Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board will decide later this month whether to approve the installation of a $15.4 million geothermal HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system at Jefferson and Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) elementary schools. Discussion of the proposal recently turned into a broader discussion of the schools’ future and whether to replace them. A majority of the board supported the continued use of and investment in Jefferson and W-K. 

Earlier this year, the School Board asked the district’s Finance Committee to consider HVAC options. The system would be covered by health and safety bonds that would only require School Board, not voter, approval. At their November 4 meeting, some board members said they wanted to address Jefferson and W-K not having air conditioning. They also said they wanted to address air quality needs because ventilation and filtration reduce the risk of COVID transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Finance Committee decided to propose the geothermal option, with School Board Chair Nancy Denzer and School Board member Karl Sonneman saying they felt the system was the most financially responsible long term and a more environmentally friendly choice. According to Wold, the district’s architecture consultant who provided the finance committee with options, the geothermal system would have fewer maintenance and replacement costs than a system with individual units, in addition to a longer life span. 

Conversely, School Board member Steve Schild voiced his concerns with the option, including investing in W-K given declining enrollment and capacity projections from Wold showing the district’s buildings under capacity. Schild has suggested WAPS’ Facilities Task Force, a group charged with helping plan the future of WAPS’ buildings, consider constructing new school buildings. Schild argued investing in W-K would constrain the task force’s options. 

Denzer and Sonneman reiterated their support for W-K, Jefferson, and the geothermal system at the November 4 meeting, saying Jefferson and W-K are important for the district and the geothermal system would allow for more use of them. Sonneman said Jefferson and W-K are anchor buildings at each end of the city, and the city is central to WAPS. Without them, there would be no elementary schools in the city, he added. Additionally, many of the district’s buildings, not just these elementary schools, are over 50 years old now, he said. “If we have any chance of keeping kids in the district, I think this is it,” he said. “We need to move forward and do this at this time so that these buildings gain the use that we need.” 

Jefferson and W-K could be used for summer programming, for example, with the update, Denzer said, whereas in the past, it was too hot in the buildings over the summer to use them. “Once the health and safety issues are taken care of at both W-K and Jefferson, it affords us an opportunity we’ve never had before,” she said. 

School Board member Stephanie Smith agreed with the elementary schools being used over the summer, as they are in town, and some programming is held at the middle school now over the summer, so those without transportation may not be able to take advantage of the programming. 

In contrast, Schild reaffirmed his opposition. He cited enrollment projections of further declining enrollment and capacity projections of buildings far under capacity, and he questioned spending millions. “I think it constitutes a refusal to acknowledge the demographic and economic realities that we face,” he said. He would support having the system at Jefferson more so than W-K, he said, as he sees Jefferson as part of a campus with the Winona Area Learning Center and Paul Giel Field. 

With the task force going through its work now, Schild said he was also worried deciding to invest in the geothermal system would limit what the task force considers doing with Jefferson and W-K. “If the task force studied the totality of our facilities situation and said, ‘Yes we should go ahead with them,’ then I would see that differently,” he said. “But if we spend this kind of money on those buildings, we are married to them for a long time.” 

Like Schild, School Board member Tina Lehnertz expressed some hesitation. She said she had a lot of thinking to do and didn’t know which way to vote. She wants to see WAPS’ enrollment increase, but recognizes there are many schools to choose from in the area, she said. “I think we have to be realistic about that,” she said. She also voiced some concern about Jefferson and W-K. “I have always thought that we have put necessary money into some of our older buildings … I’m hoping that the task force comes up with some really, really, really good plans for those two buildings, because there are people out there that believe that is why some kids don’t come to our district, because the learning possibilities in those buildings aren’t up to 2021 standards, and how they look from the outside,” she said.

School Board members Jim Schul and Michael Hanratty, on the other hand, said choosing the geothermal system would help the task force make decisions. “I think it focuses it, because it would be a statement saying, ‘We’re going to keep these two buildings,’” Schul said. “If this moves forward, it will focus the task force a little more, and there will be a lot more discussion on the future of our buildings and how we can be creative,” Hanratty said. 

Ultimately, Schild stepped down from the task force. “It is clear that I am out of sync with the rest of the board on this critically important issue,” he said. “I don’t want to be an obstructionist. And I think that the chances for that task force succeeding would be best if everybody involved is foursquare behind possibilities and looking into various options.” Hanratty and Denzer remain on the task force. 

The School Board will vote on the geothermal system proposal at its November 18 meeting. The meeting may be attended at 6 p.m. in person at Winona Senior High School or watched online at