School board member bucks peers, urges a ‘no’ vote on $87 million referendum

School boards have a reputation for serving as a rubber stamp for the district administration, particularly when it comes to big buck projects for new facilities. So it came as a surprise when one school board member broke ranks recently to oppose an $87 million referendum set to go before Winona voters.

Steve Schild was the only “no” in a 6-1 vote by the Winona Area Public Schools Board to move forward with a huge renovation and construction project at a time when the district continues to experience and expect further declines in enrollment. Schild’s strategy could serve as a blueprint for school board members in other districts facing tough choices due to the new realities facing public schools.

The first-term school board member who’s not running for re-election made his case in a column in the Winona Daily News.

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.

Schild points out there are 20 percent less school age children in the district than 15 years ago with more educational alternatives to choose from. He argues the old template of more spending on bricks and mortar no longer cuts it.

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.

School officials originally planned to put the measure up to a vote in November, but pushed it back to April 2023 in order to allow time for “engaging with the community” as the district’s website put it.

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. 

Administrators highlight the results of a survey that found a majority of district residents support the referendum and $87 million price tag. But as the Winona Post notes, a greater majority were reluctant to actually foot the bill, which would amount to an average of $17 per month more in property taxes for an owner of a $200,000 home.

The majority of respondents did not support a tax increase high enough — on a $200,000 home — to fund the referendum. When asked more specifically how much more per month they would be willing to pay in property taxes for school facilities upgrades in a referendum, 29 percent said nothing, 25 percent said $6, 18 percent said $12 and 11 percent said $18. Just 2 percent said they would pay $24 and 1 percent said they would pay $30.

Steve Schild will no longer be serving on the Winona School Board by the time the referendum goes before voters next April. But his willingness to challenge the conventional thinking sets the standard for his replacement.