Eau Claire school district Administration Building

Eau Claire school district Administration Building, 500 Main St.

Adding onto south side elementary schools, or posing a referendum question for funds to build a new elementary school, might be the only answers to overcrowding at south side schools in Eau Claire, a committee told the school board Monday night.

Putnam Heights and Meadowview elementaries are the most crowded, according to a report from the district’s Demographic, Trends and Facility Planning Committee.

Both schools are at over 90% capacity for the 2019-20 school year, according to district figures.

“They don’t have the flexibility to absorb overcrowding from nearby schools,” said Phil Lyons, the committee’s chair.

Meadowview has 22 more seats until it’s at 100% capacity; Putnam Heights has 42, according to district figures.

Flynn, Manz and Robbins elementaries are all between 75% and 90% capacity.

The district’s demand for early childhood education is also growing, Lyons said: “With that continued demand will come the need for space.”

How to address overcrowding? Build a new elementary, renovate existing buildings or find other options, the committee says.

“When we start to see numbers creep over 90%, we see principals come to us and say they have to use rooms in new ways, move classrooms into different areas,” said board member Tim Nordin.

Board members Monday said they’d like to focus on the problem quickly.

“(With) north side schools we were able to redraw lines and address those things … with the south side schools, we don’t have a solution that involves not adding physical space,” Nordin said. “Therefore it’s going to take a referendum, because we don’t have the $15-20 million it will take to address this.”

If the board decides to pursue a referendum question, it would likely be on the ballot in 2020 or 2021, Nordin said.

“We know these are big spends, and as Dr. Nordin pointed out, we’re going to be sitting at these high numbers for quite a while, even if we started immediately,” said board member Aaron Harder. “I think the sense of urgency is a very good point.”

The board is slated to discuss future south side plans at a work session Nov. 18, said board president Eric Torres.

Worries about south side schools come after changes for seven other elementaries on the north side.

Those seven schools will undergo boundary changes starting next fall, aimed at keeping school capacity between 75 and 85%. About 178 students attending Roosevelt, Sherman, Lakeshore, Longfellow, Sam Davey, Locust Lane and Northwoods schools will be affected. The plan keeps Roosevelt open as a two-section school and will cost between $31.5 and $35.5 million, according to the district.

The sale of a closed elementary school in October drew more community interest in south side schools’ high capacity.

The school board’s vote in September to sell Little Red Elementary and its property, which has been shuttered since 2008, for $620,000 met with strong criticism from some community members, who called for using the Little Red property as a site for south side expansion.

The former school sits in the town of Brunswick, on Eau Claire’s southwest side.

“This overcrowding has been an issue that’s watched for decades,” community member Susan Smith told the board in October, urging them to release plans to address high-capacity south side schools. “Releasing long-term plans would hopefully quiet the discussion that selling Little Red was a knee-jerk Band-Aid and a drop in the budget for solving the district’s budget issues, while ignoring the students sitting in these crowded schools.”

Joshua Clements, a member of the Demographic Trends and Facility Planning Committee, on Monday urged the district to create a long-term school capacity plan.

“As a community member, I was not able to refer to some existing finer vision as to when and where schools need to be added,” Clements said. “Where does the city anticipates growth and how does this relate to schools? How might these changes ripple through other operations, including transportation?”

Eau Claire’s south and west sections had the most new residential construction in 2018, according to the city’s annual development report.

Eighty-one new residential units were built in the city’s south sector in 2018, mostly multi-family units. The city’s west sector got 120 new units last year, according to the report.

Solar power

If the Eau Claire Public Schools Foundation meets a fundraising goal, a proposed solar panel donation from a community group for Memorial and North high schools would be free for the district.

About 312 solar panels will be donated by a community group, Solar on Eau Claire Schools, and an anonymous donor; another 312 panels will also be donated if the foundation fundraises for installation and maintenance costs. The total cost of the project is $400,000, said Zeus Stark of Next Step Energy.

The panels would save the district about $20,000 per year.

Solar on Eau Claire Schools includes local solar power advocates and the Couillard Solar Foundation. Memorial High School alumnus Cal Couillard is a board member at the foundation.

The Couillard Solar Foundation’s Solar on Schools program aims to install solar energy at 100 Wisconsin schools in its first four years, said Hanna Terwilliger of Minnesota, a 2009 Memorial graduate who works in the energy sector.

Memorial and North would be “some of the first schools in that project,” Terwilliger said.

“(Memorial and North) are both pretty optimal sites with large flat roofs … they’re great places for solar arrays,” Terwilliger said.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sxseifert on Twitter