Pat McKee speaks during a May 13, 2024 Wausau School Board meeting. Wausau Area Access Media screengrab

Damakant Jayshi

The Enrich Achieve Excel Learning Academy will lose two certified teachers under a plan to manage a looming deficit at the Wausau School District, leaving some students, parents and the academy’s administrators concerned about the future.

The school, that began as a New Horizons Charter School in 2005, provides personalized secondary education to those students who struggle in their learning – for a variety of reasons – at a traditional middle and high school. The school offers Apex curriculum, an alternative course offering for grades 6-12. The current student enrollment is 12 middle school and 32 high school students with a capacity of 80 students.

Several speakers gave emotional statements about the importance of the school in their lives and addressed the Wausau School Board during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting.

“I was made fun of for my religious and cultural differences. This took a toll on me and made me isolate myself more and more,” said Olivia Franklin, previously a junior in Wausau East High School. She was there, along with about a dozen others, to request the board to reverse staff cut recommendations from the administration.

Franklin, who was diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia and an inability to write coherently while she was at John Marshall Elementary school, said she struggled in the traditional educational setting. She found EEA a good fit after shadowing the school for three days and transferred, with significant results.

“I was more focused on my learning, which I presume is since the education was a lot more interactive,” she said.

But that “may all change with the elimination of certified teachers if the proposal to cut staff is accepted.”

The EEA Learning Academy has 15 staff, including three certified teachers/advisors and two volunteers from AmeriCorps. A number of the staff are part-time or serve other schools in the district, like Wausau East, where the EEA is housed, virtual academy WAVE and Prepare Educate Empower Rebuild (PEER). Principal Shannon Young also serves as principal of WAVE.

The proposed cuts would mean EEA would lose two certified educators who teach core subjects, provide individualized instruction to students and help with disciplinary issues. These two teachers have been given new teaching assignments elsewhere in the district, according to district’s Communications Coordinator Diana White who reached out after the story was published.

Last month, the Wausau School Board approved laying off at least three employees. One other teacher, an English teacher from Wausau East, also spoke during public comments, criticizing the proposed cuts. White said two full-time high school teachers were laid off but added that they “have an option to stay in the district if they would be willing to obtain new certification to fill some of our vacant teacher needs.” Another full-time staff’s position was reduced to 0.7 FTE.

Layoffs are among the solutions proposed to reduce a multi-million-dollar budget deficit before the next school year begins. Although about 25 full time equivalent employees will be reduced, most of the losses are being absorbed through alternative options. The district also plans to launch an operational referendum to cover operating costs like salaries and other related expenses, though that will depend on the response of the community survey this month.

Danelle Tylinski, the East English teacher who spoke Monday about her non-renewal, said she struggled to understand the rationale behind her termination and pointed to the irony that the district is working to attract skilled teachers while failing to renew the contract of one with years of experience.

She also questioned the district administration’s priorities.

“New buildings do not advance student learning, turf fields do not advance student learning, administrator salaries do not advance student learning,” she said, while asking the board to carefully consider the consequences of their actions.

Incidentally, Tylinski’s remarks came on the same day district officials requested approval to exceed the budget yet again for a proposed athletics field at Wausau West. The budget has been overshot by hundreds of thousands of dollars, ballooning from $1.63 million in its original form to $2.2 million today. Officials cite reworking and repaving, increased pricing for turf, lighting costs and other factors in the increase.

Meanwhile, some current and former students said the EEA provided them with a better alternative to study and pursue their goals than the middle or high school they were enrolled at previously.

Peter Johnson and Cosmo Mathis said the difference in learning styles made an enormous impact on their lives.

“What brought me to EEA is, I was struggling in traditional school,” Johnson, 16, said. “I could not transition in time from class to class. I was getting marked absent.”

Mathis said for students like them, the school closure due to COVID-19 made learning even harder. After their grades suffered, they rebounded – but they now fear the proposed reductions will be devastating.

Kristi Lenzo, a nurse and parent, has two children at EEA. She said the advisors at the EEA program are needed as the children who attend EEA are complex in numerous ways. Some have mental health struggles, while others have academic and social challenges. She said moving from three advisors to one for 40 students is unacceptable.

“I would not have voted yes on the referendum to add on to schools in the district if I had known teacher cuts were coming,” Lenzo said.

Principal Shannon Young and General Education Development (GED) Coordinator Kimberley Zimmerman also said the reductions will have a severe impact on students.

Zimmerman said the low student to teacher ratio at EEA allows them to address behavioral and emotional needs of the students. She added that she understands the need to balance the budget but said doing so at the cost of students is very concerning.

Most of the school board members who spoke Monday were sympathetic to the EEA, even those asking probing questions.

Board member Pat McKee termed the proposed staffing cuts a “death blow” by comparing the student-teacher ratio at EEA to ratios at Wausau East and West. He asked why the ratio at EEA isn’t similar to that of the traditional high schools if that is the ratio required to achieve student success.

Board member Sarah Brock asked Young and Zimmerman to give them the average attendance of students at the EEA so that the board could make a decision on staffing. The presentation showed the attendance of many students enrolled at EEA is inconsistent: 46% of students’ attendance rates was above 90%, 24% students’ attendance rate was between 80% and 90% and 30% have rates below 80%.

Principal Young said if the district is moving in the direction of phasing out the public charter school, the administration and board should be forthright about it. Young said the students and families deserve an answer.

Young, responding to a question from McKee, said specifically that at least one staffer should be added back, with a plan to restore the third.

The board members said they will work with the EEA governing body to look for options.