A buyer for the Park Falls mill was approved in Price County Court Monday, but it's unclear if the company will resume operations at the shutdown plant.
Niagara Worldwide has until Nov. 13 to close on a deal to purchase the Flambeau River Papers mill. At $2.2 million, the firm was the highest bidder in an auction that concluded Sunday.
Niagara is a facilities operations and manufacturing company headquartered in Niagara, Wisconsin. The company also lists property redevelopment, commodities trading, asset liquidation, equipment acquisition, construction, and remediation as areas of specialization on its website.
A company rep for Niagara did not immediately return calls or email on Tuesday.
Park Falls Mayor Michael Bablick said Tuesday that while nothing is set in stone until the paperwork is filed, he was glad to see the receivership process come to an end and the city hopes to learn more about the company in the coming days.
"We will work with them as much as we can .... to get as much of the mill operating in the shortest amount of time to restore employees back to the mill, but they did not submit a business plan with this offer," Bablick said. "We don't truly understand what exactly what they want the mill for at this point."
Bablick said the limited contact he has had with the company so far has indicated Niagara may be interested in operating a portion of the mill.
"It seems like they're interested mostly on the pulp production side. But, I don't know what exactly that means until we see workers there."
He said there was no known timeline for any possible operation.
The sales process was the second since Flambeau River Papers entered receivership in May with over $40 million in debt. The court conditionally approved new company Element Ventures to purchase the mill in September but that deal fell apart just a couple weeks later when Element Ventures failed to rectify a contingency in the purchase agreement.
This time, the mill was marketed for liquidation and garnered five qualified bids, ranging from Niagara's high of $2.2 million to a low of $350,000.
If Niagara's winning bid fails to close, the second-highest bidder has an opportunity to purchase the mill. Industrial Assets Corporation submitted the second-highest bid at $2.1 million.
In approving the purchase agreement, Judge Kevin Klein said it was important to keep in mind the timeline and opportunities for the mill to sell at a higher value. Testimony established over 300 buyer groups had been contacted, including those since before receivership had started, going back to a year ago.
"The court believes liquidation value is now the rule of this case. If we were to have unlimited time, unlimited resources, perhaps there could be ongoing sale efforts indefinitely into the future. That's not the reality of the situation," said Klein.
"The hope, of course, is that Niagara may go ahead with operations, even if limited in scope, though the value for purposes of the proposed sale is really liquidation value."
The mill has been kept in a warm shutdown state since production operations ceased at the end of September. Doing so has required 20-23 employees to continue working on-site, ensuring the mill is maintained, but funds to keep employees at the plant are not projected beyond next week.
"From what I gathered ... if the deal fell apart, if they were to go into abandonment, there would be virtually no money left to pay employees to process the remaining environmental liabilities on site," said Bablick. "My greatest concern in the abandonment of that facility is environmental issues. If such a thing would happen, I would be moving very aggressively with the Department of Natural Resources to try to come up with a solution to make sure that nothing undesirable would happen to the river that is frankly the lifeblood of our community."
The classrooms of Prentice High School may be thousands of miles from Zittau, Germany, yet Isabel Dyk and Timmo Naumann are finding a warm welcome in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
Dyk, an 11th grader, and Naumann, a 10th grader, hail from Saxony in southeastern Germany, and they are the first students to participate in a new foreign exchange program that has been specially designed for Prentice and their home school of Zittau.
The program is a new form of exchange, designed so students miss a minimal amount of school in their own districts yet receive all the benefits of participating in a cultural exchange program.
After undergoing an intensive application process, two students from Zittau High School and two students from Prentice High School will spend approximately a month living with a host family, experiencing a new culture and foreign education system.
As Dyk and Naumann traveled to the United States during their fall break, they will only miss two weeks of school back home in Germany. Likewise, when Prentice students visit Germany in 2020, they will travel in late summer before the start of school.
From an educational standpoint, they lose out on very little classroom time, and gain all the benefits of an international experience.
The program was introduced largely thanks to the influence of former foreign exchange student August Friedrich, who attended Prentice School District in 2014-15.
"He saw what we have here, and realized it's an insight into America that maybe isn't widely seen," explained Heather Mayer, a high school social studies teacher at Prentice who has been instrumental in introducing the program.
Foreign students visiting Prentice have the opportunity to see a new side to America — not the major cities and skyscrapers that have been popularized in film and art, but the small Midwestern towns that make the heart of the country.
"If you were to go for a year, that might cost $15,000," said Mayer. "You're gone for a whole year ... and
a lot of times, you have to make that year up when you return because the foreign credits won't transfer back. With this month, you're still getting a good eyeful of what's going on. You learn what typical family life is like and the only cost is an airplane ticket."
This first test-run of the program has proved a rounding success, according to both Mayer, high school principal Melissa Pilgrim, and the students themselves.
"I've really enjoyed my time here," said Naumann, who said their time in the country has passed in a blur of activities and new experiences.
The students have been hosted by the families of Kati Isaacson and Brenda Isaacson, who are both teachers at Prentice and are also sisters-in-law. The close family dynamic has allowed Naumann and Dyk to share many experiences — from traveling to Chicago and the Wisconsin Dells to four-wheeling on Price County's trails and having a bonfire night.
Since the classroom time in Prentice does not count for Dyk and Naumann, they have had the opportunity to participate in numerous different classes.
In Mayer's classroom, where students are currently studying Europe, the young Germans were able to provide personal insights into their own country as well as those surrounding Germany. The city of Zittau itself lies extremely close to where the countries of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic join.
"Our students were able to ask questions about what their food is like or how their education compares to ours," said Mayer, who said the students have served as excellent ambassadors for their country. "This is a real world learning experience for our students."
From gym to food class to choir, the Germans have particularly enjoyed what they see as deeply American. Dyk has compiled a few recipes from the food class that she plans to take home and prepare for her family.
"At home, we don't have fun classes like food or choir," said Dyk.
The educational system in Zittau is more strict, according to the students, with a strong focus on math, chemistry, biology, and physics. They have 16 different subjects they must study every week, with a different schedule each day — ranging from five to eight hours a day at school.
Students in Germany are also required to learn English, and often learn other languages such as French, Russian, or Czech. Spending time in the United States has helped both students improve their English skills, which they said have improved as they use the language every day.
The sports Dyk and Naumann participate in are different from the volleyball games and cross-country meets they have experienced here in Prentice — Dyk enjoys horseback riding, dancing, and climbing, while Naumann plays tennis and swims.
The pair have also observed a close connection between Prentice School District and the local community, where everyone knows one another and is quick to lend a hand. Dyk pointed to the recent community service day when 132 high school students volunteered alongside their teachers to help clean up local residences and public spaces.
"We don't have things like that in Zittau, although it may be because the city where our school is is much bigger," she said. Zittau has a population of 28,900 compared to Prentice's 660 citizens.
Naumann also agreed that the outgoing nature of the Wisconsinites he has met is different than is culturally common in Germany, and he has enjoyed the friendly welcome he has received.
Both Dyk and Naumann agreed that their favorite experiences overall have been with their host families, who they described as being tremendously welcoming.
"I really hope to come back someday — especially to my [host] family here. I hope they will come to Germany too, so our families can meet each other," said Dyk.
When the students return to their own country on Nov. 9 after a month in the United States, they say they will have countless stories, video clips, and photos to share with their families and classmates back home in Germany.
"These students have been very enjoyable, and I'm excited for when our kids will go [to Germany] in 2020," said Pilgrim. "I think this is a wonderful opportunity."
Declining student enrollment is again at the forefront of obstacles the Chequamegon School District will be facing.
Before the 2017 closure of St. Anthony's parochial school in Park Falls, enrollment numbers at Chequamegon, like most rural school districts, were steadily declining. But the Catholic school's closure boosted enrollment by about 70 students in a single year.
Now, that number is starting to dip from a high enrollment of 775 in the 2018-19 school year to 744 as of this fall.
Because Wisconsin bases a portion of how it funds public schools on a per-student basis, a loss of students means a loss of funding, currently about $11,155 per student, of which the state chips in about $2,578.
Larger class sizes graduating out of high school are the main reason for the decline. The senior class this year is around 80 students, compared to about 40 students currently in kindergarten.
"The funding hit will take a little bit of time to get to us because of the three-year rolling average for funding the
schools," explained District Administrator Mark Weddig at the regular Board of Education meeting Oct. 22 in Glidden.
The state uses a three-year average to calculate aid, meaning Chequamegon shouldn't see funding declining until the 2021-2022 school year.
"Our 3-year average actually went up [this year], mostly because the St. A's students were included in all three years that were used in the formula this year, where last year's three-year average included 2016 when St. A's was still operating," explained Lexi Witt, business manager for the district. "Therefore, we did not experience any 'hit' from declining enrollment. I anticipate that the rolling average peaked this year and will start to drop again next year."
A parallel issue in the greater funding picture is the number of students choosing to enroll at schools outside the district.
Chequamegon is seeing a net loss of 50 students this year, a $475,000 hit to its budget. The district lost $307,479 last year, due to a net loss of 32 students.
"Based on communication that was made with nearly all families that open enrolled out, the vast majority are doing so for geographical reasons, as they live near or work in neighboring districts," wrote Weddig in a board report. He said it was rare the family enrolled out of the district because of a personal conflict they had.
"Financially, it's a big loss to our district, to have that many students enrolling out than in. But, we'll see if we can't continue to make that trend change."
An asset like the new Chequamegon Early Learning Center is expected to encourage the youngest students to come to the district at an early age and stay. The center, located at the Park Falls Elementary School, is newly certified in the Wisconsin Young Star program, allowing greater access for low-income households. It is reportedly at capacity for infants with four and has nine-of-16 toddler placements filled, as of Oct. 22.
Another area administration is using to draw students to Chequamegon is the Rural Virtual Academy, an online learning interface used for homeschooling children. Chequamegon and other districts do receive state funding for students enrolled in that program.
"Although the numbers didn't go in our favor this year, I strongly feel that they will in the future," Weddig said. He said families that are enrolling out of the district for geographical reasons aren't ones likely to come back in, and that he understands they're doing what's best for their families.
"The only other factor is we can be the best district in the region. Our goal is to become the best school in the region and keep on building from there. That's what our teachers are saying to our children and ... we've got to become great," he said.
CSD 2019-20 Adopted Budget
Property Tax Levy: $6,788,645
Property Tax Levy Increase: 2.78%
Mill rate: 8.69 = $8.69 per $1,000 of property value
Mill rate increase: 0.12
*Note: Property values differ for each municipality, though overall property value increased by 1.4% districtwide.