By Shereen Siewert

A petition that asks the Wausau School District to stop its massive restructuring process and hold an advisory referendum is picking up steam, attracting hundreds of signatures in a single day.

Launched by Wausau school parent Norah Brown, the online petition asks district officials to make a decision “based on the will of the community rather than the ambitions of a superintendent and a few board members.

The Wausau School Board on Feb. 13 authorized a plan that will shift 5th grade students to middle school, create a single junior high school at the current Wausau East High School building and a single high school at Wausau West. A decision to close five neighborhood elementary schools wasn’t finalized, though a subsequent email from Superintendent Keith Hilts’ implied that the closures are planned. Restructuring was approved on a 7-2 vote, with Pat McKee and Cory Sillars as the only two board members voting against the plan.

Days later, a member of the Wausau City Council publicly called for a referendum on the issue and had sharp words for district officials. Alder Lisa Rasmussen, who represents Dist. 7 in Wausau, said she heard from a number of constituents who were angry about the decision after the vote was cast.

“Any change with an impact this big, should go to advisory referendum to gauge wider public sentiment,” 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.”

During the discussions, WSB member and former president of the board Pat McKee had also called for an advisory referendum to gain a better understanding of what the community wants.

“That’s the ultimate survey,” said McKee, who has repeatedly said any deviation from the approved April 2022 referendum appears unethical.

“The manner in which this plan was passed is deeply problematic,” Brown’s petition reads. “District administration cited outdated and biased surveys and distributed vague communications to parents. Administration did not engage a neutral third-party consultant that specializes in restructuring of large school districts. District administration presented “draft” measurable outcomes without data to support the proposed outcomes. A detailed transit study was not conducted, nor was any data gathered or presented on the potential disparate impact of closing proposed schools on certain minority and/or socioeconomic groups. These numerous procedural errors and lack of transparency further render the proposed plans dubious, at best, and more likely, illegitimate.”

Some community members who signed the petition said they are concerned about the many consequences of the plan, which will result in graduating classes of 600-700 and, some fear, could limit scholarships while hampering social and educational opportunities.

“Our kids are too important to have them housed in mega-schools that limit participation in sports/theater/choir to only the elite best of the best,” wrote Cindi Strobel. “One huge high school with thousands of kids means less kids get to participate.”

Katie Mattice wrote that she chose this community for its neighborhood schools “and for the small class sizes.”

Rose Allgaier wrote that she doesn’t see a problem with large graduating classes, but has issues with grade schools being closed and the additional transportation challenges for working parents and children. Some students could see bus rides as long as 90 minutes, and all students will be eligible for state-mandated transportation for five full years if the plan goes through. All junior high school students living on the west side will be eligible as they are transported to Wausau East, while all senior high school students on the east side will become eligible when they attend what is now Wausau West.

Some who signed the petition say consolidation may indeed make sense, but they support taking the time to secure more convincing data before moving forward.

McKee said that he continues to support an advisory referendum to boost credibility, build confidence, unite the community and show the requisite respect to all stakeholders. The next logical step, he said, is to ask for feedback from the community to learn whether they feel the current plan will best serve students moving forward.

“It would send a message of ‘your opinion matters’ and remove any doubt about the integrity of the process used to develop the plan,” McKee said.


Critics have accused the district of hand-picking committee members, and developing the plan behind closed doors. District officials also broke open meetings laws during one of the meetings, news previously broken by Wausau Pilot & Review.

“I’ve heard comments from many people that the only reason administration would not want to do an advisory referendum is because they are concerned as to what the results will show,” McKee said. “Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant.  What is relevant is that an advisory referendum would give clear direction on whether or not there is broad based community support for the plan.”

 By early Friday afternoon, the petition, which launched Thursday afternoon, collected 488 signatures. So far, the administration does not appear moved.

District Communications Coordinator Diana White said a Wausau Pilot & Review email seeking comment was the “first we’ve heard of this petition.”

“We hope the community will review all of the information on our website and watch previous board meetings to understand all of the truly wonderful opportunities this restructure will provide for all students,” White wrote, in an email.

But the online petition is asking the district to hold the referendum – and honor the results.

“Changes of this magnitude should not be rushed and should have community support,” the petition reads. “Reasonable district restructure understandably may need to occur after a transparent, fully- informed and community-engaged process; sweeping changes that affect every single family in the Wausau School District in this expedited, speculative and misleading manner are not acceptable.”

School Board President James Bouche did not respond to a request for comment by press time. This story will be updated if a response is received.