Discover more from The Wausonian
No more merger
The Wausau School Board Monday adopted part of Pat McKee's restructuring alternative plan - and that means no more merging of Wausau East and West high schools
Wausau School Board Member Karen Vandenberg turned to her fellow board member Jon Creisher late into Monday’s school board meeting and said “you and I know what it feels like to feel unheard.” Vandenberg and other district parents made those same claims in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Wausau School District remained closed longer than other nearby districts. It prompted several of them, Vandenberg included, to run for school board.
That comment came during Monday’s school board discussion about a new plan to restructure Wausau Schools, which would combine Wausau East and West, create a Junior high and consolidate to one middle school, moving fifth graders up. Because a lot of parents and residents in the district having been saying the same thing Vandenberg did — that they haven’t felt like the board has been listening.
The district approved a complete restructure of its schools earlier in the year, in the face of declining enrollments and a big disparity between Wausau East and Wausau West enrollments. As of the latest counts, there is a nearly 500-student difference between the two schools, and district leadership say that leads to a big disparity in the course offerings between the two high schools. Combining the high schools would help the district address those concerns while also saving money, the district argued when the rough plan was approved.
The restructuring, however, has been widely unpopular. Parents and other residents in the district are concerned about a number of things including busing, which would require more drivers at a time when school busing systems are already experiencing a shortfall of workers; and the restructure would mean some students would be spending as much as an hour and a half on a bus one way to school, which to many seems untenable.
And that’s hardly all. Just changing all the branding, mascots and other things associated with the new high school would cost millions, before a cent was spent on building up West to handle another 900-some students from East.
In order to do that, the district wants to spend some of the referendum money the district asked for years ago toward the restructuring plan — something that parents and many board members are unhappy with, and some say isn’t legal.
And that’s before any money is spent on new science rooms — the district and board learned that West already doesn’t have enough science rooms, and is not even close to having enough rooms for the additional East students as well.
Long-time board member Pat McKee ran the numbers and learned that, in fact, the district’s plan would not only not save money - it would actually cost the district.
Last month, after listening to parents and others in the district, and diving into the data, McKee proposed a new plan. Under the new plan, the district would take far fewer drastic measures while still making changes to address the declining enrollments and disparity between the two schools. And, according to his projections, it would save money versus cost money.
On Monday, at a meeting at the Wausau School Forest, a narrow majority of school board decided that McKee’s plan made sense. Vandenberg, following her comment about past board’s not listening to residents, joined McKee, Jon Creisher, Jennifer Paoli and Cory Sillars in supporting McKee’s plan, which he pared down a bit before the vote.
Here’s what the board approved.
McKee told the board that this has been one of the most lopsided issues of his career. While he got plenty of feedback during COVID about the district keeping schools closed, there were plenty of responses he got from those on both sides of the issue.
That was not the case with the restructuring plan. “This was that scenario, but on steroids,” McKee said. He pointed to a recent district survey in which 17.6% of residents said they had confidence in the plan. “We saw what happened with COVID, we lost 400 students. Many of you spoke to the board about not listening to the community. I don’t want to us to make that mistake again, especially with secondary schools.”
McKee’s plan, pared down from what he proposed last month, was passed as follows:
Keep the secondary schools the same (in other words, the district would retain two high schools, retain two middle schools and keep fifth graders in elementary schools)
Continue to assess the square footage of elementary schools, deciding which schools it makes sense to keep and which ones should be consolidated
Other elements of McKee’s plan that he removed for simplicity to get the secondary schools issue passed:
Ending the child care agreement with the YMCA and putting that plan on pause
Looking at disparities in class offerings and finding other solutions to correct them
Look at closing the Longfellow Administration building and moving it to another district space.
District Superintendent Keith Hilts spoke against the plan. He said the point of merging the two high schools was to have less duplication of services, a better work situation for staff, reducing the number of needed staff, and more equitable offerings for students in terms of course selection.
The combined high school would allow the district to take advantage of economies of scale, which isn’t possible for new high schools.
But McKee points out even staff isn’t so sure of the plan, with the numbers of staff saying they have confidence in the plan dropping from 48.4% to 47.9% in subsequent surveys, the second result coming after the plan was explained to staff in detail.
And McKee pointed out that of 183 classes, there are 51 classes that vary between the schools: 12 business classes, 10 gym classes, six tech ed classes and six classes that are either International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement (West has AP, East has IB).
Further, McKee says he’s not convinced about the economies of scale - he points out student ratios of roughly 13 students to one teacher seem to remain the same under the current restructuring plan.
Former president of the school board Lance Trollop supported McKee’s plan except for one thing: completely taking the merger off the table. He favored a rollback of the timeline, planning for a merger in 2026 instead of 2025 in order to give the board more time to gather all the needed information to fell confident about going forward — or deciding it won’t work.
Because they would need to be absolutely sure about the merger a year before 2025, the timeline was too tight to actually merge the schools in 2025, Trollop argued. He says what they approved in February was starting to work on the plan, not necessarily 100% agreeing to it no matter what. But he didn’t support fully ditching the plan either.
President James Bouche said he hears from districts all around the state and that Wausau School District is not alone in its struggles with enrollments. He said he’s choosing to focus on the curriculum and making sure all students have equal opportunities for course offerings. “I’m a little concerned with taking things off the table,” Bouche says. “Previous boards have already knocked this can down the road.”
But that doesn’t mean it needs to happen all at once. Vandenberg said the district is trying to do too much in too short of a time frame. It makes sense to address the elementary school situation first, and then re-evaluate.
McKee said the current restructuring plan is already driving students away from the district, and even teachers have left because of the uncertainty of the plans. And that’s not something the district can afford.
Ultimately McKee’s plan, or at least the portion of it that he put forward Monday, passed 5-4. The room erupted in applause following the vote. Now the work begins.
Want to keep up with the story? Subscribe to The Wausonian to get all the updates. And, consider a paid subscription to help support local journalism, keep local leaders honest and to see everything The Wausonian reports on.
Already a paid subscriber? Use this referral link and earn credit toward your subscription when people sign up through your unique link, using the button below.