Geothermal heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems costing about $15.2 million may arrive at two Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) elementary buildings in the next few years. WAPS’ Finance Committee will soon recommend to the School Board that it consider installing the geothermal systems at Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) and Jefferson elementary schools. 

The Finance Committee decided on this recommendation at its October 14 meeting. The decision came after the School Board charged the Finance Committee this summer with reviewing HVAC system options and bringing back a recommendation to the board. School Board members wished to address HVAC needs at W-K and Jefferson, which do not have air conditioning, as well as ventilation and filtration needs, in light of the ongoing pandemic. 

The decision also came against a backdrop of WAPS working to address about $63 million in deferred maintenance needs. A task force of community members and district staff will soon start to meet to discuss the future of WAPS facilities. School Board members are also tentatively planning a referendum for building needs in November 2022. The School Board learned this summer from consultants that health and safety bonds — essentially, loans — could fund the air systems and would not require approval from voters, but rather simply School Board approval.

Finance Committee members also considered slightly less expensive options. According to the district’s architecture firm, Wold, individual window units at W-K and Jefferson would cost about $12 million, a central air system about $14.2 million and the geothermal system about $15.2 million. Wold representatives said the geothermal system would have a longer life-span than the individual units, 30 years as compared to 20, and not require as much replacement of parts as the individual units.  

Several Finance Committee members said they would prefer the geothermal system. They said they felt it would be most cost-effective in terms of maintenance requirements.  

School Board Chair Nancy Denzer said she supported the geothermal option. “Ultimately, I think geothermal is the best use of not only our buildings, but generating the maintenance piece,” she said. “Overall, I think it is the most effective and responsible way for us to go.” 

School Board member Karl Sonneman also said he supported going with the geothermal option. “The geothermal has some attractiveness because of long-term cost and efficiencies,” he said. “I think if I’m understanding it correctly it’s also the most environmentally friendly or neutral. And we have some experience with it.” The Winona Area Learning Center currently has a geothermal system. 

Building and Grounds Director Michael McArdle said he thought the geothermal system would be a good long-term option. He added that regardless of the option the School Board approves, he simply wants to make sure the option aligns with whatever long-term facilities plan the district develops, as well as data on building capacity and enrollment.

School Board member Steve Schild said it was more a question of where the systems would be going than the system itself. Schild said that while he felt the geothermal option was the best, he did not support investing in an older school. Choosing the geothermal option might limit what the task force considers for the district’s buildings, as well, he said. As the School Board established the task force, Schild asked whether they could consider constructing new buildings. In a later interview, he said he wanted the task force to be able to consider any feasible facility option. 

Denzer said the Finance Committee and task force will go down parallel roads with their work. The task force will be asked to think into the future while guiding facilities planning, she said. She acknowledged the Finance Committee’s work could impact the task force’s. “If we’re recommending that we move forward with geothermal at Jefferson and W-K, that does put the onus on this task force to consider what we’re doing,” she said. She added that she is in favor of keeping the district’s current buildings and cannot necessarily see moving forward with a referendum to build a new school. 

Sonneman said that all the district’s buildings are old, with Jefferson and W-K just being slightly older. Jefferson and W-K have value in what they represent and how they function, Sonneman said, with W-K being an anchor school for one end of the community. He added that conversations about which buildings to keep could go on indefinitely, and he would like to remove Jefferson and W-K from any closure discussion, and get air systems up to speed at the schools. 

“I don’t agree with the idea of just continuing to say ‘We have to have them because we have to have them,’” Schild said. He would feel differently if the task force wanted to keep them, he said. 

The School Board will be briefed on the recommendation at their November 4 meeting at 6 p.m. at Winona Senior High School.