Two at-large Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board seats are up for election, and with five candidates running, there will be a primary on August 9. The candidates spoke about their goals and backgrounds in interviews with the Winona Post. 

Over the past few years, Anthony Alwan has spent some time in the schools as a mental health professional. Now, he would like to advocate for staff and students, based on seeing that more resources are needed, including mental health support. 

Maurella Cunningham said she has 27 years of experience as an educator, including experience in teachers’ unions. She has a master’s degree and doctorate degree in the education field. She also has worked with student groups and organizations in diverse communities throughout the U.S., such as Residents Organizing Against Racism in Winona. “I feel very comfortable and very confident about my abilities to … interact with people coming from all different communities,” she said. 

Incumbent School Board Chair Nancy Denzer said her 34 years in the education field and ties to the community as someone from here would support the board’s work. 

Torry Moore grew up in Winona and graduated from WAPS. Today, he has children in the Rios Spanish Immersion Program. He also has a sales agency and other small businesses, which he said provide him with a background in marketing and communications. Moore previously ran for the School Board in 2020.

Karl Sonneman currently holds a seat on the School Board. He has a private law practice, which he said helps him address the business of running schools, from finances to policies. 

As a current School Board member, Sonneman said he feels his accomplishments to date include restoring the Finance Committee; replacing the School Resource Officer; managing the district’s pandemic response; moving forward with installing geothermal HVAC systems at Jefferson and Washington-Kosciusko elementary schools; and improving board involvement in the hiring of senior staff members, such as principals.

One area in which Sonneman said he was disappointed was not prioritizing the music program. “Music should be a central part of what our district is,” he said. 

If re-elected, one of Sonneman’s goals is continuing to recover from the pandemic. He also would like to acknowledge what is already going well at WAPS. “I think it’s dangerous to try and cast the public schools as not performing,” he said. “And I think what we need to recognize is the good things they do, and sustain them, and figure out where along the edges of that we can do better.” 

Denzer said she feels the School Board has worked through some issues, such as facilities planning with a task force. She also said she feels the board has collaborated well itself. “I do think the entire board has come together as a cohesive body,” she said. 

“The biggest thing for me is maintaining a healthy academic and safe atmosphere for our students to thrive in,” Denzer said. “And in order to do that, I think we need to stay on top of our current situation and continue to move forward with solutions to help our students have the best education they can.”. 

The district faces having limited resources, Denzer said. Against that backdrop, WAPS can work to recruit and retain staff, Denzer said. Some may not know what goes into a healthy school district, she continued. “So I think our job is to continually communicate and provide information to the public and make sure we’re being transparent in what we’re doing in the community,” she said.  

For Cunningham, offering opportunities for staff members and community members to communicate with her is one goal. This could mean providing opportunities for staff members to speak with her at school, she said. Recruiting and retaining staff by valuing their voices would be important, as well, she said. The district could further highlight teachers’ work, for example, she said. She would also want to advocate for the arts and increase engagement with families. 

Moore said he would like to improve communication between the district and community members. Some ways to do so could include listening to community input and explaining the School Board’s decision-making to the public, he said. He would also want to increase support for teachers by increasing salaries and classroom budgets. He would want to expand course offerings, as well, to ensure that students’ post-secondary plans are supported. 

 Alwan would like to elevate the voices of those historically marginalized, such as students of color, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities. This means believing students and families when they raise issues, he said, and accommodating their needs. School Board members could also actively spend more time in schools with students and staff, he said. Additionally, more diversity and equity training could take place throughout the district, he said. He would also like to support teachers’ mental health and make sure they have the day-to-day time they need to plan lessons, for example. 

Alwan would also want to better connect with the community. 

Since the last School Board election, the district has heard increased calls for racial equity. To address those, Sonneman said the district has a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee (DEI), which he helped create. That committee is now working on a diversity and equity policy for the district, he noted. “We have to recognize where we’re at, and understand that culturally, Winona is a much less homogenous community than it used to be. The diversity that exists here is who we are, and we need to be sure we are reflecting that in the schools and how we deal with things,” he said. Maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all is key, he said. Continuing to discuss diversity and equity openly is also important, he said. 

“I think it’s a challenge that the district has had for a long time, and I think that … that there’s a point that you have to — that people have to realize that there are community members and there are professionals in the community that have a lot of knowledge and lived experience,” Cunningham said. She continued, “Those community members are, or should be, a welcome addition to school district spaces.” Acknowledging the resources that diverse community members could bring to the district could help build relationships with them, Cunningham continued. WAPS could also access other nearby resources, such as equity organizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin, she said. 

“I think we need to have a diverse [faculty], a diverse administrative staff, so different students can come in and see more people that look like them there,” Moore said. Another strategy, he said, is making sure students feel safe and included at school. They could be included in lessons and through communication, he said, such as listening to them and speaking with families and the public. 

“I think we’ve done a good job of trying to begin to improve the process and to put a team together,” Denzer said, noting that the district has DEI. “We need to just continually address any diversity and equity issues and make sure we are being responsible in how we do that,” she added. 

Denzer will continue to back DEI’s work, she said. “I want to keep knowing what they’re doing, support their work, and ask questions when I think it’s important,” she said. 

Continued education on diversity and equity is vital, Alwan said. Moreover, the district could closely examine if it handles punishment equitably between students of color and white students behaving the same way, and work to swiftly address all instances of discrimination. WAPS could also develop resources to make sure students can receive education equitably, such as mental health resources, assistance at home and help with having enough food. 

The district also faces declining enrollment. “I’m going to challenge the assumption that there will be continued decreases,” Sonneman said. Meanwhile, the School Board is working to make the district attractive to families to increase enrollment, he said. He would like to continue discussing expanding preschool to each elementary school as an enrollment strategy, he said. “I strongly want to see that happen,” he said. “That in turn brings kids into those schools,” he continued. The district could also complete more outreach to students attending other schools at the points in their education when they could switch to WAPS, he said, such as starting middle school or high school. Additionally, he would want to continue integrating technology into education. 

Cunningham agreed that the district should highlight what it is doing well. She would also want to provide teachers with more support as they plan lessons within departments and from grade level to grade level so there is continuity in the education students receive. Additionally, she would like to provide staff members with more opportunities to create connections with students. That could improve the environment at schools, she said. Furthermore, the district could add programming in trade areas and apprenticeship options, she said. WAPS could implement service learning opportunities, as well, she said, so students could learn and work out in the community. The district could offer more options for community members to volunteer in the schools, too, she said. “I think that’d be a great way to build up WAPS in the eyes of the community,” she said. 

WAPS could work to provide programming that is not available anywhere else in the area, Moore said. This would include opportunities not offered at private schools or in home schooling situations, he said. He noted that one such program at WAPS is Rios. “I think we need to make it more attractive for students to look at WAPS,” he said. 

“I think we’re doing a really good job of getting information to families and offering opportunities to see what is happening in the district, and we’ve got great communication with our communications director,” Denzer said. “And our schools are offering different kinds of ways for interactions to happen with families. So I think we’re doing a really good job of setting the tone.” 

Enrollment strategies that the School Board approved earlier this year, such as purchasing a bus that will bring programming throughout the community, are beneficial, Denzer said. 

“I will fully admit that I’m not coming in with a strong strategic plan for that,” Alwan said of declining enrollment. “I recognize that it’s a problem.” He added that though the district is pursuing a rebrand with marketing firms, WAPS could talk with students and families about what is missing in the district and how to improve to find causes of declining enrollment and address them.