The first comment made at a recent Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) facilities planning task force meeting focused on what it would cost to build a new school. 

“I definitely think there’s some interest or curiosity around the cost of new construction versus what we’re looking at, based on some of the people I’ve talked with,” task force member Drew Krings said at the group’s November 8 meeting. 

Paul Aplikowski, of the district’s architecture firm Wold, said the cost would depend on the building being constructed. “So, I think we need to get a little bit farther and figure out what you’re all trying to accomplish,” he said. “And we’d be happy to do some estimates.” 

Superintendent and task force member Annette Freiheit said in an interview that it was still being determined whether Wold would bring back estimated costs of new construction to the group. 

The task force of community members, district staff and several School Board members has met twice so far to consider the future of WAPS’ buildings. The group will meet through February 2022 and ultimately present recommendations to the School Board. 

Currently, the district faces about $63 million in deferred maintenance costs, according to Wold. Those costs include about $26.2 million at Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) and Jefferson elementary schools. WAPS has tentatively set a building project referendum for November 2022, as well. 

In addition to a task force member bringing up the cost of new construction, another task force member, Julie Heinrichs, said someone asked her whether W-K and Jefferson being designated historic buildings is reversible and what the process would be for undoing the status.

In 2017, the Winona City Council named Jefferson and W-K local historic sites, meaning any exterior alterations to the buildings require city approval. It would take a City Council vote to reverse the designation.

Aplikowski said the designation does not tie the task force’s hands. The status recognizes historical significance, and it does not stop the reuse or remodeling of buildings, he said. An additional step of going before the city’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) to get its approval for any project would be required, though, he added. “The Historic Preservation Commission codes or guidelines really look to have buildings be reused, or find a new life, so they don’t fall into disrepair,” he said. He did not know whether it would be possible to reverse the designation or what the process might be for doing so, he said. “But again, it’s malleable,” he continued. “Malleable as long as the structure still stands, however,” Heinrichs asked. “Knocking it down would be a problem,” Aplikowski said. “That was their question,” Heinrichs said. 

Task force member Luke Sims, who is the city planner and liaison for the HPC, noted that the HPC recently approved the demolition of one building in town but rejected another proposed demolition. Demolition would include whole building demolition or the demolition of part of a building, he said. Essentially, if one part of a building were to be demolished or an addition were to be built, the HPC would have to review the proposed project, he said. 

“If you were going to tear that down and build a new building, I don’t think you’d build it on that site,” Aplikowski said. “It’s just not big enough to — I can’t imagine doing that and being on that site. So the value, I think, of being on that site is leveraging the facility that is there. So it doesn’t seem like that would be a very likely option. If that was the case, you’d probably try to go somewhere else and that building could stay, potentially.” 

Elsewhere in Minnesota, an elementary school is being built in Hugo at a cost of $43 million. The school will have a capacity of 720 students. Additionally, the Mankato School District has considered building a new elementary school for 600 students at a cost of $39.5 million.

Wold consultants are trying to answer task force members’ questions as completely as possible without influencing their decision making, School Board Chair and task force member Nancy Denzer said when asked about the comments about new construction and historic status. “All those questions are good. The outcome, again, I don’t know what the outcome will be, because it’s a process the whole group is a part of,” she said. 

Along with asking questions, the task force will have to decide which enrollment projection they would like to use while considering the direction to go with WAPS’ buildings. In initial discussion, a number of task force members leaned toward applying a more conservative number to planning. Finance Director Sarah Slaby presented an estimated enrollment of about 1,800 in 2031-2032. The district’s former finance director estimated last year that enrollment would decline to about 1,500 students in a decade. The district’s current enrollment is 2,434. 

In the task force’s initial discussion, members favored projections in the 1,800 to 1,900 range.

“That conversation was a starting point, not an ending point,” Denzer said of discussing enrollment projections. “The conversation will happen again.” 

The task force featured heavily in recent School Board conversations about air systems at W-K and Jefferson, as well. The School Board approved on November 18 using about $16 million in bonds to install geothermal HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems at W-K and Jefferson. At a School Board meeting on November 4, Denzer said the systems would allow the district to use the buildings for programming they never have before during the summer, for instance, as the buildings do not have air conditioning at the moment. School Board member Stephanie Smith agreed about using the buildings for new programming. 

In contrast, School Board member Steve Schild said he was concerned about investing millions in W-K. He also said he was concerned about enrollment projections and capacity projections estimating WAPS’ buildings being far under capacity. Moreover, he said deciding to install geothermal systems at W-K and Jefferson now may constrain the options the task force considers for WAPS’ facilities. Earlier this year, he suggested the task force have the option to consider the construction of new buildings. School Board member Tina Lehnertz, as well as task force member Ted Hazelton, also voiced this concern about limiting the task force’s choices. Schild ultimately stepped down from participating on the task force at the School Board’s November 4 meeting.