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School politics never change (05/31/2009)
By John Edstrom

Some things never change, and public education politics is a prime example. Way back in 1992, or thereabouts, I sat on one of those task forces designated to provide cover for the school district’s construction ambitions. Then Superintendent of Schools Ron MacIntire had high hopes that he could engineer a massive new buildings program for ISD 861, including a new middle school and one consolidated, districtwide elementary building. He soon lowered his sights to just the middle school, and the educational program of the Winona district consisted of little more than wrangling over it for the next ten years or so.

Now before the WAPS School Board comes Roger Worner of Worner Associates to revive the elementary school scheme, wielding many of the same bogus arguments from way back when, with a few new wrinkles added. Using outlandishly high numbers for maintenance of the old buildings over the next ten years – a common trick in making these cases is to postulate what it would cost to bring them up to code for new construction, which they obviously aren’t – it is asserted that one new building would cost less.

These comparisons rarely hold up to an honest and realistic assessment of what maintenance will cost, compiled by a source not bent on new construction. In any case, what is never mentioned is that the new building will have to be paid for by a new referendum, fresh money from the taxpayers above and beyond the operating budget which should pay to keep up facilities. Diverted maintenance dollars then provide a nice cushion for school boards and administrations that are loathe to live within their means.

Last time around buildings supposedly needed replacement because maintenance had been neglected, and it was solemnly pledged that it would never happen again. In fact, one of Superintendent Durand’s promises when he sold the most recent referendum was that there would be plenty of money to keep our facilities up. And it seems he has been keeping his promise.

No matter, according to Mr. Worner. Maintenance is too expensive compared to (getting the taxpayers to pony up fresh taxes for) new buildings. Furthermore, he asserts, the best way to stem the out-migration of students from the district, is to provide parents the curb appeal of shiny new facilities, where state of the art education can take place, never mind that no one knows what the “art” is. Neighborhood schools, he assures us, are a hoary leftover from a bygone era, of no importance to anyone.

Apparently, then, the secret to quality education is the replacement of old buildings with new every generation, never mind proof to the contrary in the original buildings still in use at Cotter, Saint Mary’s, and WSU, where Somsen Hall is a particularly noble example.

But this district knows better aside from that, by the overwhelming and continued outcry of parents against the closure of their neighborhood schools. That is what is causing out-migration from the public schools, as well as systemic problems there, and reservations about the quality of education that can take place in a one-size-fits-all system run by government.

It may be, if enrollment numbers continue to fall, that we will have to mothball or reconfigure an elementary building again. Durand has proven himself remarkably creative in that regard. But abandoning perfectly good old buildings in favor of new is a patently false economy, and will do nothing but further alienate parents who are passionate about neighborhood – not newly constructed – schools.



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