The options are seemingly endless when it comes to addressing the future of Winona Area Public Schools facilities, but the school board hopes to narrow its focus over its two August meetings.
The school board held a special meeting Thursday night (July 29) to review documents and broadly discuss potential approaches to the gargantuan task of balancing more than $63 million in deferred maintenance costs with a desire to create a learning environment where students feel safe, comfortable and able to thrive.
Several school board members spoke in favor of first developing a master facilities plan, one that is flexible enough to adjust to changes down the road while providing a roadmap for future planning and decision making.
“I agree wholeheartedly that whatever we spend should be part of some greater vision that is coherent,” board member Steve Schild said. “It’s not only good public policy, but I think it increases our chances of getting community support if we can clearly articulate ‘Here is what needs to happen and why.’”
Such a plan, board member Jim Schul said, could help sharpen the discussions of a community task force, if the board decides to convene one. A community task force was used to determine the needs for the $9.42 million referendum approved by voters in 2018. That referendum addressed the district’s most pressing safety and security needs, such as accessible and secure entrances, updated plumbing and a new student parking lot at the high school.
Even if the board decides to develop a master facilities plan and convene a task force, that doesn’t mean a referendum is the next step. There are non-voter approved ways to address some of the maintenance needs, but they are limited to specific types of projects. For example, the board could decide to address critical air quality issues at Jefferson and Washington-Kosciusko elementaries, two buildings that are nearly 90 years old and comprise much of the district’s deferred maintenance needs.
“There are various options to finance capital projects,” said Jeff Seeley, a senior municipal advisor with Ehlers. “Voter approved has the broadest possibilities or authority. But if you’re looking at certain types of projects, the board could issue abatement bonds. That does not require any vote.”
Air quality projects could qualify for this type of financing, Seeley said. There are also ways the board could pay for large capital projects using funding from its Long Term Facilities Maintenance Plan.
The board could also ask the community for support through a bond referendum, the amount of which is another decision for the board to make. There are only three dates in which a referendum vote could take place in 2022 — in February, in August and in November. If a referendum fails, the board would need to wait 180 days before asking again, or it would need to significantly change the question.
No matter what decisions the board makes, there is some pressure to make it soon. The levy from the previous referendum will expire in 2023, giving the board a window to get something done without a major impact on a homeowner’s tax bill.
The board will continue these discussions at its next meeting on Thursday, Aug. 5 and likely take action on whether or not to put together a facilities plan and convene a task force at the meeting on Thursday, Aug. 19.