Dramatic school changes proposed

(First published in the April 30, 2020 issue of City Pages)

A proposed referendum project would consolidate the Wausau District’s 13 elementary schools into seven K-4 sites


Proposed new elementary school boundaries under the referendum.

A new proposal for the Wausau School District would drastically revamp its 13 elementary and two middle schools.

District leaders presented the proposal to the Wausau School Board Thursday. The plan — slated for a referendum in November — calls for consolidating its 13 elementary schools to seven remodeled schools, and split the two middle schools into one for 5th and 6th graders, and the other for 7th and 8th graders.

Remodeling the elementary schools would cost $53.3 million, according to documents from the district. Remodels of the middle schools would cost another $31.6 million. But the district would also save $23.2 million on one-time deferred maintenance costs and $2.5 million on recurring costs following the merger, according to data compiled by the district. And it would save $17 million by not needing to modernize those schools.

According to a summary of the proposal, the referendum project would:

•   Remodel and merge the district’s elementary schools into seven K-4 schools (Stettin, Thomas Jefferson, South Mountain, GD Jones, Riverview, Hawthorn Hills and John Marshall). This means some schools, such as Lincoln Elementary, would be vacated.

•   Remodel John Muir into school for 5th and 6th graders

•   Remodel Horace Mann into a school for 7th and 8th graders

•   Remodel Maine Elementary into a 4K–8th grade Montessori school

•   Remodel Franklin Elementary into a single alternative school site

•   Build a new environmental learning center at the school forest

•   Remodel Thom Field, adding a turf field, showers, concessions and increased parking

•   Address deferred maintenance and technology replacements across the district

The plan also calls for updating the district’s curriculum to “reflect 21st century themes” and help prepare students for the jobs of the future.


School Superintendent Keith Hilts says the proposal came out of a series of listening sessions held with community members

Wausau School District Superintendent Keith Hilts says the proposal came out of the information gathered by the school district as part of a series of listening sessions he and staff held with community members. Addressing the district’s school boundary issues were the number one thing they heard from residents. Safety and communication were next on that list. “We know the Wausau School District is a great district,” Hilts says, “But we want it to be even better. That’s the purpose of this proposal.”

Data from the Applied Population Lab in Madison, a consultant the district hired, shows the student population decreasing in Wausau, as it is in a lot of places in the state. “We’re building something that’s the right size,” says the district’s Chief Finance Officer Bob Tess. “We think we found the sweet spot.”

Tess says because the district has been planning ahead, it should be able to borrow for the projects while still decreasing its property tax mill rate. “When need meets affordability that’s a recipe for a good referendum,” Tess says.

Board member Patrick McKee pointed out that under the proposed school reorganization, some students would attend four different schools before ever reaching high school.

The district will put out an information video in May to explain the proposal to residents, and develop the project with a lot of community and local leader input, including with a follow up survey. A task force will meet over the summer.

The full board would need to approve the final proposal by August in order to schedule a referendum in November. Hilts said at a meeting Monday that an alternative proposal is also being developed and would be presented to the board in May.