Damakant Jayshi

The lopsided size of K-5 elementary school classrooms dominated discussion during the third community engagement session conducted by the Wausau School District on Monday. 

Class sizes range from nine to 29, school officials said, with the average size at 25 or higher. Several classrooms have between nine and 15 students.

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Wausau School District presentation from Nov. 22, 2021, screen grab

Wausau School Superintendent Keith W. Hilts emphasized that each community engagement session aims to gather the community’s feedback on the subject of potential school mergers, an idea he dubbed a scenario – not a proposal. He also said the example shared during the presentation was a deep analysis of one possible scenario.

School administrators say merging some elementary schools would pave the way for more consistent class sizes, more consistent staffing in larger schools and potentially save $1.5 million in recurring costs. Some parents in the audience said that some class sizes, such as having 29 students in one room, were too big even if they didn’t go beyond the cap of 29.

Failing to have similar class sizes is causing friction and dividing staff members, warned a teacher.

“It’s really a struggle for some staff members to feel good about coming to work when they’re sitting at 26, 29, and they have somebody with a class size of 13, so it’s just putting a divide that doesn’t need to be,” said Sandra Knoll, teacher from Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, responding to a question from an audience member about why the class sizes cannot remain small. 

Knoll said she was scared about the impact of inconsistent class sizes, adding it was heartbreaking to hear so many negative things “anytime we try to move forward” (with restructuring the schools.) She said economic reasons also warrant a merger.

“We are going to bring people to Wausau if we have good schools,” Knoll said. “That’s why it’s a big deal. Some kids are sitting with 29 and some aren’t, and so the teachers as well as the students are suffering in those situations.” 

It was not clear what impact the closure of Lincoln Elementary School, which is in a predominantly Hmong neighborhood, would have – or the reception such a proposal would see from the community. An earlier proposal to transform Lincoln, on the city’s southwest side, to a Montessori School while shifting Lincoln students to Grant prompted an outcry among some neighborhood residents and other voters. Then, critics said the district didn’t involve Lincoln families enough before formulating a plan, according to a Wisconsin Public Radio report.

Knoll said she understands those concerns. “Nobody wants the changes in their school,” she said. “I feel desperately bad for Lincoln…but in the long run we have to hold on to staff as well.”

Board member Karen Vandenberg agreed with Knoll.

“Inconsistent class sizes are very difficult on our staff and can create a divide that way,” Vandenberg said, adding that she agreed with Board colleague Jane Rusch, who had pointed to the urgency of taking action on a merger in light of dwindling enrollment numbers in the district.

“If we don’t move in the direction of merging, are we just kicking the can down the road? Because eventually that’s what we are going to have to do anyway,” Vandenberg said. “We are just putting off an inevitable and obviously putting in an extra $1.2 million each year and waiting.” She was referring to WSD administration officials’ estimates of the cost of maintaining the current number of individual elementary schools.

Chief Finance and Business Services Officer Robert Tess said if enrollment continues to decline – a development happening throughout Wisconsin and the country – the district could face a situation in which some elementary schools could be consolidated “with Board action and not necessarily through a referendum.”

Previous proposals to merge elementary schools were defeated by voters. Some parents and a former WSD Board member have complained that the district tried to push through a measure that was ultimately rejected by the community. In the latest survey (see questions 23 and 24), there was a near split on the question of merging some elementary schools, though a slightly higher percentage of respondents favored doing so.

Board member Lance Trollop said parents of children whose schools are going to be impacted might not just think of the costs ($1.2 million a year) incurred.

“The only way the voters whose child’s school is impacted (are) going to vote in favor it is if they also understand some of the benefits of the larger schools,” said Trollop. “If they only think it is negative, they are going to vote no.”

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.