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February 23, 2020

1/18/2020 7:30:00 AM
School district mulling solutions to space shortage concerns
Sports complex to cause loss of maintenance storage space

Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter

The School District of Rhinelander is clearing hurdles as it works toward its goal of opening the Hodag Sports Complex this fall. However, the project has created a domino effect, of sorts, that has led to a space shortage for the maintenance department, the district's operations and strategic planning committee learned Monday.

School officials told the committee the elimination of one existing building, to make way for the air-supported dome that will be the centerpiece of the sports complex, will trigger a need to shuffle things around and possibly necessitate the purchased of a building to house two more ancillary district operations.

The maintenance building to be torn down is a structure that has served past its useful life, according to Jeff Zdroik, supervisor of plant operations. However, replacing that structure with a new one elsewhere in the complex would be cost- prohibitive.

Superintendent Kelli Jacobi said the cost of the extra building was not part of the discussion "when we were looking to spend money on the complex" but the need is still there.

The most logical solution is to move maintenance into the Davis building - more commonly known as "the green building" behind James Williams Middle School, school officials said. That building is used primarily by Northwest Journeys, which provides day treatment services for people with severe mental health disabilities.

"Our students do benefit from it," Jacobi said. "Not all, but those who need it, can benefit from the location being right here in Rhinelander. There are very few day treatment options for youth, for students. Currently, the closest one to us is in Wausau."

Many parents are not "comfortable sending their kids to a program in Wausau" which requires two hours a day in a car, she added.

"Being able to provide that type of support in Rhinelander is a very positive thing," Jacobi said.

Robert Thom, director of business services, said the program provides a valuable service not only to the district, but also the surrounding community.

"How it works is basically we guarantee that they will have 200 hours a month of mental health (services) that they can bill for," Thom said. "So they are billing private insurance and they're billing Medicaid 200 hours a month. But if we don't have enough kids to cover 200 hours a month, the district is on the hook for whatever hours they aren't able to bill."

He said the idea was to base the service in Rhinelander to eliminate the trip to and from Wausau and not have to hire additional teachers and/or aids to handle these students in classrooms.

But the space Northwest Journeys currently occupies is space maintenance could make use of, it was noted.

This led the administration to look at alternatives, including the purchase of real estate.

The district already leases space on Brown Street for the Hodag Connections Learning Center (HCLC). Thom said the district will pay $3,000 a month in rent for its share of the building through March of 2021.

"What kicked this whole thing off is that building came up for sale," Thom said. "And one of our thoughts was maybe we can buy that building and leave our program in there. The other half of that building is being rented out by the state of Wisconsin, so we could collect rent from the state of Wisconsin program and keep our program in there and basically the rent from the state would pay for that building and we would save the $3,000 a month we're currently paying."

The only drawback is the $600,000 asking price, Thom told the committee.

The next thought was look around for other space available downtown that could host both the Northwest Journeys program and HCLC.

Thom presented the committee with information on a building for sale across Stevens Street from City Hall with an asking price of $185,000.

"We did walk through it and it is already remodeled inside. We wouldn't have to do a lot of work to it," he noted.

Thom said the district may not be able to get out of the lease for the present location on Brown Street early.

"So we may still end up with both for a while," he said.

Another idea considered briefly was moving both HCLC and Northwest Journeys into where the administration offices are now located in RHS. The administration would then move into the Brown Street location being leased.

Another vacant building on Lincoln Street was also discussed which could house HCLC and the administration and bring Northwest Journeys into the high school. This building has a price tag of $499,000, Thom said.

Both Jacobi and committee chair Mike Roberts stressed that moving the administration staff would be a last case scenario due to public perception being firmly against such a move in the past. Of the choices, Jacobi said the Stevens Street location hits all the "checkboxes" to best fill the district's needs for Northwest Journeys and the HCLC.

"It's not fancy, but it would definitely meet the needs," Jacobi said. "Being off campus for HCLC was one of the key pieces we were looking at."

She said the needs of administration is always the last consideration.

"We have to look at the needs of the students first," Jacobi said. "I know law enforcement is being called to Northwest Journeys when the kids get out of control. Being in this (present) location creates high anxiety in a building where we worry about one of our regular buildings hearing sirens approaching."

The HCLC is currently fully utilizing the leased space on Brown Street, so Northwest Journeys would not fit there, it was noted.

Ultimately, the committee requested a cost-benefit analysis be done on the various options with an eye toward revisiting the discussion in February.

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