Wausau City Council President Lisa Rasmussen speaks at an economic development committee meeting on Sept. 3, 2019

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It’s time our school board starts listening before it’s too late.  After a short pause and a lot of negative public feedback, our school board chose to put the will of their hired administrator and a few board members above the most important stakeholders, our community.  On a 7-2 vote, they proved the power they hold, and the allure of cost savings meant more than accurately representing the public, passing a restructuring plan that will impact every family.  Bringing transportation issues, facility struggles, overcrowding in some schools and the loss of others, three of which are in lower income neighborhoods. The plan reduces extra-curricular opportunities for high school students based strictly on numbers.  When you cut the number of teams in half, there are less spots available for kids to occupy.  Especially problematic in activities where both schools enjoy large participation today.  

Thank you, board members Pat McKee and Cory Sillars for voting “no.” Both indicated without more public support and solutions to impacts families will face, they couldn’t support it.  That took courage and integrity.  Others chose to blame local media for a groundswell of public opposition.  Fact is, local media is not in the business of misinformation, and we are smart enough to see what this is, the ambitions of a few impacting everyone.  

The plan presents transportation issues at some point for every student and assumes bus services will figure things out as we go.  Big gamble when bus services struggle to fund operations and find drivers.  Frankly, once American Rescue Plan funding runs out, without partnerships from neighboring areas or legislation to allow regional transit authorities, there’s no guarantee Metro Ride can function long term.  Some kids will spend an hour or more bussing to a new school, when their old one was a few blocks away.  Parents may need to figure out how to get kids to schools on opposite ends of town.  Very concerning for kids who need to be able to bike or walk to school, and multi student households.

One high school slashes extra-curricular opportunities.  Freshmen will no longer get to play anything at a varsity level, and there will be fewer teams, coaches and participants, with only so many spots for twice as many players.  Which players won’t get to compete?  Which band director, baseball coach, or advanced psychology teacher will survive the merge?  We don’t know, and they don’t want to talk about it.  Where will another 200 cars for added staff and students at Wausau West park?  The surrounding neighborhood wants to know.  

The board and administrator have an integrity problem.  They’ve abandoned these plans before when the public didn’t want it.  Twice in recent years they asked taxpayers to fund big referendums.  First, for large additions to grade schools to add multiple 4K learning hubs in place of the former AC Kieffer Center and ease overcrowding at schools like Thomas Jefferson.  Voters approved, relieving overcrowding and building great spaces for our littlest learners.  Some playground area shrunk, but a win overall.  Last year, taxpayers were asked to fund upgrades to facilities for security and maintenance.  Again, we approved.  Only to learn that the whole time, a few board members and Dr. Hilts were having private email conversations about going back on those promises, hatching this plan instead of doing the things they sold us on.  Emails revealed these folks were plotting as far back as October 2021, while marketing the referendum in public.  Now, they want to change what the money we approved gets spent on.  No wonder people feel swindled.  Pat McKee called this an “integrity issue” and “disingenuous” and he is right.  Dr. Hilts and others consciously avoided revealing their plan too soon, fearful of what the community might say.  They tried a little public engagement, to say they did it, using vague poll questions on a survey not all parents received, and hosting a few information sessions.  Many parents were opposed, students are concerned, and unanswered questions linger, yet they continue. When people speak against it, we are dismissed as “misinformed”, or “fearful of change”.  Which is untrue.  Any change with an impact this big, should go to advisory referendum to gauge wider public sentiment.  Those driving this don’t want that, because they fear what the community will say.  One board member had the gall to characterize Wausau East as “mediocre”, offending parents, students and staff there.  Wausau East is home to an expensive, advanced auto mechanics learning center.  What happens now?  Will we waste that or only teach those classes in grades 8 & 9? 

District leaders went to PTO groups in a few suburban elementary schools selling the idea that enrollment declines are the result of too many schools, yet enrollment decline is a statewide problem.  Parents at some meetings were told there are weaker schools that should be closed for the greater success of all.  Oddly, they did not trot these meetings out to the lower income schools set to close, where they may have met resistance.  Stranger yet, is that one board member lamenting declining enrollment seemingly encouraged people to leave our district in 2020-21 over masks and virtual learning, yet now has concerns about enrollment.  Ironic.

I’ve had hundreds of conversations about safe schools, taxes and services since 2008, as a public official, PTO leader and parent.  Not once, has anyone complained to me about school costs on their tax bill. When schools have logical needs, communicated honestly, our community understands and provides for them.  Often, when taxes go up, people aren’t mad at schools or wishing there were less of them. They say, “That @*&! city raised my taxes!” Schools, NTC or the county are rarely mentioned.

The district has buildings they don’t want anymore, but the learning and experiences happening in them is solid.  Teachers, staff and students work hard, and aren’t weak or “mediocre”. Tearing that apart, pretending it elevates learning is a smokescreen for an agenda rooted in money and control, not focusing on students or community.  We do have a school or two that may benefit from a boundary adjustment or maybe a rural closure if enrollment sees class sizes below 15.  That’s a reasonable conversation to have, but sweeping, structural change, pushed through by a few who are nervous about future elections and public opposition, is unfair to those affected.  

I’ve been involved long enough to know that until implementation begins, there is time to fix this. Parents, students, staff, student government leaders: speak up and don’t give up.  Make your voices heard to those who are tone deaf to what this community values. Neighborhood schools matter.  Our schools are a source of pride, and it isn’t about change being hard. It’s about leaders focused on money over all else, assuming they know best.  If communicating to this board doesn’t work, perhaps a housecleaning during the next few elections can.  Ultimately, Dr. Hilts will light the fuse on this plan, blow up the district and retire, leaving others to address the shortfalls and I’ve lost trust in him.  For some, this is their legacy, and they will steamroll us to get there.  Wausau can do better.

Lisa Rasmussen, Wausau City Council Alder for Dist. 7