As the school year creeps closer, construction is nearly complete on a slew of projects to improve four Wausau area elementary schools and both high schools.
All projects should be complete by Aug. 23 and ready for students when they walk through the doors Sept. 1.
The massive reconstruction plan was born in 2014, after the district sent out a survey that helped educational leaders gauge how much residents would be willing to spend on upgrades. Then in April 2015, voters approved a $29.565 million referendum to support the projects. Taxpayers footing the bill will pay an extra $18 per year on a $150,000 home, school documents show.
In the city's two public high schools, renovations and additions will provide more advanced instructional spaces for high demand industrial and tech fields, says Bob Tess, chief finance and business services officer for the district.
"The community recognized the need to upgrade those programs at the high school level, getting kids excited about fields they maybe weren't aware of," Tess says. "Residents stated that in our survey, and we ran with that."
Some renovations were necessary to relieve overcrowding in some schools, school officials say. But one issue not directly addressed by the referendum and its building projects is how potential boundary changes would balance enrollment between schools. That process came to a screeching halt in March when parents at Stettin Elementary balked at the boundary plan. With 301 enrolled students and a capacity of 248, the west side school is overcrowded and growing. The proposed plan would have shifted dozens of students to Maine Elementary. Facing strong opposition to that idea, school officials went back to the drawing board to explore other options.
Which means another spending referendum could be coming. Voters might be asked to weigh in on expanding Stettin to solve the boundary issue, but time is running out for a Nov. 8 vote. The district has until Aug. 26 to decide on a referendum, making an impending vote on the issue increasingly unlikely, says school board member Pat McKee. Still, all options are on the table, McKee says, and the district is working to address boundary issues for the 2017-2018 school year.
The current building projects have met some challenges. Hawthorn Hills proved to be an unexpectedly wet site with soils unsuitable for building. Those soils had to be replaced before footings for the new addition were placed. Another complication: finding doors, windows, brick and other materials to match existing buildings, most of which are decades old.
Complications aside, the projects are so far coming in on time and under budget, Tess says. After the projects are complete, any funds leftover from the $29 million referendum amount will go toward district-wide maintenance. The six projects nearing completion:
G.D. Jones Elementary: The west side school, built in 1997, will gain six additional classrooms, a cafeteria addition, and a 4K learning academy with early childhood classrooms. The parking lot is newly paved and exterior sidewalks have been poured. New handicapped accessible bathroom fixtures are in place with additional interior finishing underway. Approximate cost: $6.5 million
Hawthorn Hills Elementary: The least expensive project on the list, Hawthorn, on the city's east side, will gain an addition with a 4K learning academy consisting of three classrooms. New playground equipment has been installed, and interior finishing is taking place now. Approximate cost: $2.3 million
Riverview Elementary: At this northeast side school, an athletic field and playground was relocated to accommodate the new 4K addition. New playground equipment has already been installed, and new windows and interior doors were hung last month. The school, built in 1964, has had two previous additions, one in 1985 and the other in 2000. Approximate cost: $3.3 million
Thomas Jefferson Elementary: One of the city's oldest schools, built in 1956, this school on West Randolph Street has the most extensive work. A new cafeteria has already been built, along with four 4K classrooms and four additional classrooms for older students. Approximate cost: $7.4 million
High school: Wausau East will see a new addition housing an auto body shop and classroom, along with a manufacturing lab and renovated graphics, wood and finishing labs, among other changes.
At Wausau West, a new addition will add space for agriculture, manufacturing, metals and woods classes. Renovations will modernize the graphics, robotics and broadcast classrooms. Combined cost for the two high schools: About $5.9 million