Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau School District will move forward with a focus on how to manage its elementary school buildings and students after Monday’s board decision to eliminate secondary school restructuring, the result of significant outcry from community members.

The Wausau School Board on Monday reversed its previous decision of endorsing the district administration’s proposal to combine Wausau East and West and moving fifth grade students from elementary schools.

The secondary school consolidation aspect of the Wausau School District’s vision was marred with missteps and changes. Many community members, parents and staff spoke out against the plan.

Under a proposal from board member Pat McKee, the current high school structure of grades 9 through 12 at both Wausau East and Wausau West will continue. McKee said he prepared his proposal in consultation with district staff, students, parents and board members.

The approved proposal retains the current K-5 structure at the elementary level but with a commitment to seek options to reduce the number of schools and optimize space. At present there are 13 elementary schools in the district, with near capacity students in some buildings and barely half in others.

The proposal, amended to remove some other suggestions, was passed 5-4 by the nine-member school board. Besides McKee, board members Karen Vandenberg, Cory Sillars, Jennifer Paoli and Jon Creisher voted in favor of the revised proposal. Board President James Bouche, Vice President Lance Trollop and members Cody Nikolai and Joanna Reyes voted against. After the vote, the meeting room at the Wausau School Forest-Environmental Learning Center in Mosinee erupted into applause.

The secondary plan, spearheaded by Superintendent Keith Hilts, was to be implemented in the fall of 2025. That was before glaring gaps in the restructuring process came to the fore, the most prominent being the lack of foresight by district officials and its consultant, Nexus Solutions, to plan for the science wing at Wausau West after the merger. That resulted in an ask of additional roughly $6 million for the Wausau West construction. Some board members balked at the huge sum.

As a result of Monday’s decision, the future bus travel time for students, already considered longer than usual due to a bus driver shortage, will not increase and students will not be required travel across the Wisconsin River, with some estimates showing as much as 90 minutes each way. This was a central concern for parents and students – and some board members.

McKee said the administration confused goals with solutions.

“The goal is not to combine the high schools,” he said Monday. “The goal is to offer course parity and consistency for our high school students and provide more consistent experience for out staff. The goal is not to close elementary schools but to provide a reduced cost structure for what we spend on elementary education. Somehow those objectives got wrapped into being the goal and the solution and that’s where the plan went astray early on.”

McKee said if the board didn’t remove the solution of combining high schools as the way to improve the experience for students and staff, the proposal would hang over the community. Some board members said staff and students have already left the district as a result of the changes, causing anxiety.

“Why give them a reason to leave if we are 90% sure that this combining of high schools is not going to be logistically, financially, operationally, or financially sustainable?”  

District administration officials released a 42-page rebuttal to McKee’s proposal. In the “Restructuring Update” document, found at this link, the administration once again spoke about the disparities in courses and curricula between Wausau West and East. Officials also referred to surveys from 2019 and 2021 that showed community and staff interest in eliminating one high school and support for the plan they are working toward.

But critics have termed those surveys as unreliable and incomplete. They said the surveys contained vaguely-worded questions, framed in a way to arrive at conclusions that the district officials wanted and were taken years before the true challenges of the restructuring plan emerged.

McKee also responded to that “rebuttal” while replying to Board President Bouche’s question over how his plan his financially sustainable.

“We saw nothing in the rebuttal today in the ‘manifesto’ that disputed any of those numbers,” McKee said, referring to the district’s 42-page document.

Board Clerk Vandenberg said she was comfortable taking the secondary merger off the table because their focus needs to be singular – with regard to the elementary piece – since the conversation about making better parity between the secondary schools is part of McKee’s intent.

Vandenberg, who has long argued in favor of decreasing the number of elementary schools in the district, said the board and the community need to look at the elementary school footprint while continuing the conversation about the future of secondary schools. But Vandenberg added that if the board did nothing at the secondary level, they will undoubtedly have this conversation again in a few years because, without a doubt, because it will “become a critical mass issue in our buildings. They will not be sustainable,” and will not be healthy for the district or the community.

“But if we right size our elementary footprint, the cost savings that we will find in this district will potentially solve a lot of our parity issues at our secondary level because of our increased available financial resources,” she said.

Board Vice President Trollop said the district might have to seek a referendum on an elementary consolidation plan and depending on the results of the community’s response, they could move forward accordingly.

Bouche said he was a little concerned about taking things off the table because there have been previous boards, as Trollop pointed out, that have knocked the can down the road when it came to consolidating discussion in the past. He added that combining the two high schools was not a new conversation as some said but has been happening in the district for a long time. Bouche suggested the board must do something about the dwindling enrollment in the district.

Other board members were split between delaying the district’s plan until 2026 or even later, as suggested by Trollop, and adopting the new plan straightaway. Even those who advocated for a delay praised most of McKee’s plan.

Notably, none of the board members showed a strong willingness to continue with Hilts’ restructuring proposal in its current form. Even members who voted against McKee were clearly against implementing Hilts’ plan by fall 2025.

Trollop also publicly addressed criticism that the board voted on the restructure plan in February without knowing all the details.

“The misconception that’s based on is what we voted on was some sort of final fully vetted plan, ‘this is it can’t change it, we are moving on to something else, double stamp, no takeback’,” the board vice president said. “That’s not what happened.” He added the board approved the outline brought forward by the administration, knowing that the real work was yet to come.

The public should know that it is a continuing process, he said, but he also reminded the board of its commitment to be open to change if new information surfaced – and now it has.

In his presentation, Superintendent Hilts again went over the timeline of the proposal. He said conversations about the challenges of declining enrollment, staffing shortages and a lack of curriculum parity have been going on for years. He also said various surveys supported the administration’s approach.

But McKee read out some survey results, showing a lack of broad support from the community.

Hilts, who has often sparred with McKee over the restructuring plan in recent months, said that the administration would like to work together with McKee on the district’s restructuring.

After long campaign, community prevails

During the debate, board member Paoli said it was clear the community was overwhelmingly against the current plan. “It is critically important that we have the community involved.”

The board’s decision is a victory for those in the community who not only opposed the district’s secondary consolidation plan spearheaded by Hilts, but also actively mobilized against it. People spoke at various meetings before and after the school board passed the plan on Feb. 13, with some elements of the plan shifting sharply from a referendum approved in April 2022.

District leadership ignored a petition signed by more than 2,000 people asking it to reconsider its restructuring plan and seek an advisory referendum on the changes that many feel were not approved by the community.

One letter to the editor to this newspaper points out when people had more information on specifically what the administration was proposing, support dropped.

“When staff was given more clarity, confidence dropped below 50% and community confidence dropped to 17.59% with only 233 people responding to the survey,” wrote Scott Seefeldt. “What should have been a red flag was taken as a green light.” 

People have also accused the administration of withholding information from the public during discussions.

“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,” Angela Blaubach, a Wausau School District parent, told board members at a meeting on Oct. 23. “Is this by design?”

All three people who addressed the restructuring portion of Monday’s agenda opposed the administration’s plan and lent their support to McKee’s proposal.

Former school board member Jane Rusch said the district has deviated from a previously approved plan and the money that is diverted for other elements is completely unethical and potentially illegal. She also said that during her 15 years on the board, there was no discussion about combining the two high schools, unless it was being held behind closed doors without her knowledge.

Seefeldt, who wrote the letter to the editor, said everyone knows about the challenges and some solution was needed but it was worth doing it the right way. Aaron Anderson, a parent, said there was no public support for the administration’s plan. People are showing their lack of confidence in the plan by leaving the district, he said.