By Shereen Siewert | Wausau Pilot & Review

An alternative to the Wausau School District’s restructuring plan would keep both high schools open while saving taxpayers an estimated $14 million over the long term, according to a presentation unveiled this week by a board member.

Pat McKee, a Wausau School Board member who has consistently questioned the details behind the district’s restructuring plan, introduced the proposal Monday. His vision calls for keeping the existing middle school and high school structure, continuing referendum projects as approved by taxpayers and diverting expenses for added busing, mascots and branding changes to what he called “value added” services such as hiring additional educators.

McKee presented the proposal to counter what he called the district’s current “Field of Dreams” approach, which assumes “if we build it, the 239 students who have transferred out will return.” He said his plan is the first step in beginning to rebuild trust from within the community.

The detailed proposal he shared Monday paves a “clear path for students” while eliminating the uncertainty that has left parents reeling. More than 2,000 people have signed a petition to hold a referendum prior to moving forward on Superintendent Keith Hilts’ vision for restructuring, but so far those calls have been rejected – and Hilts himself called the referendum idea “a mistake.”

Angela Blaubach, a Wausau School District parent, had strong criticism for the current plan when she spoke during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting. Urging a referendum on the issue, she pointed to the lack of science curriculum space at Wausau West that added at least $6 million to the plan, and the lack of dependable busing solutions that will make travel times longer for young students.

Wausau School Board member Cory Sillars speaks on Oct. 23, 2023. Photo: Wausau Area Access Media screengrab

Blaubach said her middle-school student has a 60-minute bus ride each way to John Muir. That ride will only become longer when restructuring under the current proposal is complete, she said.

“Students are already putting in a 10-hour day prior to any extra-curricular activities,” she said. “The notion that we’ll ‘figure it out’ in the summer of 2025, or we just have to be okay with some students having 90-minute bus rides is not acceptable from adults who are supposed to be advocating for the mental health and well-being of students.”

Blaubach spoke directly to each member of the board and administration on Monday and issued a challenge.

“If you feel this is reasonable, I would request you spend 60 minutes on a bus before and after your workday and ask yourself if this is suitable for a 10-year-old,” she said.

Wausau has struggled to provide adequate bus service for students district-wide amid a driver shortage that has dragged on for years. Blaubach said some students only received bus assignments for the current school year over the past several weeks – and only after repeated phone calls from parents.

Some parents, including Blaubach, are so frustrated they say they they are considering transferring their children to neighboring districts.

“Meeting after meeting we find out about something that was omitted, needs to be added and voted on quickly or that there isn’t money in the budget for to make this plan function,” she said. “Is this by design?”

She implored the board to reevaluate their plan. Now, they might.

McKee proposal: Alternate to district plan

A proposal by Pat McKee, presented Oct. 23 to the Wausau School Board, would include these key points:

  • Complete previously approved referendum projects per the original intent of how funding would be used
  • Keep current high school structure with Wausau East and Wausau West for grades 9-12. Preserves branding and mascots
  • Leverage parent/student/staff input to determine which classes should be part of secondary curriculum and develop solutions for classes at each school
  • Rather than spend $775K annually on additional busing, hire another business teacher at East to deliver previously approved “go forward” business classes
  • Implement same scheduling system to allow for classes to be taught in combination of virtual and in-person
  • Allow for transportation of students who want automotive classes at East or Fab Lab at West
  • Keep John Muir and Horace Mann for grades 6-8
  • Examine current elementary school footprint and determine which schools should be consolidated, taking into consideration Montessori moving to Lincoln and charter school at Hewitt
  • Expand elementary to include 4K at each school, allowing children to attend three schools in 13 years vs. five schools
  • Scrap daycare partnership with YMCA
  • Assess feasibility of using daycare funds at a separate building to offer child care subsidies to eligible district employees
  • Assess closing Longfellow and relocate district offices to underutilized secondary school space

McKee said he wants the community and board to reflect on the alternate proposal and financial projections for the next several weeks before any decision is made. But he is firm in his projection that his plan will “deliver educational value and cost savings using a rate and pace of change that is consistent with the community’s appetite for such change.”

Board member Cory Sillars said based on emails he’s received, he thinks it’s time for the district to hire a third party to send out a community survey gauging opinion and level of support for the current plan. He also suggested moving the district’s offices, now at Longfellow, to Horace Mann to save costs.

Sillars also raised the idea of a referendum to decide on spending roughly $8 million on a new science wing at Wausau West, along with additional parking. But if McKee’s plan is adopted, additional parking space at West may not be necessary.

The need for a new wing to satisfy curriculum requirements under the combined high school scenario emerged just this month, prompting additional criticism from members of the public who say the district did not think through the implications of the plan before it was thrust on the community.

District records show that neither the district’s leadership team nor the consultant spearheading the project, Nexus Solutions, previously realized that they would need additional science labs and classrooms after the merger.

Sillars said that the need exists for the new science wing regardless of whether the schools combine. He distributed a document that outlined a project completion proposal, which can be found at this link.

“I’m taking a stand here…” he said, adding that he wants to give the community a voice in how money is spent.

McKee openly doubted whether any referendum for the district would be approved at this time, given public sentiment.

“I don’t think you could put a referendum on the ballot for $1 right now and have a snowball’s chance of it passing,” he said.

Board President James Bouche concurred. “Not speaking for the board, I agree,” he said.

Bouche said he is hesitant to introduce another referendum when the district is still working on the most recent one, which was approved by voters in 2022.

He said that both proposals, by McKee and Sillars, perhaps took board members by surprise, but said the board needs to stay focused on whether restructuring will be cost-effective and provide the best educational experience for students.

“I’m looking at what the cost is going to be,” Bouche said, while questioning why the necessary science addition was not forwarded “many times” over the past few years. He said that he’s now wondering whether the additional science needs should have been included in the most recent referendum, but was not.

McKee said his savings projections rely on the scant budgetary details that district administrators have provided. On Monday, he said new bus routes would cost about $775,000 each year, the mascot change costs increased to more than a million dollars, with another half-million for branding. Those costs are far higher than what district officials initially projected. See McKee’s numbers at this link.

“They might not be 100 percent correct, but I know they are closer to correct than the original pro forma,” he said.

All nine written comments submitted to the board for Monday’s meeting voiced opposition to Hilts’ restructuring plan, citing a variety of concerns.

Bouche said he will place McKee’s and Sillars’ proposals on the agenda in two weeks to allow for the public and board to digest the numbers and implications involved.