WAPS board focuses on student needs in referendum discussion

School Board Work Session

The Winona Area Public Schools board took the first steps toward a possible referendum Tuesday night, at times tossing off the hard hats of a construction crew focusing only on maintenance projects and instead discussing how to create spaces where students want to be.

“We need to have our heads in the clouds,” school board member Jim Schul said during a three-and-a-half hour study session at the high school, “but our feet on the ground. We need pragmatism.”

The gargantuan task ahead of the school board — which will seek community input along the way — is figuring out how to balance more than $63 million in deferred maintenance costs in a district that is dealing with demographic changes resulting in decreased enrollment. 

The board was clear that at this time it is not considering the closing of any school buildings and does not want to increase the tax impact on the community. Taxpayers supported a $9.42 million bond referendum in 2018 that addressed the district’s most dire maintenance needs, such as secure, accessible entrances at Jefferson and Washington-Kosciusko, a new student parking lot at the high school and plumbing and electrical fixes across the district. That levy will expire in 2023, giving the board a window to approach the community for support without a major impact on a homeowner’s tax bill. 

If the board moves forward with keeping the tax shelf stable, the amount of revenue from the bonds would be determined by the length of the term. According to calculations provided by Jeff Seeley, a senior municipal advisor from Ehlers, the amounts range from $11.5 million for a five-year term to $44.2 million for 20 years. 

Aside from deciding how much money to ask for, the board will also need to determine what to spend it on. And while the needs are many, the board spoke of a desire to not just bring the buildings up to today’s standards, but to provide a learning environment that is welcoming for generations to come. 

Board chair Nancy Denzer, who served as an interim principal in Rochester Public Schools last school year, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed what students need from their school buildings.

Board member Karl Sonneman said that any planning should include the voices of students. Paul Aplikowski, partner at Wold Architects and Engineers, echoed that sentiment when he relayed a story from a recently finished project.

“A student walked into one of the spaces that we had just renovated. It was a little more progressive of a design. He put his arm around the assistant principal and said ‘You finally figured it out. This is what we wanted,’” Aplikowski said. “It was a transformative moment for me. Why wouldn’t you want to make schools a place where kids want to be? It’s so basic, but I don’t think it’s been a priority for a lot of years.”

Several board members held up Education Village as a possible guide. The $33.2 million project renovated three historic buildings on the Winona State University campus, a process centered on the student experience. A similar project would allow the district to preserve the historical presence of buildings like Jefferson and W-K — both of which are nearing 90 years old — while creating spaces that can cultivate innovative learning environments geared toward changing needs.

Superintendent Dr. Annette K. Freiheit mentioned that research right now is leading educators down a path of providing spaces that allow for collaboration as well as hands-on, project-based, personalized learning. She suggested that the school board should visit districts that have redesigned spaces to accommodate these changing needs.

“We have to acknowledge the past,” Freiheit said. “We have to understand the significance of these historical feelings when it comes to our schools, because it is something that most communities go through. There is an emotional attachment (to school buildings). Whether it is an emotional attachment to the actual school buildings, or the experiences there, or a combination of both, we need to acknowledge that those are there. So how do we acknowledge that and move forward for the next generation?”

Board members discussed ways to maximize the use of the current buildings. Michael Hanratty threw out an idea for grade-level buildings, which could, for example, turn W-K into a building for Grades 3-4, Jefferson into a building for Grades 1-2 and Goodview into an early childhood center.

“We could really have that conversation about the future rather than looking at the maintenance project that is presented to us,” Hanratty said. 

Denzer said that vision would allow the district to better utilize not only the buildings, but also the programs.

“I think it makes perfect sense that buildings become centers,” Denzer said. “They can really capitalize on programming. We’re giving teachers the best shot to work together, collaborate together, all the things that can happen in buildings.”

The board will discuss how to proceed with this work at its July 15 regular meeting. The earliest a referendum would be presented to the community would be in February 2022.

Schul quoted legendary college basketball coach John Wooden when he said he and his colleagues need to be quick but don’t hurry. 

“We don’t want to do something irrational out of panic, but we also don’t want to continue to delay the vision we have.”

Denzer agreed, and hoped that Tuesday’s conversation was the springboard to a productive, collaborative process to determine the long-term vision of Winona Area Public Schools instead of a short-term solution.

“This discussion has been really good,” Denzer said. “It’s been purposeful. We can move forward, but with some more information, can we come together to decide what the vision is without selling ourselves short?”