by Justin Kiel
On Thursday, the Tri-Township School Board took the biggest step to date to close LaCrosse High School. In a decisive 5-0 vote and with no board member discussion, the school board swiftly voted to advertise for a public hearing that allows the school corporation to move forward with the construction of a new high school in Wanatah. The vote was a major win for advocates of a new high school, but for those pushing for a renovation of LaCrosse High School, it was a crushing blow that left many frustrated with how the school corporation was handling the ordeal. With just days remaining before an election, a growing group of community members organizing to save the high school, the school corporation continuing to make their case on incomplete information, and yard signs being stolen, tensions are at an all-time high and the school board is hurtling toward a final decision on what will likely be the most controversial vote in Tri-Township history.
The controversy around Thursday’s meeting began before the meeting even took place. The school’s budget adoption meeting scheduled for October 22nd was originally slated to be held at Wanatah School. However, during the October 1st budget hearing, the agenda listed the subsequent meeting as being held at LaCrosse High School. Board President Tim Guse also read the next meeting location as LaCrosse during the October 1st meeting. On the Sunday before the October 22nd meeting, Superintendent Kelly Shepherd sent the agenda, which described the next meeting as being held at Wanatah. The Regional News attempted to get clarification about the meeting location but never received a response from Shepherd and only later received verification of the location from Guse. Consequently, some community members showed up at LaCrosse High School for the meeting.
The Thursday meeting was attended by approximately fifty community members. For the first time in memory, attendees were required to sign in if they wished to speak during public comment. The meeting began with the quick approval of minutes, personnel, and claim docket, before moving to public comment.
The Regional News began by asking why the school corporation had in 2019 transferred $78,000 from its Education Fund, which pays teacher salaries, to its Operations Fund, which pays for non-classroom expenses such as building maintenance or new construction. This transfer exacerbated a $160,893 shortfall in the Education Fund in 2019 and resulted in a substantial surplus in the Operations Fund. Shepherd questioned the legitimacy of this amount despite it coming from the Department of Education, which is the figure the school reported to them. The board would later approve an amount not to exceed $120,000 to be transferred from the Education Fund over to the Operations Fund for this year.
Note: After this article was originally printed, The Regional News determined that the $78,000 transferred from the Education Fund to the Operations Fund was only for the second half of 2019. In the first six months of 2019 Tri-Township transferred an additional $273,000 away from the Education Fund. This year, through June, Tri-Township transferred another $120,000. The Regional News will continue to investigate how these transfers impact the school’s financial position and impact teacher pay.
In a response to the budget petition submitted earlier this month, the school corporation admitted to having $3.61 million in cash and investments as of June 30th, 2020. It was unclear whether this included revenue distributions from the state or if those were disbursed after the second quarter. The school corporation said it expected declines in its revenue from excise and income taxes; however, these make up an exceptionally small part of the school’s overall revenue. The school also repeats a previously discredited concern of the state lowering the school’s per student funding. Lawmakers have repeatedly pledged not to lower funding to education in the upcoming legislative session.
Tri-Township officials also claimed they did not need to create a Capital Projects Plan as they had no planned capital expenditures exceeding $10,000 in the next three years. How it was possible for the school corporation to make no such expenditures over that time period was unclear.
Asked about why the school had not yet released financial records about building maintenance that The Regional News had requested 241 days earlier, Shepherd simply said that question would need to be answered by their attorney. The Regional News believes those financial records, which are part of the public record, may show that building maintenance was substantially deferred at the LaCrosse facility over the past five years. The paper also asked to inspect the school’s claim docket after the meeting but was told to talk to the school’s attorney.
One member of the public asked about the age of the school’s Asbestos Management Report, noting it hadn’t been updated in almost three decades. Shepherd said he intended to have the document updated. It is required to be updated every three years, not three decades, and available to the public for inspection.
Another taxpayer asked if the school had looked into the costs of demolishing the high school in LaCrosse or maintaining it until demolition or sale as part of its cost comparison. Shepherd said they had reached out for quotes on demolition but did not yet have figures on that cost, adding that there was no intent to demolish the building at this time. Pressed on how he expected to achieve the cost savings presented in September, if the building was still standing, he said they didn’t know what adjustments would need to be made to those estimates.
Asked if the school intended to abandon the Tiger Den or build a new athletic center in Wanatah, Shepherd said they have no intention of leaving the Tiger Den and suggested it may still be in use for as much as 100 years. Other taxpayers have claimed the superintendent and at least one board member have suggested an athletics facility may be built in Wanatah in the future, but publicly the board continues to deny this.
Jim Sheely asked if the school board would entertain the notion of having Ratio Architects, who performed the facility assessment on LaCrosse High School earlier this summer, give a presentation on their cost estimates. Shepherd indicated that could be a possibility. Sheely later told The Regional News that a meeting would be held with Ratio on November 12th at 6:00 p.m. at LaCrosse. Tri-Township has not yet notified The Regional News of that date and time.
Another community member shared their opinion that they believed the tour of the high school in February had been staged to make the building look in worse condition than it was. The school’s administrators denied this claim. The community member also criticized the school for a lack of transparency throughout the process. School board member Aaron Rust could be seen eating a candy bar as the individual spoke.
Mr. Shepherd then addressed the audience and criticized the majority of community members for complaining but never sitting down to meet with him. He insinuated that those individuals wanted to complain in public meetings as opposed to get “good communication” through him. Shepherd then went on to point to the reporter from The Regional News and suggest that the newspaper wanted to divide the community. Some in the audience, including school board member Daron Bruder, applauded Shepherd’s remarks.
Lisa Rosenkranz interjected to ask why Shepherd wouldn’t respond to her emails. Shepherd responded, “You, I’m intentionally ignoring.” Some in the crowd jeered and clapped in response.
Shepherd then recognized Jim Irwin, a regular attendee at Tri-Township School Board meetings, who questioned why those in attendance on Thursday weren’t present at more meetings in the past.
Next Dick Bucher addressed the crowd. Bucher began by extolling his love for LaCrosse before recalling how the LaCrosse School has always been strapped for cash. He said he believed that Dewey Township Schools had survived on the back of Cass Township and pointed to more money being transferred to Dewey when students were exchanged between the two townships. Bucher continued by sharing history about how the consolidation that formed Tri-Township came to be, and told the crowd to stop blaming Kelly Shepherd for the closure of the high school and instead to blame him as he “was the orchestrator of this.” He told the crowd they should find a way to move the high school to Wanatah that didn’t involve “eating each other up.” The ending of Bucher’s speech was greeted by a standing ovation from some community members.
Another community member jumped in to say that they didn’t understand why the school couldn’t be fixed and told the board they didn’t think five classrooms would do anything to attract new students.
Next, Penny Adams shared her opinions about the study done by Ratio Architects as an individual who has spent her professional career renovating existing schools and building new construction. The Regional News reached out to Adams in an attempt to clarify her position and company, but Adams said she was only there in her capacity as a parent.
She said she believed life safety was the most important standard a building should be evaluated by and said nothing else would matter if a child were to be hurt in a dangerous facility. Adams also told those in attendance that the estimates by Ratio were incomplete and that they didn’t include architectural fees and that there was no contingency line item. She then dismissed the notion that LaCrosse would “dry up” if the school was closed and criticized some for “mob actions” and bullying school administrators.
The Performance Services Wanatah Project estimate provided in February did not include engineering or architectural fees either, and a contingency of 3% was only applied to the base scope.
The School Board moved on to approve the purchase of a new bus. It also approved an amount not to exceed $6,000 for the purchase of a new sound system for the LaCrosse Gym; that amount would be paired with just over $10,000, which had been raised from donations made in the name of Madge Tucker.
Finally, nearing the end of the meeting, Shepherd told the board he was seeking permission to advertise for a 1028 hearing for their next regular meeting scheduled for November 19th. The hearing would be on the topic of relocating the high school to a single campus in Wanatah. He didn’t specify what type of hearing or under what statutory provision the hearing would be held. An advertisement will be placed in the local paper at least 10 days before the hearing. Without any further discussion, School Board Member Aaron Rust (At-Large, Dewey) made a motion to advertise for the hearing. Daron Bruder (Dewey) seconded the motion. The board then voted unanimously in favor.
The Regional News later contacted Board President Tim Guse to ask how the school would be able to provide the cost estimates and tax impacts in the notice as is required by statute when the board had not yet approved the hiring of any consultants. Guse said he didn’t know the answer. Asked if the project would be above or below the controlled project threshold of $2.72 million, Guse said, “I don’t believe there is any certainty of the expected project cost other than speculation. I assume that would be defined more clearly if the board would vote after the hearing to receive bids on the project.”
The meeting adjourned at 7:19 p.m. According to the agenda, the next meeting will be held on November 19th at LaCrosse High School at 6:00 p.m. A yet to be confirmed meeting may also be scheduled for November 12th at the same time and location.