Winona schools rethink $24 million geothermal project after crushing referendum defeat

They say elections have consequences, especially lopsided results like the crushing defeat by a two-to-one margin of a $94 million referendum put before voters by Winona Area Public Schools last month. In the lead-up to the election, American Experiment highlighted a Winona Daily News column by Steve Schild, the lone school board member to oppose the referendum.

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.

Schild no longer serves on the school board. But another spending issue singled out in his prescient column has resurfaced in the weeks since the district’s election debacle: a $16 million geothermal project that voters never got the chance to turn down.

That expenditure without taxpayer approval is allowed because geothermal will provide air conditioning and improve air quality. I want students to have both of those things, but I’m confident they could be provided at lower cost by reconfiguring building use.

The district issued $16 million in bonds to pay for the construction, but the cost for the geothermal plan has ballooned to some $24 million. Some school board members now have second thoughts, citing the message taxpayers sent in the recent referendum. While preliminary work is underway, there were calls to put the project on hold at a recent board meeting, according to the Daily News.

Several school board members framed their statements on the project in terms of the April 11 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.”

Board member Jim Schul suggested the group pause the geothermal project to discuss other options at the board’s July 13 referendum results study session.

“The April election result has led me to reconsider the geothermal projects, or at least the timing of them,” Schul said.

It’s not clear where the district would find the additional $10 million in funding needed to complete the project. The Winona Post points out the district’s hopes for a federal grant have been all but dashed.

Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) has to secure approximately another $10 million to fund geothermal HVAC systems at two elementary schools. The district recently got word that one possible funding source may not work out. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) discouraged Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) from applying for federal funding to help install geothermal HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems at two elementary schools. 

Nevertheless, there’s sentiment on the school board to plow ahead, regardless of the referendum results.

Board chair Nancy Denzer said that work funding is already earmarked in the budget, contracts have been awarded and work already started.

“We made a commitment. We said we were doing this, we committed dollars, we have a budget, this is part of the budget we committed to. I think putting this on pause would be a big problem,” said Denzer.

The geothermal project could be a big problem regardless of where the district goes from here. The board temporarily put off decisions on several items related to the project until its next meeting. But the responsiveness of several board members to the community’s consensus on the referendum shows the outcome last month got their attention.