Shereen Siewert & Damakant Jayshi

Parents, educators and other Wausau community members are continuing to ask questions over an ambitious proposal to restructure schools, while emails suggest discussions were underway well before the public was engaged in the process.

Meanwhile, a consultant for the district told officials last week they were given the green light to design the 12-classroom addition proposed for Wausau West as part of the controversial plan, which caught some school members off guard and prompted criticism over the proposal’s fast track. Superintendent Keith Hilts told Wausau Pilot & Review the school board discussed, on at least two occasions, the idea of adding footings for a possible addition at Wausau West as well as a possible expansion of the student commons area. The district’s website on Wausau West‘s referendum plan clearly does not include the addition.

The issue emerged after Nexus Solutions, the consultant spearheading the referendum-related design, allegedly said they were told by Hilts and Chief Finance and Business Services Officer Bob Tess to move forward on the design. Hilts was not present at the meeting.

Design fees are a fixed percentage of the overall referendum costs, which means no additional up-front funding is required. But one school board member said that even with no money up front, resources spent on the design could be wasted if the plan to create a single high school at Wausau West ultimately fails. So far, the Wausau School Board gave conditional approval for adding $500,000 for structural footings that would be required should an addition for West be approved in the future – but the addition itself is still just a proposal.

Jon Creisher, who in emails obtained by Wausau Pilot & Review was discussing the plan for restructuring with Hilts as early as 2021, issued a statement through Wausau School District Communications Coordinator Diana White defending the administration’s actions. In it, he said the cost is “built into our comprehensive architectural and engineering fees.”

But Creisher and Hilts are also under fire by community members who say an Oct. 22, 2021 email exchange suggests decisions were being made behind closed doors before the community weighed in. In his email, Hilts told Creisher he was “going to propose a process to merge high schools on Monday” but changed course when his team reminded him that he should “wait until after the community sessions so people don’t think we are moving forward without real input.”

Creisher responded by criticizing Wausau East in a way that has drawn sharp rebuke from some families and educators there. “And to be frank, cause that’s the way I operate, there is a very good culture at West and a mediocre culture at East.”

One of several community members who shared the exchange with Wausau Pilot & Review took exception to the remarks. “As a parent of Wausau East students, I am deeply offended,” she wrote.”I can’t imagine how hurtful that is to the staff and teachers at East.”

Hilts appeared mystified by the criticism.

“Why would anyone think we value staff from one school more or less than another with our goal being to better support all staff? We value every single person who works for the Wausau School District,” Hilts told Wausau Pilot & Review.

District officials have also denied that decisions were made before community sessions.

“A decision was not made before the community sessions. Dr. Hilts has been convinced some type of restructure would benefit students, families, and staff,” WSD’s White told Wausau Pilot & Review. “When we asked the community about it, survey results showed a majority of the community was interested in some type of restructure as well. Knowing that, we started the conversation.” 

Creisher did not respond to questions over his 2021 exchange with Hilts and his remarks about Wausau East, although he later responded, through White, to questions over the Wausau West designs.

Referendum reallocation, busing, lack of specifics among concerns

The proposal unveiled last week lacked several crucial details, not the least of which is how the district proposes to staff and fund busing for students. Because the school district is mandated to provide busing to students who live beyond a fixed distance from their assigned school, shifting to one junior high on the east side of the river and a single senior high to the west would mean that every single student in the district would be eligible for mandated busing for four years.

Board member Pat McKee brought up busing concerns last week, saying that some students would see their commute time on buses increase by as much as 80 percent. Given the current shortage of bus drivers and the district’s ongoing struggle to provide busing, this is a major concern that has not been addressed by staff. McKee also said the district boundary will effectively be unrecognizable under the plan.

According to district documents, West would require a $10 million investment in an addition to add 12 classrooms as part of the restructuring plan. The $10 million for West would come from money reallocated from the Montessori addition at Horace Mann/Grant and “other district funds.”

The reallocation of funding, especially from Montessori, was severely criticized by some board members during a Jan. 23 discussion on the restructuring proposal who suggested it could be a violation of the approved referendum.

During the discussion, Board member Joanna Reyes asked why the allocated money for Montessori could not follow them to “whatever building they are going to.” She also questioned reallocating $2 million from Grant Elementary School to establish two early childhood learning centers.

“We passed the referendum and we asked the public to give us this money and now we want to use it for something else…doesn’t sit well with me because we asked this money for one thing and now we are going to use it for something else,” she said.

The idea of early childhood learning centers is popular with parents, especially those who struggle with affordable child care options as costs skyrocket and availability continues to decrease. But so far, district officials have not said who would staff the centers amid an ongoing nationwide child care staffing shortage, who would fund them and who would be responsible for running them.

Both Hilts and Creisher, who have strongly pushed for the restructuring proposal and have brushed aside criticism over the lack of detail, defended the reallocation.

Hilts said they are committed to invest the funds the way they said they would invest them. “The lion’s share of those funds were planned for Montessori if we continue as planned then, and we do the addition for Montessori at Horace Mann.” But Montessori leadership reached out, the superintendent said, saying they would much rather have their own dedicated space in a vacant elementary school than have the remodeled space at Horace Mann.

Creisher said officials received a letter from Montessori leadership indicating that “they are excited about the opportunity of possibly moving into their own space and the whole point of referendum dollars for them at Horace Mann was to add space for them.” He said that if the Montessori moved into their own space, they no longer needed all the money allocated to them.

But Board member McKee blasted that approach.

“The reallocation of the $9 million to the previously approved referendum projects is…I am glad to hear that we got legal opinion that it’s legally OK. To me it’s not a legal issue or a financial issue; it’s frankly an integrity issue,” McKee said on Jan. 23.

“We supported and passed and voted on a referendum that specifically allotted that money and one thing I have learned in 11 years about Montessori leadership is that they always, always handle themselves with professionalism, grace and humility,” McKee said. “The fact they said they will take any building that we give them, speaks more to the frankly the ethics and professionalism of that leadership team than it does to their overall need.”

He added that the board does not have any right to “go on picking around the $7M and say we are going to give you this much but we are going to keep the rest for West. I fundamentally just disagree with that. I think that’s extremely disingenuous.”

Inadequate community support?

The restructuring project proposes closing down five elementary schools, shifting fifth-grade students to middle school, and creating a junior high of 8th-9th grade at Wausau East and a senior high for grades 10-12 at Wausau West. So far, the overall cost of the project remains murky. 

But how much support is there for the ambitious restructuring proposal that is being pushed by the top district officials and a minuscule of board members? No one knows, because the district avoided asking a very basic and straightforward question in its most recent survey: ‘Do you support the proposal that the district has put together?’ Previously, WSD’s White told this newspaper the district had not “specifically sought public input on the proposal presented to the Board last (Jan. 23) night.”  

The backlash against the controversial project has already begun. Community members have taken to social media, addressed board meetings and submitted written comments to the board. Many have reached out to media outlets with their strong opposition and concerns.

“The WSD surveys and their interpretations have been a problem under Hilts,” said Associate Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, Ingrid Clark Zavadoski, while joining a discussion on the recent Wausau School Board meeting initiated by journalist Brian Kowalski on his Facebook page. “It is the illusion of input. Even more egregious is how the results are used for predetermined ends, particularly during the pandemic.”

This is not the first time wording of surveys from WSD has been questioned.

Wausau City Council member Carol Lukens responded to the online discussion by noting that she knew of several parents of WSD students and “none of them received the recent survey so they, too, are wondering who was surveyed.”

Similarly, Kim Casey, a parent, said the “most recent survey that I received didn’t have the question regarding two high schools on it” but added there was one such on a past survey.

Casey added the survey had space for comments on the last page. “That’s a piece of their ‘data collection’ for this proposal,” Casey, who opposed the proposal at the last board meeting wrote. She said the district already collected all of their data last year to campaign for their referendum.

“So they know the answers but they aren’t the answers they want to hear.”

Casey continued to point to the categorical and public commitment that district officials made last year telling parents no schools would close. She provided a link of a video about the 2022 Facility Referendum, asking people to watch it from the 23:15 mark. In it, Communications Coordinator White is seen as repeating what Dr. Hilts had said. “…as we got feedback there was one overarching theme that we heard and that theme was do NOT close any of our schools at the elementary and high school level. So we listened and we heard you.”

But WSB member Creisher, who briefly joined the discussion on Facebook, said there were “multiple sub-committee meetings throughout last year that involved parents, teachers, admin and board members to brainstorm all the possible solutions. That is where this proposal came from, from the people.”

Hilts too has rejected the charge that there has been no wider community input and made a striking claim during the Jan. 23 meeting: that about quarter of the people in the school district did not know there were two high schools. He said there will always be people who will express surprise at the developments since they do not follow any media or board meetings.

In response to this story on community input, he told Wausau Pilot & Review: “Public input has absolutely driven this process over the last few years – and continues to today. Please know, we’ve read through every comment, talked on the phone with staff, parents, and community members who have reached out, we’ve met with all of the wonderful people who have attended our in-person restructuring meetings and our Board meetings – and we will continue to do so. Feedback from the community matters to us; always has and always will.”

He has also been said the plan was thoroughly discussed during two subcommittee meetings over the summer.

But not all the members were invited to participate from the beginning.

One such subcommittee member, Dr Gillian Battino, told Wausau Pilot and Review, that she was invited to join the restructuring conversation in the late fall and attended one meeting, on Nov. 29.

“The current proposal was discussed in part…The plan included elementary school closures, creation of a junior high school, and merging of East and West,” she said. “It was made clear that there were multiple paths forward, and that there was no specific plan proposed, just ideas.”

Dr. Battino said that the restructuring idea has been discussed intermittently over the last decade in some form, adding this conversation and potential of restructuring offers important opportunities in the Wausau School District. “But I am also very worried that rapid extraordinary change will be bad for our students. Changes must be community driven and supported.”

Battino is one of five candidates for three seats on Wausau School Board in the April election. The others are incumbents Trollop and Cory Sillars, along with challengers Jennifer Paoli and Frederick Tealey.

Questions over who served on the subcommittees and the criteria for their selection remain. Several educators contacted Wausau Pilot & Review questioning why more teachers were not included in the process.

Dr. Hilts responded to the question of criteria. “There are 23 parent names on this list and most of them were frequently involved in the sub-committee meetings over the summer. Other members were staff or community members who had been involved with other district efforts and had some background knowledge.”

Some community members say merger plan was kept secret to ensure referendum would pass

Some parents and educators say they feel duped, as though the merger plan was kept quiet until after the referendum passed. They point to the October 2021 emails and other open records that show discussions were well underway before a vote was taken.

Hilts denies that charge. The idea of a possible restructure of the Wausau School District has been discussed for years, he said.

“One of the first public discussions about it came after an October 2019 survey that asked for public opinion about a possible restructure. Furthermore, the topic has been talked about in many open session meetings for the last 4 years.” He claims that the School Board removed $60 million worth of work at the elementary schools in the referendum so that this very conversation about restructuring could happen.

He added the results of the full survey were discussed at the Jan. 27, 2020 school board meeting.

He shared the 10/2019 survey text: As you may know, the Wausau School District currently has two 9th to 12th grade traditional high schools. There have been some discussions about creating a one High School two campus configuration, in which one would become a 9th and 10th grade High School and the other would be an 11thto 12th grade High School. Overall, do these options sound like a good idea or a bad idea?

Good Idea Strongly 10%
Good Idea 47%
Bad Idea 16%
Bad Idea Strongly 13%
Don’t Know/Refused 14%

“Those results show 57% of the community said the options sounded like a good idea,” Dr. Hilts said.

Some Wausau School Board members taken by surprise

Wausau Pilot & Review reached out to all nine board members for comment after being alerted to the statements allegedly made in Friday’s meeting regarding the West design. Board President James Bouche, along with Lance Trollop and Karen Vanderberg, appeared to confirm the board had not given a directive to move forward.

Board Vice president Trollop said “the possibility of adding additional capacity at West (or at least making it more feasible to expand some day in the future) has been discussed in board meetings, but we haven’t been presented with the actual designs yet.”  

Bouche did not address the designs issue but noted that the school board “postponed” a proposed motion by the administration to move forward with a restructuring plan, “due to many questions the board has.” The board did not approve the proposal as requested by the district administration; instead, the board directed the district administrators to seek greater community feedback and address a range of concerns before making any decision on the plan.

Vandenberg said no action has been taken on design plans at Wausau West, while defending the restructuring plan as she had done last Monday.

“I can assure you that the WSD administration and Board of Education are completely committed to moving this district forward in a positive direction and in a way that provides equal access for all students and excellence in education,” Vandenberg told Wausau Pilot & Review.

Hilts reiterated that no final design has been adopted or approved.

“Absolutely – no final decisions have been made up to this point about restructuring,” Hilts told this newspaper. “The design teams, made up of mainly school staff, that you are referencing are created for work related to the referendum.” Each school that is part of the referendum has a design team – like Stettin, Wausau East, John Muir, he said, adding, Wausau West is no exception – “especially since they are such a big part of this referendum due to the amount of work that needs to be done there.”

Some of the schools’ designs with costs estimates have been discussed at school board meetings in two tiers – first when 50% of the design is complete and next when about 95% of the plan is ready.

The school superintendent added that they have to continue planning and working on each of the projects as per the referendum, “even as the restructuring conversations continue.”