‘The time is now’: WAPS board sets April referendum date

Future classroom possibility

The Winona Area Public Schools Board has a plan in place to invest in its school buildings and improve learning and activity spaces for generations of students and families. 

It will now ask the community to support it.

The school board on Thursday night approved a two-question referendum to be held in April of 2023. If the community supports both questions, the district can begin work on a list of projects included in a recommendation by the WAPS Community Task Force, a group of staff members and community members which met 10 times over a span of four months to vet numerous facilities options. Earlier in Thursday’s meeting, the board accepted the recommendation as the base of a master facilities plan.

“There are so many (educational) options in our district,” board vice chair Tina Lehnertz said. “Those people have been continuing to move forward for a long time, and they still are moving forward. I think some of our spaces need to have these renovations in order to put programming in place that we want to have. 

“I think the time is now.”

The exact wording of the questions are not finalized, but the first one will ask voters to invest $71 million into improvements such as creating flexible learning spaces and addressing accessibility issues at the district’s historic elementary schools, updating career and technical education spaces at the high school and other deferred maintenance needs in all buildings.

The second question features improvements to extracurricular spaces, including the remodeling of the auditorium and music classrooms at the high school, renovations of the Paul Giel Field bathrooms and the addition of a sorely needed gym at the high school. The investment required for Question 2 is $15 million. 

If both questions are approved, the owner of a $200,000 home will see a property tax increase of less than $17 a month. (The financial documents can be seen here.)

“There is a lot of excitement in my mind about the academic piece of what we can do in the elementary schools with improving deferred maintenance,” school board chair Nancy Denzer said. “The industrial tech wing is really important to me because it is a direct connection to our business community and the people that our students are eventually going to be serving when they move into the workforce or start their career choice.”

A scientific survey conducted by one of Minnesota’s leading marketing and research firms indicated community support for the list of projects. Fifty-six percent of those who responded to a survey by The Morris Leatherman Company either support or strongly support the recommendation. Fifty-three percent of respondents said the total $87 million cost of the referendum to be a “fair price,” while 33% do not, and 15% are unsure.

Board member Michael Hanratty, who was part of the Community Task Force meetings along with Denzer, said he came to the meeting ready to support a one-question referendum, but was moved to change his mind.

“One thing that struck me with the Community Task Force was the spirit of consensus,” Hanratty said. “I think it is really important for this board to have that same spirit.”

That is one of the reasons the board members wanted to hold the vote in April 2023. The board had originally targeted a November 2022 referendum date but many members said they see the value in spending a few more months engaging with the community.

Board member Karl Sonneman said it will be important to persuade community members who may need a little nudging to get to the polls. 

“This isn’t a question of just putting the facts out,” Sonneman said. “Persuasion takes more. It takes listening to what people say, being able to answer their questions, being able to present a complex picture of what we’re doing.”

Board member Stephanie Smith agreed, adding that engaging with more community members could even lead to increased enrollment. 

“We want people in our community to see that we’re trying to make changes for the future and improve our schools to match these other schools in our community,” Smith said.

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