Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau School District on Monday will formally ask for the Board of Education’s approval for its proposed restructuring plan, while blaming media for “misinformation” they say led to public criticism.

District officials will present preliminary transportation plan details, discuss concerns related to staffing and address questions over transparency during Monday’s meeting, while seeking approval to launch their plan. If approved, restructuring would begin in fall 2025 and lead to elementary school closures and secondary school mergers. A revised presentation on the restructuring plan, which had lacked several specifics, including transportation, staffing and curriculum changes, will be reviewed.

On Jan. 23, the board declined to endorse the district’s plan, questioning and criticizing several issues. A majority of the board also raised concerns over the lack of broader community support for the plan, which proposes many sweeping changes.

Despite Superintendent Keith Hilts’ claims that the district has been open and transparent in the restructuring process, Wausau Pilot & Review confirmed last week that a restructuring subcommittee meeting violated the state’s open meeting laws and was not properly noticed. The district acknowledged the lapse citing “human clerical error.”

Prior to the report, some parents, staff and community members took to social media to complain about his work and his behind-the-scenes maneuvers with some board members on the ambitious plan.

New transportation plan will take two years, some students could see longer bus rides

The presentation prepared by the district notes that work on a feasibility study for transportation under the current restructuring plan is ongoing. The document says that since the Jan. 23 meeting of the board, they have exchanged data needed to conduct a “partial” feasibility study and analysis. But officials acknowledge that the district will need to do more to limit student rides to under an hour.

“We will take the next two years to develop transportation plans to limit bus rides to 60 minutes, with a few having a ride up to 90 minutes,” according to page 59 of the document. According to the proposal, the district is also looking at “investing recaptured funds to create a shuttle service.”

The actual number of students needing bus transfers or taking much longer bus rides is not known since the school closure and merger plans are yet to be approved by the school board. But if the district shifts to a single junior high on the city’s east side and a single high school at West, every student in the district will be eligible for mandated bus service for five full years. The district is obligated to provide such transportation under state law.

Other suggestions related to transportation include allowing for flexibility on bell times for all schools, allowing for transfer buses for secondary students, and planning to maintain current guidelines for bus ride lengths. According to the information available, 31 students now have bus rides of more than an hour in the morning and 73 students have bus rides of more than an hour in the afternoon. Another suggestion is to continue to utilize the City of Wausau’s Metro Ride system “for all secondary students living outside a 2-mile radius from their school wherever the Metro Ride is available.”

The district proposal also offers its views on some of the questions, criticisms and concerns raised in the last board meeting as well by the community on social media: curriculum development, staffing plan, controversial reallocation of money from Montessori and pushing “too much, too fast,” among others.

District official double down on lack of transparency, blame media for ‘misinformation’

The district officials seem to be aware of the criticism they have received over the way restructuring proposal has been conceived and its rollout in public.

“We pride ourselves on transparency. Nothing is being hidden,” the document says. “We continue to engage in an open and honest dialogue with the Wausau School District community.”

The officials ‘caution’ the community that “there is misinformation and missing context circulating in the media and online,” and insist that for more than a year, they have been “actively collecting and reviewing parent, staff, and community input.”

While “collecting and reviewing input” has indeed been going on for more than a year, the manner of doing so and its interpretation have been questioned by parents, staff and the larger community who say they were not adequately informed or not informed at all.

Many parents say they are frustrated that district officials changed the narrative after the referendum passed in April last year.

Before settling on the $119 million referendum, district officials initially presented a $181.9 million dollar proposal. After a number of school board officials said the amount was too big to pass, officials reduced the ask by $60 million, with almost all of the cuts done at the elementary schools. That reduction, which aligned with clear directives for each of the 13 elementary schools, the two middle schools, and the two high schools, is now being cited as part of the plan all along “to make room to have this conversation.”

In Monday’s planned presentation, district officials also refer to a Jan. 10, 2022 discussion, highlighting remarks by some board members. During that meeting several board members expressed concerns over the price tag proposed and the impact a failed referendum would have, should voters not approve. Two previous referendums with lower price tags had failed before the April referendum. 

Then-Board President Pat McKee outlined the dilemma facing the board members: to be stewards of tax dollars that the community has entrusted them with, and at the same time taking stewardship of school buildings that need safety and security upgrades, repair, remodeling and additions. He then floated the idea of decoupling elementary schools from the secondary level in the proposal so as to bring down the price of the referendum proposal.

Several community members have pointed out that before the referendum district officials, including Superintendent Hilts, categorically and publicly, committed to not closing elementary schools and merging/consolidating high schools. But after the referendum passed, officials went back to the closure and merger discussion.

Other concerns center on reallocating money earmarked for Montessori in the referendum plan. Some community members are concerned that using tax dollars approved by voters for one use and shifting those to a Wausau West addition is inappropriate, at best. When Hilts said officials sought a legal opinion and discovered it was permissible to do so, board member McKee said it was neither a legal or a financial issue; it was an “integrity issue.”

Board member Jon Creisher, a strong backer of the restructuring proposal regardless of its consequences, pointed out that the Montessori leadership had issued a letter supporting the reduction. McKee praised the grace of Montessori officials, but termed any attempt to take the allocated money away from Montessori as “disingenuous.”

Some community members also shared an October 2021 email exchange between Hilts and Creisher that 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.”

Questionable surveys prompt more criticism

District officials have repeatedly said they have engaged the community throughout the process through information on their websites, communications by email and through media outlets, in-person community sessions and periodic surveys. The presentation on Monday has substantial details on those surveys and their timelines.

However, parents, teachers and community have complained the way questions were framed and say they were done so to allow the district to interpret answers in a favorable way. None of the survey questions ask directly whether the parents, teachers and community support the plan.

And, critics say, surveys were taken well before the specifics of the proposal were known. There has been a strong backlash against the current restructuring proposal after its unveiling.

 On Jan. 23, WSB President James Bouche, who took a somewhat middle ground on the restructuring proposal, said any proposal the board considered should have the “clear support of a majority in the community.”

So far, administration officials have not detailed any plan to seek clear support of the majority of the community.

After the regular meeting, the school board will enter into a closed session to discuss “evaluation and employment of Superintendent of Schools” Hilts, a mandated annual review for the district leader.