Study of Washington Middle School’s future begins

Oconto Falls looks to upgrade or replace aging facility
Warren Bluhm
Oconto County Times Herald Editor

OCONTO FALLS — The first preliminary step has been taken toward determining the future of Washington Middle School.

After touring the school during a recent retreat, the Oconto Falls School Board on Feb. 10 authorized Superintendent Dean Hess and his team to prepare a request for proposals from consulting or construction firms that could conduct a “capital needs audit” of district buildings.

“Washington Middle School is a school that has been put together in different stages so there’s portions of the building that are over 100 years old, and there’s portions that have been upgraded since then,” Hess told the board. “The idea of the audit is to give you, the board, and our community an understanding of the current status of that building and an idea of what they would feel would be things that need to be addressed, as well as things you might consider addressing, and then give you an idea of what the costs would be of that.”

The review would identify the school building’s positive aspects as well as challenges that need to be addressed, Hess said. There would also be a study of the comparative costs of renovation versus building a new middle school.

In recent years the board has taken several steps toward being prepared for this study, including structuring the debt so old projects will be paid off in a couple of years when the middle school needs are addressed, he said. The district also purchased land across County Road I last year that could be used to expand the campus that now includes Oconto Falls High School, ST Paper Stadium, and Oconto Falls Elementary School.

“We could potentially go down that path two years from now, and it would have a minimal effect of an increase on the mill rate,” Hess said.

The superintendent acknowledged that if the board did nothing, the mill rate would drop significantly when those old debts are paid off.

“By the same token, you’re going to have to do some of these upgrades,” he said. “My appeal to the community is we’re being very thoughtful and very frugal to try and create a situation where people will feel the least negative impact while still be able to address those building needs.”

Although the main focus would be on Washington Middle School, the consulting firm would be asked to review all of the district’s buildings.

“The advice we’ve heard from districts that have gone through this process is don’t just focus on what you see as your main need,” Hess said. “You blink and what we consider a new building is 30 or 40 years old and there are components of the building where their life span is 30 or 40 years or sometimes even less.”

Administrators are working to arrange visits to a couple of other districts, one which recently completed a new middle school and another which is midway through the building process, he said. They plan to report back on possible next steps at the board’s March or April meetings.