Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that artificial turf is being proposed for athletic fields, but no new indoor facility is currently being proposed. Wausau Pilot & Review regrets any confusion.

Damakant Jayshi

In a surprise move, Wausau School officials on Monday announced that the district will drop exploring merging some elementary schools and combining the two high schools, after receiving feedback against the proposals.

“We also heard people. We know this is a debate about the future of the district, but what we heard people say is ‘please don’t close our schools, please don’t merge our schools,’ so that is not a part of the proposal tonight,” Wausau School Superintendent Keith Hilts told school board members during Monday’s meeting.

In his presentation to the board Hilts also said: “While we considered District reorganization at the elementary and high school levels, we feel that reorganization is not the best solution.”

Wausau School District Coordinator of Communications and Marketing Diana White told Wausau Pilot & Review that the decision was based on feedback and conversations during recent community engagement sessions as well as results from a survey that was shared in October.

The idea of merging schools did enjoy broad support from the board because of the lopsided nature of class sizes and declining enrollment in the district. During a Nov. 22 community engagement session, both Karen Vandenberg and Jane Rusch said mergers could no longer be delayed in light of the dwindling enrollment in the district’s schools. Some teachers and parents have expressed concerns that some class sizes are very large compared to others, an issue impacting learning and unfair to students and teachers from overcrowded classes.

While the two did not comment on the reversal, board member Jon Creisher said he felt the public would be concerned with a hefty price tag proposed for facilities needs for the schools with the consolidation proposal taken out of the equation.

“A lot of people are going to see a $181 million price tag and not see consolidation, (they will) be concerned,” Creisher said.

That $181 million is the total estimated to address facility needs for all schools in the Wausau School District. The district wants to address “outdated facility systems/deferred maintenance needs, safety and security needs, outdated instructional environment needs, outdated co-curricular facilities, and outdated fine arts facilities.” The proposal also includes synthetic turfs at Wausau West and Wausau East high schools, each of which carry a price tag of more than $2 million.

An earlier proposal targeting facility needs was defeated in a referendum during the 2021 election. At that time, the estimated cost was $148.8 million. Now, a new referendum seems likely.

“You may be wondering why the District would try to go to referendum after the community said ‘no’,” district officials said, in a media release prior to the board meeting on Monday. “Here’s the reality: our urgent facility needs are not going away. In fact, not only are they not going away; costs are increasing the longer we wait. So, doing nothing costs not just taxpayers, but our students and staff too.”

Hilts made a selective claim regarding support for athletics.

“I looked at the parents’ survey from last Spring. There’s a specific question that asks parents: How important are various aspects of child’s educational experience,” the superintendent said. “There is a specific question about athletics. Ninety-three percent of parents said it is important or very important. So clearly we are being responsive to our parents when we say we want to invest in athletics facility.”

But Hilts did not mention how the parents and staff saw athletics compared to other priorities.

The survey in Spring 2021 that was shared with the Board in June showed that parents ranked athletics at 22 of the 25 priorities. Staff listed it at No. 11 of the 14 highest priorities.

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Even the tax increase survey from 2019 that Hilts cited in his presentation to the Board previously shows an athletics facility at the lowest of the seven items, at 55% in favor and 42% opposed. 

White defended the “93% support” claim made by the superintendent by saying that number is based on the “data about athletics” feeding the survey. “So, 93% of parents feel athletics is important to the success of their student(s),” she said, while sharing a screenshot of survey results.

WSD-provided screenshot

The proposal for the synthetic turf for sports generated a great deal of discussion between board members about their need, taxpayer cost and how much revenue the improvement would generate.

Board member Ka Lo questioned the need for the plans that include artificial turf surfaces, and the $4 million price tag – more than the facility needs of two elementary schools.

Board Treasurer Lance Trollop pushed back by asking why athletics facilities would be treated as luxury and how they are any different from the need for fine arts facilities. “Both increase the experience for the students,” Trollop said.

When Lo said she still hadn’t heard from the athletics facilities’ defenders how much revenue they would generate for the district, Board President Pat McKee challenged her by asking why she hadn’t raised that question before. Lo responded, “I’ve asked for it.” Lo previously asked about figures when Creisher spoke about the revenue the improvements would generate during the Board’s Educational and Operations meeting on Aug. 23. McKee was absent that day.

Some district staff said that while the revenue for the district wouldn’t be much, it would be a positive move for the community, attracting people to watch sports competitions that can be held on the synthetic turf. Visitors would spend money while doing so, adding value to the community.

McKee also defended artificial turf as a mechanism for long-term taxpayer savings by citing figures that show their maintenance costs are about 25% of that of grass fields, considering average use over a 10-year span. Others also defended the idea on the same rationale. McKee also pointed out the burden on the taxpayers would be slight, with significant rewards for the community.

With some members suggesting that the process would need to move forward so that a referendum could be had in the April election, the board passed a motion 8-1, directing the district administration to prepare an initial resolution on the referendum. Lo, who said she supported all other needs except the synthetic turf, was the lone dissenter.

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.