Damakant Jayshi

After a marathon discussion that saw some vigorous debate on honoring the April 2022 referendum versus addressing future needs, the Wausau School Board on Monday approved a restructuring plan for the district, paving the way for major changes for students, parents and the community.

The restructuring implementation is slated begin in fall 2025.

The modified plan leaves out reallocating money from Montessori to additions for Wausau West, which had become a sticking point for critics of the proposal.

The board’s final decision on closing five elementary schools to create eight K-4 elementary schools, creating early learning centers for birth-age 5, and appropriating facilities for charter schools and other specialized programs will be made at a later date. 

The modified plan, with no clear support from the community, is likely to be implemented in a staggered way although there was no explicit vote on a timeline. The staggered approach is part of the overall revised proposal.


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Three weeks ago, a majority of the board had expressed concerns and cited a lack of clear strong public support for the restructuring plan and vowed to move ahead only after a clear majority was on board. District administration has done virtually nothing since the Jan. 23 meeting – at least not publicly – to demonstrate that it has garnered public support. 

If anything, an increasing number of people in the community are expressing their opposition to the plan approved this week. Some are upset over the district’s violation of the letter and spirit of the April 2022 referendum and lack of a clear transportation plan. Critics also question merging high schools and closing five neighborhood elementary schools. But three weeks later, even as more community members wrote to the board expressing their frustration and opposition, the majority of the board endorsed the plan after a three-hour presentation interspersed with discussion and debate.

What prompted the apparent shift among board members is unclear.

The district proposes closing five elementary schools – Franklin, Grant, Hewitt-Texas, Lincoln and Rib Mountain. Fifth-graders would shift to two middle schools at John Muir and Horace Mann, while 8th-9th grade would attend junior high at Wausau East with a 10th-12th grade senior high at what is now Wausau West. The overall meeting lasted about five hours after a brief break toward the end.

Board member Pat McKee grilled Superintendent Keith Hilts on the reasons why 5th grade students would move to middle school, asking him whether any research supported the idea that those students would benefit from being grouped with older children. Hilts said the decision was made to facilitate mergers.

“We can’t do many mergers if we leave the 5th grade in (elementary level,)” Hilts said, while acknowledging there is both supporting and opposing research on clubbing 5th with the two higher grades.

Referendum funding reallocation challenged, but only by some

One of the more controversial proposals for which the district administration sought approval Monday involved reallocating referendum funds from Montessori/Horace Mann and Grant Elementary School to build a two-story addition at Wausau West.

McKee, who had vehemently opposed any such unapproved reallocation over ethical grounds, again urged his colleagues to honor the referendum plan and funds as passed in April 2022. 

Board Vice President Lance Trollop, who at times debated with McKee on the issue, asked if striking off the unapproved reallocation of funds could be a way forward. He said the board could approve the plan without specifically approving reallocation and use any leftover funds for other purposes like parking lots, and many other things the district needs.

That, McKee said, would be a more ethical approach.

About $7 million was set aside for Montessori under a voter-approved referendum. Hilts, along with board member Jon Creisher, wanted those funds to be reallocated for the additions at Wausau West, saying once the Montessori is given its own school building – at one of the closed schools – that money would not be required for the purpose. Other board members disagreed with that reasoning. Creisher has also continued to maintain that doing nothing would be more harmful than going ahead with the proposal developed by the administration. His behind-the-scenes conversation with Hilts has drawn sharp rebuke, with calls for him to retract, and apologize, for his remarks on Wausau East. He had said “mediocre culture” existed at the East.

The reallocation was taken out as a compromise to allow the restructuring plan to pass by a 7-2 vote, with McKee and Cory Sillars voting no.


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Referendum ignored for ‘future’ needs of district

During the debate on Monday, much discussion centered on what voters approved in April 2022 and whether the future needs of the district overrode what was passed in the referendum, an argument put forth by the district officials and a few board members.

McKee said he initially floated the idea of decoupling the secondary from the elementary plans because “consolidations and mergers are holding our secondary work hostage. Everybody agreed on that. We decoupled it and came up with a plan.” 

The language of the referendum, McKee said, did not reflect the decisions being made now and may not reflect the will of voters.

“There was no mention that we are going to move 5th grade out to accommodate this consolidation, no mention of a multi-campus high school and needing to divert approved referendum money to fund part of this plan. This was the plan.” McKee said. “And this is what was voted on and approved in April of 2022. So now fast forward to today where we are specifically contemplating taking those funds and using them to accomplish consolidations and mergers.”

McKee reminded Hilts of his words in 2021 that assured parents and community members that school closures were not part of the referendum plan: “‘While we considered district reorganization at the elementary and the high school levels, we feel that reorganization is not the best solution. We also heard the people, we know that this is a debate about the future of the district. We heard people say, please don’t close our schools, please don’t merge our schools, so that is not part of the proposal tonight.’ That proposal was specifically the April 2022 referendum question.” Hilts had made those remarks in his presentation to the board.

So why are we moving in another direction, that would “accomplish exactly what we said weren’t going to do?” McKee asked.

Hilts did not address why the district is going against the spirit of the referendum.

“I would answer that with one question,” Hilts said. “Should we continue with investing funds as the plan say even if the plan does not meet our future needs?”

McKee said the answer to that question is yes. But Trollop said that while he agreed with McKee on the mixed messaging sent, focusing on what was said in a single board meeting might not give a complete picture. Trollop pointed out that Montessori leadership wants their own space and agreed with the current proposal. But the referendum speaks of making investments for Montessori at Horace Mann. 

Hilts said he disagreed with McKee that mergers and consolidations were not discussed. “We talked specifically about having a conversation about restructuring. We were very clear about possible mergers. We saw in the survey.” The survey Hilts referred to has been criticized by a number of parents, teachers and community, who say questions were framed to suit the district administration’s purpose. 

McKee insists the district should come up with a workable plan and then gather public input.

“You acknowledge we are going to need another referendum in the future for facility needs,” he said to Hilts. “But the established plan would be to design, come up with whatever this proposal is, then go to the public again with the referendum. Here’s the money we need to execute on this plan. That’s the ultimate survey.”

Community says they cannot trust district officials and board on future referendums

Some community members say they will think twice before voting to support future referendums for the Wausau School District if they are only presented with a ‘bait and switch’ proposal. Trust, they say, is now a major issue.

Some people said it is immoral and unethical of the board to seek funding through a referendum for a set of identified needs and then go back on the once the funding for the needs was approved. “I believe that it was also stated that no schools would be closed during the campaigning for the Referendum,” Jennifer Hinker, for example, said in her written comments. “That creates a lack of trust and causes questions of the integrity of the board and superintendent.”

District officials defend their actions by pointing to subcommittee meetings that discussed the many issues plaguing schools, students and teachers. But critics say members of those subcommittees were handpicked and filled with people who already supported Hilts’ and the district’s plans.

Norah Brown, a parent who requested the board to vote no through submitted written comments, said she was initially invited to participate in the subcommittee and had agreed to do so “but then not allowed that opportunity.”

Among those who submitted written comments addressed to Wausau School Board members, most again opposed the restructuring plan for a variety of reasons.

These comments are in addition to five people who spoke during the public comments portion of Monday’s meetings. Three speakers, two of who work for the district, supported the restructuring plan.

Heidi Edwards, teacher, also said parents and teachers were consulted and supported the plan. She said it is not true that adequate feedback was not taken or the plan was unveiled suddenly. Her remarks are directly contrary to what teachers and parents have been saying to the media and expressing on social media.

Sarah and Greg Sewall also favored the plan, saying they were in support of the Wausau School Board members “deciding best steps forward regarding the restructuring of the Wausau School District.” 

Others aren’t so sure.

“As for all the presenters talking tonight about all the wonderful work the teachers will do in restructuring and how excited they are, I know for a fact there’s a great deal of mistrust and find it interesting they didn’t share out in their presentation the responses of the staff surveys they did in this process,” one teacher told Wausau Pilot and Review on Monday night.