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Team of volunteers assists local officials in search for missing males

Before 9 a.m. Monday, volunteers began arriving at the Eau Claire County Courthouse with one goal in mind — to help find two missing males, Williamefipiano G. Hessel and James B. Liedtka.

About 30 in all, those gathering in the lobby of the Law Enforcement Center were part of Rapid Search and Rescue, a nationally certified team of trained volunteers who assist law enforcement in locating lost and missing people.

“Typically, they get a request from the family (of a missing person) and then reach out to law enforcement,” said Bridget Coit, an Eau Claire Police Department public information officer.

When contacted by the Wisconsin Rapids-based Rapid Search and Rescue, the Eau Claire Police Department readily accepted the nonprofit’s offer to help, she said.

“Just having an additional 30 people out searching the river to try to bring these families’ loved ones home is amazing,” Coit said. “Their resources are invaluable and much appreciated.”

The group met with Eau Claire police Detective Ryan Lambeseder Monday before heading out to search the Chippewa River and its banks where possible.

Eight human remains-detecting dogs, several boats — including two from the Eau Claire Fire Department — and a drone aided in the search.

Hessel, a 17-year-old student at North High School, was last seen swimming in the Chippewa River near Domer Park with friends on April 23.

At 7:28 p.m. that night, the Eau Claire Police Department was notified of a person in the river struggling.

Officers learned Hessel and three acquaintances were jumping off the cliffs at Mount Simon Park into the river, according to information released by Coit. Hessel swam further into the river, became distressed and could be heard calling for help.

Rescue personnel were immediately called, and the river and surrounding area were immediately searched, but Hessel wasn’t found.

Since he went missing, the Eau Claire Fire Department has searched the Chippewa River above and below the dam multiple times when the weather has permitted, Battalion Chief Steve Vargo said. However, Hessel’s body has yet to be found.

Liedtka, a 28-year-old UW-Stout student, was last seen at 1:13 a.m. Nov. 4 walking east behind the Pickle Tavern on Water Street toward the bike trail.

Through Feb. 28, the Eau Claire Police Department had conducted four ground searches, according to Coit. In addition, three water searches with the assistance of the Eau Claire Fire Department and Bruce’s Legacy were carried out.

The search Monday continued throughout the day from below the Xcel Energy Dam to Caryville, Coit said.

EC school board considers LAND School charter, reorganizes

The Eau Claire school board on Monday discussed a proposal to open a new charter school for high school students that is focused on project-based learning in the 2021-22 academic year.

The grass-roots nonprofit organization Initiatives for New Directions in Education (INDE) presented its revamped proposal for a school they’re calling LAND, an acronym that stands for the school’s curricular focus of liberal arts, nature and design.

The LAND school is an update of INDE’s initial proposal in 2017 to revamp the former Little Red School and transform it into the Little Red Nature Campus.

Anna Rybicki, community relations coordinator of INDE, said the group has spent the last 15 months researching potential locations for the school, how other charters in the area are being operated and gauging community perspectives and interest to come to this plan.

“All of that work and those conversations have changed the proposal since we wrote it, and this is what became LAND,” Rybicki said. “We’ve had so much more input from our community since then.”

The proposal as presented to the board Monday featured two major changes.

Due to concerns about the cost of renovating Little Red School, the committee renamed and rebranded the proposal’s name so that it could function at any district facility.

The proposal’s other major shift is the age group of students served in the charter school from middle to high school. That change, Rybicki said, was largely to complement the proposed EauZone program, which calls for project-based learning, outdoor-focused innovation zones in all three of the district’s middle schools.

In order to meet INDE’s targeted opening for the 2021-22 school year, Rybicki asked the board to approve a working group for location research and budget impacts of the school at the board’s next meeting May 20.

From there, the board would be slated to approve the school’s location and grant writing in September. The proposal would again come before the board for approval in June 2020 when awarded grants are announced. At that time — or any other during the process — the board could elect not to pursue the charter, Rybicki said, noting she understands ongoing budget issues.

Board member Tim Nordin, who has worked with INDE to develop the proposal, spoke in support of the school and the proposed timeline while also acknowledging the board will have to depend its decision on financial feasibility.

“It seems like it’s a relative easy next step for the board to decide whether this is a good idea for the district,” Nordin said. “I ... am filled with great joy about this proposal. It sent me back to school and my years as a teacher.”

But board member Laurie Klinkhammer raised concerns that the proposal hasn’t come before the board’s Learning Environments and Partnerships (LEAP) Committee, which has a vetting process for proposals like these.

“We’ve spent a lot of time over the last year with LEAP developing a procedure and path,” Klinkhammer said, to which Rybicki said LEAP has reviewed the proposal when it was referred to as Little Red Nature Campus.

“Having read through this proposal, I do believe it’s significantly different and that we should consider sending it back to committee,” Klinkhammer said. “I think there’s a lot of questions that jump over the policy that we just put in place.”

Rybicki noted the LEAP committee has not yet created a charter vetting process and that INDE has waited more than a year for that to happen.

“When the board talks about improving community relationships as one of its priorities, I want to note that that’s us. We’re part of that community,” Rybicki said. “We’ve put in thousands of hours of our own time ... and we’ve done that as enthusiastic volunteers who are passionate about this project. ... I think this board should be realistic about what it should expect of its volunteers.”

The board will likely consider the LAND School proposal again May 20.

Board reorganization

Eau Claire school board members on Monday elected Eric Torres to be its new president, replacing Joe Luginbill.

Torres, 57, has served on the board for two years. He works as an associate professor of education at UW-Eau Claire. Luginbill did not seek a second term in the role but will serve on the board as treasurer.

Ahead of the board’s vote, Torres said he wants the board to focus on issues such as reducing and closing the achievement gap, practicing fiscal responsibility as a board and rebalancing and restructuring the board’s governance.

“It is very important that we continue to work towards the goals that we have established for the school district,” Torres said, “and then also take a leap forward for the next 10 years.”

Lori Bica was elected vice president of the board. Bica, a professor of psychology at UW-Eau Claire, has served on the board for nearly two years.

The remaining elected officers include Laurie Klinkhammer as clerk and Patti Iverson as secretary.

But Iverson will only serve in the role for two meetings — after more than 30 years serving the district as the administrative assistant to the superintendent, Iverson will be retiring in July.

“Patti, there’s not anybody that is going to replace you — someone who will come into your position, but certainly not replace you,” schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said. “Thank you for your service.”

Board officers are elected to serve for one year or until a successor is elected.

Audit: UW System's in-state enrollment is declining

MADISON — The UW System’s in-state student enrollment has dropped sharply over the last nine years, reflecting declining regional populations and system efforts to get students to graduation faster, according to a report state auditors released Monday.

The loss of in-state students has been nearly offset by rising nonresident enrollment, helping total tuition revenue grow by $336 million, the report said.

UW System President Ray Cross didn’t address the enrollment shift in a letter to auditors responding to the report. He did cite declining enrollment in 2017 to justify his plan to merge the system’s two-year schools with its four-year campuses. System spokesman Mark Pitsch didn’t immediately respond to an email.

Republican Sen. Rob Cowles, co-chairman of the Legislature’s audit committee, said the enrollment trend is resulting in more tuition money for the system. He said he’d be concerned if in-state students were losing slots in classes to nonresidents, but he doesn’t know if that’s happening because the audit doesn’t examine that issue.

The committee’s other co-chair, Republican Rep. Samantha Kerkman, said attracting nonresident students means more money and a chance to persuade them to stay and work in the state after graduation. Republicans and businesses often contend that Wisconsin faces a worker shortage that will only worsen as the population ages.

“If they’re willing to come and spend four years in college and get accustomed to our weather, it gives us at least a little leg up (against other states),” she said.

Auditors found in-state enrollment dropped by 12,881 students between academic years 2008-09 and 2017-18, from 138,018 students to 125,137 students. Auditors spoke to staff at seven schools — Milwaukee, Stevens Point, Parkside, Eau Claire, River Falls, Oshkosh and Superior — to understand what’s driving the decline.

Some schools told them that declining regional populations might be playing a role. UW-Superior noted that declining populations in northern Wisconsin mean fewer students are eligible to enroll at the school.

Most of the institutions noted a decline in the number of Wisconsin high school graduates. The audit cites state Department of Public Instruction data that show 6.1 percent fewer students graduated in school year 2016-17 than in 2009-10. Other campuses said more students aren’t enrolled as long because the system has been working to improve the four-year graduation rate. Nearly 40 percent of freshmen enrolled in fall 2013 graduated in four years compared with nearly 29 percent of freshmen who enrolled in fall 2003.

Nonresident student enrollment, meanwhile, grew by 10,558 students between academic years 2008-09 and 2017-18. Auditors said institutions indicated diversity initiatives have attracted nonresident students. Milwaukee and Superior said they have specifically targeted international students as part of a diversity initiative. Parkside and Milwaukee both noted that the Midwest Student Exchange Program allows Illinois students to attend UW schools for less than some Illinois institutions.

The influx of out-of-state students is huge for the system because they pay far more in tuition than resident students. Republican lawmakers also have frozen in-state tuition rates since 2013, driving some schools to increase nonresident and graduate tuition rates.

Taken together, tuition revenue grew by $366 million between fiscal years 2008-09 and 2017-18, from $933.4 million to $1.3 billion. Nearly 40 percent of the increase is tuition paid by nonresident students.

Even though tuition increased for the system as a whole, nine of 14 UW institutions have seen tuition revenue decrease since the resident rate freeze went into effect.