by SARAH SQUIRES
and JEN BURRIS
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board voted to spend $2.225 million in building upgrades to all district facilities — except its historic elementary schools. Despite assertions made by administrators that those elementary buildings could undergo needed improvements during a future construction phase, District 861’s historic elementary schools may be left out, for good.
The multimillion-dollar upgrades will be financed using a state statute that allows districts to borrow money for major projects as long as they pay for themselves in energy savings over a 15-year span. It is one of the only ways a district can borrow for large facility projects without seeking a voter-approved referendum.
Individual improvements need not meet the 15-year energy savings payback, but may be offset by other upgrades that pay for themselves more quickly than the 15-year maximum. Many of the equipment improvements at the middle and high schools would pay for themselves more quickly through energy savings, and the extra funds that the district will save from those projects have been used to compensate for projects that would take longer to recoup their cost.
Although Superintendent Scott Hannon repeatedly told board members on Thursday night that elementary energy savings upgrades could be undertaken at a later date, he admitted in an interview with the Winona Post that many of needed building improvements at the district’s historic elementary schools would too expensive to stand on their own, without being combined with projects at other buildings to meet the 15-year payback requirement. Retrofitting building components at the elementary schools would be too expensive to fund using the energy savings statute, he acknowledged.
Board members in the past have expressed hesitancy about investing in the district’s older buildings with the requirement that they remain open for 15 years, and administrators recommended that the board first create a long-term facilities plan before undertaking upgrades at the elementary schools. For years, board members have debated the question — repeatedly calling for discussions on the future of district elementary schools. Those discussions have consistently been delayed in recent years. (See sidebar story.)
“I would like to have a better understanding of why we’re not looking at our other buildings,” board member Jay Kohner said. “I’m really concerned about that; it doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Do we want to stick money into buildings that are 80 years old?” Hannon asked. “Is that a wise use of taxpayer money? The board needs to answer some questions about where they want to go with those buildings. Quite frankly, if you want to keep those buildings, those [questions] are the very things you need to look at.”
Can district count
for new school?
Central, Jefferson, W-K, Madison, Goodview, and Rollingstone elementary schools were not included in the $2 million building overhaul, Hannon told the board, adding that decisions about investments in those schools should come after the facilities committee has studied the issue of future building use.
Kohner acknowledged that in order to close those buildings, the district would likely have to construct a new building requiring a voter-approved referendum. In the past, multimillion-dollar new building referenda have taken up to a decade to be approved by voters, Kohner added. “In the meantime, we’ve got these buildings that are wasting energy,” he said. “There have got to be things we can do to these buildings that would pay for themselves in five or 10 years that would save energy, and just to sit and wait until a referendum passes — I don’t know.” We probably should have made a decision on the elementary schools before moving ahead with other building upgrades, he added.
Hannon said he would bring information to the board soon that would allow it to make an informed decision on its elementary buildings, and again asserted that the elementary schools could be upgraded under the energy savings statute in the future.
Board member Steve Schild, who has repeatedly called for long-term facility planning, said the district’s future building plan was not just a board decision, but a community decision as well. Referring to statements made in the past — that previous boards had failed to make a decision about the future of district facilities — Schild said that in fact, those boards had made a choice. “They made a decision by not doing anything," he said.