Winona public school district officials are approaching the end of the school year without a staff member trained in scheduling bus routes for students who rely on transportation for summer school, a predicament that grew no closer to being solved after a board meeting Wednesday that at times grew heated.

The position of transportation coordinator, a job that oversees the bus company contract and fields questions from families as well as scheduling routes for close to 3,000 students living in the district, is the latest site of an ideological split on the currently even-numbered board — whether a budget crisis necessitates tougher scrutiny of central office positions.

After the former coordinator’s resignation in March, a proposal at an earlier school board meeting to hire a replacement was hindered by a 3-3 vote. While chair Nancy Denzer and members Steve Schild and Tina Lehnertz voted to approve the hire, Michael Hanratty, Allison Quam and Karl Sonneman halted it.

“I feel like this is a perfect opportunity, not to never hire (a transportation coordinator), but take a pause on one,” Hanratty said Wednesday. “We hear every member of this board say we don’t want to affect classroom teachers, and this is a way we can do this.”

Since the position was vacated, a staff member who usually works in central printing has been pulled to handle day-to-day transportation operations. That person, however, is not trained on the software used to schedule bus routes, said Director of Human Resources Emily Solheid, and needed a bump in pay to account for the higher decision-making classification associated with the role of transportation coordinator.

The district has cycled through three coordinators in four years in what Solheid and finance director Sarah Slaby described as a high-stress job riddled with burnout problems.

“You can’t just simply hand (the position) off. It’s not that kind of a role,” Slaby said. “If it were, it would have been on the cut list.”

WAPS also delved into a transportation study last fall to assess route efficiencies, a process that has stalled with no one at the helm.

Superintendent Rich Dahman shared two proposals to contract out the work that the coordinator would do, one from K12 Transportation and the other from First Student. The former would cost the district roughly the same as the salary of the in-house coordinator, which was last listed at $60,726.

Though the board took no action on the position Wednesday, Quam asked for a plan that lays out the cost of training the central printing staffer in Transfinder and keeping them in that role indefinitely before the board’s April 18 meeting, at which they will need to approve line-by-line $2.2 million in budget cuts.

“Let’s see that proposal,” Quam said. “All of us here want our children to get to school safely, if this position is not filled that will still happen … there’s no one here voting no who’s saying they don’t want that.”

Board members struggled Wednesday to wade through accusations from disagreeing parties that have become commonplace in meetings of the divided group. Though the split votes will soon be a problem of the past, ideological dissonance in how to solve the school district’s problems — and the harsh words that have often accompanied it — is an issue likely to persist.

Lehnertz, one of the board’s longest-tenured members, who began the meeting with pointed questions for those who sank the coordinator-hiring vote April 4, ended it lamenting the infighting that has forced the board to a standstill.

“Here we sit and don’t have answers,” she said. “If the community, parents, teachers, administration and this board doesn’t start coming together and working together, this district is not going to go anywhere. We’re going to continue to spin our wheels.”

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Madeline Heim covers K-12 & higher education in Winona. A 2018 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she previously interned at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the suburban community arm of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

(3) comments


Cotter schools is looking more and more appealing as each day passes. The WAPS school board is a wreck...


You should see on Stockton Hill Highway 14 how the bus has to make left turns off highway or drop children off the far lane of traffic. This is a 3 lane highway.
In the fall of the year lots of semi's racing up and down the hill and the conditions are extremely dangerous. Where kids are dropped off or left turn is made is a blind area.
Nobody takes time and sees how dangerous this is.


Ms. Lehnertz' comments reflect a misunderstanding of the purpose of a school board. Frequent comments form the WAPS administration and some other board members indicate that she is not alone in this misunderstanding. The school board is, essentially, a legislative body and its work is fundamentally political. Disagreement and conflict are normal and natural and perfectly appropriate.

In recent history, the WAPS board has had a majority of members who were content to follow the lead of the superintendent. The single member who was often in opposition was repeatedly harassed and treated as an enemy, as were any community members who dared to disagree openly. That situation has changed, because voters have sent new members to the board -- members who, reflecting the decision of the voters, have a different vision for WAPS and different opinions about the proper way to approach board decision making. The administration, together with some of the older members and the new chair, appear to be clinging to a belief that the board should operate without conflict or strong disagreement. That's not realistic and it isn't even desirable.

Opposition to the "same old" policies and processes may make for some discomfort, but it is unlikely to result in worse decisions than have recently been made at that board table. With a little luck, future decisions might be markedly better.

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