The Historic Preservation Commission will continue discussions with the Wausau School District on the fate of John Marshall Elementary, after determining that a proposal to designate the building as a historic landmark is not fully understood by the Board of Education.
Members of the commission reiterated their interest in designating John Marshall, a 100-year-old building on 1918 Lamont St., as an historic landmark, but acknowledged the school district’s concern and agreed to pause their move. The Commission will offer to educate the school district “about what it means to have a historic landmark property.”
Commission member Christine Martens suggested explaining the meaning of preservation since she felt there was misunderstanding about what it meant and there were questions as to whether any internal changes were allowed. Another member, Dist. 11 Alder Debra Ryan, suggested reaching out to the neighborhood group on the southeast side over the commission’s landmark designation proposal.
“If that neighborhood takes it up, then I think the school district will change its mind,” Ryan said.
The HPC’s effort suffered a setback last week when the Plan Commission voted to put the process on hold for six months to allow the WSD time to evaluate its buildings. The vote in favor of postponing any decision was a narrow one, with four in favor and three against.
On Wednesday, Chair of the Historic Preservation Commission Linda Tryczak said the effort is not dead and that the group will wait for six months before any action is taken.
Wausau School District officials wrote to the Plan Commission “to leave John Marshall Elementary School off the list of local historic landmarks until the District can complete a community-wide study of all of its 13 elementary schools.” The WSD is seeking to raise nearly $120 million for district-wide facility needs and renovation, mostly at the secondary level schools, through a referendum this spring. Elementary schools will see safety and security features installed or upgraded if the referendum passes. After briefly toying with the idea of merging some of its elementary schools, the Wausau School District dropped the plan for the time being.
Two HPC members alleged that the WSD Board’s decision was driven by their concern over the fate of the referendum in April. Two previous referendums failed.
Member Steve Miller, a former principal from the district who had initiated the preservation move and alleged “referendum politics,” also claimed that the school district “felt” that the Grant Elementary School’s status as historic landmarks led to the failure of the last referendum. The City Council designated Grant Elementary School as an historic landmark in January last year.
Another member, Brian Mason, a minister at the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau, alleged that the district has already decided to demolish the John Marshall school building, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. District officials dispute that assertion.
“There are no plans to demolish any of our schools, John Marshall included, and we wouldn’t make such a decision without the input of the community,” said Diana White, Coordinator of Communications & Marketing at WSD, in a statement. “The Board wants to give taxpayers, who fund district buildings, the opportunity to give their input on what they want for those elementary schools in the future.”
During the discussion, Brad Lenz, Wausau City Planner, told members that while the City tries to have property owners on board in the designation process, Wausau has the jurisdiction to move ahead despite any objections from owners because of “public interest.”
Lenz has not responded to Wausau Pilot & Review’s request to clarify or add to his remarks.
Below is the full statement from the Wausau School District:
On Monday, February 14, the Wausau Board of Education voted to inform the Wausau Historic Preservation Commission, the Wausau Plan Commission, and the Wausau Common Council of its desire to leave John Marshall Elementary School off the list of local historic landmarks, so the district can complete a community-wide study of all thirteen of its elementary schools. The Board does not want its options limited by such a designation and asked for a pause in the process so those conversations can happen. The Board wants to give taxpayers, who fund district buildings, the opportunity to give their input on what they want for those elementary schools in the future. There are no plans to demolish any of our schools, John Marshall included, and we wouldn’t make such a decision without the input of the community. Both the Board of Education and Wausau School District Administration remain committed to working with the Wausau Historic Preservation, the Wausau Plan Commission, and the Wausau Common Council and look forward to further discussions on this very matter.