Wausau East High School. Photo: Wausau School District

Damakant Jayshi

Wausau School Board members this week scrutinized a range of aspects of the district’s proposed high school restructuring plan, narrowed from five options to two.

This is the second week in a row that members quizzed district administration officials about the lack of specific answers to some of their questions. They were discussing the whittled down options during the Education/Operations Committee meeting of the board. One of the options is a single high school on the East campus and the other a junior high (grades 8-9) and senior high (10-12) on two campuses.

One question that dominated the discussion centered on the number of families who might withdraw their children from the district as a result of merger or consolidation.

Former board president Pat McKee again asked about the number of families who might leave the district because of restructuring. In feedback received, one of the concerns expressed by the community was about the potential for families to leave the district as a result of restructuring.

McKee said it will be difficult for him to support a plan if the administration is unable to provide figures of the families who would consider leaving. He acknowledged it os difficult to get the precise numbers but he pressed Superintendent Keith Hilts on the importance of learning more.

Hilts said the administration does not have a good way of getting that number but could use a survey to gauge reaction.

Board President James Bouche said some people will be upset no matter what decision the board makes and called it hypothetical to assume that families will leave.

Vice President of the board, Lance Trollop, said families are worried about the impact that the restructuring will have on the distance their children travel to school after consolidation. Trollop said he is either in favor of maintaining the current state of the schools or go for the proposed 8-9th grade and 10-12th grade model, since the price tag for a single high school on East campus is too high. District officials estimated construction and other costs would be more than $110 million. Some other board members also said that a single high school is not feasible.

Board Clerk Karen Vanderberg asked if the district could implement the plan in stages, perhaps implementing changes to elementary schoola first and then secondary. She said she received questions from parents who felt that trying to do all at once could be overwhelming.

Hilts said that in order to improve services, the district must free up resources. The hard part in doing in stages, he said, centers on staffing.

“We also don’t get the economies of scale if we don’t do this simultaneously,” Hilts said.

The district and the board have cited financial challenges, declining enrollment, varying class sizes and inconsistent staffing across the various schools as reasons for the restructuring.

‘Investments could be reassigned if schools if schools closed or merged’

A number of parents, staff and community members have expressed fears of school closures, especially those of elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods. According to a facilities projects timeline and funding approved in June, the design phase – the first step in the approved facilities needs project – will not even begin until middle of the next year.

Five elementary schools – Lincoln, Rib Mountain, Hewitt-Texas, Grant and Franklin – could close under a potential merger plan that was discussed last month. If the board decides on the merger plan or some variation of the proposal, the money set aside for facilities upgrades there could be used elsewhere.

Also on Monday the board opted to wait on the request by member Cory Sillars to consider an expansion of the Wausau West referendum budget.