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County Board hears from new telcom business: Norvado

Communications are expected to be upgraded in the near future given the recent purchase of Price County Telephone Company by telecommunications cooperative Norvado, according to CEO Chad Young.

Young offered information to the Price County Board of Supervisors last week saying that Norvado is one of the largest independent cooperatives operating in the region and has acquired PCTC and combined their workforces.

Norvado began operating in Bayfield County and Young said that he is hoping the Price County area will embrace and support their efforts.

He said that Norvado was pleased to find PCTC in great financial shape.

"They have run lean and I

commend them for that," Young said. "We are also pleased to have acquired a good staff."

He noted that PCTC does have some fiber in the ground, but there are many dollars yet to be invested to build rural connections.

"We are going to take a slower approach, but it is our hope to get 100% fiber across the county," he said. "We are talking about a $20 to $30 million investment over a three to five-year time frame."

He expects to get some support for federal grant money for the project.

"We hope to move broadband forward and in such a rural setting that is going to take some time, but we're hopeful we will get the support of the property owners as we begin to offer better service," Young said.

In other business, county board chairman Bob Kopisch said there were eight resolutions to be considered at the June meeting, some being sent off to the state legislature for consideration.

"We have to keep trying," Kopisch said.

The resolutions included adopting the 2020-2029 Price County Land and Water Resource Management Plan; requesting the state to provide additional funding for Child Protective Services; eliminating the zero operating levy cap for counties; designating general funds for the purpose of parcel replanting of trees; supporting broadband access efforts; ratifying the spring land sale; and amending a previous resolution regarding requests to apply for two dam grant programs to improve Solberg and Musser Dams.

The newly restructured tourism efforts are moving along nicely according to reports from Laurie Hansen of the Phillips Area Chamber of Commerce and Ed Kane from the Park Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

Hansen reported that she'd attended a meeting on regional tourism and said she felt the group was poised to make some changes and hopefully spark more visitors to come to the area.

One of the attractions this summer will be a museum-like observance of the 125th anniversary of the 1894 Phillips fire. A time capsule will be opened and the descendants of the 13 victims of the fire are being asked to provide any items or photographs to share. The event is set for 3 p.m. on July 27, the exact time the huge conflagration started so many years ago.

Kane said he has been meeting with different chambers to ferret for new ideas including advertising covers and now working with the Janesville Gazette.

The group has been working on flyers on ATV trails and also very popular fishing guides with the help of St. Croix Rods.

The area will be featured in a new magazine and tourists have been asking for maps that are marked with cell phone and broadband service areas.

Both representatives said they have had an influx of new members and are experiencing more visits from tourists in their offices as the summer vacation season is heading towards full throttle.

Finally, at the request of the board, Jon Hochkammer from the Wisconsin Counties Association offered a presentation on the administrative structure and the roles and responsibilities of county board members.

Besides offering information on the governmental structure of the county, Hochkammer said board members should be educated on such things as the annual meeting and to whom authority in the structure is given, also a review of the role of each board member and the county board chairman and county administrator. Board members are to serve on committees and report the considerations of those committees. Also discussed were policies and how those were set.

"The board can establish as many standing or advisory committees as it deems necessary," Hochkammer said. "The county government structure is unlike any other."

The County Board does not meet in July but will be back in session at 9 a.m., Aug. 20.


Phillips school board looks at early redesign options

Two possible options for addressing the facility needs identified in the Phillips School District were presented to the school board at their regular monthly meeting on June 17.

The immediate facility needs center on the 1958 section of the elementary school, with a litany of issues including severe corrosion to the structural foundation and plumbing systems, outdated HVAC systems, undersized classrooms, an entrance that is not up to modern safety standards, and gradation issues between buildings.

In order to redesign the elementary building, the school board attempted to pass a $12.6 million referendum in spring 2018, which ultimately failed.

Results from a survey conducted in the fall of 2018 showed that while a majority of district residents recognized the need for improvements at the elementary, a voting majority would not support the proposed cost of $9.98-$12.49 million.

In January this year, the school board unanimously voted to postpone a referendum question until 2020, allowing for time to craft a building plan that would be financially palatable and educationally sound.

Education development specialist Megan Prestebak of Miron Construction updated the school board on the work of the facility planning committee, which has been meeting monthly since February this year.

The committee is made up of 19 school employees, with school administration serving an advisory role. Over the course of six meetings, the committee toured all the district's buildings, reviewed the facilities assessment, and considered how best to utilize the existing space. The committee also learned how an investment in the buildings would affect taxpayers, and analyzed a variety of options at a range of costs.

Instead of focusing solely on the issues at the elementary, the committee looked at needs district-wide, according to Prestebak.

The committee determined that the best longterm solution to addressing the needs of the district starts with creating a single campus, accomplished by adding an elementary onto the existing middle/high school campus.

This will allow the school to maximize the use of existing space, reduce the costs of maintaining two buildings, make transportation more efficient, improve school safety overall, and allow all staff and students to be under one roof. The committee determined the newly designed campus would need two separate entrances, and should provide separation between elementary students and older students.

Safety was the next priority identified by the committee, following building the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) opportunities for all students. Shared resources and a modern learning environment were also highlighted.

After going through several possible plans, the committee identified two different ways in which these needs could be addressed. Both of these methods call for the demolishment of the 1958-72 sections of the existing elementary building, the removal or containment of asbestos, and the construction of an exterior wall for the remaining section of the building. This would cost an estimated $560,000.

The first option — estimated at $12,160,000 (including the costs at the existing elementary) — calls for a 23,000 square foot addition on the east side of the building, which would house sixth and seventh grade, the music department, and include additions and renovations to the technical education department. The existing middle school would be remodeled into an elementary school space, the K-12 art department would be relocated to a more central location in the building, and the existing high school special education classroom would be renovated. The school's parking lots, driveways, and playground would also be

developed. Taxpayer impacts are estimated at $1.63, or an approximate annual increase of $163 for every $100,000 of property value.

"Although this is the most expensive plan we looked at, it benefits every student within the district," said Prestebak. "You have the opportunity to partner with community manufacturing to extend your STEAM and tech ed programming, and this plan rose to the top because of it."

Facility committee members in attendance at the meeting commented that this seemed to be the best value for the district, with more square footage added at a lower rate. This is partially because while the added tech ed space would be large, it would be relatively unfinished, with exposed ceilings and concrete floors.

"Now we're not just taking care of the elementary needs, we're taking care of the needs of every student in the district," said elementary school principal Dave Scholz. "We're moving to develop our tech ed department, we're getting our middle/high school parents to have buy in as well.

"It's $12 million, we know. But it addresses the needs of the district overall."

The second option — estimated at $8,960,000 (including the costs at the existing elementary) — calls for two small additions on the southeast side of the middle school gym and northwest side of the existing middle school, coming in at a total of 14,000 square feet. The first addition would provide seventh grade classrooms and a middle school science addition, while the second addition would create a cluster of prekindergarten and kindergarten classrooms. The existing middle school space would be renovated for elementary students, the K-12 art department would be relocated, the existing high school special education classroom would be renovated, and the district's parking lots, driveways, and playground would be developed. Taxpayer impacts are estimated at $1.16, or an approximate increase of $116 for every $100,000 of property value.

Prestebak said that the committee will be seeking feedback from the broader community by the end of the summer, either in August or September.

"Our goal is for us to get the largest reach possible in the community because we want to hear their feedback and be transparent and open with them," said Prestebak.

Based on that community feedback, these options may be altered, with a final recommendation from the planning committee to the school board coming in September.

If the district were to decide to move forward with this process, a survey could once again be mailed to all taxpayers within the district. The feedback gathered by the survey, which would be conducted by an independent research firm, would allow the board to make an informed decision about whether or not to go to referendum in April 2020.

If the board were to choose to go to referendum, a resolution would need to be passed by Jan. 28, 2020.

Discussion on facility planning committee's findings

The initial reaction of the school board was mixed, with board members Joe Fox and Stephen Willett dubious that a $12 million option would pass, while board president Jon Pesko said that this plan offered far more to the district's students and community than previous options.

Board member Paula Houdek said she believes the community is more likely to support a plan that would bring all the students onto one campus.

District administration Morgan commented that this plan would also allow the district to efficiently utilize their space. While space is maxed out at the existing elementary, there is room for expansion at the middle/high school complex.

Willett commented that there would need to be a plan for how the district would utilize the remaining portions of the existing elementary building. It was discussed that the classroom space might be rented to the HeadStart program, while common areas might be rented to other community groups.

Board member Hailey Halmstad said that she thought younger parents might find the second option more appealing, since it isolates pre-kindergarten students in a wing by themselves, away from older students.

Fox commented that the majority of the voting populace are people over the age of 60, who may not have a child in the district or any direct buy-in to the school.

"What has changed that now those people would vote for this?" he asked.

"This is the best plan for the district moving forward," responded Prestebak. "We have $9 million dollars worth of needs. We know that needs to be taken care of, but what is the district doing to set itself up for the long term. That's what this plan encompasses."

Additionally, Prestabak said that currently 30-40% of the district's students enter the manufacturing fields, and by strengthening the tech ed department, there could be economic benefits seen in the local community.

The question was raised by board members about how much cost had already been spent on this planning process, to which the response from school administration was that no cost other than engineering fees have been incurred. The architectural and construction contractors, including Miron Construction, will only charge fees for their services if a referendum is successfully passed.

"I have to be real honest with you — I have a sense that we are being pushed and a decision has been made and we are being asked to rubber stamp that," said Willett. "I've heard from everyone on this board that this number [$12 million] is too high."

Pesko commented that he that he had attended some of the facility planning committee meetings, and while the $12 million seems intimidating, the plan does solve issues throughout the district.

"I think this is something that the survey could answer for us," he said. "I think money spent on the survey is well spent, because if it is a resounding 'no' to the $12 million, we won't even take it to referendum. If it says $8 million is too much, we'll have to figure that out. But we have to take it to the public."

Pesko requested that Prestabak provide the school board members with any additional budgetary information possible prior to the next school board meeting.

The topic will be revisited by the school board at the July 15 meeting of the school board, with Prestebak present to provide the board with further information.

Changing the benefits offered to less-than full-time employees discussed

The school board was presented with a variety of potentially cost-saving options for either reducing, limiting, or withdrawing healthcare benefits offered to less-than full-time employees of the district.

The first scenario, which is what is currently used in the district, states that with nine bus drivers — three of which carry family insurance while the other six carry individu al — the cost to the district is $102,158.28.

If the district were to only offer single-person insurance policies to the nine bus drivers, the overall cost to the district would $56,814.42.

If the district were to offer no health or dental benefits, but increased the bus driver wage from $18.45 per hour to $19.45, the district would go from paying $22,168.67 in salary and benefits to $16,162.40. An increase of wages to $20.45 would be a cost of $16,991.70 per person.

"There are certainly some cost savings here," said Pesko. "I think we have to grandfather everybody that we currently have so they remain with what they were hired at."

Pesko pointed out that the district already has two bus driver vacancies, and cutting healthcare benefits for current employees would result in a high rate of turnover.

"I think we have to stay with what we have in order to attract good people," he said.

Fox pointed out that the district is currently offering better benefits than any of the other districts that were reviewed for this discussion, including Chequamegon, Bangor, Rhinelander, Medford, Ashland, Mellen, Colby, and Tomahawk.

"We're giving away the farm right now, and we don't have anyone applying for these open positions," said Fox, adding that the savings could be put toward other needs in the district. "And we wouldn't be cutting anyone who is existing."

"We also have vacancies we need to fill," said Willett. "We have to get qualified people. How is this going to affect our ability to recruit?"

Pesko said that since some people work more for the benefits than the paycheck, this could hamper the district's ability to retain employees.

It was determined that the issue needs further consideration and it was tabled for another month until the business services committee can look into it at greater depth.

Potential for new administrative position discussed

The school board discussed the possibility of creating a new administration position in order to help support Colin Hoogland, who serves as both the high school and middle school principal.

Morgan noted that the addition of such a position would affect the budget, adding additional cost to the district. That cost would depend on what type of a position was created — whether it would be full-time or part-time, whether the individual would take on the role of a principal or a dean of students, etc.

Currently the district is considering if there are options for restructuring the duties of current employees or partners, such as the mental health coordinator or the school's police liaison officer. Hoogland commented that with the current budgetary and time restrictions, trying to craft a new position may be more work than is worthwhile.

"I don't know that there's a lot we can do when we're sitting here saying we don't know where the money will come from and how much we have," Hoogland said. "Pie in the sky, we'd hire another principal and split the duties that way, but we ended up in this position for budgetary reasons and while we're in a better place now, we're looking at a referendum and things like that."

Fox said that he believes this is a critical need, one that will allow Hoogland to spend more time in the classroom instead of managing the disciplinary challenges of six grade levels.

"I think it puts us in the position we should be, and will further what we want to do academically with our kids," said Fox.

"We need to establish if this position is truly needed or if we can ... shift responsibilities around," said Houdek. "Do we need to do a comprehensive job analysis of administrators? Do we have administrative format we use? Could we do a comparison of similar schools with similar schools and see and how they handle these situations?"

Houdek said that she believed the school board needs to consider all the options in order to receive community support for adding another administrative position.

"We need to show that this community can trust us more. Before we make these kinds of situations out there, we need to make sure we lay everything out for everyone to see," she said.

Board member Tracie Burkart pointed out that with burgeoning mental health issues, there are new pressures on administration.

Willett noted that the district needs to first decide which duties could be placed on a new employee in order to determine which direction to take.

Morgan stated that a regional comparison to other local schools could be created in order to allow the school board to review the organization of administration in other districts.

No formal action was taken on the topic.

Achievement gap reduction report

This past school year, the elementary school continued working to close their achievement gaps, and Scholz presented the school board with a summary of the year's results.

For classes over 18 students, the school uses one of the following: instructional coaching, one-on-one tutoring, or individual performance objectives.

This also provides flexibility when classes expand beyond 18 students per class over the course of a school year, allowing the school to use other strategies to meet their educational objectives.

In fall, goals are set for the students' literacy — including fluency, reading rate, and comprehension — and those goals are then assessed mid-year and again in the spring.

Over the course of the school year, grades kindergarten through third grade met or exceeded the goals set for at least 80% of students to achieve age-appropriate reading levels. In kindergarten, 83% of students were at or above that benchmark by spring. First graders also exceeded the expectation, with 84% at or above the benchmark. Eighty percent of second graders met or exceeded the benchmark, while 85% of third graders met or exceeded the goal.

Scholz said that the elementary is looking to shift to a standards-based report card, which would show how each student is meeting the standards on a quarterly basis. Next year will be the first trial year of this new report card, and Scholz said ideally it will officially be in place by 2020-21.

A special committee will be looking into the implementation of this new method over the course of the summer.

Additionally, the new standards will assess aspects such as economics and social studies, according to Scholz.

Pesko commented that while focusing on reducing the achievement gap for students who are lagging behind, the school shouldn't overlook supporting the more advanced students.

"What are we doing for those higher-end students to make sure they continue moving forward?" he asked.

Board member and curriculum committee member Stephen Willett responded that the goal is to hold all students to a high standard.

FRP seeks approval of accord, financing to reopen mill

Park Falls mill would reopen with only one machine, keep 68 workers permanently laid off

A pair of motions intended to come before Price County Circuit Court next week could determine if the Park Falls paper mill reopens in early July.

Rebecca DeMarb, the court-appointed trustee of Flambeau River Papers after it entered receivership May 7, filed an emergency motion Monday for an order on continuing a relationship with CellMark Paper Inc., the company that accounts for 80% of the mill's revenue. The motion seeks court approval of a settlement agreement reached between the two companies that would be the first step in reopening the mill, according to court documents.

CellMark abruptly suspended payment June 5, causing the mill to idle its machines and lay off most workers two days later. The weekly Wednesday payments made by CellMark normally allows FRP to make its payroll commitments each Friday, accounting for approximately $1 million each week.

The settlement agreement put forth by the two companies establishes a purchasing relationship that would allow FRP the cash flow it needs to reopen. The agreement directs CellMark to purchase an estimated 4,500 tons of paper over a 60 day period, starting from the mill reopen date. After that initial window, CellMark agrees to solicit orders for the resale of paper and pulp and to submit purchase orders for FRP, though no minimum amount is required.

Among several other measures, the agreement also establishes that CellMark will aid in the marketing and sales efforts of FRP, including Cell-Mark providing customer contact information for customers it has sold the mill's paper products to over the last two years. If approved, the mill would only be allowed to contact those customers through CellMark. Cell-Mark also agrees to aid in FRP's efforts to sell the mill.

FRP would also make monthly installments beginning in July to repay a $750,000 loan CellMark granted the mill last October.

In turn, FRP agrees to release CellMark from over $2.2 million in invoices due to the mill, according to the agreement.

The hearing is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Monday, July 1 at the Price County Courthouse.

The second critical piece to reopening the mill, according to DeMarb, is the approval of a pending financing agreement, which would allow the mill to borrow $2 million to restart the plant.

If both motions are approved by the court, FRP will be able to pay employees who have been permanently laid off as if they had worked through July 7, fulfilling the 60 day notice required by the WARN Act and Wisconsin's Plant Closing Law.

The financing motion had not yet been filed as of press time Tuesday afternoon. DeMarb warned that if the financing agreement did not come together in the next few days and receive a hearing July 1, that FRP would have to withdraw the first motion with the terms between FRP and CellMark.

Should both motions be heard at the same time next week and receive court approval, DeMarb said the mill could reopen as soon as July 8.

Under the agreement, CellMark agrees to purchase paper from one of the two idle paper machines at the mill. "In doing so, FRP will be able to keep the existing remaining 26 employees and bring back an additional 89 employees," states DeMarb's motion. "For the remaining 68 employees laid off on June 7, the June 7 layoff will be permanent."

DeMarb goes on to explain that as of June 24, all mill employees have been paid in full for time worked.

In response to a Price County Review request for an update on the sale process of the mill, DeMarb said in an email Monday that the mill is being marketed for sale, but "we are not ready to move for approval of that sale process."

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