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WAPS: do we have too many school buildings (03/27/2013)
By Chris Rogers
"You want me to prepare a plan that includes school…?"

The word "closures" almost came out of Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Superintendent Scott Hannon's mouth.

It did not. For the record, none of the School Board members talked directly about closing any schools during the board retreat on Saturday. Programming changes and grade-level elementary schools were the focus, but closures did figure into discussions as the board took a hard look at its facilities.

Considering declining enrollment and the age of the district's buildings, "the questions keep coming up, 'Do we have too many buildings for the enrollment that we have? Is our capacity far greater than what we need? What is the cost of all that?'" Hannon explained to the board.

"I'm 100 percent in support of neighborhood schools. I think they are good things, but at the same time we have to look at sustainability," board chair Mohamed Elhindi said. The board needs a plan, he stated. "If we're going to keep every building open, how are we going to do it?"

"It's a tough issue, and there's a lot of emotion attached to it, but I think it's up to the board to be open to it," Elhindi continued.

Tina Lehnertz argued that focusing on cutting costs was the wrong approach. "I would rather talk about enhancements and how we can bring students into our district rather than how we can condense. We're always cutting and condensing. We're cutting so much, soon we won't have a district."

Steve Schild countered that the district ought to be realistic about its ability to recruit more students. "It is easy to think, 'Let's talk about enhancing enrollment rather than cutting schools,' but look what happened [to our enrollment]," Schild said. A previous board created a committee to examine the issue and called it the "capacity reduction committee" rather than "school closure committee," Schild recalled. Keeping the topic taboo is not helpful, he argued. "In the the last ten years this community has had various sorts of fights about that. What happened? The projections turned out to be true. The enrollment is where it is. Exactly what was projected came to be, and in the meantime, we've been hoping against hope that those numbers would somehow fix themselves."

What happened to enrollment was that it has dropped by nearly 1,000 students since 2003. Projections for future enrollment are also down. (See "Enrollment" sidebar.)

Schild hinted that school closures should be on the table, "I've heard that the kids could all fit in three buildings."

Jay Kohner disagreed, saying the district's space was being used and that space was even a limiting factor when it came to initiatives like expanding preschool. (See "Other Initiatives" sidebar.) Board member Jeanne Nelson warned that closing Rollingstone Elementary would only open the door for it to be replaced with a charter school, taking more students away from the district. The district formerly operated elementary schools in Dakota and Ridgeway, which are now charter schools.

Grade-level schools

While closures are not going to be on the table anytime soon, switching to grade-level schools—students grouped by grade level rather than neighborhood—will receive further consideration.

Earlier this year, district staff had estimated that switching to grade-level elementary schools could save the district $172,500. Those savings, Schild said, could allow the district to implement other desired, but expensive, initiatives.

The idea was met with resistance by other board members. "Unless there is a clear benefit academically, I would oppose grade-level schools," Kohner said. "That's the first step to eliminating neighborhood schools," and other growing schools are capitalizing on the benefits of having different ages of kids together, he added.

Board member Brian Zeller was skeptical of the benefits of switching to grade-level schools and decried applying such a shift to Jefferson Elementary and its STEM program. Redistributing the STEM program would be too difficult and might threaten the success of the young program, he argued. "Why would we even look at trying to shovel that out?"

Parallel concerns were brought up concerning other programming changes the board is considering, such as expanding foreign language options and creating an International Baccalaureate program (See "Other Initiatives" sidebar.) Current discussions of those programs involve implementing them at one specific school each. As with STEM at Jefferson, switching to grade-level schools would disrupt those plans, Kohner said.

A long-term plan for facilities—including any talk of a new elementary school—was largely absent from Saturday's conversation.

Kohner, however, made an attempt to lay out the issue. "If any of this involves a new facility, that would take a voter referendum. That could be five, ten, fifteen years from now," he said. "We need to make some decisions before that. We can't just let this thing hang on a voter referendum happening. In the meantime these facilities do need some attention, and there are things we can do to improve them."

What's next?

There will be more talk on this issue. District administration will draft a plan for switching to grade-level elementary schools, which the board will consider later this year. Board members were in agreement that receiving community input on the important facilities issues ahead of them is crucial, but specific plans for soliciting that input were not discussed. 


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