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Digging Deeper: Chippewa Falls School District looks at what's next for facilities after referendum fails

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Chippewa Falls (WQOW) - You know the old saying: "The children are our future". Most would agree a quality education is the cornerstone of that future. But officials in Chippewa Falls say it's not the quality of the education that is the problem, it's the facilities. 

After a failed referendum in November, leaders at the Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District are scratching their heads as with what to do next.

Nestled on the banks of the Chippewa River, the old lumber town of Chippewa Falls has seen plenty of history and success since its incorporation in 1869.

"I think history is wonderful, but you can't live there. You have to be looking to the future," said mayor Greg Hoffman.

Companies like Leinenkugel's and Mason Shoe have called Chippewa Falls home for over 100 years, helping the city blossom in population and economic growth. But while the city's economy thrives, officials say another area is in need of attention.

"The great thing is, we have so many opportunities for students in Chippewa Falls, but at the same time our facilities don't necessarily support the programs that we are offering," said Dr. Heidi Eliopoulos, the Superintendent of the Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District. 

Those facilities went to referendum last November for the first time in 15 years. Two questions totaling $159 million were both voted down. That took away the district's ability to build a new high school and elementary school, as well as additions to a pair of other schools. 

"When I think back to that November election, and actually addressing the staff the next day, what we said is we get one day, We get one day to feel sad,and then it is time to roll up our sleeves and figure out what to do next," Dr. Eliopoulos said.

Now the district returns to the drawing board, trying to convince a growing community that in order to continue to flourish, something must be done. According to a facility study completed in 2014, three of the district's schools: Hillcrest, Stillson and Jim Falls, fall below state standards for size.

"I would say that our needs fit into two categories. What are the general conditions of some of our buildings needing some overall updates to roofs, electrical, plumbing and then also space concerns -- both with undersized classrooms or not enough classrooms or shared space such as libraries, gymnasiums, cafeterias, hallways and areas like that," Dr. Eliopoulos said.

The facility study shows that student enrollment could increase by 14 percent in the next ten years. And with gymnasiums already doubling as lunchrooms and entry spaces for deliveries, district leaders are left wondering what they can do next.

"What will our community support moving forward?" questioned Dr. Eliopoulos said.

As the votes were tallied last fall, it was clear that not everyone is on board with new buildings.

"I think that we should start using what we got and stop tearing down buildings. These are usable buildings right now," said Chippewa Falls resident Earl Hart.

"My concern as a grandfather and as someone who is going to have kids through the system is I want them to be able to be competitive," said Hoffman. "I would not want someone from Chippewa Falls to go to a university and find out that they are behind."

In order to keep that from becoming a problem, the district is hiring a consulting firm to survey the more than 14 thousand people that call the district home.

"What types of projects and would they support a referendum and if so what is the tax tolerance of that referendum?" said Dr. Eliopoulos.

Those surveys will be completed by late summer and sent out to residents. While there is currently no plan for another referendum, the district says the survey will go a long way in determining what can be done to keep the schools from crumbling apart. 

RELATED LINK: Digging Deeper: Funding Our Future

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