Over 35 people attended a meeting Monday when the Eau Claire school board voted to sell the Little Red Elementary school, which has been shuttered for over a decade, to a regional plumbers and steamfitters union.
The board also voted to sell about 22 acres of the surrounding property to a town of Brunswick resident.
The sales were both approved 5-2. Board members Tim Nordin and Aaron Harder voted against the sales.
The UA Local 434, a plumbers and steamfitters union, has offered the district $509,740 for the Little Red building and almost 12 acres of surrounding land, the district said in a Monday night press release.
The building will sell as-is, contingent on an inspection.
The union’s main office is in Mosinee, and it has a union office and training facilities at 2406 Ridge Road in Eau Claire, according to the its website. The local chapter covers Eau Claire, Chippewa, Dunn and 27 other western and central Wisconsin counties.
The union said in a statement from the district: “We have outgrown our Eau Claire training center. The Little Red School is an ideal building since it is already a school for a larger training center for the training of our Journeyman and Apprenticeship Programs.”
A party known as Martinek-Jereczek offered to buy the other tract of land at the site for $110,000, the district said Monday. That party owns property next to Little Red, Torres said.
The offer is contingent on the Martinek-Jereczek party getting financing, an appraisal and an inspection. The buyer would also cover closing and title-related costs.
Little Red Elementary, located next to Highway 37 in rural Eau Claire, has been closed since 2008.
The board has discussed selling the Little Red property “over the past few weeks,” board president Eric Torres said.
The board has heard reports of population growth on Eau Claire’s south side and is anticipating needing another school or adding onto its existing buildings, Torres said.
“In our discussions we have considered that turning the value of that property into cash would put us in a more sound financial situation, which will be reflected in the fund balance,” Torres said.
Nordin said he disagreed with the sale because he wasn’t sure selling Little Red was more financially sound than keeping the property.
“When we’re talking annually about running a deficit of $3 (million) to $5 million and working to cut, a one-time shot of $620,000 is not going to really make a big drop in that bucket,” Nordin said. “It’ll be a one-time injection, but for me it hasn’t met that.”
Harder agreed, saying he’d like to see the sale happen with more community input: “I wouldn’t be heartbroken to see it happen, but would like to see it happen in a way that just gives us an opportunity to show our work a little better to the taxpayers of the community, and also to those who have an emotional investment in this place.”
Board member Laurie Klinkhammer said she supported the sale, and liked the fact it would serve as a training facility.
“Being within the district’s jurisdiction, (Little Red) has sat, and seen and served nobody,” said board member Joe Luginbill. “With this union, what they’re looking to do there, they would be directly partnering with us, the senior grades in high school.”
Until this summer, the Little Red property sat in the town of Brunswick, but the Eau Claire city council voted June 11 to annex the property into the city.
Town of Brunswick chairman Gordon Steinhauer said Monday that he and some town residents are concerned about the sale of Little Red, worrying about the property’s future.
“There’s going to be many acres of land that other buildings may be put on ... we’re not looking at just a school; we’re looking at a school plus the potential for other buildings,” Steinhauer said in a phone call Monday with the Leader-Telegram. “I’m totally opposed to this at this time.”
At the meeting Monday, nine community members urged the board to hold listening sessions and postpone the decision to sell the property.
Little Red “is still a rich environmental resource,” said Karen Voss of the town of Brunswick, whose daughters attended the school and who has worked on habitat restoration at the school.
Voss said she was concerned about the lack of public input on the sale.
“As a citizen (I have) an even stronger concern that something like this has not been open to the light of public comment,” Voss said.
“I’d urge you to halt this process and open it to public input and public hearings,” added Martin Voss of the town of Brunswick.
The south side of Eau Claire is growing and the district expects more students in that area, Nordin said.
Several community members urged the board to keep the school and property, and consider transforming Little Red into a school to contain southside growth.
“We’re growing in that direction, there are subdivisions being built and the population is growing that way,” said Peggy Schwengel of the town of Brunswick. “(We’re) going to have to buy land … why sell something you’re going to need?”
“It is a gem out there. It is beautiful land, a beautiful site for a school, and it’s also in a part of the Eau Claire school district that’s expanding exponentially,” said Susan Smith of the town of Brunswick.
The board and outside organizations have discussed the future of Little Red Elementary for several years.
A grassroots nonprofit group, Initiatives for New Directions in Education, proposed in 2017 a plan to create a charter school and nature campus at Little Red.
But INDE revised their plan in May, instead proposing a charter high school and an outdoor-focused learning program called EauZone that would reach about 450 students, according to Leader-Telegram records.
The new charter school, called the LAND School, would work at “any facility in the district,” due to the cost of renovating Little Red, according to INDE’s website.
The board may vote this month on authorizing a secure entrance to be added to Roosevelt Elementary.
Planned improvements at Roosevelt Elementary, including adding a secure entrance, will cost about $200,000, said Kim Koller, executive director of administration, in a report to the board Monday.
If approved, construction would likely happen in the summer of 2020. Design would need to begin this fall, and the bidding process would be scheduled for late winter and early spring, Koller said.
Unlike other district schools, Roosevelt doesn’t have a hall that requires visitors to pass the school office before reaching the classroom and student areas, schools superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said in August.
In the meantime, Roosevelt will update its security policies for the 2019-20 school year, Koller said. For events open to families or the community, Roosevelt will begin requiring people to RSVP. The school is also looking into hiring a full-time staffer to monitor visitors and the school’s entrance, Koller said.
“All visitors will be asked to identify themselves and will be directed to the office,” Koller said.
Several Roosevelt parents have urged the board this summer to consider upgrading the school’s entrance, citing worries about security.
In other school district news, the board’s 2019-20 student representatives are Morgan Priem of Memorial High School and Johnny Xiong of North High School.