Geothermal HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems with a cost of about $15.4 million are slated to arrive at Jefferson and Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) elementary schools by the 2023 school year. The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) decision to invest millions in the schools came as the district tries to address about $63 million in deferred maintenance costs and plan for the future of its facilities through a task force of community members, district staff and School Board members, with a referendum for building projects tentatively set for November 2022.  

WAPS Board members approved at their November 18 meeting installing the systems and using $16 million in bonds to do so in a 5-2 vote. They also approved the bonds having a 15-year term. The district would pay about $1.4 million a year. Unlike other school district debt, the health and safety bonds require approval from just the School Board, not voters. 

School Board members pursued the project to address the lack of air conditioning at Jefferson and W-K, as well as air quality, in light of proper ventilation and filtration helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“I keep going back to the health and safety concerns,” School Board member Michael Hanratty said. He voted in favor of the systems. He said he felt they would correct aspects of the buildings such as ventilation. 

“I believe this … is more pragmatic than any of the other options that I could think of,” said School Board member Jim Schul, who voted for the systems. 

School Board member Karl Sonneman also voted in favor of the systems, noting that to keep on track with a construction schedule created by the district’s architecture firm Wold for completing the projects by fall 2023, the district would likely need to sell bonds in January or February 2022. Ben Beery of Wold noted that if the plan were to shift to completing the work by fall 2024, the schedule would change. 

In contrast, some School Board members expressed a wish to wait for the task force to make a recommendation to the School Board about which direction to go with district facilities and did not vote for the systems. School Board member Steve Schild, who voted no, again voiced his concerns about investing millions in W-K, his wish to consider enrollment and building capacity projections that show continuing declining enrollment and district buildings being far under capacity and his worry that deciding to invest in W-K will restrict the facilities planning options the task force has. He brought up that earlier this year, he suggested the task force have the option to consider constructing new buildings. “I would feel very differently about this if somebody would come back and say, ‘We’ve looked at the facilities needs of the district and we’ve looked at them taking into account those enrollment projections,’” he said, adding that an explanation of where W-K fits in would be beneficial. He also said he did not feel it made sense politically to pursue these bonds, then have to ask the public for funding through a referendum for other facilities needs.

“I’m concerned that we keep isolating a building in the conversation that has not been part of our conversation,” School Board Chair Nancy Denzer said in an apparent reference to W-K. “We have a six-building fleet in the district. It concerns me that some people have been talking about a certain building.” 

Schild said he did not think anything said went against past School Board choices about how to approach facilities planning currently. “What we’ve got here is a disagreement about the most prudent step to go ahead,” he said.

Similar to Schild’s concerns about the task force, School Board member Tina Lehnertz said she would like to wait to hear from the task force and did not vote for the systems. “We’ve made mistakes with buildings in the past, and our older buildings are a concern to many people,” she said. “I know they’re sound buildings. But I don’t know why we have to make this decision tonight, if we can allow the task force to bring us more information in the direction they’re going.”  

A community member who is on the task force, Ted Hazelton, also encouraged the School Board in a public comment to hold off until it receives information from the task force. “My concern is if we approve this geothermal at Jefferson and W-K, it kind of limits and ties the hands of the committee,” he said. He also expressed concerns about where the system would go at W-K, given the limited space around the building. 

Beery said it would be placed on the north side of W-K. He added that geothermal technology has improved quickly in the last several years, so fewer wells are needed, and they can be installed vertically rather than horizontally to save space. 

Several School Board members also referenced the board previously directing the district’s finance committee to consider HVAC systems for WAPS’ facilities as reasoning for the new systems. Denzer and Schul mentioned that the board asked the finance committee to analyze possible systems and make a recommendation to the board. 

Keep reading the Winona Post for more updates on WAPS’ facilities planning.