Shereen Siewert & Damakant Jayshi

Two days after a Wausau School Board member suggested a referendum to gauge the public’s support for a consequential district restructuring proposal, a city council member lent her support to the suggestion and called for the same.

“Any change with an impact this big, should go to advisory referendum to gauge wider public sentiment,” Alder Lisa Rasmussen, wrote in a letter to the editor to this newspaper. “Those driving this don’t want that, because they fear what the community will say.”

The Dist. 7 alder’s suggestions align with a Wausau School Board member.

“(T)he established plan would be to design, come up with whatever this proposal is, then go to the public again with the referendum,” WSB member and former president of the board Pat McKee said on Monday. “Here’s the money we need to execute on this plan. That’s the ultimate survey.” He has repeatedly said any deviation from the approved referendum of April 2022 would be unethical.

The approved proposal deviates sharply from $119 million referendum plan that the community approved in April last year.

Referendum changes have prompted anger in other Wisconsin cities as well, though the details surrounding each controversy are unique. In December, after voters in Monroe discovered tax impacts of their $88 million referendum were often hundreds of dollars more than advertised, voters and The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty called on the district to “redo” the referendum to obtain more accurate results.

In her letter, Rasmussen was critical of most of the Wausau School Board and Superintendent of Schools Keith Hilts, saying they “have an integrity problem.”

The Dist. 7 alder was reacting to the ambitious and controversial Wausau School District restructuring approved by a majority of the 9-member board on Feb. 13, despite members calling for clear community support on Jan. 23. Rasmussen said sweeping, structural change, pushed through by a few who are nervous about future elections and public opposition, is unfair to those affected.

Rasmussen had criticized the school board and the district administration in November last year too, over the school mergers.

As per the proposal endorsed last Monday district would move fifth-graders 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.

District officials have also proposed closing five elementary schools – Franklin, Grant, Hewitt-Texas, Lincoln and Rib Mountain. Though this element has not been approved by the board, in his letter to parents on Tuesday, Superintendent Hilts seemed to imply that it was a given.

“Five of our 13 elementary schools will be closed and merged with other schools,” Hilts wrote. “Which ones? Hewitt-Texas, Lincoln, Grant, Franklin -or- Hawthorn Hills, and Rib Mountain will close.”

Unclear is whether the elementary school closures could have federal funding implications. Other districts, such as the Newark School District in New Jersey, have come under fire for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when school closures have a disproportionate impact on students in some socioeconomic groups. At least two of the Wausau elementary schools tagged for closure have high rates of Hmong and low-income students, according to data from the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction. School officials have not presented any studies on the impact those closures will have, nor have they said whether such studies are planned.

Some parents and other community members have openly called for a recall of the board in the wake of the decision.

There is a great deal of anger and frustration in the community over the massive changes which they view as a clear breach of the April 2022 referendum. They have criticized the attitude of the board members and Hilts for ignoring their request to reconsider, slow down and seek a clear community support.

Rasmussen referred to that in her letter.

“Last year, taxpayers were asked to fund upgrades to facilities for security and maintenance. Again, we approved,” Rasmussen noted. “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.” The alder was referring to the October 2021 correspondence between Hilts and board member Jon Creisher

People feel swindled, Rasmussen added.

The alder asked the community to make their “voices heard to those who are tone deaf to what this community values”, adding neighborhood schools matter.

“If communicating to this board doesn’t work, perhaps a housecleaning during the next few elections can,” Rasmussen said. “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.”