Winona schools double down after lopsided referendum defeat

In April voters emphatically rejected Winona Area Public Schools’ $94 million referendum to upgrade six district buildings by a two-to-one margin. Former school board member Steve Schild evidently spoke for many when he outlined the reasons for his opposition 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 embarrassing loss put the possibility of taking a new look at the best use of district resources on the table. Or did it? In a hard-hitting letter to the Winona Post, Schild takes on school administrators again, along with a newly minted task force.

Despite your recent referendum plan being badly beaten at the polls, the debriefing information given to the task force last Thursday includes lines like, “We had a good plan,” and the public didn’t understand it. Your apparent expectation that staff and other citizens should vote for your plan just because it’s your plan reflects a significant disconnect with the community. You apparently refuse to consider the possibility that your referendum plan lost not because voters didn’t understand it, but because they understood it perfectly and opposed it vehemently. The public can’t stop you from doing what you’re doing; you’ve made sure of that, but it’s eminently reasonable for the public to ask that you explain how your plan, if indeed you have one, either for the buildings or for enrollment, is supposed to work.

At the new task force’s first meeting, school officials ruled out closing any of the district’s six buildings. They also insisted on moving forward with a $26 million geothermal HVAC project at two aging schools that was not on the referendum ballot, but highly controversial.

The board has made that obvious in doing what it’s going to do Thursday night, namely taking on an additional $9.9 million in taxpayer debt, bringing the total to $26 million, for geothermal at Jefferson and W-K. That debt, put on the tax rolls without letting citizens vote on it, makes clear that the board was wrong when it said in a November 2021 news release that the geothermal project could be done “without an impact on taxpayers.”

In fact, the school board took steps to proceed with the unpopular project less than a month after its stinging defeat, brushing aside the objections of some members who the Daily News notes changed their minds as a result of the message sent by voters.

Several school board members framed their statements on the project in terms of the April referendum for building and classroom investments.

“I believe the referendum vote that we saw here not too long ago, and the demographics not only that voted but did not vote in that election, should give this body cause to pause and re-calibrate and consider what we’re doing,” said board member Pete Watkins. “There has been no more clear message sent to us than the vote a few weeks ago.”

That’s already ancient history for district officials, according to the Winona Post. The school board chair evidently already has plans in mind to put the community through yet another referendum before long.

The question of another referendum is looming, she [School Board Chair Nancy Denzer] said, as is the conversation about the geothermal heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems the district is having installed at Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) and Jefferson elementary schools. She said the bottom line is the board is committed to having six buildings and has no appetite for closing schools.

It seems some school officials will never learn.

Photo credit: WXOW