Winona voters overwhelmingly reject $94 million school referendum

Several months ago, American Experiment highlighted the unusual case of a then-school board member who bucked his peers and urged Winona voters to reject a $94 million school referendum coming up in April 2023.

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.

Schild elaborated on the reasons for his lone opposition in a column in the Winona Daily News at the time.

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.

Winona Area Public Schools pushed back the original date of the referendum from last November to April in order to allow additional opportunity “to engage with the community” over the two questions before voters. But when Winona area residents went to the polls yesterday, it became clear they preferred to disengage from the district’s expansion plans. Both ballot questions were rejected overwhelmingly by a similar two-to-one margin.

The headline in the Winona Daily News summed up the lopsided results: “Voters Defeat Winona Area Public Schools referendum by Large Margin.” School board members acknowledged the stunning loss on the district website.

Question 1 was defeated with 2,380 (65.6%) no votes to 1,250 (34.4%) yes votes. Question 2 was defeated with 2,378 (66%) no votes to 1,227 (34%) yes votes.

“We are disappointed that the majority of those who voted in this election didn’t share our same vision to invest in our students by improving our spaces,” WAPS school board chair Nancy Denzer said. “We remain committed to solving our long-term facilities issues. Our needs are real, and they are not going away. We look forward to learning more from these results and moving forward with our students and staff at the forefront of our decision making.”

District officials seemed perplexed by the outcome, particularly following the lengthy process undertaken to convince residents the project was worth it.

The planning for this referendum started in 2021. The WAPS Community Task Force, a volunteer group of staff, parents and community members, met 10 times, toured each of the district’s six buildings and vetted 12 different options before making a recommendation to the board. A scientific survey conducted in May of 2022 indicated public support for the overall plan and the individual projects, as well as general support for WAPS. The proposal was modified slightly before receiving unanimous approval from the board in January 2023. 

It’s not clear the extent to which the prospect of paying higher taxes played a role in voters’ decision to reject the expensive upgrade to school facilities. The district’s pre-referendum survey showed local taxpayers supported the concept of paying more. But the projected tax hikes provided in the paper were substantial.

If both questions passed, the estimated tax impact of the $94.2 million referendum for homeowners would’ve been $247 for homes with a market value of $200,000 or $545 for $400,000 homes.

The tax increase would begin with taxes payable in 2024. 

Whatever their reasons, Winona voters have spoken loud and clear. But it remains to be seen whether the school board and administration has heard them.

Understanding why the referendum vote ultimately failed, Denzer said, will provide needed information to move forward. 

“My sincere apologies to the students of the district. It’s a big letdown for them,” Denzer said. “We feel real strongly that our students deserve to have the facilities that will help us really move forward in the future.”

Steve Schilds has stepped down from the Winona school board. But administrators could undoubtedly use someone with his common sense approach more than ever as they look to the future.