Maple Grove defenders prevail
Hamburg township sections will be part of Athens School District
History was in the making Saturday morning in the Athens High School gymnasium.
The Athens Board of Education unanimously voted to accept 18,000 acres of the town of Hamburg from Merrill School District to Athens School District, securing the future for Maple Grove elementary school.
The board voted from desks spread out across the basketball court as a COVID-19 safety measure.
The vote was a victory for Peter Fromm Wade, who, along with members of the Maple Grove Charter School Governing Board, worked for years to keep the 150-year-old rural school open, despite years of threats from the Merrill Board of Education to close the school due to budget reasons.
In addressing the Athens school board, Fromm Wade, president of the Maple Grove Foundation, Inc., said Hamburg residents decided to switch districts from Athens to Merrill in 1952 so that their children could attend high school, but now things had changed.
“We ask that we come home,” he said.
In agreeing to attach the large section of Hamburg township, the Athens school board acted on two petitions required by state law to transfer property from one district to the other. One was signed by 58 percent of electors in the area to be transferred; a second one represented 75 percent of that area’s taxable value.
As approved, the Hamburg township property which is now part of Merrill Area Public Schools (MAPS) will switch to Athens School District in time for the 2021-22 school year. Residents in this area will no longer pay Merrill school taxes, but, instead, will pay Athens school taxes.
The Athens board decision followed a unanimous vote by the Merrill Board of Education on Thursday not to fight the property transfer and, instead, to agree to sell Maple Grove School and two adjoining parcels, an 18-acre school forest and another 14-acre parcel, to a private individual, who will lease the school to Athens Public School for a nominal fee.
The name of the private individual has not as yet been disclosed.
Maple Grove School defenders were ready to defend the property transfer before the Wisconsin School District Boundary Appeals Board, but, in the end, given the Merrill school board’s vote, that will not be necessary.
Athens School District administrator Jeff Mastin strongly recommended the school board vote to attach the Hamburg property and commit to keeping open Maple Grove Charter School.
Mastin said the charter school would bring 77 new students to Athens Public School and generate $616,000 new state aid dollars. The new Hamburg property, he said, was worth $54 million and last year had generated $469,880 in school taxes for MAPS. Mastin said the new revenue would more than pay for hiring five and one-half fulltime teachers at Maple Grove School, as well as a half-time principal, a half-time counselor, a custodian and food service staff. He said Athens School District would receive over a quarter million dollars worth of technology and other supplies currently housed in the school.
The administrator said financial benefits of the property transfer would only improve when Maple Grove School graduates will eventually transfer to Athens Middle School and Athens High School. He said Athens Public School had plenty of room to accommodate these additional students.
Mastin predicted the cash infusion from the property transfer would allow Athens Public School not just to operate Maple Grove School but to pay for needed school upgrades.
“This is a win-win-win,” he said.
Angie Servi, president of the Maple Grove Charter School Governing Board, predicted that the school would likely attract more students, including Open Enrollment students, now that the school’s future was decided. She said many parents were looking for a high performing smaller school, especially from the towns of Maine and Corning. Servi reported that Maple Grove School had the highest MAPS standardized test scores out of all Merrill elementary schools in the 2018-19 school year.
“Maple Grove is a culture that money can’t buy,” she said.
Fromm Wade said Maple Grove School started with a push in the 1787 Northwest Territories Act to build one-room school houses and, in a century and a half of operation in various buildings, the school has kept up with technology and a modern approach to education.
“Small school works,” he said. “It’s an American tradition.”
Fromm said graduates of Maple Grove School benefit from two college scholarship programs, the Sylvia Woller Scholarship and the Walter and Mabel Fromm Scholarship.
He said it will likely take a Marathon Circuit Court decision to rule how a new scholarship committee should award college and technical school scholarships from the two programs now that Maple Grove School is part of Athens Public School.
Fromm Wade said he inherited a working compass purchased in 1904 from his grandfather, Edward Fromm, a legendary fox farmer and ginseng industry pioneer. He said his grandfather used the instrument to find his way through the town of Hamburg’s forested wilderness to locate and harvest wild ginseng.
Now, he said, that compass is also proving useful.
“The compass is pointing us back to Athens,” Fromm Wade said.