Some members of Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) facilities task force expressed concerns that the School Board’s approval of $16 million HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems at two elementary schools would limit the group from considering new construction and school closure. School Board Chair Nancy Denzer signaled she does not view new construction as an option. This Thursday, the School Board will decide whether to officially approve the bonds needed for the project. 

School Board members approved the HVAC systems in fall 2021, with those in support saying the systems would address the lack of air conditioning at Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) and Jefferson elementary schools and help mitigate COVID risk. Some also said the systems would allow the district to use the buildings for programming in the summer. Those who voted against the systems said they wanted to wait until the task force made its recommendation to the board about how to move forward with the district’s buildings after completing its work toward the end of February. The task force of community, staff and board members is considering how to plan for the schools’ futures against a backdrop of addressing about $63 million in deferred maintenance, according to WAPS’ architecture firm Wold. School Board member Steve Schild, who had suggested that the task force consider new construction, also said he did not want to limit the choices the task force considered, and he wanted to avoid investing millions as enrollment declines and capacity projections from Wold predict schools being far under capacity. Schild ultimately resigned from the task force. 

At a December 8 meeting, when the task force learned of the School Board’s HVAC system approval, task force member Brenda Nelson said it did not seem like the task force and School Board had worked together regarding the board’s HVAC decision. “It feels like it’s very contradictory … This is quite a maddening surprise,” she said. 

Denzer replied that the board had discussed the systems for some time, later adding, “We did what we thought was the best thing in that moment, and [we were] trying to support the work of the task force. It might not feel like that, but that was the intention …” At a previous task force meeting, Wold representatives facilitating the group noted that the district’s finance committee was considering some HVAC options. 

Nelson said she felt new construction was now off the table. Task force member Toni McDevitt said she felt closing buildings was, too. “You can’t just put money in it and say, ‘We’re going to close it,” she said. “But now our board has said, ‘No, we’re putting millions of dollars into those buildings.” 

Conversely, task force member Ed Thompson did not think the School Board’s HVAC system decision reduced the group’s options. “I don’t feel like our hands are tied at all,” he said. “I think this is something that the School Board is doing for long-range planning and it’s separate from what this committee is doing.”

Denzer said in an interview that new construction was “not on my mind,” when asked if the board’s approval of HVAC systems meant the task force wouldn’t consider new construction. She added that the first question the School Board charged the task force with answering centers on considering what could be the future of WAPS’ current buildings. When asked if the task force would just consider renovation or remodeling due to the decision regarding the geothermal systems, Denzer said the task force was not at that point yet with decision-making, so she didn’t know. “We’re still far away from what will happen next,” she said. “I’ll think you’ll see narrowing things down in the next few meetings.”