Every fact you need to know about the Wausau School District's restructuring plan
On Monday night, the Wausau School Board heard a proposal from school administration about a plan to restructure the district’s schools from top to bottom. The details are below, but the biggest changes are moving 5th grade to middle school, eliminating several elementary schools and combining the two high schools into one.
Administrators have spent years on the concept, but only unveiled it at Monday’s meeting, where board members were expected to vote on it. They chose not to, instead asking for more information.
That helps the rest of us, because many members of the public felt this was sprung on them. And that allows The Wausonian to do a deep dive into all that we learned in the four and a half hour meeting.
It seems like the best way to convey all the facts we know so far is through bullet points. So we’ve done that below.
The District has lost 700 students in 20 years, resulting in $7 million in lost revenue (state aid is based on enrollment). The Wausonian has been following the declining enrollment trend, which is statewide. Keith Hilts in an interview with this reporter hinted that something like this was likely coming when he first took over the superintendent role.
Opportunities between schools are unequal. One particular example: One high school has a marching band, and one high school has a robotics lab.
Classes often don’t have enough students for a full section, so they’re canceled. (That also leads to inequities.)
Levy limits haven’t kept up with the cost of doing business — they’ve split by about $4 million, administrators say.
While enrollment has been declining, staff levels have been increasing since 2015. Staff spread between too many buildings makes it hard to reduce numbers (if the proposal went through, they would reduce staff through attrition - in other words, not filling vacant positions versus laying anyone off).
It’s not just demographic shifts — more students are “open enrolling” out of the district than into it.
Wausau West is currently at 81% capacity; Wausau East is at 58% capacity. Without the expansion, West would be at 98% capacity under the proposal.
Here is the pipeline under the proposal: Early education centers (birth to five, essentially day care) → 4K with five fewer elementary schools → grades 5-7 in Horace Mann and John Muir → Junior High (at the Wausau East building) includes grades 8-9 → Senior High would include grades 10-12 (at the Wausau West building).
Under the plan, Wausau West would undergo an expansion to accommodate the additional students. That would cost $10 million. (If it were at East instead it would cost $38 million.)
That $10 million comes from redirected referendum money (which is saved because instead of improving some buildings they would be closed).
The new high school would adopt Wausau West’s flex mod scheduling system. Basically it means that schedules vary; instead of the bell ringing and every student getting up to go somewhere else, it’s staggered with unique time frames.
The district would include early learning centers that serve birth to five-year-olds. That would help both the staff and the public find child care, which is in crisis in Marathon County.
Points in favor
Would add child care centers, which are desperately needed (The Wausonian has reported on this before).
Would add more intramural sports to give students non-competitive opportunities for athletics.
Would help with numbers for varsity teams struggling to fill their rosters (Wausau East has been unable to field a varsity football team for a couple of years, for example).
Allows for better class selection because there would be more students to fill those sections, ensuring they don’t get canceled.
The district would offer both International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs at the new high school (currently one high school uses IB and the other AP). District leaders say other districts do this and it works well.
Combined schools could also enable different kinds of classes related to health or culinary arts. They’d have more students to draw from, so less chance of the sections being canceled.
Easier to pursue an athletic center — Superintendent Keith Hilts says they’ve reached out to potential funders and funding one center is likely, but funding one for each high school is pretty unlikely. (Emails obtained by The Wausonian show the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce also was apparently looking into some kind of sports/tourism facility. More on that coming soon.)
Ultimately would save nearly $30 million over ten years (because of startup costs, it would cost about $1.4 million in the first year).
Would decrease the number of varsity spots on sports teams. East and West volleyball have strong participation, for instance.
Transportation is a huge issue in the plan. Not only would it increase travel times for students (some by likely quite a bit), but it would mean fifth graders might be riding Metro Ride and have to transfer buses. It also could mean, on the extreme end, an hour and a half bus ride. And…
Another part of the transportation concern is the current bus driver shortage. Routes were canceled last year because of a lack of drivers, and board members pointed out this plan would required MORE drivers. Metro Ride has the same problem, and recently retired director Greg Seubert found himself driving bus routes to keep them open.
Many community members felt the plan was sprung on them. District officials said they were surprised by that, because they’ve been running ads, holding listening sessions and put together a website. They also ran surveys.
BUT, district leaders throughout have said to keep an open mind, that there is no specific proposal yet. No specific plan. Monday night was the first the public got a look at a solid proposal that was distributed Friday night, and many board members felt that wasn’t enough time for them or the public to digest the plan.
Open enrollment out of the district could increase — parents speaking at the meeting Monday said they heard many families say they’ll go to other districts if these changes take place.
Some schools might experience tight enrollments (ie crowded classrooms) in the first years of the plan.
Some board members felt it was unethical, even if technically legal, to use money raised through referendum for something else. People didn’t just vote on a dollar amount, they voted on that money being used for a particular purpose.
Hilts said in a survey they conducted, 25% of the respondents didn’t know there were two high schools. This struck me as odd, so I reached out on social media. A number of people responded that the surveys were quite vague and oddly worded, so it’s likely the question was misunderstood.
Administration was given the direction to bring more information about the transportation aspect of the plan, as well as more about staffing and more about what cam be done to bring better awareness to the public.
It’s unclear what that will look like. It’s hard to know what the transportation situation will look like three years from now, though based on demographic projections, it doesn’t look likely the staffing will look much better at either the school bus company or Metro Ride. And staffing plans are typically ironed out as the school knowns the number of students and what classes they’ve selected.
The biggest piece Hilts will be able to bring to the board is better public awareness. Board member Jon Creisher and Hilts went on WSAU’s radio show to talk more specifics about the plan.
The Wausonian has reached out to several people for follow up and will either update this post or craft a new story when those responses are received.
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