From: Della Schmidt
My husband and I have lived in the Winona area for 16 years. Our daughters grew up here, received their educations here. I have watched with dismay the increasing divisiveness in the community towards our Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS). I have watched with concern over the years as various good-hearted, well-intentioned people elected to the School Board have struggled and failed to come together to work as a team. I have observed first-hand how the deck is stacked against the superintendent (current, past and I fear future) making an already challenging job almost an impossibility. The reputation of our schools isn’t what it should be, and it is causing very real impacts on economic development in this community. The negativity is driving people to send their children to other schools, it is making it harder for local employers to attract people to move here for jobs and it is creating a toxic work environment for our great teachers. It is past time for a new direction to be pursued for WAPS. Let’s start a new community conversation.
Most residents have no idea that Winona is out-of-sync with the rest of the state in how we elect School Board members. Winona is among only a few school districts that still elect board members based on a ward system. Ninety-nine percent of all school board elections in the state are at-large elections. This is the direction Winona needs to head. Let me explain why.
A ward or district-based system of election limits candidates. A qualified, interested candidate can only run for School Board in Winona when a term opens up in their neighborhood, or ward. This severely limits the number and the quality of candidates in every election cycle. It also creates an unfair environment for those candidates both during the election process and after being elected to the School Board. It makes them a target for people who live in a particular part of the school district, who then view “their School Board member” as someone who must represent their ward. School Board members are unfairly lobbied and targeted by individuals who have single-agenda items or very narrow points of view about topics such as facilities, programs and budget issues. The ward-based system of electing School Board members invites divisiveness and an “us-against-them” mentality. We shouldn’t be surprised that the WAPS Board has a long-standing history, even a culture, of combativeness. The way the election process is set up in Winona creates that exact outcome. For true unity to occur on the WAPS Board, all members should be at-large. Then, all School Board members could govern first and only from the perspective of what is best for the entire school district, not just for the desires of a particular neighborhood.
There is another good reason that voters should want to move toward an all at-large School Board election. When you go to the polls to vote on Election Day, imagine how great it would be to vote for the best of the best of the candidates, based on their qualifications and leadership style, and not be limited by where they happen to live. I have been frustrated on many Election Days that I could not cast my vote for the candidates that I believed were best suited to serve on the School Board, all because we lived in different parts of the school district. This should not be so!
If we want real, long-reaching, systemic changes to WAPS, this is a good place to start. Current School Board members could lead the way. Set aside your neighborhood mentality and take bold new steps to create a district-wide mentality. Make dramatic changes now that will pay out huge benefits in the future. It’s time to get in-step with the rest of the school districts in Minnesota. It’s time for an all at-large elected School Board for Winona Area Public Schools.