by Winona Post Editor-in-chief Sarah Squires
Winona Area Public Schools has lost its collective mind. I’ve watched this newest chapter of a facility planning “process” unfold for the last five years, and I have learned two important things: First, yes, we need to fund a plan to address the district’s aging buildings, a lasting plan, not a band-aid; and second — this is not the way to do it.
This community has learned the hard way what happens when you fail to make a cohesive, long-visioned and all-encompassing building decision and instead simply dump taxpayer money on a problem. Set your sights on the middle school — overbuilt, it required that we send in the fifth graders (who belong with their elementary-aged peers in elementary buildings). Not only did that short-sighted decision leave our elementary fleet floundering for years, but all you have to do is look at test scores since to see that it caused and continues to cause educational harm to countless children. We are still dealing with the effects of the poorly planned middle school today, and it undoubtedly is part of the reason we have empty classrooms at both the middle and elementary school levels and why we find ourselves in a perpetual facility planning process that isn’t likely to end anytime soon. We failed to learn our middle school lesson, and now we’re staring down the barrel of a $145-million ballot question being told it’s our only salvation.
The process has been mired in false starts, inflated prices, and split votes, and though some of the research and work was undoubtedly valuable (the time and energy committed by the Facility Task Force, for one thing), the entire facility debate has been predicated on a set of false pretenses: Our buildings are old and useless. We can’t have “21st century learning” within our fleet of schools. All our financial woes are due to those darn schools.
The reality is that we do have some extra space — in particular, we have extra space at the middle school and some at the elementary level. We can have reasonable, balanced class sizes through redistricting. If this community truly believes that these buildings need to be air conditioned, we can make that happen without spending tens of millions of dollars — we can assess where it’s actually needed, and find a reasonable plan to do it. (Central is now cool with $2,600, rather than millions of dollars). And guess what? We can have “21st century learning” in our WAPS buildings. The argument that our marble-laden historic schools cannot facilitate modern education is hogwash, and an insult to the educated people of this community who care about this district, and who happen to notice WSU’s Education Village project showing us how state-of-the-art technology and 21st century education can bloom in a historic school — they happen to be showing us this right in our own backyard.
What we shouldn’t be doing is plucking a nonsensical facility plan from the sky because we can’t even wrestle enough votes or support for a plan from our own School Board table. We shouldn’t be closing Jefferson, a large campus offering lots of options and one that is handcuffed to the new ALC building and athletic fields that aren’t going anywhere. We shouldn’t be taking a successful STEM program that has attracted families and support for that school, watering it down, and hosing it into every district classroom. We shouldn’t be cramming hundreds more students into W-K and asking families to let their youngest babies cross Mankato Avenue every day. (I lived across the street from W-K for several years and can testify to the danger of those crosswalks.) We shouldn’t be doing the wrong thing simply because something must be done. That’s the middle school mistake all over again.
The reality is, this referendum is not going to pass. There is a reason that there is an organized resistance, a reason that there are “Vote no” yard signs dotting the lawns of WAPS supporters, and a reason there are no “Vote yes” signs and committees. The very people who have been WAPS’ cheerleaders for years, the ones who have organized and rallied behind ballot questions in the past, they are the ones organizing against this plan. And even though this election is going to cost a cash-strapped school district $100,000, many of the facility plan opponents have told me that they didn’t want the district to hold back on this vote. They wanted WAPS to proceed so voters can send a resounding “no” message to the board. They want this referendum to fall flat on its face, because what this district needs is a wake-up call.
And after that wake-up call, this district has some work to do.
It’s time to have some frank discussions about the way that WAPS is losing the competition for students. It’s time to get serious about finding ways to keep these schools open, which this community has clearly articulated it will support. It’s time to finally sit down and talk to the Rollingstone community about the true fate of its school — not just this year or next year. Rollingstone loves its school, and when it is closed, that community is going to support it as a charter school. The longer we keep dragging that one out, the harder it will be for the district and for Rollingstone. That community can do a good job marketing that building as a magnet, in showing people what a true gem it is, how it’s worth the 12-minute drive. We need to let them — not argue about whether they should be able to use the iPads they paid for, as board members did a handful of years ago. Develop a timeline for them to organize themselves and stick to it, rather than allowing the looming closure cloud to bleed more students from its ranks.
Perhaps then it will be time to engage with WAPS residents, parents and supporters in a real way. Not through a slanted survey meant to manipulate voters into thinking that new buildings are the only way that WAPS can succeed. We see through that, and when the “no” dust settles on November 8, perhaps the School Board will see it, too.