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  Tuesday January 27th, 2015    

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Referendum for new WAPS school, A/C pondered (03/25/2013)
By Chris Rogers
Year-round school was a topic of debate at the latest Winona Area Public School Board meeting. Board members mentioned a referendum for a new elementary school, or for over $15 million to install air-conditioning, which would be needed to make a district-wide switch to year-round school. Alternatively, members discussed limiting the calendar change to schools that already have air-conditioning. Opinions varied, but many board members thought that a modified calendar would benefit students. The next step, the board agreed, is to seek public input. The board plans to survey residents this summer and discuss the issue further.

The proposed schedule would not be a true year-round calendar, but a "modified calendar" that retains much of the traditional summer break. Summer break would be six to eight weeks long and there would be three-week spring and fall breaks. Christmas break would not change much.

Why switch?

With interest groups providing research on both sides of the issue, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) is "one of the only unbiased sources," said Winona Senior High School Principal Kelly Halverson, who is leading the School Board Calendar Committee's research on the concept.

Halverson presented DOE conclusions that year-round school boosted academic achievement, increased attendance, and provided better opportunities for struggling students to catch up during breaks. The DOE also reported that year-round school caused problems for families scheduling vacations, arranging day care during spring and fall breaks, and, if the calendar is not implemented at all schools, having siblings on different calendar schedules.

Halverson did present a pro-year-round school video, which said that lower income students fall behind year after year because of lack of summertime enrichment. That video can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/byqwy3t.

Opponents of year-round school say that it has little to no positive effect on academic achievement.

However, a majority of Winona Area Public School teachers support the idea, according to a Calendar Committee survey. Sixty-one percent of teachers across the district said they thought a modified calendar would improve student achievement. Thirteen percent disagreed. Additionally, 62 percent of teachers favored extending a new calendar to all district buildings, while limiting implementation of a new calendar to certain schools received more modest support.

The costs of

year-round school

There are, of course, costs associated with a switch to a modified calendar. Those costs vary greatly depending on whether the proposed calendar switch is made at all schools or not.

If the modified calendar was utilized district-wide, Jefferson, Madison, and Washinton-Koscuisko (W-K) elementary schools would need air-conditioning to hold classes in the summer months. Energy Services Group (ESG), a consulting firm the district has hired to research facility upgrades, estimated installing air-conditioning at those schools would cost nearly $15.4 million. Halverson and Superintendent Scott Hannon pointed out that a past cost estimate for a new, district-wide elementary school was $22 million.

If the modified calendar were only applied to Rollingstone and Goodview elementary schools, which already have air conditioning, then those costs would not be an issue. However, there would be increased transportation costs if the whole district was not on the same calendar—$115 per bus per day, according to Halverson. On average, nine buses serve Rollingstone and Goodview each day, for 175 days a year, which would equal roughly $180,000 per year in added bussing costs. However, Hannon and Transportation Director Kari Shiroma stressed that because non-public school students on a traditional schedule are served by those buses as well, it is hard to estimate what the change in costs might be.

Regardless of whether a calendar switch is district-wide or at a single school, there will be costs associated with adjusting curriculum, staff, and parents to the switch, Halverson said.

Additionally, running activities through breaks might cost more under a modified calendar, Winona Middle School Principal Mark Anderson said, but the district might break even if enough kids were participating and paying fees.

Board members

debate: what next?

Most of the board members were persuaded as to the benefits of a modified calendar.

"I am encouraged that that many teachers thought it was a good way to go," board member Ben Barrato said. "They're the ones working in the trenches every single day."

However, the board was split between members who thought district-wide implementation of year-round school made the most sense and members who felt it was financially infeasible.

"I don't think we can afford it," board chair Mohamed Elhindi said of air-conditioning Madison, Jefferson, and W-K. As far as a new elementary school was concerned, Elhindi, whose term expires in 2014, joked that it would not happen while he was chair of the board.

"If we go district-wide it's going to be dead on arrival," Barrato said. "You could almost build a new elementary school for that much."

"I know what you mean, Ben," Board member Steve Schild responded. "But that's based on continuing indefinitely with the same [facilities]." The idea of switching to a modified calendar could not be separated from the issue of future plans for facilities, Schild said.

Schild hoped the board would keep those factors in mind before pursuing any particular plan.

"Whether we go district-wide or just one building has its own set of unique problems," board member Jay Kohner weighed in. District-wide is "the way to go," he said, citing transportation costs, concerns for parents, and the faculty survey. The board would probably like to plan on making a calendar switch, he continued, "But as Steve brought up, then it's really a facilities issue, and it's a big facilities issue. Whether or not we build a new school or add air-conditioning to three of our buildings—[both would require] a referendum that could be ten years out."

A referendum, if approved, would raise property taxes within the district to fund such projects, and would levy those taxes over a number of years to gather the dollars needed.

Kohner said that might be too long to wait, but perhaps there are cheaper options for air-conditioning the three elementary schools. "We need more than just this one firm's look at maybe the Cadillac system for air-conditioning these buildings."

What everyone did agree on is the importance of community feedback.

Ultimately, the board decided to direct the staff to prepare options for implementing a modified calendar district-wide or at select schools, including cost estimates for each. The board plans to complete community surveys to gauge support for the options by June, so that the board can view the survey results and discuss the issue more in July.

Talk of a modified calendar "has been going for two years. We need to come to a conclusion," said Elhindi.

"Be prepared for opposition because there are going to be people on both sides," Halverson advised. "It's not something you can say, 'We're gong to try it.' You have to make a commitment to it, and you're going to find research on both sides." 


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