Editor’s note: This story’s headline has been changed at the request of the Wausau School District. The original story used the word “redistricting.”
A conversation among Wausau School District officials over potentially merging some schools is continuing, despite assurances last year that such a move would not be happening.
District officials will seek feedback from families and members of the community moving forward after reviewing data that showed a significant gap in opinion between staff members and administrators over the restructuring idea.
The split between those “confident” about restructuring as solution and those “not so confident” became apparent via a survey, the results of which were shared with the Wausau School Board on Monday. The survey questions were centered on the potential to merge some schools and redraw some school boundaries.
Wausau School Superintendent Keith Hilts told the board that the conversation over restructuring started with staff after some expressed concerns. School officials then shared some of the challenges faced by the district and asked staff members whether restructuring could help address those, Dr. Hilts said.
Wausau’s challenges relate to inconsistent student success and access to programming along with inconsistent staffing across schools. Varying class sizes, the need for some staff members to travel between schools, declining enrollment and long-term financial challenges including “unpredictable and inadequate funding” by the state are also cited as challenges.
Last year when the school district was in the midst of finalizing a referendum question and the amount sought to address facility needs, school officials cited lopsided class sizes and dwindling enrollment in the district. Officials said then that class sizes ranged from nine to 29, with the average size at 25 or higher. Several classrooms had between nine and 15 students.
Hours before the board meeting on Monday the district issued a press statement, justifying restructuring as a solution. As an example, while Wausau East High School has a state-of-the-art automotive program, Wausau West High School has an engineering program, which means not all students can access each of the programs. Merging high schools and some elementary schools are both under discussion.
But this position contrasts sharply to that of the administration and the board last year. After facing backlash over discussing the potential for merging schools, leaders dropped that idea. Then, the WSD emphasized that those discussions were “not” a policy, and assured families that the proposal to shift school boundaries was no longer under consideration.
“While we considered District reorganization at the elementary and high school levels, we feel that reorganization is not the best solution,” Dr. Hilts told school board members while presenting the referendum proposal to the board on Dec. 13 last year.
On Monday, Board Vice President Lance Trollop emphasized that larger elementary school do not mean larger class sizes, but rather “more consistent” class sizes, because there will be more classrooms.
Dr. Hilts outlined the approach to be taken when they engage with families over the restructuring idea. “‘Hey, we have been talking about this restructuring, we are interested in pursuing some planned development’” Hilts said. “I think that’s going to raise their level of interest rather than just say, ‘hey, we have some challenges, what do you think’?”
One of the survey graphics shared on Monday showed a marked difference between certified staff and the administration over restructuring, an outcome pointed out by WSB member and former board president, Pat McKee. The difference was stark in the ‘somewhat confident’ category.
“Clearly, there is some disconnect between what you guys are all doing and talking about and the folks out in the schools,” McKee said. “How do you plan to bridge the gap?”
Hilts said the “graphic represents the fact that the administration has been more involved in this conversation, staff less so and so we need to continue to educate them about the challenges and potential opportunities.”
The superintendent said they found that the staff sought a concrete proposal about restructuring before providing their input. For example, he added, merging high schools would instantly engage people and “also give us an opportunity to educate them.”
In order to gauge support from the staff and community, district officials formed two subcommittees – one each for elementary and secondary schools – which recommended taking feedback from staff and the broader community.
The district administration has said that if staff and community feedback “support” a school board decision to restructure the district, then a restructuring proposal with school mergers would be developed for the school board’s approval.