Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Oct. 25, 1999

Winsted residents discuss school issue at town meeting

By Jane Otto

A standing-room-only crowd came to listen to and discuss the pros and cons of a potential new high school for the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted (HLWW) school district, last Monday night in the Winsted Elementary gym.

Former Winsted mayor Don Guggemos moderated the public meeting. Also present to provide input and answer questions were Mayor Floyd Sneer, City Administrator Aaron Reeves, HLWW Superintendent Riley Hoheisel, and three of the 10 HLWW Site Task Force members: co-chair Jack Littfin, Jim Fowler, who is also a school board member, and Deb Gatz.

Questionnaires

Hoheisel explained why the district needs a new high school and reminded the audience that building a new school is a huge decision for a relatively small school district.

"As I said in the beginning, we will go slowly, methodically and garner input from you," he said.

Input has been gathered in a questionnaire that the task force sent to district residents in early October with the help of consultant Linda Schroeder of Schroeder Communications. Hoheisel said they have received 929 responses thus far of the approximately 3,500 sent and is pleased that that many have taken the time to respond.

Schroeder will review the responses and provide the site task force with a summary in three to four weeks.

"The results of the questionnaire are the not the answer, but rather to see what the residents are thinking," Fowler added.

Gatz reiterated that this is long process, but the more effort the task force puts into this, the better equipped it will be to make a site recommendation.

It was later asked what would happen if 600 of the 900 responses said they didn't want a new high school.

"We would certainly have to take a step back and ask 'where do we go now?'" Hoheisel said.

"When does a school bond issue ever pass the first vote?" Guggemos quipped.

"It can. It can," Hoheisel replied.

Impact on Holy Trinity

Winsted has never had a public high school located in its town, however, Holy Trinity School has had roots in Winsted as far back as 1883. The Trinity parish, needless to say, will be impacted by a new public high school.

This cause for concern prompted Holy Trinity parishioner Chip Guggemos to ask, "What additional benefits could Holy Trinity expect if a new school were built? Would it be better or not?"

Through Minnesota statues, Hoheisel said, the district provides Holy Trinity with busing, counseling, nursing and special education programs.

Holy Trinity has also participated in cross country with HLWW.

The district would be open to great cooperative ventures in areas as fine arts, athletics, academics, and technology, Hoheisel continued.

One benefit would be to share programs. By attending HLWW part-time, Holy Trinity students could benefit from certain programs that a small private school could not afford to operate.

There would be no cost to Holy Trinity, and HLWW would generate state aid for the time the Trinity students sat in its classroom.

"I see that as a win-win situation," said Hoheisel.

Don Guggemos spoke for the Rev. Paul Wolf, superintendent of Holy Trinity Schools, who could not be present because of previous commitments.

According to Don Guggemos, Wolf said that anything significant that happens to a community will have a impact on it, good or bad. Wolf could not, though, see how a new high school could have a negative effect on a community. Holy Trinity, as in the past, will stand on its own two feet as a good educational institution, he said.

Where will it go?

The site task force has essentially one job ­ to recommend a site for the new high school.

That one job has resulted in numerous hours of discussion in the past 18 months, with more to come for the 10 members who represent the three communities.

"They have almost talked the issue to death. Everyone knows how the other feels," said Hoheisel.

Littfin said the task force has listened to three site proposals each from Howard Lake and Winsted. Waverly declined at the time.

"It would be nice if it could be in the middle, equi-distant to all towns, but that's not a good location. It's three or four miles from each town. Politically it's nice, but feasibly it's not," Littfin said.

"There's a lot of farming out there. Farms, schools and animals don't go well together."

Prior to the question and answer session of the meeting, Reeves presented what he said was essentially the same site proposal package presented to the task force. Reeves commented that it's very important to have a school in the community and that money was not a significant concern to Winsted.

Winsted resident Dean Neumann commented that Howard Lake has always identified with a high school. "They would be crazy not to want it. How can we take it away from them?" he said.

"Everyone should want a new high school in their own town, but once the board makes it decision, it's time to back off," Don Guggemos said

"All three communities will need to swallow hard and accept that recommendation," said Hoheisel.

Winsted resident and business owner Dave Sherman asked if after a site recommendation is made, could community leaders come together and make a consensus on that site.

Rather than focus on each town as an entity, Fowler said, the three communities need to pull together as one school district.

A question was raised as to whether or not the public votes on a school site. Hoheisel explained the task force will recommend a site to the school board, but the ultimate decision belongs to the school board.

Hoheisel is hoping for a site recommendation by Dec. 15. As soon as the board reaches a decision, he said, the public will be informed as to what that decision is. Then, possibly in November 2000, voters will vote on bonds to build a new school.

Will they come?

Littfin explained that HLWW is not educating all of the students that live in its district. A significant number open enroll to Lester Prairie, Watertown-Mayer or Dassel-Cokato, or attend Holy Trinity or other private schools.

"The toughest thing is to figure how to build a big enough school. What if Lester Prairie closes, and half come this way? The day the new school opens we could have zero to 350 new additional students at its door," Littfin said.

Gatz said they have done a lot of studies regarding open enrollment, "but you can't build a shiny apple and they will come."

"Open enrollment is a huge issue, but we can't lose sight that we are at close to capacity. If you look at demographic studies, in about 15 years we may be looking at 1,200 students. We have space issues irregardless of open enrollment," said Fowler.

Gatz agreed, saying the bottom line is that the district is outgrowing its school and needs a new school.

Sherman asked if the task force is looking at all the parameters ­ the what ifs ­ if Lester Prairie closes, if Holy Trinity shares class time.

"We've spent an inordinate amount of time in dealing with Lester Prairie and we have been rebuffed at every turn. It's time to move on and look at your own district," said Fowler.

Dollars, dollars

The bottom line to district taxpayers, is that a yes vote on bonds for a new school will raise their property taxes.

The panel said it has worked with so many scenarios that it would be uncomfortable giving out any figures regarding the impact on property taxes. Hoheisel suggested individuals can call him and he would share some of the figures that the district's financial consultant has provided.

Hoheisel did say that the present financial state of the district is healthy. He said that when asked two years ago if they could afford to operate a new school, he was concerned. Now, as the district continues to grows, he said it can afford to maintain a new school.

"Indicators are positive to build a school now. The economy is good and interest rates are reasonable," Hoheisel concluded.


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