Damakant Jayshi

Community members on Monday sought transparency and more specifics on the Wausau School District’s facility needs and its proposals to potentially combine two high schools and merge some elementary schools.

Dubbed a community engagement session, the interaction between the Wausau School District and members of the community, including parents, was held 11 days after a similar session. Some Board of Education members also joined the conversation. The meetings were held on the heels of an online survey on the facility needs.

The survey prompted some community and Board members to point out that the analysis was not “scientific,” a pointed noted at the top of survey results. The district has not released details on who took part in the survey and whether any demographic was over- or under-represented in the tally.

Another concern by some is the low percentage of people who completed the survey. District officials say they sent postcards with information about the survey, which was completed by 2,543 respondents, to about 16,000 households.

Mary Thao, a former Board of Education member, criticized district officials and the Board for bringing back yet again what she viewed as a proposal that the community had rejected twice before – renovations and upgrades at school buildings. Thao, who also served on the City Council previously, said she was disappointed to see a proposal to merge some elementary schools, similar to one already rejected by voters, back again. A year ago, she alleged that the Hmong community was excluded in discussions over the proposal.

Another member in the audience told the authorities that she would like to see “complete transparency when it comes to facility needs especially in terms of athletics and fine arts and I think that that should be made very specific as to what the needs are.” She pointed out parents surveyed in the spring listed athletics at number 22 of the needs that were identified. She added that if district had to bear the cost of maintenance and repair of any new athletics facilities – even if they are built through private funding – then that information “should be shared ahead of time so that the voters know what they are paying for.”

Some community members in the audience said they want the district to publish the comments expressed during the latest survey and not just the percentages and aggregates. Others asked for more detail on measures for which they were likely to foot the bill.

There also was some discussion about the dual campus model, under which Wausau West and Wausau East High Schools would be combined and some elementary schools would merge.

Wausau School Superintendent Keith Hilts assured the group that district officials are just trying to get feedback from the community, which will help them decide how to move ahead. He also said that the high school proposal was aimed at ensuring all students had equal opportunities and there was no financial gain to the district.

Merging “a couple of elementary schools” is being proposed for “financial reasons and for more efficiency in terms of staffing and maintaining high quality education for our younger students,”he said.

District officials will continue to seek feedback from the community, he said, adding this was a multi-year conversation.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.