School District of La Crosse considers consolidating schools as part of long-range facility planning

Annual enrollment in the district has been declining for decades, and the trend is projected to continue for the next several years.
Annual enrollment in the district has been declining for decades, and the trend is projected to...
Annual enrollment in the district has been declining for decades, and the trend is projected to continue for the next several years.(WEAU)
Published: Apr. 20, 2022 at 1:29 PM CDT
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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WEAU) - The School District of La Crosse is holding a pair of public community listening sessions to discuss long-term facility planning for the district.

The upcoming sessions will highlight the District’s declining student population, aging facilities and work done on budgeting and operations to manage persistent shortfalls in funding.

According to the District’s information page for facility planning, annual enrollment in the school district has declined by over 1,400 students in the past 20 years. The District cited lower birth rates over the past 30 years as a cause of the decline, and noted that each student brings in about $11,300 in revenue. In addition, La Crosse administrators expect the enrollment to continue to decline for at least the next five to 10 years. The most recent publicly-available open enrollment figures also show the school district losing more students to transfers than it is bringing in since 2018-19, with 2019-2020 seeing a net loss of 34 students to open enrollment transfer.

Aging facilities are also a concern of the School District of La Crosse, according to the District’s facility planning page. Some of the 15 buildings in operation are over 80 years old, with millions of dollars each year budgeted for maintenance and updates to keep the schools in compliance with federal and state standards. The District also said that La Crosse is the smallest school district in Wisconsin with two high schools, and that districts of its size typically have 10 or 11 buildings, not 15. The average age of the buildings used by the school district is 60 years.

Superintendent Dr. Aaron Engel said there is an opportunity to make the District more efficient and improve the learning experience for its students.

“All students eventually go through the middle and high schools, so by focusing our facility planning on a 6th through 12th grade solution, we will achieve the most positive impact for the most students at one time,” Engel said.

Engel added that consolidating middle and high schools in the district will ensure activities and athletics that do not currently have enough students to participate in can continue, and will also eliminate recurring maintenance costs for buildings at the end of their service life.

An assessment by the District showed that deferred maintenance needs currently are at $81 million in expenses with a budget of $1.2 million annually to address them, with the five oldest buildings in the District alone accounting for $25 million of those costs.

The timing of the long-range facility planning comes as past referenda debt is set to be paid off in the coming years, with a non-recurring operating referendum running through 2023-24. The District also cites low interest rates and financial planning in describing what it considers optimal timing to consider the long-range plans for its school facilities. La Crosse voters have passed the last two capital referenda, for $15.7 million in 2012 and $18.5 million in 2008. A spring referendum for $35 million failed in 2008 while a $38.4 million referendum failed in 2004.

In the 2021 Spring General Election, Wisconsin voters passed 65 of 81 referenda, although notably one of the 16 referenda that failed was a $4.2 million non-recurring referendum in nearby Sparta, where the administration is considering closing an elementary school as they attempt to balance the budget there.

The School District of La Crosse is considering five options in its long-range facilities planning. Option #1 includes consolidating two elementary schools, Emerson and Spence, into a new elementary school, eliminating Lincoln Middle School and moving those students to Logan and Longfellow, and relocating the District Administration Office into a renovated Central High School. Option #2 includes the middle school consolidation and district administration office plans from Option #1, but moves students from Spence Elementary into Emerson, with the latter school receiving an addition and renovation. Option #3 is the same as Option #2 but would move students from Emerson into Spence Elementary instead of the other way around.

The fourth and fifth options are perhaps the most drastic measures. Option #4 would consolidate Emerson and Spence into Longfellow Elementary School, consolidate Logan, Lincoln and Longfellow middle schools into Central and Logan high schools, and combine Central and Logan high schools into one new high school. Option #5 is the same as Option #4 but would take Emerson and Spence elementary schools and combine them into one new school.

The School District of La Crosse will hold public long-range facility plan information sessions on Wednesday, April 27 and Wednesday, May 3 from 6 until 8 p.m. More information about facility planning and presentations are available on the District’s long-range facility planning website.

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