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Voters in Winona hear both sides of referendum debate

October 12, 2018

WINONA — Voters in the Winona School District area were able to hear Wednesday night the pluses and minuses of the $9.42 million construction bond referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The League of Women Voters—Winona held a forum at a packed city council chambers — and with voters tuned in online and on local access TV — as members of the district administration, the referendum’s Yes Committee, and the Save Our Schools group gave their views on the referendum.

The $9.42 million would be used to make upgrades in safety and security at district schools, accessibility for the disabled at several buildings, and building maintenance and repair.

Gretchen Michlitsch, with Save Our Schools, outlined one of the group’s key complaints about the referendum in that it does nothing to fund the district’s main fiscal issue, the operating budget.

“This bond referendum doesn’t solve the issue of closing schools,” she said. Michlitsch added that the district recently lost about 130 students when it closed two elementary schools, and that loss of students meant a loss in operating revenue. “We need an operating referendum,” she said.

But waiting, said Lindsy O’Shea with the Yes Committee that supports the referendum, means putting off work that needs to be done no matter which schools are open. If not passed, she argued, the district will come back to voters again asking to fix maintenance problems that are only getting worse and more expensive with each passing year.

“Construction costs go up at least 5 percent a year,” O’Shea said. “Last year, they went up 17 percent due to tariffs.”

She also said the Save Our Schools plan to pass a bond levy that would collect funds over time and allow money to be spent as it is collected would mean spreading out construction over time, bringing rising construction costs each year of that plan.

“If this doesn’t pass, our students wait again and again and again,” said Julie Heinrichs with the Yes Committee.

But Michlitsch argued the district should use the long-term facilities maintenance levy from the state to help pay for many of the repairs listed as projects targeted by the bond referendum.

She also suggested the new school board, when elected in November, would provide better guidance than the current board has done on these issues. The current board, she said, has manipulated the community and the process, and it has not been fiscally responsible.

Allen Hillery, a member of the Save Our Schools group, added that the district tried saving money by closing schools, but, financially, the district is now heading in the wrong direction.

But Heinrichs said the referendum, which would be paid off in four years, would allow the district to complete high-priority items on its safety, accessibility and maintenance lists, areas called out as needs in a 2,300-respondent survey, while not “tying our hands” long term.

Some of those projects, said Sarah Knudsen, director of special education, include replacing plumbing and electrical infrastructure in buildings that dates back to the 1930s, and meeting Americans with Disabilities Act requirements on buildings, particularly the older elementary schools.

With issues like school security so important to parents today, Heinrichs said, “I would argue that passage would have a positive effect (on enrollment).”

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