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Record snow days extend Eau Claire schools' academic year

They may not have been singing “School’s Out for Summer,” but students at Eau Claire’s public middle and high schools had a definite hop in their step Wednesday as they prepared for an unusually late start of summer break.

After a record 11 emergency school cancellation days, mostly because of the record snowfall Eau Claire received in the 2018-19 winter, the last day of school arrived — finally — on Wednesday.

“Everybody’s happy. We finally get a summer vacation now,” DeLong Middle School sixth-grade teacher Nick Sirek said. “If I’m 11 or 12 years old, of course I’m excited about the prospect of getting to sleep in tomorrow.”

On his way into North High School on Wednesday morning, junior Zach Urdahl said it was tough attending classes so deep into the summer, especially when he hears from friends around the state who have been out of school for a week or two already.

But the UW-Madison hockey recruit, sporting a red Badgers hockey sweatshirt, took a businesslike approach to the undesirable situation.

“Get through it and do it,” Urdahl said. “I’m just trying to power through and get it done.”

Likewise, North junior Maddison Myher said the late ending to the school year is a tough pill to swallow after a brutal winter.

“I liked all of those snow days at the time, but then I realized that meant we’d have to go to school later in June,” Myher said before entering school for her last round of final tests. “I don’t like it at all now.”

Still, Eau Claire schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said she has been extremely impressed with how students, families and staff have responded to the schedule changes resulting from the historic winter weather.

“Everybody seems to have pulled together and understood the conditions we were facing. We got very few complaints,” Hardebeck said. “People have just really risen to the occasion.”

She recalled how district officials built additional bad weather days into the calendar a few years ago after two unusually harsh winters in a row and were confident they had added enough time to avoid having to lengthen future school years.

Yet despite those so-called pullback days and other measures to make up for missed mandatory instructional time, this school year for middle and high schools had to be extended from its original end date of last Thursday. The last day for district elementary schools was Friday.

The Eau Claire School Board is expected to vote on possibly adding even more pullback days to the school calendar at its next meeting on July 22.

Canceling school is one of the most difficult calls a superintendent has to make because of the inconvenience it causes for families and the importance of having access to school breakfasts and lunches for some students, Hardebeck said, but safety is the No. 1 factor in the decision to order a snow day.

“This year was just unprecedented. We kept having to make up more and more days,” Hardebeck said. “I hope we never have another winter like this one, but it’s just something that’s beyond anybody’s control.”

Sirek also was impressed with how people responded to the weather-related changes.

“The kids and the teachers have really dealt well with what I think is a tough situation,” he said. “The kids are doing what they’re supposed to. They’re coming to school, doing their work and still having a good time.”

Sirek joined his fellow staff members outside at the end of the final school day, despite pouring rain, to carry on a DeLong tradition of waving goodbye to students as their buses pulled away from school for the last time of the year.

At North, Urdahl said the school year’s end came just in time for many of his classmates to make the trip to Grand Chute to watch the Huskies baseball team play in today’s state championship game against Sun Prairie at Fox Cities Stadium.

Looking ahead, Hardebeck said the extended year will cause a slight delay in launching some summer construction projects but shouldn’t prevent any of them from being completed by late September or early October.

The biggest project of the summer involves work at McKinley Charter School, but the district also will complete secure entrances at several schools, replace windows and repave some parking lots.

Panel advances spending for area university projects

Proposed construction projects at three regional UW System campuses made the cut and were included in the capital budget passed Tuesday night by the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.

West-central Wisconsin building projects that made it through that crucial step in the state budget process included:

• $109 million for the first phase of a science and health sciences building at UW-Eau Claire to replace the campus’s aging Phillips Science Hall, plus $1 million for advance planning of the project’s second phase.

• $35 million to renovate South Hall residence hall at UW-Stout in Menomonie.

• $2 million to fund partial design of the Science and Technology Innovation Center at UW-River Falls.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget called for $1.1 billion in funding for UW System building projects. The Republican-controlled budget committee on Tuesday scaled that back to about $1 billion. They earmarked $31.7 million for classroom renovations, down from the $38 million Evers proposed, but retained his plans to spend $125 million on Camp Randall Stadium and Kohl Center upgrades.

The only UW projects that received no money under the Republican plan were plans to finish work on a new science hall and upgrade dorms at UW-La Crosse.

Chancellors from the three regional UW campuses expressed their gratitude for the budget committee’s stamp of approval in statements.

“We are grateful for the support shown for this project by the Joint Committee on Finance,” said UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt. “I also am extremely thankful to our bipartisan delegation of local legislators, Mayo Clinic Health System, our area business community and our engaged alumni, all of whom see the important impact the new Science and Health Sciences Building will have on northwest Wisconsin and have helped to garner statewide support for the project.”

The project carries a total price tag of $256 million.

UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer noted that little has been done to improve South Hall since it was the first residence hall he stayed in when he first arrived at the university in the 1970s. The proposed renovation includes upgrading the infrastructure, adding expanded restrooms and an elevator and stairs, and creating an accessible entrance, along with window and door improvements and other renovations to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I want to sincerely thank our local legislative delegation and Gov. Evers for making this renovation a priority, and I look forward to working with all our legislators to ensure the project receives full legislative support,” Meyer said.

This budgeted amount for the UW-River Falls project would pay for design to the 35% level, a benchmark that will enable university officials to clarify the actual cost of construction and develop a complementary fundraising plan to engage private donors. Those steps would allow the university to seek construction funds for the project in the 2021-23 state budget.

“We appreciate the expression of confidence in UW-River Falls on the part of the state Legislature that these investments represent,” UW-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen said, specifically thanking JFC member and state Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, for his advocacy. “We look forward to continuing to work with our legislators and the executive branch as the biennial budget makes its way forward in the state process.”

The proposed SciTech project would house the departments of biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology/neuroscience, providing modern laboratory spaces for instruction and undergraduate research to meet industry demands in STEM fields.

Overall, Evers’ budget called for spending $2.5 billion on construction projects around the state, but Republican committee members voted instead Tuesday to spend about $1.9 billion.

The next step in the state budget process is passage of matching versions of the budget by the Assembly and Senate, after which a bill will be sent to Evers for possible approval or vetoes.

A look at where Wisconsin's lame-duck laws, challenges stand

MADISON — The Wisconsin Supreme Court has reinstated almost all of the laws that Republicans passed during a December lame-duck legislative session that limited the powers of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general.

The actions in Wisconsin mirror Republican moves after losing control of the governor’s office in Michigan this past November and in North Carolina in 2016. Democrats have decried the tactics as brazen attempts to hold onto power in the wake of devastating elections.

Wisconsin Democrats and their allies have filed multiple lawsuits seeking to block the measures in their state. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t mean the legal fight is over, but it underscores the difficulties the challengers face in court.

Here’s a look at the Wisconsin lame-duck laws and the legal challenges:

What do the laws do?

The measures prohibit Gov. Tony Evers from ordering Attorney General Josh Kaul to withdraw from lawsuits, a move designed to prevent Evers from pulling Wisconsin out of a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Evers was eventually able to withdraw from the lawsuit while the provisions were on hold in March.

Other provisions require Kaul to get permission from the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget-writing committee before he can settle lawsuits and guarantee that legislators can intervene in cases using their own attorneys rather than lawyers from Kaul’s Department of Justice. The language signals that Republicans don’t trust Kaul to represent their views in court.

The measures also restrict early in-person voting to the two weeks preceding an election. The cities of Madison and Milwaukee, both Democratic strongholds, held early voting for six weeks leading up to last November’s elections. Republicans hoped the shorter window would tamp down Democratic turnout in 2020, but a federal judge blocked the restrictions in January.

Who is suing?

Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now challenged the early-voting restrictions in federal court in December.

A group led by the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit in state court in January arguing that the lame-duck legislative session was illegal because lawmakers’ regular session ended months earlier.

Five unions, including the Service Employees Union and the American Federation of Teachers filed suit in state court in February contending that the laws steal power from the executive branch and shift it to the Legislature.

The state Democratic Party filed a federal lawsuit in February alleging the laws are meant to retaliate against Evers’ supporters, violating free speech and equal protection guarantees.

Where do things stand?

U.S. District Judge James Peterson shot down the early-voting restrictions in mid-January, ruling that they mirror restrictions he blocked two years earlier. That decision is part of a larger One Wisconsin Now case challenging Republican-authored voting laws before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The judge handling the League of Women Voters case issued an injunction in March blocking the laws. A state appeals court stayed the injunction, but not before Evers withdrew the state from the Affordable Care Act lawsuit. The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in May but has yet to issue a final ruling resolving the case.

Another judge presiding over the unions’ lawsuit in March blocked the requirements that Kaul obtain legislative permission before settling lawsuits. The state Supreme Court decided 4-3 Tuesday to reinstate the Kaul provisions while it considers the merits of the case. The justices haven’t set a briefing schedule yet.

“We will continue to stand up to the legislature’s unconstitutional attempt to undermine DOJ’s ability to get justice for Wisconsinites,” Kaul said.

A federal magistrate judge is considering setting a September trial in the state Democratic Party’s challenge.

Do the liberal groups have any chance of winning?

They’ve already won a ruling blocking the early-voting restrictions. It’s unclear, though, how the federal appeals court might rule and how the state Democratic Party’s lawsuit might play out.

They have little chance of prevailing in state court. Conservatives control the Supreme Court 4-3, and that majority is set to grow to 5-2 in August.

The conservative justices signaled during oral arguments in the League of Women Voters case that they don’t believe the lame-duck session was illegal, noting that lawmakers have been meeting in unscheduled sessions for 40 years.

In Tuesday’s ruling in the union case, the conservatives wrote that laws are presumed to be constitutional and declaring laws unenforceable harms the public. The ruling doesn’t decide the case but it does indicate that the unions face long odds.