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Rachel Larson (left) and Randall Sullivan, co-chairs of the Rollingstone School Committee, presented their request to have the deed restriction dropped from the Rollingstone building at a school board meeting Thursday.

The Winona school board moved Thursday to drop deed restrictions on the former Rollingstone, Madison and Central buildings that currently bar those buildings from being used as K-12 schools.

Restrictions were placed on the three buildings when they were approved to be sold by the school district last year: Rollingstone in September and Madison and Central in October. Members Jim Schul, Michael Hanratty, Allison Quam and Karl Sonneman voted to drop the restrictions, while Tina Lehnertz, Steve Schild and board chair Nancy Denzer voted against.

The issue was spurred by a visit from the Rollingstone School Committee, a citizens’ group that has been working to reopen the building as an educational setting. The committee’s request to remove the restriction was listed in the board agenda as an information item, but a majority of the board voted to fast-track the issue and take action Thursday.

“Let (the buildings) go,” said Quam, who made the initial motion to drop the restrictions. “I have let them go. I didn’t want to let them go, but I have let them go.”

Two questions dominated the heated debate, which lasted over an hour: whether it was appropriate to override the agenda to take action and whether it had been appropriate to place the deed restrictions in the first place given that the district no longer owns the properties.

“I have Rollingstone’s back and I have never made (sic) any qualms about that,” said Lehnertz, who stood in staunch opposition to closing the rural school last year.

But she and Denzer, who agreed that she had been prepared to support Rollingstone’s request, voted no on the motion, saying the waters had been “muddied” by lumping Madison and Central into the deal.

“We’re doing something tonight that’s contrary to what we were going to do,” Denzer said. “Now we’re going to make an exception because it’s kind of a hot topic right now?”

Andrew Brenner, who owns the Madison building, sent the board a letter Tuesday asking that the deed restriction be lifted from Madison; the Rollingstone group met with Denzer and Lehnertz weeks earlier to begin talks about getting the restriction lifted.

While Brenner’s latest plan proposed starting his own daycare in the building, the Rollingstone committee was hesitant to define what exactly they would pursue before the restrictions were lifted.

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Committee co-chair and Rollingstone city councillor Rachel Larson told the Daily News Friday that while the group would be open to new ideas if they were approached with one, a charter school is indeed what they’ve always sought for the space.

“Leaving this building empty of its intended purpose does not benefit anyone,” said Randall Sullivan, fellow co-chair of the committee.

The committee sent a survey to 600 Rollingstone-area people, Larson reported, and of the 200 responses, 76% said they supported a school in Rollingstone. More than 100 respondents who said they would support a school financially did not themselves have school-aged children, Sullivan added.

Charter schools require authorizers to get underway, a role Larson said WAPS would not have to play if the group decides to pursue that option. She said Friday that the group would be looking at a list of authorizers on the Minnesota Department of Education website to determine what might work best for them.

Larson added that the outcome of Thursday’s meeting was “extremely favorable.”

Superintendent Rich Dahman pointed to the possibility that a Rollingstone charter could funnel away students who once attended the school and now attend a different WAPS elementary, causing the district to lose per-pupil dollars. He and member Schild pleaded that the board wait a week to investigate that possibility.

But others maintained the restrictions had to be removed to release other entities from the district’s grip in terms of how they can use the properties. Each building could, theoretically, house a K-12 educational institution in the future.

The board also tabled the hiring of a community education director, approved a contract with K12 Transportation Services to design bus routes for WAPS and reviewed the results of new exit surveys at the meeting from families who left the district.

Update April 26, 2019, 8:53 a.m.: This story has been updated to include additional comments from Rollingstone School Committee co-chair Rachel Larson.

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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.

(1) comment

Paul Harvey

So a few board members would only vote to lift the restrictions if it was only Rollingstone? Now, could they get the State reimbursement back from Madison? Wonder what the buildings would have sold for if the board members cared about the community? Main Street properties are building a school building downtown on prime real estate taking it off the tax rolls. Missed opportunity for the district and the community. Foolishness.

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