Damakant Jayshi

After nearly four and a half hours of discussion on an ambitious and controversial restructuring proposal, the Wausau School Board on Monday sent district administrators back to the drawing board to seek greater community feedback and address a range of concerns before making any decision on the plan.

The proposal presented on Monday closes five elementary schools, moves 5th grade to two middle schools, creates a junior high for grades 8-9 at the current Wausau East building and a senior high with grades 10-12 at Wausau West. Some of the proposed changes, which are not final, would cost millions.

There was plenty of skepticism surrounding the plan, both in-person and in submitted written comments. Most parents and residents who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting were opposed to the changes, especially closing neighborhood schools and shifting 5th grade students to middle schools. Many are opposed to changing the high school structure as well.

“This proposal seems numb to how negatively these kids could be affected,” said a parent, Kim Casey, while addressing the board. “This upheaval during the last two years of their high school careers will add so much stress during already stressful times.” She said current high school freshman will be forced to make these changes their junior year and doing so would have psychological impacts. She submitted similar comments as part of a written submission.

Board member Pat McKee said that he recognizes that the administration is trying to do the right thing, but said the proposal lacks specifics, and effectively redraws district boundaries while failing to address the potential consequences of such a move.

McKee said the proposal does not contain enough information on potential dealbreakers that might make the plan unworkable, challenges that may not have acceptable solutions. For example, McKee pointed out that the number of students eligible for busing would increase significantly under the proposal as written. The district is required by state statute to provide busing for students that live a specific distance from their school – and busing has been a mighty challenge for districts nationwide struggling to find drivers to fill existing routes, including in Wausau.

“The thought of increasing any strain on the busing system right now, to me that is one of those potential dealbreakers,” he said. “Until I see a credible plan…I’m not comfortable saying go ahead, we’re going to march down that path.”

McKee also said some children would see as much as an 80 percent increase in busing time, which presents a question of what parents would support. “I feel strongly we need answers…before we move ahead.”

Former Board member Mary Thao said she is disappointed that closing elementary schools is back on the agenda despite prior assurances from school officials that it would not happen. She said the district wanted support before the April 2022 referendum but later went back on their commitment after the referendum was passed.

One major concern that emerged was the district administration gave very little time to parents, staff and the community to review the 70-page proposal, which was only shared online Friday. Many commenters criticized the timeline, but district officials defended the move by saying most details have been previously discussed in public meetings.

Questions also emerged about the way the district administration framed questions of a brief survey that it sent out to parents and some members of the community for leaving out straightforward questions such as whether they supported or opposed the restructuring plan. Several community members complained about the nature of the questions, such as “On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being very excited, how excited are you about a restructure of the Wausau School District?”

The clearest backing of the plan on the board came from Board Treasurer Jon Creisher, who has been in favor of restructuring even at the prospect of adverse consequences, saying doing nothing or stalling would invite more unmanageable challenges to the district. Three other board members, Clerk Karen Vandenberg, Cody Nikolai and Lee Webster, also supported the proposal while acknowledging some aspects of it need to be addressed.

Vandenberg said change is always hard and acknowledged the strong emotions attached to the schools. But, she said, they have the best interest of the students, parents, staff and the district in mind. She said students could have more choices in terms of their curriculum, with both AP and IB options to choose from, if the changes happen. She also denied that the process has been hasty.

But members McKee, Board Vice President Lance Trollop, Joanna Reyes and Cory Sillars said they could not support the restructuring plan as presented and detailed the reasons for their opposition. All cited the community’s opposition to the plan. They also expressed concern over reallocating publicly approved funds, a lack of transportation and staffing specifics within the proposal, and the lack of community engagement.

Board President James Bouche took a somewhat middle ground, saying the district has to move forward with restructuring, but he noted the clear division among the board members. He also said any proposal the board considered should have the clear support of a majority in the community. He suggested that the board not make any decision Monday night to allow time to the administration to address the challenges related to transportation, staffing and ensuring community engagement and their support.

Based on the public comments and the feedback that more than half of the 9-member school board said they received from parents, staff and members of the community, it appears that the massive overhaul of the district does not have overwhelming support. Rather, the level of support from the community is unclear in the absence of a clear survey about the restructuring plan.

For the first time on Monday, some board members said publicly that they are not comfortable with violating the letter and spirit of the referendum – that is, asking the public to support a plan with a budget before the vote and then reallocating the money.

Email exchanges between staff and parents show an apparent feeling of betrayal after Wausau School Superintendent Keith Hilts categorically promised last year that elementary schools would not be merged, then changed course after the $119.8 million referendum passed.

“Is it legal to reallocate referendum funds? This seems like something that will find its way into civil court and onto the desk of the DA,” wrote Kasha Oelke, a parent, as a written comment. “Combining the 2022 Referendum and Restructuring project together and mischaracterizing where the funds are going is an abuse of power.”

During the discussion, Hilts said the district sought a legal opinion on reallocation and found that they could do so.

But that wasn’t enough to satisfy board member McKee, who said the referendum funding issue was not a legal or financial matter, but one of integrity.

McKee again raised concerns over additional busing time the restructuring would cause for students who, for some, would see schools in neighboring districts closer to home than their own Wausau school.

He again raised concerns over additional busing time that students will face under the restructuring, pointing out that for a number of students, other school districts would be closer than where they are assigned in Wausau.

McKee also questioned why the district chose the Flex Mod schedule for the single high school as part of its plan. Wausau West currently has modular scheduling, while Wausau East does not. The scheduling system aims to give students greater flexibility in planning their days and to fit in more course options. In this scenario, school days are split into smaller modules, or mods, and students no longer attend the same class at the same time every day. But some students find the system challenging and confusing, and critics say many students choose to socialize during flex instead of taking advantage of the availability of their teachers.

McKee, a Wausau West graduate, openly wondered why, if modular scheduling is so effective, it hasn’t been implemented before at East. He said the scheduling issue should be decided independently of any restructuring proposal.

Board member Joanna Reyes said a school staff member reached out to her over proposed staffing plan, saying employees were given a Google Doc to comment on it. The staffer told Reyes that many were reluctant to express their candid views on the proposal for fear of retaliation from her school principal. Some staff members have also approached Wausau Pilot & Review to say they feel they are being forced to take a position that they ware not comfortable with.

Reyes also said the process feels rushed and wants more community engagement.

Dr Hilts responded by saying one staffer’s concerns should not be allowed to dictate their decision. On community engagement, he said the district has been communicating their plans through traditional media and through their website and that board meetings have been held in public where elements of the proposal were discussed for months.

Board member Cory Sillars said that based on the data presented and public sentiment, “this board cannot grant overarching authority to the administration based on the proposal brought before us tonight.”

Trollop raised questions about the scope of the project, in addition to the lack of a transportation plan and need for more robust community input. He said the district needs a restructuring plan but he is not sure if this is the one. The overwhelming feedback he received from the community was not supportive of the proposal, Trollop said.

Among those supporting the proposal is the President of Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce, Dave Eckmann. He said such a plan is long overdue and is vital to the economy and to the community.

District officials have cited declining enrollment, falling revenues, uncertain state budgets, lopsided class sizes and uneven workloads among the reasons for restructuring. Not everyone is convinced that restructuring is the solution. Although the Wausau School District had sought formal support for the plan at Monday’s meeting, the board chose not to take a vote.

Hilts said his administration will start working on addressing the concerns raised and present updates to the board every two weeks. The board also declined to impose or suggest any timeline on when it would formally accept, modify or reject a restructuring proposal.