WAPS board approves geothermal systems at Jefferson, W-K

Jefferson and W-K Elementary Schools

Two historic school buildings in Winona will receive a major boost in air quality, expanding the possibilities for their use and addressing a critical need without an impact on taxpayers.

The Winona Area Public Schools board on Thursday night approved a motion to issue facility maintenance bonds in the amount of $16 million to be repaid over 15 years, the proceeds of which will be used for the design and construction of geothermal dehumidification projects at Jefferson Elementary and Washington-Kosciusko Elementary. 

School boards in Minnesota have the authority to levy for projects that meet certain criteria — in this case, addressing air quality — without voter approval that is typically needed for most facility upgrades. By doing it this way, several board members said, the district can address a critical need without raising the tax impact on property owners and leave the door open for a voter-approved referendum in the near future. Some board members also said this move will sharpen the focus of the WAPS Community Task Force, which has been tasked by the full board to provide input toward a master facilities plan. 

This project was recommended by a majority of the Finance Committee, which was directed by the full board to study air quality options available to the district using the health and safety bonds. While other options may require less up-front costs, they would cost more over the lifespan of the unit and would need to be replaced earlier. A geothermal system provides a better return on the investment over the lifetime of the unit, according to a document prepared by Wold Architects and Engineers, and is considered to be more energy efficient. It uses stable ground temperature to heat buildings in the winter and cool them in the summer. A similar system is already in place at the Winona Area Learning Center.

Board members Steve Schild and Tina Lehnertz expressed concern over the investment in W-K before the task force had the opportunity to complete its work, saying that it limited the group’s options in what to recommend to the school board. Schild was especially concerned with declining enrollment district-wide. 

Board chair Nancy Denzer disagreed, saying that the geothermal system will increase the options available to the task force when it comes to imagining what could go into the buildings while narrowing its focus. 

For board member Michael Hanratty, it all came down to the health and safety of Winona’s youngest learners.

“A couple years ago, we were talking about mold at Jefferson,” he said. “This would basically correct that. We talked about during the global pandemic, how these elementary schools had poor ventilation. I keep going back to health and safety, and this is why I am in support of this motion.”

The buildings, both built in the 1930s, are the only ones in the district’s fleet that don’t have air conditioning. In June 2021, the last two days of school were cut short because an unexpected heat wave forced early dismissal for health concerns. With more funding available to provide summer learning opportunities for students following the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jefferson and W-K would be able to comfortably accommodate those programs for many summers to come.

That’s just one possibility that is now unlocked after the board approved these major investments into the two historic buildings, one on the east end and the other on the west end, that have served generations and generations of Winona children and their families. 

“I believe that this chosen path is more pragmatic than any of the other options,” board member Jim Schul said. “We now, collectively, heavily rely on the work of the community task force.”