Damakant Jayshi

On a day when hundreds more joined in the call for the Wausau School Board to hold an advisory referendum on a controversial restructuring plan, board members appeared receptive to the idea – but the school superintendent said it “would be a mistake” to do so.

On Monday, nearly 250 more people signed the petition, which has drawn more than 1,400 signatures since Thursday. Board member Pat McKee, former president of the WSB, said he will ask Board President James Bouche to place an advisory referendum on the agenda for the next regular meeting.

“So, we have a representative democracy, you have been elected to represent the community,” Superintendent Keith Hilts said. “You spent dozens if not hundreds of hours to understand this. And so to put the decision in the hands of the people who inherently are not as well informed, I think would be a mistake.”

He recommended that the board make the decision, “but certainly that is the conversation we can attempt.”

The discussion was held during the board’s Education/Operations Committee meeting on Monday. Hilts was providing an update on the restructuring plan with a presentation focused on next steps, including the possibility of conducting quarterly public meetings and a summary of transportation feasibility study under the proposed restructuring.

Meanwhile, the petition calling on the school board to halt the restructuring plan and, launched by a Wausau school parent, was signed by hundreds of people in the first day alone. By press time Tuesday, signatures had more than tripled and continue to grow.

The petition, launched by parent Norah Brown, 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.” 

Hilts appeared caught off guard when McKee asked his opinion on the call for an advisory referendum but made clear what he thought about letting the people – who will be severely impacted by the changes – make the decision. Hilts prefaced his controversial remarks by saying he read a book that “talks a little bit about the history of democracy and why we are a representative democracy, and not a pure, uh, I forgot the actual phrase.”

The superintendent went on to explain how, in his views, such decisions should be taken.

“When everything is decided by a majority rule, um, the whole reason that we are a representative democracy, and I think the reason why I think the board should make the decision is that people do not have the time to understand all the complexities that go into a decision like this,” Hilts continued. “And the opportunity to think about and explore the long-term ramifications and projecting those, and the charge to really think about what is best for all children instead of their own personal experience.”

This is not the first time Hilts has commented on people’s participation in the process. 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.

But McKee said that asking people to make their views known about a plan that has such widespread impact is exactly what representative democracy is about.

“I just find it interesting because this is one of those situations where the feedback clearly has been all over the place,” McKee said. “I have heard generally more questions and concerns about the plan than I have heard favorability, that ‘we are all in this, let’s go’.”

He added that a non-binding referendum is suited to address a “scenario just like this, where it is frankly a well-represented data point that we can collectively use to consider possible changes, alterations, the direction, etc.” McKee said the results would be representative since “their student will be impacted by this in some way, shape or form, present and future.”

The former WSB president said that if voters approved the plan through a referendum they could then confidently move forward with its implementation. “But if it says something else, maybe that should give us pause to consider, again, perhaps a change in direction, not completely scrapping a project, but altering a course, depending on what that feedback is.”

On Feb. 13, board member Cory Sillars voted against the proposal, which has shifted significantly from plans approved in an April 2022 referendum. This week, he also backed the idea of an advisory referendum,

But retiring board member Lee Webster said he favors a survey to allow people to think more about before making a decision. Sillars said the survey is not a good indicator, pointing to a 2021 survey that saw only about 1,600 responses. In any case, those surveys have been criticized by a section of the community for being misleading, with questions framed in a way that could be interpreted as lending support to the restructuring plan.

Vice President Lance Trollop, who was chairing the Education/Operations Committee meeting this week in the absence of chair Bouche, acknowledged that a survey is not a true indicator unless it is conducted by experts. But that is not always possible since such survey efforts are not free and can be time-consuming.

He, too, backed the idea for a non-binding referendum in April 2024 as suggested by McKee, saying the year-long period would give the board time to share more information about the plan and cut through misinformation on social media.

Trollop said an advisory referendum next year would be more valuable than holding one in a month. He added that he still hears from people who have already decided to oppose the plan without actually knowing all its details. He further said some of the information that the people said they had heard, like large class sizes in elementary schools, is not true. One of the goals of the restructuring plan is to have uniform class sizes in elementary schools within the prescribed limit. Currently class sizes are lopsided and staff distribution in the district is uneven.

“We have to continue the conversation because people’s ears are open, but part of what their ears are open to is misinformation,” Trollop said, favoring McKee’s idea of sharing more information and engagement with the community. “I see it on social media that is flat out aren’t true about the plan and it catches.”

He pointed out that the work actually begins after the people vote; it is not a conclusion of the process. He implied that what the last referendum did – basically launched the process.

“Now we need to do the actual work, and work on people making the plan and who knows, there may be things discovered along the way that will give us pause and cause us to want to make changes to the plan in some fashion.”

Meanwhile, the administration’s suggestion of a rethink on staggered implementation of the plan was shot down by board members again.

Restructuring, as presented by the administration, 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 had already been determined.

Earlier this month, the board favored implementing the plan in a staggered way, although there was no explicit vote on a timeline. The staggered approach is part of the overall revised proposal.

Board Clerk Karen Vandenberg, who has favored a go-slow approach, reiterated her position after Superintendent Hilts said a survey of administrators supported implementing the plan all at once. Vandenberg said she would like to see input from teachers and staff too and not just administrators, adding that a slow implementation could help them focus on certain areas a little bit more smoothly and more effectively. Hilts said he would get the views of the teachers and staff too.

At the Education/Operations Committee meeting on Monday, a representative from First Consulting presented an executive summary of the transportation feasibility study. He projected various scenarios under the restructuring proposal, and said an additional five to 10 buses would be required and up to 80-minute ride times. Dozens of fifth grade students would ride the city bus, rather than a school bus, which has also alarmed some parents.

The board members asked questions about students who are registered to take bus rides versus those students who are eligible but do not ride the school bus. This is not a final plan since parts of the restructuring proposal are still evolving and will likely shape the ultimate bussing plan.