District pulls back curtain on school plans

Community meeting looks at new Washington Middle School in depth and what will be included
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Residents in the Oconto Falls School District received details on the new Washington Middle School and other projects funded through a $37.6 million referendum during a community meeting May 9.

“We are all about trying to put together a plan that will best benefit the students in our community,” Superintendent Dean Hess said.

Hess noted that the middle school will be unlike any of the other schools in the district, and that’s because the methods of teaching have changed drastically from the old days when you just needed chairs, desks and a chalkboard.

“The way that we built buildings 50, 75, 100 years ago is not the way we’re building buildings today,” Hess said. “One of the first things we noticed when you walk into a building being built today is a lot of people want to have a lot more ambient lighting coming into that setting. We want to create a space where kids can move in and out of the classroom and working with small groups or large groups and have flexibility for different types of learning environments.”

Even with the knowledge of what the classroom of today should look like, Hess said it’s difficult to envision what middle school students are going to need to learn decades from now. He said the school is being built so that, if the elementary schools are becoming crowded, Washington could take in the fifth grade without taxing itself.

“We could also add an addition if we want to, so we’re being mindful of that,” Hess said.

Russ Schumacher, the project manager through Nexus Solutions, said that the design process is underway, with a diverse district design team meeting every three weeks to give input on how classrooms and other amenities would look. Schumacher is hoping to have the design work for Washington completed by August and have bids go out in September. The construction phase would begin in October 2024, with the hope of opening the new school by August 2025.

Plans for the middle school would include separate drop-off areas for parents and buses. On County Road I, the school would have a gate that’s closed during the day in the back for the buses, according to Schumacher. He noted the main parking lot would have 196 spaces, so there would be plenty of space for large events.

“You’ll be able to park on campus and not on the streets like you did tonight,” Schumacher said.

There will be part of the school that’s one story, with the library, gymnasium, cafeteria, fine arts facilities and more in that area. The other part of Washington will be two stories and house the main core classrooms, along with agriculture and technical education programs.

Schumacher noted that the placement of the agriculture classrooms would allow for a greenhouse, which was not budgeted in the referendum, to be built down the line.

“In the future, if we’re able to raise funds for something like that, your design would naturally support that placement,” Schumacher said.

One parent expressed concern about the new gymnasium not being big enough, noting the current gymnasium is too small for current usage. However, it was pointed out that the gym on the plans is the size of both the lower and upper gyms combined from the existing middle school. Schumacher noted the new gym is expected to seat almost 400 people.

As for restrooms, the school will have five toilets and/or urinals in each of the main restrooms for girls and boys, along with two gender-neutral individual restrooms. Most sinks for hand washing will be just outside the restrooms.

Hess pointed out that the district has various wants and needs for the middle school, but the budget is going to be the deciding factor as far as what goes into Washington.

“One of the things where we’re seeing a more volatile situation than I’ve ever seen is the bathrooms,” Hess said. “When you have 150 children finishing up lunch and needing to use the bathrooms, we’re cognizant of that. But we’re also looking at how can you stay within your budgetary requirement. We’re going to do the best we can.”

Hess added he’s hoping the bids received in the fall will be less than what was budgeted; if they’re more, the district will have to reexamine the plan and figure out where to cut.

Even though Washington was the focus of the community meeting, Hess and other officials touched on the projects that will be underway this summer. Abrams Elementary School, Oconto Falls Elementary School and Oconto Falls High School will be renovated so they have secure entrances, and the gymnasium roof will be replaced at Abrams.

“The key to secure entrances is to compartmentalize security,” Schumacher said. “At Abrams, we had to renovate almost the entire office area to create a secure vestibule so that when visitors come in, the vestibule door will be open, but the rest will be locked closed in order to get in the office. There will be a camera, and office staff will have to buzz you in.”