Winnebago school forum

Blethen Gage and Krause attorneys Silas Danielson (left) and Jeffrey Grace address the Blue Earth Area Public School Board on behalf of a group of concerned Winnebago community members. They do not want to see the city's elementary school close. Photo by Jessica Bies

WINNEBAGO — They fought for more than just the community's one remaining school. They fought for its library, its preschool, its playing field, not to mention the education of its kids. 

More than 150 residents, not only from Winnebago, but from Delavan, Frost and Elmore, flocked to Winnebago Elementary's gymnasium Tuesday night for a forum on the educational institution's future. 

It's a future worth investing in, they said. Public sentiment was just about unanimous. 

"Winnebago Elementary is an asset," they said. "It's an asset to the community, its families and to the school district as a whole." 

They spoke in response to a proposal to shutter the school. With enrollment steadily dropping and fewer than 105 students now attending Winnebago Elementary School, the Blue Earth Area Public School District is considering closing the aging building and moving its students to Blue Earth, Supt. Evan Gough said last week. 

The School Board has been discussing the possibility for almost a year now. Cost savings would amount to nearly $465,000, which would help eliminate a nearly $412,000 annual operating deficit.

The district has been dipping into its reserve fund for some time now to make up the difference. Doing so has left little money for necessary maintenance — in addition to needing new mechanical systems, the building will soon need a new roof. 

Even if the district could afford the more than $5 million in repairs, the School Board would have a hard time justifying them, Gough said.

The building is nowhere near capacity — three of the school's class sections have fewer than 15 students in them.

"Enrollment is reviewed by the board every year," said its chair Frankie Bly. "... the board needs to make the decision that is best for all students in the Blue Earth Area district. We have a fiduciary responsibility as well."

But community members doubted that closing the school would actually save that much money. Or if the financial benefits outweighed other considerations, like busing and class sizes.

Jeffery Grace and Silas Danielson, attorneys with the Mankato-based Blethen Gage and Krause law firm, were at the forum Tuesday night representing a group called the Five Star Group of Concerned Citizens. 

Danielson said it consists of 15 or so community leaders, all of whom would like to urge the School Board to reconsider its position on Winnebago Elementary School. They would also like to be more involved in the decision. In fact, they feel entitled to more input, he said. 

A 1994 joint powers agreement, drawn up when Winnebago, Elmore and Delavan became a part of the district, stipulates that the school can't be closed without input from some sort of Winnebago-base site team. 

"The people I've talked to don't feel included at all," Danielson said. "They feel like you're ramming this down their throat." 

Other community members said if the school closes, they would likely open enroll in other districts. Abby Butler said "If Winnebago were to close, we'll be going to Mapleton." 

City of Winnebago Mayor Jeremiah Schutt said that reaction has been typical. 

"I've talked to a lot of young families that said if you close Winnebago, they will not be going to Blue Earth Area schools," he said. 

The city's library director, several students, business owner and more spoke at the forum, more than 20 people altogether. 

Bly said the elected body is still considering whether or not to close the school but has come to believe it makes sense financially. Enrollment is unlikely to increase anytime soon, which means the district will keep losing money.

The Plains Education Cooperative has expressed interest in renting the elementary school, said its executive director Sarah Mittelstadt during the forum.

It would bring about 50 full-time staff with it to Winnebago. But it wants to move immediately, within the next year. If the Winnebago building is not available, it will start looking into other options.

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Jessica here, doing some coffee-fueled reporting for the Mankato Free Press. My beat? Education, colleges, LEARNING. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments and story ideas.