Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau School Board will not hold an advisory referendum next spring on a proposed district restructuring plan, despite an online petition that has so far drawn nearly 2,000 signatures.

A strong majority of the Board on Monday appeared to recognize that community input is needed on the multi-million dollar plan. But a slim majority shot down the most comprehensive avenue of getting that very community input on the grounds that district officials – “the experts” – know better than the public. Those opposed to an advisory referendum, placed on Monday’s agenda at the request of Board Member Pat McKee, said they were in favor of hearing frequently from the community but only through their favored medium – community gatherings and surveys, rather than what appears to be the community’s clear choice.

Before Monday’s meeting some community members, including parents, submitted written comments – all of them asking the board to consider the advisory referendum. One of those is Dist. 7 alder Lisa Rasmussen, who asked the board “to hold off on implementation of their restructuring plan and to take time to professionally study alternative options.” Rasmussen has already called for holding an advisory referendum and criticized Hilts and the board members pushing for the restructuring plan.

The board’s rejection comes despite growing support for a petition asking the district to halt their plans. 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 petition gained ground after the Wausau School Board passed the restructuring plan last month to be implemented from 2025. The plan shifts sharply from a community-approved April 2022 referendum for $119 million to address the needs of the district.

The referendum question was defeated 5-4 on Monday night at a regular meeting of the Wausau School Board. McKee, Cory Sillars, Lance Trollop and James Bouche voted in favor of placing a referendum on the April 2024 ballot. Those opposed were Karen Vandenberg, Jon Creisher, Cody Nikolai, Joanna Reyes and the retiring Lee Webster.

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. Five elementary schools will also close.

Johanna Reyes at a March 13, 2023 Wausau School Board meeting

McKee proposed having at least three referendum questions: whether the community supports moving 5th grade students to middle school, whether the district should merge two high schools into a single junior high and single senior high, and whether the community supports closing elementary schools.

“I don’t think it would be a mistake at all to go to the people that we ask to fund our schools, and ask for their input on what they feel would be acceptable or not relative to different components of this plan,” McKee said, reasoning the magnitude of the proposed changes are significant required public input. “It will help us make a better decision.”

Last month, Hilts called the idea of advisory referendum a “mistake” and said the board, not the public, should make such decisions. That suggestion was backed Monday by Board Clerk Vandenberg, who entered into a lengthy back and forth discussion with McKee. (View this segment of the meeting at this link, beginning around the 1:10 mark.)

A vigorous debate

“I think our role as a board member is actually to establish policies that advance student learning and success,” Vandenberg said Monday. “And so some of that is really not just about what’s popular, it’s about the bigger picture, it’s about what advances student success.”

Vandenberg said administration officials are better suited in making these types of decisions and said schools are merged and closed “all the time.”

Pat McKee at a March 13, 2023 Wausau School Board meeting

“It’s the experts, those who are responsible for running the district, that have to make those decisions,” Vandenberg said.

“While the community members are capable of understanding the issues, and I believe they are not responsible for making sure that this district is sustainable and moving forward with the best educational opportunities for all students for decades to come,” she said. “That’s not their responsibility, that’s yours and mine and the administration’s. And so they come with an opinion that best serves their own personal interests. That’s understandable…But that’s why they come with a different perspective that isn’t the big picture.”

McKee questioned the “big picture” remark.

“If the community at large does not approve of the policy that we set, it will take two elections and the policy is going to change,” McKee said. “Because you won’t be here, I won’t be here, this will all change like it has over the last two elections. And whatever policy is that you set that was for the bigger picture and the grand scheme of things is going to go out the window and they are going to move it back to the way that it was.”

About the referendum proposal, McKee asked Vandenberg point-blank why the board would be fearful of hearing from the public “even if it is against what you think is personally best for the long-term success of the district? Why don’t we want to hear that?”

Vandenberg responded by offering an analogy of surgery, saying no one likes to have it even if it is important. But McKee fired back, saying that people who are offered surgery have a right to a second opinion, and that’s what his proposal is meant to do.

When their back-and-forth continued, Board President Bouche tried to intervene, saying he would like to hear from other board members too, but Vandenberg cut him off by saying her view was an important one. She then asked McKee whether he agrees that the experts in this situation are the administrators who are seeing the challenges, McKee responded by saying he wouldn’t “go that far.”

“Well, I can’t ignore the thousands of collective hours that have been put in by our administrators and their presentations and the teachers who keep coming at the meetings,” Vandenberg said.

McKee agreed, noting they “have 175 pages of PowerPoint” on why change is necessary. If a referendum was planned, he said, “we would now have 12 and half months to crystallize those 175 pages of PowerPoint into a meaningful message that clearly states what the value propositions are.”

Vandenberg also referred to the work of two subcommittees, hand-picked by the administration, that held meetings over the summer. Yet one of the most consequential meetings, where names of the elementary schools targeted for closure and the proposed high school merger were mentioned for the first time, was not properly noticed, violating the state’s open meetings law. Additionally, some community members have said they were initially invited to join the committees but later the offer was withdrawn; some others said they were invited – but only for the final meeting, which was held in November last year.

Vandenberg said she is concerned by the impact on students from lower income families who live close to the river. McKee responded by saying that three of the elementary schools close to the river – Franklin, Grant and Lincoln – are the schools on the chopping block, to be closed as part of this process. A significant number of children attending these schools are from lower income families.

Members Nikolai, Creisher, Reyes and Webster said they agreed with Vandenberg’s points.

Nikolai asked what the board could do in the interim since the referendum, if held, would have been a year away. He rejected the referendum idea, saying it could be swayed by “which way the wind is blowing” at the time of voting. He suggested instead simply holding “continued dialogue” with the community. Nikolai also repeated Vandenberg’s charge that the public has been subjected to deliberate misinformation on the restructuring plan.

Reyes said she believes the referendum would further divide the community, and gave a long statement on how she is being targeted.

“I believe that there are community members that no matter what some of us do on this board, it will never be right to them, regardless of how we vote,” she said. “Because they are just not happy that some of us are on the board. And no matter what we do, it will not be right because some people believe that we have a hidden agenda. I have no hidden agenda. There is nothing I am voting for because of my spiritual beliefs or because I am more conservative. It’s disheartening that people have made up what they think of me because of what I stand for…They did not want me on this board.”

Webster claimed, again – without any evidence – that surveys are a better medium to gauge community support than referendum. Wausau School District officials have been criticized for dubious survey questions designed to reach a pre-determined outcome. Even Board Vice-president Trollop has been saying the surveys were not truly representative demographically.

Cory Sillars at a March 13, 2023 Wausau School Board meeting

Earlier, board member Sillars supported the idea of multiple questions but added that the people need to be open to some kind of changes and said one of the questions should be whether the community would support approving additional funding that exceeds revenue limits.

Trollop asked what options the board would have if the community voted ‘no’ on mergers and also voted ‘no’ on increasing the revenue.

During the discussion on the design of Wausau West, presented by a representative of the consultant Nexus Solutions, McKee objected to Wausau West being already referred to as “Wausau Senior High.”

The fate of restructuring in the face of such strong opposition could be uncertain given that there will be at least one new board member after the April 4 election.

There was also a lengthy discussion on the child care centers proposed by the administration. Some board members said they support the idea, but have a difficult time understanding how the centers would be staffed given a nationwide child care provider shortage. After questioning from board members on the models and finances, Hilts said he would bring back more information later.