Report: High school may be half-empty by 2031


(4/7/2021)

by ALEXANDRA RETTER 

 

The most recent iteration of a study of the capacity of Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) buildings projects that they could be 59 percent full by the 2031-32 school year based on estimated enrollment. The projections include estimates that the district’s buildings for high school students could be 48 percent full and Winona Middle School (WMS) could be 55 percent full. The estimates are based on potential capacity, which is a capacity measure tied to how a building could be used rather than how it is currently arranged. School Board members received the capacity study at their April 1 meeting. Several board members and Superintendent Annette Freiheit said they would not want to speculate about any potential school consolidation at this time, while one said he did not want the district to use the numbers for planning purposes.  

The projections are based on potential capacity. Potential capacity refers to a capacity level at which a building is used efficiently but is not overly full, Paul Aplikowski of the architecture firm Wold said at the April 1 meeting School Board meeting. Wold completed the capacity study. The district has historically collaborated with the firm. Wold is also completing a facility study that is expected to go before the School Board in the near future. The facility study will contain information about student enrollment and deferred maintenance to assist district leaders with outlining a plan for the future of the district’s buildings. 

Wold also projected capacity based on how the district currently uses its spaces. Those capacity projections for utilization by 2031-32 are 72 percent district wide, 63 percent at the high school level and 72 percent at WMS. 

When asked whether the numbers in the study results mean WAPS should consolidate more schools, School Board member Steve Schild said in an interview, “I think given the emotionally charged nature of school consolidations, it would really be imprudent to talk about that, not knowing any more than I do. As you know, those discussions and decisions have enormous impacts on the community. I just don’t think it’d be responsible to speculate about that right now.” 

If the projections of 59 percent of district buildings and 55 percent of the middle school being utilized by 2031-32 hold true, Schild said that reality would lead to a question of how the unused space could be utilized. He referenced the projection of the district’s high school-level buildings being 48 percent utilized by 2031-32. “And I think it points to the question, ‘What’s the best use of public money, given a circumstance like that?’” He added, “Maybe there are other good uses that could be made of that space, that according to this analysis projects would be vacant. But the question you’re asking is exactly the one at some point that we’ll have to address.” 

When asked whether the numbers in the study results mean WAPS should consolidate more schools, School Board Chair Nancy Denzer said in an interview, “No. It isn’t even an answer we can talk about right now, because that’s not even on anyone’s

radar.” She added, “It would be really premature to speculate about anything that might happen with the results of it.”  The numbers in the study results gave Denzer the impression that the district still has declining enrollment.

In 2018, WAPS sold Madison and Central elementary schools, saying years of falling enrollment numbers and deferred maintenance expenses forced the district to downsize. 

When asked to consider the projection that the middle school will be 55 percent utilized by 2031-32 and the district’s buildings for high school students will be 48 percent utilized by 2031-32, and whether those numbers were a sign that WAPS should consolidate more schools, Denzer said, “Yeah, again, I don’t even, I would not use the word consolidation, because that’s, again, it’s not a reflection of what we’re doing. We’re not talking about anything like that.” She added, “I would not interpret from the report that that’s a conclusion that is fair at all.”

When asked if the numbers in the study results mean the district would move toward consolidating more schools, WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit said in an interview, “Again, I can’t answer that question, because any type of information like that would have to be gleaned through community task force work and the School Board.”

On the other hand, School Board member Karl Sonneman said in an interview, “I don’t think the numbers in the study are particularly valid.” The results for the middle and high school are based on class averages of 30 students, and that average is too high a figure to support students’ academic performance, Sonneman said. He would like to address academic performance disparities before discussing building capacity and usage, he added. “We need to deal with what is important here, and the usage of buildings is not,” he said. “We’ve already injured the district significantly by closing schools. To talk about further consolidations based on a building analysis would be a disaster.” 

Sonneman does not agree with pulling elementary students into a single building or joining the middle and high school, as he does not feel these are efficient ways to provide education. “It would not serve the district to reduce the number of the schools any further,” he said. 

In the 2018-19 academic year, Wold updated a capacity study completed in 2016. Comparing the 2018-19 capacity study with the 2020-21 capacity study illustrates that, according to Wold, potential capacity at Jefferson Elementary and Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) Elementary decreased by about 100 each, at 110 and 92, respectively. Conversely, the potential capacities of Winona Senior High School (WSHS) and WMS increased by 72 each, according to Wold. 

Comparing capacity projections instead of potential capacity projections tells a different story. Between the 2018-19 capacity study and the 2020-2021 capacity study, according to Wold, the projected capacity decreases at Jefferson and W-K went down sharply, to 37 and 19, respectively. While Wold projected that the potential capacities of WSHS and WMS would increase by about 70 a piece, it estimated that their capacities would decrease by 228 and 132, respectively. Wold did not respond to questions about why the capacity estimates changed. 

Schild asked at the board’s April 1 meeting how the district’s utilization rates compare to other districts. Aplikowski said he thinks WAPS’ rates are lower than what many school districts would like and the numbers mean the district is spending more money per student on buildings. Aplikowski is interested in the projections regarding the number of open seats, as well, he said. The projections do not necessarily mean the district should take action, he added. “Maybe it’s best to do the status quo,” he said. “All this is really suggesting is you’re spending money on facilities that you’re not fully utilizing at this point.” 

District leaders will now consider how to use the capacity study for future planning. The School Board will determine how to move forward after it receives the facility study that Wold is now completing, Freiheit said. Establishing a community task force could be one of the options the School Board chooses, she continued.

When asked how the district should use the information in the capacity study, Denzer said she feels the district should look at the study. The School Board also reviews district enrollment at each of its meetings, she added. “So the board is really committed to making sure we’re providing the right space and at the right number of students. And all of the things that are going to lead us more toward academic support,” she said.

Schild said he would like the district to use the capacity study as a conversation starter and to consider it with each step the district takes, whether the step regards building improvements or online learning for students. 

Sonneman does not want the district to use the capacity study moving forward. “We’d serve ourselves well to simply discard it,” he said. 

Education@winonapost.com 

 

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