Board looks for consensus on how, where to begin
BY EILEEN PERSIKE
The School District of Rhinelander Board of Education held a special meeting Monday evening to discuss facilities planning and potential future space needs in the district. Superintendent Kelli Jacobi provided current analysis of each school building, indicating there are budgeted repairs and upgrades for several buildings scheduled, but no major construction projects are planned. Using information extracted from a 2014 long-range facilities plan proposed by HSR Architects of La Crosse as a guide, the board began debating three options and whether the timing was right to begin planning.
Option one includes adding classrooms and a gymnasium in both Crescent and Pelican Elementary schools, among other additions at a 2014 cost estimate of $7.8 million. According to school space guidelines elementary schools should allow 150-200 square feet per student. Crescent and Pelican are below that guideline, at 111 and 140 square feet per student, respectively.
Board member David Holperin has been a strong advocate for long-range planning, given the age of school buildings and changing enrollments. He questioned the wisdom in adding onto both schools.
“If we believe there is going to be an overcrowding situation at the elementary level, we wouldn’t do both schools, would we?”
“Clearly that is an option,” board member Judy Conlin responded. “We have two schools and if we want to keep our two schools equal and balanced we would want to look at adding to both, rather than having one really large school and one very small; what’s the public perception then?”
Option two, at a 2014 projected cost of $7 million would include reconfiguring grade levels; moving eighth grade to the high school, moving fifth grade to JWMS and making the remaining schools pre-k to grade four. Jacobi pointed out logistical concerns with this plan, making sure that the classrooms fit the needs of the students.
At a cost of nearly $30 million dollars, option three was the most discussed option among the board, and proposes a new pre-k to grade five building near the RHS campus. It’s a model Jacobi says is out of favor among education professionals.
“The current thinking for elementary is a small community feel. The larger you get with that building, the harder it is to have that feel,” Jacobi said.
“We are so dependent on state funding and our referendum every three years,” said board member Mike Roberts. “One failed referendum could kick in one of these options.”
Roberts said he thinks the board could “get out in front of” the idea of expanding the elementary schools. “If a situation would happen, where we had a big influx of students, now all of a sudden our space is too small. Before we say we are going to expand, we need to explore.”
“Some people might say the board is reactionary,” according to board member Duane Frey. “But it’s hard to do long-range planning when we are financially strapped.”
School board member Mary Peterson agreed with Frey.
“When you are in business and putting a plan together, you maybe have a few critics,” Peterson said. “When we put a plan together we have the whole population – we have 9,000 critics.”
Holperin, “respectfully disagreeing,” reiterated his belief that planning is necessary, that they need to develop a plan and “adapt as things evolve.” Saying though he is not necessarily in favor of option three, it should be included in the mix. “Where I want to head is a clean slate, a clean drawing board and say, we need to plan for the future, what’s the best idea?”
“I agree that we need a plan,” said Conlin. “But what I think a number of us are saying is that we need a plan that is fiscally responsible, accepted by the community and meets the needs of all of our students.”
The administration is awaiting new enrollment projections for the district. Board President Ron Counter said more regularly scheduled long-term planning sessions will begin in the near future.