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Board wonders if abandoned schools would be 'blight' (01/15/2014)
By Amelia Wedemeyer

Two-week field trip in summer proposed as full U.S. history class

On Saturday, members of the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) School Board chose the League of Woman Voters annual meeting to reopen an existing dialogue on the fate of the historic WAPS elementary schools.

“What do we do with these old buildings that might take up a city block?” asked board member Jeanne Nelson. “Do they become blights on a community?”

This is the first time board members have broached the topic in public since a list of cost estimates for building improvements were presented to the board in October. All but the "Band-aid" option include multi-million dollar air conditioning upgrades that would allow a year-round school schedule, which has not yet been approved by the board. Adding time to the school year has been discussed by the board in the past, but such a change would require costly adjustments to both union contracts and bus services, board members have said.

“It is very difficult, however, when you are dealing with school buildings that are 80 years old and do not have air conditioning,” Nelson said of trying to implement a year-round calendar. “This is an issue — older buildings that lack air conditioning in the state of Minnesota — that does effect our ability to bring about year-round innovation for school and I think it is very, very important.”

How to save historic schools from the wrecking ball

In January of 2010, Erin Hanafin Berg of Preservation Alliance of Minnesota visited Washington-Kosciusko (W-K), Jefferson, Madison, and Central elementary schools (Central is no longer used as a school building) as preparation for a presentation to the Winona Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). After touring each elementary school, Berg spoke to HPC members and declared that the buildings were “one of the best collections of historic schools” she had seen in Minnesota.

Even if the schools were to close, a “reuse plan” could and should be put into place, recommended Berg. A reuse plan is a study that looks into the reuse possibilities of a structure, such as apartments, meeting spaces, commercial spaces, community centers, and convention centers. In fact, the former Winona Middle School buildings were transformed in late 2004 into residential spaces, now called the Washington Crossing Apartments, by MetroPlains, a Saint Paul-based development firm.

At the time, the HPC was considering nominating the elementary schools to the National Historic Register, a designation that provides tax and other incentives to keep historic structures intact. The elementary schools were added to the National Historic Register in November of 2011. The HPC has also prepared nomination forms for the schools to be added to the Local Historic Register, although they have not yet been added. A local historic designation would require external building changes or demolition to be approved by the Winona City Council.

Superintendent cost estimates

At the October board meeting, Superintendent Scott Hannon presented three cost estimates for options that the district could use to upgrade its current buildings. The three options that Hannon presented included a $5 million “Band-aid” option, a $34 million “health and safety” option, and a $54 million “comprehensive” option. Hannon explained that the estimates were made with help from Energy Services Group (ESG), the company hired to implement energy savings projects at several WAPS schools.

The least expensive option, the “Band-aid” option, would take care of high priority energy efficiency and deferred maintenance items that need to be implemented soon, which would allow the district to extend the life of the building, Hannon said. The “health and safety” option would update facility infrastructure and convert a building's heating system from steam to hot water and add central, chilled dehumidification to all spaces. Hannon suggested that the “health and safety” option could be paid for by health and safety property tax dollars, as well as the energy efficiency program, which allows the board to borrow money without voter approval for projects that would pay for themselves through energy savings over a span of 15 years. The final and most expensive option, the “comprehensive” option, would include all of the “health and safety” option’s projects, as well as additional projects that were not explained in detail to the board.

These same multi-million dollar elementary air conditioning plans that ESG presented to the board previously were dismissed in favor of less expensive upgrades to the middle and high schools. While board members have asked for more moderate air conditioning system estimates, administrators have not provided them.

A committee is currently working on more long-term facility planning and is expected to present its findings to the board.  


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