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Three of Winona’s former elementary schools are now closed. They’ve been sold. But there’s one more moving piece that could affect how WAPS deals with its past and moves toward the future — the school board election.

Four seats are up for grabs on the board, which in the last year has weathered a failed referendum, the closure and sale of Madison, Central and Rollingstone schools, declining enrollment and anger from some constituents over how big decisions have been made.

There’s more at play for District 861 than the school closure debate, which is likely nearing its end now that each school has been sold. But voters will make the ultimate call about whether to let lingering frustration over the decision change the makeup of the board, or to close that chapter in the district’s history and focus on other issues.

At-large race

The once-crowded race for two open at-large seats has now been narrowed to four candidates: Incumbent Ben Baratto, former teacher and principal Nancy Denzer, Winona State University professor Jim Schul and private attorney Karl Sonneman, also the face of a community-led effort to save the schools.

Baratto’s advancement to the general election came as somewhat of a surprise, after the current board chair announced he would not be campaigning for re-election. He has served the school district for eight years, overseeing the implementation of the Rios and REACH programs as well as the decision to consolidate the elementary schools.

“Buildings are important, but what we do in these buildings, the programming, is the heart and soul of what we do,” he said at a League of Women Voters forum in early October.

Denzer has touted her three decades of experience as an educator since the beginning of her campaign, highlighting in particular her work setting budgets as a principal in Rochester. That know-how, she said, could be an asset in a district that has struggled recently with finances.

In addition to pushing for safety and security improvements and more community outreach, Denzer has also expressed continued interest in asking students directly what they need to be supported.

Giving teachers more power is a central tenet of Jim Schul’s campaign. The professor and former social studies instructor said teachers are the “heartbeat” of schools and has recommended cutting back administrative roles within the district.

Sonneman’s candidacy poses possibly the biggest shake-up to the board if he were elected. He has positioned himself firmly against many recent board decisions as well as superintendent Rich Dahman, and has gone as far as alleging that Dahman set the district up to believe falsely that they needed to close schools.

If elected, Sonneman could give backing to member Allison Quam, who is often the lone dissenting vote during meetings and, unlike some other members, has not walked back her disapproval of school closures. He’s expressed interest in moving fifth-graders back to the elementary schools, and said he would give voice to “frustration” felt within the community at the school district’s recent path.

1st District race

The race for the 1st District seat between incumbent Steve Schild and opponent Ted Hazelton also holds the power to shift the balance of the board; Hazelton has echoed many of Sonneman’s claims about mistrust bred within the district. A member of the school board from 2007-10, he has often referenced the positive financial shape WAPS was in then and claims that new leadership could bring it back.

Schild, who has served on the board since 2010, supported the school closures and told constituents that consolidation, while “painful,” allows the district to focus on programming rather than bricks and mortar. If re-elected, he said he would work to reduce large class sizes and help the district identify and bridge educational disparities between students.

“Good things are happening (at WAPS) every day,” he said. “We need to acknowledge and act on them.”

2nd District race

Michael Hanratty, a caseworker for Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota, and Gerald Portman, a retired educator, will square off for the 2nd District seat vacated in August by Karen Coleman. Hanratty, whose wife teaches in the district, has made early education and intervention the focus of his platform and seeks to empower instructors to individualize teaching.

Portman has shared Hanratty’s view on empowering teachers. He also voiced a need for greater transparency on the school board, adding that schools don’t improve by maintaining the status quo.

“I want the district to earn the trust and confidence of the community it serves,” Portman said.

Voters also will have the chance to approve or deny a $9.4 million bond referendum that would address immediate safety and security, accessibility and maintenance needs at each school.

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Reporter

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.

(9) comments

BFWG

Hazelton had his time on the board. His education level and grasp of complex issues is juvenile. He calls Park workers, "tree huggers" and uses defamatory statements against those that question him. The flurry of Facebook comments and misogynist comments about the sexuality of GB is disgusting enough without putting those views on a school board

RiverHawk

It's past time to change the majority on our school board. His intentions may be good, but Schild has poisoned the atmosphere and it's time for him to go.

Ben Barratto is a good guy, but he's been a terribly weak chairman. 84 is probably a good age at which to retire from public life -- usually.

Sonneman is the best choice to lead a new majority that will manage money competently and start bringing students back to the district by running schools that attract them.

mssnater

Hazelton is a racist whackadoodle.

lutefisk

..that's unacceptable mssnater... ..im voting for him because you.

mssnater

I guess we cancel each other out.

mssnater

So you believe a grown man who paid a kid to beat up another kid that rode the bus he was driving should be on the school board? You believe that a grown man who delved into conspiracy theories and wrote a letter to the editor on how to take Barrack Obama and move and mix letters and come up with Osama Bin Laden should be on the school board?

mssnater

Let's hope that common sense prevails!

lutefisk

The old guard clearly has mismanage the district. Time to flush them out...that said..some of the current candidates are from the same thought pool. I for sure wont vote for those

justhonest

On track with Lutefisk !!

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