Explaining Wausau School District’s referendum and the group trying to stop it

Mark Holdhusen almost couldn’t believe it. After all, he and other parents with children in the Lincoln and Grant elementary schools areas in 2015 attended numerous meetings to save those schools from closure from consolidation when the Wausau School District announced its last referendum proposal.

Grant elementary

B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Grant elementary

Under the referendum, the historic Grant Elementary school would be torn down and a new school would be built, housing Grant and Lincoln students.

That plan, after much compromise, kept Lincoln and Grant intact, closing only AC Kiefer Elementary, which ultimately became the home of the Central Wisconsin Children’s Theater. 

And the first version of the latest referendum proposed by the Wausau School District had a number of changes and consolidation happening throughout the district. OK, Holdhusen thought. At least it’s equitable. I’d like to learn more. 

Then, amidst the battle that ensued over whether Wausau schools would open virtually or in person, the district changed plans. People weren’t happy with the sweeping changes the original referendum proposed. Meant to balance the enrollment disparities between the east and west sides (populations are growing on the west side and decreasing on the east side), the changes included consolidating the 13 elementary schools down to seven, and create a new school for fifth and sixth graders, and another for seventh and eight graders.

That meant a lot of busing of students from crazy distances, including some students who were almost literally next door to a school being bused some 40 minutes away. It was not a popular plan. 

The newest proposal combines the students of Lincoln and Grant into one brand new school built on the site of Grant Elementary (which means it will be razed) and uses the current Lincoln Elementary School building for a new site for the district’s kindergarten through eighth grade Montessori program. The other schools are kept intact and the plan improves security and upgrades at pretty much every school district building, and another $3 million annual borrowing increases staffing levels to provide full pupil services including counselors and psychologists. With youth mental health an increased focus of attention in Marathon County, it’s a step toward early intervention. 

It has proven a much more popular proposal amongst parents, with one notable exception: Parents of students who attend Grant and Lincoln. For them, it feels like deja vu, that they’re once again thrust into a battle to save their neighborhood schools. “I thought ‘oh here we go again,’” Holdhusen told City Pages about his thoughts learning about the new plan. He has two children who attended Lincoln Elementary in 2015 and now attend John Muir, but the issue of neighborhood schools is still very important to him and he’s one of the folks now trying to convince people to vote no on the referendum in November. 

This time is different for several reasons. For one, parents weren’t able to attend in person to voice their concerns about the proposal. COVID-19 has changed the nature of public meetings, some more than others. While people still speak in person at Wausau city meetings, for example, county and school board meetings have been held virtually, and attendees have only been able to send public comment via email to the district. Names and the general stance of the emails were read before each meeting, but not the content of those emails. (Recently the school board has started holding meetings at Wausau West’s auditorium, allowing for in-person public comment.

Also, parents of Grant and Lincoln contend, their voices weren’t really heard on developing the referendum. A task force formed to come up with the referendum proposals had little to no representation from Grant and Lincoln parents, they say. That coupled with the lack of real public comment (the district only recently held meetings that allowed for public participation) left those parents frustrated. 

This referendum is also different from the 2015 referendum in that it has a very strong opposition force to it. A group called The Committee for Equitable Schools formed in response to the referendum. Signs calling for voters to vote against the referendum in November can be seen lining Thomas Street and in yards throughout the city. And the committee recently put up a billboard calling for a no vote on the referendum went up on Grand Avenue.

District residents opposed to the project say it discriminates against a school with the highest ethnic diversity in the district. The combined Lincoln and Grant school would make it the highest population of any elementary school in the district. Mary Thao, who along with Holdhusen successfully lobbied the district to hold off on closing Lincoln in 2015 and later ran for school board herself, argued in a letter to the editor to City Pages that studies show large schools are detrimental to student learning. 

She points to the district’s own GD Jones, which expanded as a result of the referendum in 2015. The school’s academic scorecard dropped from 76.7 in 2015, before the expansion, 71.6 in 2018. She asked in her letter to keep Grant and Lincoln as is, and build a new school for Montessori. 

And, Thao points out to City Pages, the task force wasn’t equitable in its representation of all the areas of the district. “Wausau is better than that,” Thao says. “We are better than that.” 

Parents aren’t the only ones opposed to the changes at Grant Elementary. In a recent letter to the editor, Historic Preservation Commission Chair Linda Tryczak and Vice Chair Christine Martens opposed the razing of Grant Elementary. A recent city survey listed Grant as a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places, and that the 110-year-old building employed the Classic Revival style in 1910 that can still be appreciated today. It was designed by architect firm Van Ryn and DeGelleke, and employs one million red bricks and white Bedford Stone into its structure. It was also the first school in Wausau to teach deaf children. It’s the second oldest school in the area.

The committee took a formal stance in asking voters to vote against the November referendum, and is inviting the public to the first meeting in the process of declaring the building an historic landmark. That meeting is slated for 6 pm Nov. 19 in the Wausau City Council Chambers. Tryczak declined further comment about the referendum beyond the contents of a recent letter to the editor sent to City Pages and other outlets.


B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Wausau’s Historic Preservation Committee spoke out against tearing Grant Elementary down, citing its historic value.

Breaking down the Wausau school referendum

The current referendum is broken down into two parts. The first is an ask of $155 million to tear down Grant and repurpose Lincoln Elementary, and to build a new school on the Grant site. It also updates security and safety at all schools in the district, and remodels elementary and middle schools. The other part is an ask of annual $3 million for additional staff to complete the elementary school teams, and for some operational support. 

According to school officials, the referendum won’t increase the tax rate; instead, the school will replace old debt with new debt. As the school pays off its old loans, that payback would instead be directed at the new debt through the referendum. 

Were the referendum not to pass, Administrator Keith Hilts says, there are other chances for a revised referendum to go before voters. A new plan could be brought before the board for an April referendum, and they could try one more time the following April. Ultimately if no referendum passes, the district would complete its borrowing and the mill rate would decrease $3 per $1,000, lowering the taxes of a homeowner with a $100,000 home by $300, not taking into account variables such as equalized value. 

Hilts says now is a good time to seek the referendum because borrowing rates are exceedingly low and contractors are more available because of coronavirus, so bids are likely to come in lower priced than usual. 

The main reason for replacing Grant? Both Grant and Lincoln elementaries are high on the list of schools based on a ratio of what it would cost to upgrade them versus replace them. In other words, Lincoln and Grant need more work than any other schools in the district. 

Under the plan, Lincoln would become a new Montessori school serving children from kindergarten through eight grade. All Lincoln and Grant students would be combined in a new school built on the current Grant Elementary site, which is on the north side of the two school boundaries. “We want every family to have closed to ideal schools,” Hilts said at a town hall-style meeting about the referendum. 

Hilts says the goal is to get students in elementary school into a “house model” which means children stay in cohorts and the teachers essentially go to them. Incidentally it’s a model many districts are adopting anyway, in order to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19. 

So why Grant? Hilts says Grant is the second oldest school in the district, after John Marshall Elementary. Replacing the school with an upgraded one is part of the district’s plan to have school equity – they want Grant and Lincoln students to have the modern amenities like other schools do. And, Hilts says, Grant has issues. Rooms where one half is hot and the other cold, tiny closets for reading rooms, rooms with only one electrical outlet. It’s not ideal, Hilts says. “I love old buildings,” Hilts says. “When I see old buildings with intricate woodwork and high ceilings, I love it.” But, old schools come with their problems, Hilts say. 

If there’s one thing administrators and those against the referendum agree on, it’s that district leaders ran up against the clock. After the first proposal in April proved unpopular in polling conducted by the district’s consultant, a new plan was proposed in July. That came at the same meeting the board voted on school reopening, a hotly contested agenda item. District leaders started running up against deadlines to file paperwork to be on the referendum, and it passed quickly. 

District leaders believe a November referendum is ideal — turnouts are typically highest during Presidential elections and with COVID-19 stalling construction demand, mixed with historically low interest rates, the time is right for getting building projects going, Hilts says.

On the other hand, it’s clear attention on the referendum suffered for focus on reopening schools. And that absolutely should have been the focus, Thao says. But that, plus all the changes in how public meetings were held, means many voices weren’t heard the same way they were in 2015. 


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

What happens next 

Where they disagree is on what happens next. Thao and Holdhusen believe the referendum will fail in November, and that will give the district time to work with parents to come up with what they believe is a more equitable plan for the district. 

Holdhusen says the crux of the disagreement comes down to what each considers equitable. For many parents in the Lincoln and Grant boundaries, shoehorning their kids into a big school while the rest of the district maintains their current boundaries isn’t equitable. For district leaders, updating an aging building with a brand new one signifies a move toward equity for two elementary schools with the highest ethnic diversity and free school lunch qualification in the district. 

What will happen in November is anyone’s guess – predicting elections usually makes a fool out of anyone. But one thing is certain – there is strong support on either side.