With the merger killed, the Wausau School District has its work cut out for it
Whatever the end result is, it is assured to make someone unhappy
With angry parents, a difficult busing situation and the prospect of it costing much more than initially thought, the Wausau School Board earlier this month killed the idea of merging Wausau East and West high schools. That would have created a brand new school structure that would have seen one high school, one junior high and one middle school, with fifth graders added to the middle school.
With the plan killed, however, a number of questions linger in its wake.
Superintendent Keith Hilts asked those questions Monday night in a nearly two hour Op/Ed meeting (essentially a committee meeting that the entire board is part of).
We break down the questions Hilts ask, which inform what choices the board will need to make going forward.
Elementary school consolidation: While Board Member Pat McKee’s plan nixed most of the merger, there was still agreement that the elementary schools need to be looked at for more efficiency, better student service and a better working environment for staff. The board Monday pulled the brakes on requesting a consolidation study until they can get a better sense of the metrics they’re trying to achieve. Hilts says he will ask around other schools districts that are currently consolidating their schools to find out what their process was. McKee’s point was that the board should look at the goals, then find a consultant to look at how to meet those goals, instead of starting with the solution in mind.
What about Montessori and Red Granite Charter School?: Both were going to get their own locations under the merger plan - with that gone, their future homes look up in the air. This will be an ongoing conversation since much will depend on what the plan for the elementary schools end up being.
What’s the 4K plan: Right now there are four district 4K sites. Hilts asked the board if they thought it would be a good idea to move that back to all 4K being at each individual school. Some thought that would ease burden on parents so they have one less place to need to drop multiple kids off at. The board decided that could be looked at in parallel with their study of the elementary school situation.
Class parity between East and West: This will eventually turn into a broader decision to define what parity really means. Is it equal if students at one school take a course in person, and students at the other school attend the class virtually? And what about where facilities aren’t equal? (Wausau East has a garage for learning about auto skills, where West doesn’t, for instance.) While there was a lot of discussion, the board is nowhere near a solution. One thing no one seemed to think palatable: removing classes to reach that parity.
Open enrollment: The board seemed unanimously on board with open enrollment between East and West high schools, with the exception of any restrictions from the WIAA which are designed to prevent “sports team shopping.” Right now, students can transfer because of a move, because of bullying or for academic reasons.
Boundary changes?: That was a big no from the board. There was almost no discussion on this topic.
Tough choices ahead
My analysis is that at some point the board will need to make a decision that will anger some community members. The only way its elementary schools can become more efficient is to close some schools, and the most likely candidates are the ones that were targeted in the past, such as Grant. As Trollop explains “because there is another school nearby that doesn’t need millions of dollars of repair.” Trollop is referring to Jefferson.
Someone could say the same thing happened earlier this month - that the board caved to pressure in dismissing the merger plan. But it wasn’t just that. The negatives added up such that it no longer looked feasible. No one was happy about the prospect of some students needing to ride as much as an hour and a half to school, taking multiple transfers to get there; but the fact that it no longer seemed like it would actually save money, and discomfort about using the referendum money other than what it was originally intended for, led the board to pull the plug.
But regardless of what the board decides, it will come with angry parents and community members. The board and administration will have to strike a balance between a plan to most of the community can get behind while actually accomplishing the district’s goals.
The board has done it before. Trollop and McKee were on the board in 2015 when it came up with a compromise plan the last time it looked at its elementary schools. Out of that meeting came the four 4K centers, as well as the closing of AC Kiefer Elementary. But parents opposed to the closing of Lincoln Elementary managed to stave off closure.
There is a lot of work ahead before the board gets to that point. But it’s likely there will be some people not happy with them, whatever they do.
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