A river runs through it

(First published in the November 21, 2019 issue of City Pages)

But it’s time to rethink the whole east-west school divide in Wausau

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In order to get a taste for the future, it’s helpful to take a quick look at the past. On a cold evening in January 2015, the board room at the Wausau School District’s Longfellow Administration building was packed with parents, teachers and administrators. Lance Trollop, then president of the school board, unveiled a new plan to rearrange the uses of several buildings in the district, address critical maintenance issues and create four regional 4K centers.

There was one thing the plan pointedly did not include, which previous versions did: closing Lincoln Elementary school as part of some boundary restructuring related to a nearly $30 million building and programs referendum up for discussion that January night nearly five years ago.

Shuttering the near-west side neighborhood school as part of the referendum plan was deeply unpopular—maybe unpopular enough to torpedo that April 2015  referendum. Parent after parent had stood up during a public hearing to express their desire to see Lincoln Elementary School stay put. One of those parents, Mary Thao, even later ran for and was elected to the school board.

Why bring up that issue now? Because the district is facing boundary and restructuring issues again, but on a larger scale affecting not just neighborhood elementary schools, but a serious rearrangement of both high schools and the two middle schools.

And the Wisconsin River is in the middle of it all, literally and figuratively.

The question being raised now: The river might no longer serve as the clear boundary divider it has always been between east and west schools; maybe it just doesn’t make sense anymore given the current population and development trends.

West side schools are becoming more crowded every year, while many east side schools are operating well below capacity.

A recent demographics report released to the school board last week shows that disparity in stark relief.

Wausau East High School has the capacity for 1,552 students, but currently enrolls only 954 students.

The east-side Horace Mann Middle School (just down the road from East High), with 750 students, is 258 students below capacity.

Meanwhile the west-side John Muir Middle school is bursting at the seams with 1,073 students — 65 over capacity.

Wausau West High School has capacity for 1,614 students. It’s at 1,370, or around 85% of capacity, with 400 more students than Wausau East.

When it comes to overcrowding, the issues are obvious:  larger class sizes, greater stress on resources, and less attention per student. But under-population has issues too. While it might mean favorable student-teacher ratios in general classes, it can be problematic when it comes to staffing more specialized classes like advanced math or career prep: Some subjects don’t have enough students to justify a teacher, meaning fewer class options.

The boundary, as it has been since Wausau High School split into east and west schools decades ago, has long been the Wisconsin River, providing a bold and clear geographic boundary between the two school territories. But that boundary is starting to become out of date. As the city grows and more development springs up in the city, it tends to sprawl out to the west side. New business has plenty of open space in the city’s business park, one of the biggest in the state. New housing developments tend to pop up on the west side near that business development, and development and new housing is strong in Rib Mountain as well.

How does the district address this? There are a number of possibilities, says Wausau School Superintendent Keith Hilts. But nearly all of them will involve some kind of boundary change. And that will likely be a difficult process.

Parents or would-be parents often buy homes because of the school district they reside in. And much like during Lincoln Elementary School’s proposed closure and the building shuffle in general from four years ago, potential changes could get heated.

Demographic trends don’t necessarily follow geography

There are 400 more students at Wausau West than there are at Wausau East this year. That data is part of a district-wide enrollment report released to school officials last week called the Student Demographic Report. According to the report, Wausau East lost 22 students from the previous school year, whereas Wausau West, at 1,370, gained 12 students.

The trend is more stark between the two middle schools. Horace Mann Middle School is down 11 students from the previous year, while John Muir gained 50 students from the previous year’s data.

Further complicating enrollment numbers is the rise of home schooling. This year 147 students were listed as “home based education,” an increase of 39 from the previous year. The district also lost students to open enrollment — the number of students leaving the district due to open enrollment increased by 9%, at 452 students.

What does that mean for operational capacity? It turns out both high schools are under capacity, according to data provided by Chief Finance and Business Services Officer Bob Tess, though the situation is far more severe at East.

And at the elementary level, overall the schools are 508 students below capacity, with the biggest gap at John Marshall Elementary with 110 fewer students than it has capacity for. Only South Mountain and Stettin elementary schools —both on the west side — now show enrollment over capacity, at 24 and 61 respectively.

What impact does that have? It means schools on the east side have had to change class structure and offer less specialized classes. Foreign language classes have already been cut back, Hilts says. It’s hard to justify paying a full teacher salary for a class with three students in it.

It has also manifested on sports teams. East hockey partnered with Merrill and Newman Catholic in 2016 to make up a full hockey team. The wrestling team has had to forfeit matches at some weight classes in the past because of a lack of wrestlers.

School attendance boundaries are always at the mercy of housing and demographic trends. And the point here is that the east side overall has not seen the same development as the west side.

While Wausau city inspector Bill Hebert points out that both sides of the river have plenty of housing, the difference is in the types of housing.

That’s an important distinction, says Wausau Community Development Director Chris Schock. The city tends to focus on urban density on the east side — condos and apartments and townhouses that cater to young professionals and empty nesters. Both demographics, of course, do not have school-age children.

What’s going up on the west side? As the business campus continues to develop, as well as the hospital, which is already the largest employer in Wausau, it means the city’s major employment centers are on the west side, Schock says. “There is an increase in building and residential opportunities in response to that,” Schock says. In other words, the housing tends to go where the jobs are.

Does it always have to be that way? Not necessarily, Schock says. There are parcels along the Franklin Street and Townline Road corridors that could be prime areas for subdivision development.

One might be tempted to say the big rocky hill on the east side is a barrier. But geography isn’t really the issue, says City Planner Brad Lenz. There is quite a bit of land that potentially could become single family housing, if the property owners see fit to develop.

Another factor on the east side, Lenz says, is that the D.C. Everest School district boundary extends as far as Franklin Street. Even if more residential development were to occur on the east side, it might only add to D.C. Everest’s enrollment. “In other words, all of the development on the western edge of Wausau (including Rib Mountain) is going in the West district, whereas only about half of new development on the eastern edge of Wausau would go to East (and the other half to Everest),” Lenz says.

Community feedback underway

Lance Trollop, no longer president of the school board but still a member, says the issues of boundary changes at the middle school and high school level is something that’s been on board members’ minds for some time. It even came up in 2015 when the district considered boundary changes as part of its elementary school plan.

“We heard not only from parents who had attachment to their elementary schools,” Trollop says. “But some were less concerned about the impact to what grade school their child would go to, but how it would impact what high school their child would eventually go to.”

School attachment isn’t something that took school officials by surprise at the time — in fact, it’s something they hope would be the case. “We expected parents would have strong attachments to their schools — that’s a good thing,” Trollop says. “We want parents to love their schools and want their children to go there. If they didn’t, that would be a problem.”

Current School Board President Tricia Zunker says the conversation hasn’t yet reached the board level, but it’s something the board will be looking at. “Using the river is a bit arbitrary,” she says. Zunker says the board will likely hear more about it after it gets a report on the ideation sessions Hilts has been hosting this month with parents, students and community members.

There are a few options the board and the community could ultimately consider, Hilts says. One is to simply redraw the east/west boundaries. Although the river makes a clear and easy boundary, it isn’t really rooted in anything other than once upon a time when it divided the two sides of the city pretty evenly. That’s no longer the case.

The district could also go a completely different route and divide the district into north and south instead of east and west, Hilts says. That would mean a radical change in boundaries, with many children suddenly finding themselves in a new school. But it also removes the element of east and west differences in development and growth to an extent. (Rib Mountain would still be an X factor in that equation.)

Another option, Hilts says, is to go to a middle, or junior high school model.

In that approach, grades 9-10 would attend one school, and grades 11-12 another. That’s how Hilts’ own school was, he said, and it was nice to be surrounded by children mostly his own age, Hilts says. In that model, students would be formed into cohorts, or houses (think Harry Potter). It’s more efficient for teachers, students build better relationships and they tend to lead to better academic achievement.

There’s also talk about whether to expand Wausau Area Virtual Academy, or WAVE, as the number of parents seeking homeschooling as an option grows. That might even mean expanding the program into elementary schools, Hilts says.

Either way, redrawing the boundaries is something already coming up in the district’s ideation sessions. The district also has conducted phone surveys about the boundaries. Listening to the public is the next, an important part of the process of looking at this issue.

“It’s about thinking outside the box,” Hilts says. “We’re open to all possibilities. We just can’t continue to offer inequitable programming to kids.”