Will Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) pursue a referendum to fund building projects? How large would that referendum be, and when would citizens vote on it? School Board members will continue to ponder questions such as these at a special meeting on Thursday, July 29. The meeting will be held as district leaders consider how to address approximately $63 million in deferred maintenance costs. The meeting also comes at a time when a referendum could raise revenue without increasing taxes. 

Though WAPS has not yet posted an agenda for the meeting as of press time, there is a brief description of the meeting on the School Board’s website that states the meeting’s purpose is “to discuss a potential referendum.” 

School Board members last had a conversation about the future of WAPS’ facilities at a work session on June 29. At that meeting, School Board member Michael Hanratty said it was the right moment to discuss using buildings in a new fashion, and he floated the idea of restructuring elementary schools. First and second grade students could attend one school, third and fourth graders could go to another and a different school could be an early childhood center, for instance, he said. 

Meanwhile, Superintendent Annette Freiheit said it would be valuable to keep in mind that the field of education is shifting, with hands-on, collaborative projects becoming prominent. It would be beneficial to visit schools built or redesigned for such learning, she added. 

WAPS leaders had these discussions against a backdrop of what they deemed a “tax shelf.” In 2023, the district will pay off the debt from a recent $9.4-million building project referendum. Taxes would go down in 2024, as a result, or WAPS may ask the community to approve a new referendum that would keep taxes flat. 

School Board member Karl Sonneman said in an interview that though the upcoming meeting’s scope was not necessarily clear, when he considered the board’s discussion last month, “There’s sort of a sense we need to be talking about the long-term future of education and education within Winona.” “The world has changed, and is changing,” he continued.  

Along with the big picture question about the direction education is heading, School Board members could start considering larger questions about demographics, enrollment and programming choices for students in public schools, Sonneman said. “To me, it’s a very important question, what choices should we be offering to lead us down a different path into the future,” he said. 

Sonneman said that when it comes to his ideas regarding how the district could use its facilities in the future, he has consistently and publicly explained that he does not favor having the fifth grade as part of Winona Middle School. He added that in conversations he has had around the community, one idea that has come up is having a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade building without as much of the typical differentiation between grades. 

Freiheit and School Board Chair Nancy Denzer declined to comment. School Board members Hanratty and Tina Lehnertz did not respond to requests for comment. The School Board special meeting will take place on Thursday, July 29, starting at 6 p.m. at Winona Senior High School.