Damakant Jayshi

In an indication of strong opposition to an ambitious and controversial restructuring proposal, more than 1,100 residents signed a petition asking the Wausau School Board to halt the plan and instead seek an advisory referendum.

The petition, launched Thursday by a Wausau school parent, was signed by hundreds of people in the first day alone. By press time Monday, signatures had more than doubled and continue to grow.

“With over 1,000 signatures in the first 72 hours, this petition is a stronger testament than any survey the district tries to cite in support for this plan,” said petition organizer Norah Brown, in an update. “People do not support this restructure plan; many question the flawed process used by the district and board and the speculative results we are promised. Our kids and community deserve better.”

The petition requests the Board of Education to “make a decision based on the will of the community rather than the ambitions of a superintendent and a few board members.” 

On Monday, school officials will provide an update on the restructuring proposal.

The speed and breadth of support to the petition opposing the restructuring plan, which saw strong support from Superintendent Keith Hilts and a few board members, calls into question their oft-repeated claims about community support and transparency regarding the proposal.

One of the most consequential meetings of a restructuring subcommittees was not noticed at all – the district called it “human clerical error” – violating Wisconsin’s open meetings law. A \teacher told Wausau Pilot & Review that “a complaint regarding the open meetings law violation may also be filed.” And, all of these come amidst discussion of recalling board members.

Under state law, board members can be recalled. In 1993, Wausau voters tossed out five school board members for implementing a busing program designed to more evenly distribute poor and minority students.

The Wausau School Board on Feb. 13 authorized the restructuring plan, shifting sharply from a school referendum approved by voters in April 2022. The plan 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 Hilts named the five schools often cited for closure – as well as an additional school as an alternative to a named elementary school – and implied that the closures were a given. 

Restructuring was approved on a 7-2 vote, with Pat McKee and Cory Sillars as the only two board members voting against the plan. McKee, a former president of the board, has also backed calls for the advisory referendum.

“That’s the ultimate survey,” said McKee on Feb. 13, in a clear dig at the top district officials’ repeated citing of surveys which have been questioned by many in the community for its framing of the questions. 

“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 while explaining his support for the advisory referendum.

McKee has repeatedly reminded Hilts and colleagues on the board about what they had committed to the community while seeking support for the 2022 referendum. The referendum was focused on facility upgrades, not closing or merging schools. Two previous referendums were rejected by the community. Prior to the April vote, Hilts and other district officials publicly reassured the community that no schools would be closed or merged.

However, after the referendum passed, the district officials and some board members started pushing for the restructuring proposal, claiming it was part of the plan all along. Additionally, a 2021 email correspondence between Hilts and board member Jon Creisher has surfaced, suggesting decisions were being made behind closed doors before the community weighed in.

Wausau City Alder Lisa Rasmussen who has been very critical of the restructuring plan also backed calls for the advisory referendum.

“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.”