We know the problem all too well. We’ve spent countless hours trying to solve it in ways that serve the best long-term interests of the community and schools. We’ve carefully considered the often angry arguments against the decisions we eventually made, and we haven’t always agreed. And we’ve paid the price for doing what we think is right.
As former school board members we (the undersigned) wrestled again and again with the school closure issue in a hostile climate of opinion that saw closures as the primary solution to budget problems that we know were caused only in part by declining enrollments and mainly by structural changes in school funding policies passed when Jesse Ventura was governor. Simply put, these policies required school districts everywhere in the state to increase local levies to subsidize looming and ongoing deficits.
It is our deeply held conviction that the closure of Central or any other elementary school will seriously hurt the school district’s chances of addressing these deficits. Existing buildings can be maintained at minimal cost, and any “savings” come mainly from cutting elementary school teachers and staff. These savings are small, temporary, and very short-lived. And they have been calculated in the absence of any public consideration of the serious losses that will accumulate when parents opt out of the public school system because neighborhood schools are closed and district lines are redrawn.
The temptation to close even one school also may have a serious impact on eventual space needs. With 80% capacity a statewide norm, the closure of Central School will bring the district close to 90% capacity. Any near future downturn in the economy that prompts a movement to “free” public schools, any closure of a private or charter school, any new immigrant wave, or any major industry that brings new families into the district may leave Winona schools begging for space or asking for additional taxes to build a new school. We think it wise to preserve the infrastructure we have and put it to good use.
We also think it best to consider both school parents and general citizens as “customers” whose reasonable requests should be honored. Citizens take pride in and have vested interests in their neighborhoods, and the closure of a school decreases the value of their neighborhood interests. Most parents want their schools as nearby as possible, and any dislocation of families from given school routes should be minimal if necessary. It’s clear that public enthusiasm for new tax levies is low, and that public resentment of school closures will be reflected at the polls.
Some members of the current school board seem determined to close Central School. We believe that once the costs are accurately calculated––the cost of moving programs, redistricting, busing, and losing student state aid––closure is a nonsolution to school budget problems. It does not, furthermore, begin to address what will become of an empty building in the city’s traditional center.
We urge the school board to consider these facts carefully and to end the campaign to close schools. The campaign itself has already hurt the schools by steering some parents away from the public schools. It might be more useful to devote energy to how schools can become better, and to find funding for new attractive programs––preschooling, for example, or magnet-like options––that will generate enthusiastic support. Such funding sources exist.
We know passions run high. We know because we’ve tried to listen to all sides, including voices that were not always civil with us, and we’ve paid careful attention to the present debate. It seems obvious that closing the district’s smallest elementary school will hurt much more than it helps, and that it’s time to move on in a more constructive direction.