Steve Schild mugshot (high res)

By Steve Schild, Winona Area 

Public Schools Board member

 

I’m the only elected member of the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) board who opposes the $85 million referendum scheduled for April. I’m writing to explain why.

I think it’s a mistake to pump millions of tax dollars into buildings when we’re in an enrollment decline that has lasted more than a quarter-century and still hasn’t bottomed out. There’s lots of evidence, evidence gathered by WAPS itself, that the enrollment decline is not a blip but our new reality:

• WAPS enrollment has been cut nearly in half since 1994-95.

• The middle school is about half-full. By 2032, WAPS buildings are projected to have between 815 and 1,419 empty seats. Even the lower number of empty seats is more than our total elementary enrollment (786), more than our middle-school enrollment (661), and nearly equal to our high-school enrollment (840), according to figures presented May 19.

• In 1994-95, kindergarten enrollment was 321. Projections for the coming year are less than half that (153). Between 2000 and 2020, kindergarten enrollment was never below 174.

• The number of school-aged children within WAPS’ geographic boundaries is down 20 percent over the last 15 years or so, meaning there are fewer students to compete for. Meanwhile, families have more school options than ever.

• The state demographer’s office predicts Winona County’s population will drop more than 5,000 by 2045.

• Winona State University’s number of incoming freshmen in October 2021 was down 39 percent from 2020. Saint Mary’s University made significant staff and program cuts due to low enrollment. Those figures prove that the drastic drop exists beyond WAPS.

Simply put, the number of school-aged children in WAPS does not justify keeping all of our buildings, to say nothing of adding onto three buildings as the referendum proposes. I’d add, too, that the $85 million would be over and above the $16 million the board voted to spend — without voter approval — on geothermal at Jefferson and W-K. That expenditure without taxpayer approval is allowed because geothermal will provide air conditioning and improve air quality. I want students to have both of those things, but I’m confident they could be provided at lower cost by reconfiguring building use.  

I’d feel differently if we had a specific educational plan for those buildings, or if we’d done a more thorough study of reconfiguring facilities to make them fit enrollment realities. In the leadup to the closure of Madison and Rollingstone schools, the board considered 14 building configurations, each evaluated on the basis of 13 criteria. This board has done nothing remotely similar to that detailed analysis. Painful as they were, and even though we lost some students as a result, those closings worked — they saved taxpayers millions of dollars in deferred maintenance and they avoided damaging cuts in programs and staffing. Those closings also produced significant savings in our most valuable and most expensive resource — our teaching staff. Fewer buildings lets fewer teachers reach the same number of students without increasing class sizes. Fewer buildings lets specialists, such as those in reading and math, spend more time helping kids and less time driving between buildings.

My biggest concern about the referendum goes beyond numbers. It’s about the future, and whether we’re willing to acknowledge that what worked in the past is no longer sustainable. With enrollment continuing to drop and funding based on enrollment, a system that worked for years now has schools nationwide in perpetual financial crisis. Until we acknowledge and act on our new reality, we’ll always be struggling against a demographic tide — families having fewer kids — that we cannot change. As long as we continue that unwinnable fight, individual students and the community at large will get less from public education than we want and need.

Voters will, of course, make up their own minds; I hope they do so based on pertinent facts. Thanks for hearing me out.