New heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems costing about $2-$8 million could be on the horizon for some Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) elementary buildings. While considering a voter referendum in 2022 to fund other maintenance needs, WAPS is eyeing loans the School Board could use to fund HVAC units without voter approval. 

As part of an ongoing discussion about how to address approximately $63 million in deferred building maintenance, School Board members voted in August for the Finance Committee to consider whether the district should apply health and safety bonds to building projects such as air quality systems. The board could approve health and safety bonds instead of needing voter approval through a referendum, as is required for most school borrowing. Finance Committee members would suggest which schools’ HVAC systems to upgrade and what type of new HVAC systems to use, as well as how to finance them and when to schedule the work. Ultimately, the School Board would vote on any recommendation from the Finance Committee. 

Representatives from Wold, WAPS’ architectural and engineering consultants, described HVAC system options and their prices at an August 30 Finance Committee meeting. 

The options would apply to Jefferson and Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) elementary schools, which do not have air conditioning. 

The least expensive option is an individual AC unit for each classroom. The units would connect to the outside of the buildings. “And certainly the pro is first, cost,” Ben Beery of Wold said. “They’re fairly cost effective to implement.” Wold estimates the project cost would be about $2.5 million at Jefferson and $2.1 million at W-K. 

Central air is a more expensive possibility. Beery explained that the system could be noisy, however, and finding a location for it where it would not bother those living near the schools may be challenging. Wold estimates it would cost WAPS about $7.8 million to complete the project at Jefferson and $6.45 million at W-K.  

Finally, a geothermal system with wells in the ground close to the buildings is the most expensive option. The wells would connect to a central unit in each school. The system is highly efficient and would allow WAPS to start considering carbon neutrality, Beery said. Wold estimates the project cost would be about $8.4 million at Jefferson and $7 million at W-K. 

There was one option School Board Chair Nancy Denzer was already decidedly against. “I don’t think the air units in each window is an appropriate way to go,” she said. The units would not be aesthetically pleasing, she said, or financially responsible in the long term, in an apparent reference to maintenance costs. 

If the School Board decides to pursue a system with individual units that would affect the aesthetics of the outside of the schools, it would be valuable for the district to discuss the plan with the city of Winona’s Heritage Preservation Commission, which regulates historic buildings, sooner rather than later, Beery said. 

The historic nature of the buildings could play another role in the schools’ potential future HVAC systems. As Wold employees have studied Jefferson and W-K, they have found that existing air pathways, such as tunnels in the walls, built in to the schools in the 1920s, could potentially still be used, Beery said. It is great that modern technology could be brought to the existing historic buildings, he added.  

Beery and Paul Aplikowski of Wold presented potential projects to update existing HVAC systems at the district’s other buildings, as well. The School Board could decide to have existing HVAC systems in those schools remeasured for continued efficiency, add a boiler for dehumidification in the summer at the middle school, replace exhaust fans at the middle and high schools, and replace pool and auditorium ventilation at the high school, among other projects, Beery said. Wold estimates these updates would cost approximately $4.3 million. 

According to documents from representatives of finance-advising firm Ehlers presented to the Finance Committee at the August 30 meeting, the district could use facilities maintenance or capital facilities bonds for health and safety projects without voter approval. Approval from the state would be required. WAPS could also use building bonds, which would require voter approval. 

Denzer said the questions now are how to decide what to pursue and how to take advantage of available revenue sources. “It’s a lot to absorb, but I think the information is really useful for us in moving forward,” she said. School Board member Karl Sonneman agreed, adding that he does not feel WAPS could delay work at Jefferson and W-K but other projects seem less urgent.