting SLIP in their budget-balancing efforts had the effect of benefiting their own children to the detriment to others. Only board member Allison Quam was forthright enough to clarify that while programs are important, small neighborhood schools are “programs” in their own right, and offer our communities distinctive and arguably better ways to education our children.

Has anyone recently considered how Community Education could relieve some of the ongoing costs of district programming? The external funding of that program has not always been fenced from other district-wide needs, such as marketing. Board member Steve Schild’s spouse is the director of Community Education.

And how is it that a representative of Building Value Partners, LLC, is chosen to serve on the district’s facility task forces? After ultimately becoming the winning bidder, in the first round anyway, to purchase Madison and Central elementary schools, shouldn’t the board note that the committees may have been skewed against the preservation of historically distinctive elementary schools?

Busing

We were flimflammed again by board members who ostensibly support the health and safety of all students and yet — through school closure and consolidation — they committed the youngest students to unnecessary idle time on buses. Less time on buses is good. Further, with much lip service on the how we must limit our contribution to greenhouse gases, the hope of some of my baby boomer cohorts to swap centrally located schools for high-end condo living is the peak of hypocrisy. More busing equals more greenhouse gas. Board members willing to jeopardize students in this way for miniscule or even non-existent savings from school closure owe the families, students, and the planet an apology.

2018 community survey

A survey that purports to measure public opinion on closure immediately after coaching the respondents’ answers in favor of closure is a bamboozle. For instance, the 2018 survey included several paragraphs on aging infrastructure and estimated costs of $60 million, followed by the district’s overall enrollment declines (not school by school data), and a number of district opinions on the dire state of educational adequacy and staffing. The respondent is then asked: “Would you support a plan that would close one or more of the district’s elementary schools?” Really?

To think this was an unbiased survey is ridiculous. For a highly educated School Board and even with one member holding a Ph.D. in sociology, you would think that some ethical or methodological oversight might have been applied. But no, we have been bamboozled by the board’s abuse of a survey instrument.

Real-estate irregularities

When potential buyers of school-district property are treated differently by administration, there should be a reason for it. Was the public ever informed of any rationale for disparate treatment for Building Value Partners, LLC? If the rules, as stated, required cash purchases and no contingencies, how does the board agree to a purchase agreement that fails to meet those standards? Only one School Board member proposed to stay the sale on this irregularity, and yes, Quam was ignored by her colleagues until the most recent board meeting when the board shifted gears again to attempt a new sales process through direct negotiations with potential purchasers. The outcome may be different or not, but it remains irregular.

My point here is that our communities should know that we have very few mechanisms for calling out bamboozling in local government. In contrast to our state and national governments where hundreds of watchdog groups and media outlets oversee our leaders, our School Board and its district staff enjoy far greater latitude between elections. Citizens, board members, and board candidates willing to question authority deserve our respect.

This respect does not always happen. Following the August 13 Planning Commission meeting related to the school properties, I observed a local citizen approach board member Quam to say that she is a bit too “verbose.” An odd statement I thought, as Quam didn’t even speak at the Planning Commission hearing, but it then occurred to me this was his way of saying he disapproves of her persistence on the School Board. I guess he thinks Quam is just a bit too curious, a bit too thoughtful, and maybe too much of a leader to be bullied.

Just keep looking for answers Allison Quam. You are the only board member trying to keep the bamboozlers at bay. Socrates would be proud.

 

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