The Wausau School Board will allow administrators another week to try reducing the cost of a potential $181.9 million referendum proposal.
After nearly two hours of discussion Monday on borrowing money and placing the referendum on the ballot in April, the Board of Education tabled the motions that the district administration asked it to approve. Instead, the Board asked the administration to come back with a revised proposal at its special meeting on Monday, Jan. 17.
The discussion yet again highlighted concerns over the price tag proposed and the impact a failed referendum would have, should voters not approve. Two previous referendums with lower price tag have already failed.
President of the Board, Pat McKee, outlined the dilemma facing the board members: to be stewards of tax dollars that the community has entrusted them with, and at the same time taking stewardship of school buildings that need safety and security upgrades, repair, remodeling and additions. He floated the idea of decoupling elementary schools from the secondary level in the proposal so as to bring down the price of the referendum proposal.
McKee said his proposal is based on his understanding of the discussion and the concerns expressed by his board colleagues. He added that removing the elementary school facility needs would give the board and the school administration more time to come up with a better long-term strategy for elementary schools.
Responding to McKee’s remarks, Board member and Treasurer Lance Trollop said implementing safety and security features in schools – which saw sgnificant support in the survey the district had commissioned recently – should not be removed from the proposal. He also suggested adding classroom spaces in Stettin and South Mountain elementary schools, where there is population shift. Those schools are also unlikely to be part of any future elementary school consolidation plan, should that become part of the proposal.
Earlier in the discussion, Trollop suggested dropping the proposed construction of separate gyms and cafeterias and LED lighting improvements to bring down the cost by about $22 million, adding that he was in favor of broader support for the plan from his board colleagues than a 5-4 majority, which then would impact the support for the referendum.
Board members Karen Vandenberg and Jon Creisher again raised the issue of dwindling enrollment in the district and asked whether deferring the consolidation of elementary schools is a good idea.
Earlier, Wausau School District’s Chief Finances and Business Services Officer Bob Tess presented a reduced pricing scenario after the board asked the school administration to explore a lower priced referendum proposal at its Dec. 20 meeting. Tess reminded board members about time constraints if the proposal is to be part of the April election. [To view the administration’s reduced price tag, click on the agenda item VIII.A.I (first PDF file) and go to page 4.]
Before the meeting began, some community members objected that the school administration was pressing ahead with its plan to engage Nexus Solutions, a consulting firm, on facility needs and paying a fee of $8.5 million despite multiple concerns raised by the community.
President McKee acknowledged hearing those concerns and said the board would discuss those during the closed meeting of the Board that followed soon after.
Michael David, an owner of Nexus Solutions, defended his firm’s ‘excellent’ work and the fee involved. He added that he understands the challenge faced by the board and in his more than 30-minute remarks highlighted the work Nexus has done for several school districts.
He also asked the board to consider the “consequences” of any breach of contract with Nexus because “we have spent thousands of hours and resources.”
When board member Creisher suggested that David was issuing a threat, David denied his comments were meant as such, but since the board was going to discuss the contract in its closed session, he felt the board members should know about the potential consequences.
Creisher suggested engaging a neutral third party to assess Nexus’ role in view of the concerns raised by the community.
Board member Member Ka Lo ashed why so many questions were being raised about the consulting firm and suggested that any severance should come after the conclusion of any existing contract.
It was not clear whether the proposed facility needs is part of the contract. Money for facility needs are yet to be approved by the community. It was also not clear whether the WSD has so far paid any fee to Nexus for the “thousands of hours” and resources that David said his firm has invested in the last two and a half years.
Wausau Pilot & Review has reached out to WSD administration over these questions and has not had a response from the district as of press time. Should a response arrive, this story will be updated.