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Former UW-Richland building sold for potential charter school

Future for rest of former college campus unclear after classes ceased July 1

A sign shows building names next to arrows.
A sign shows directions around campus Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland in Richland Center, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Richland County has sold one of the buildings at the former University of Wisconsin-Platteville Richland campus to a nearby school district. It’s the first repurposing plan for campus facilities since UW System President Jay Rothman announced college classes would cease July 1 after enrollment fell to just 60 students.

The Richland School District agreed in June to pay $150,000 for a building formerly known as East Hall on the 135-acre campus locals still call UW-Richland. While the UW System essentially closed the campus this summer, the buildings and property are owned by Richland County.

Richland County Board Chair Marty Brewer told Wisconsin Public Radio that East Hall was the site of UW-Extension offices and the county’s 4H programs. He said the district plans to open a charter school, which would continue to serve area youth.

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“I was very happy with it,” Brewer said. “And it came to the county board with my sincere recommendation that we go ahead with that. And they approved it.”

Officials with the Richland School District did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The future of the former UW-Richland gymnasium, library and five other buildings remains unclear.

A 75-year lease between the county and UW System Board of Regents, signed in 1967, is still in effect. It states the agreement can be terminated if funding from the state Legislature becomes insufficient to operate the branch campus or if legislation fundamentally changes the state’s branch campus program.

Negotiations between the UW System and Richland County are ongoing, Brewer said, but he’s been frustrated by the lack of progress.

“It’s kind of one of these waiting for the other guy to blink (situations) here,” Brewer said. “I would like to see us get out of the agreement so we could decide what we want to do with the buildings, with the campus, unrestricted.”

UW System administration officials were unavailable for comment on those negotiations.

Brewer said the county has been told by the UW System it would like to use the site as “a placeholder” in case college classes were brought back to the Richland campus.

“That’s a very expensive placeholder for the county to maintain, and I don’t think the county should be on the hook for that,” Brewer said.

Meeting minutes from the county board’s education committee, which oversees the campus, have discussed the need for new air conditioning units for buildings and other maintenance.

Brewer says there are also 29 ash trees at the campus he would like to see cut down.

“It’s almost like a visual proof that the campus is in decay,” Brewer said. “You know, all those dead trees sitting there.”

Residents and some county board members rallied to save UW-Richland after the plan to end classes was announced two days before last year’s Thanksgiving holiday. Their efforts were unsuccessful.

Since then, other county boards in the state have been pulling back on major investments in their own branch campuses pending renewed commitments from the UW System that their schools won’t close.

In April, the Washington County Board of Supervisors approved a proposal to merge UW-Milwaukee at Washington County with the nearby Moraine Park Technical College. County officials lobbied Republican state lawmakers to add language in the state budget requiring the merger and providing funding for the transition.

In July, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers used a line item veto to remove that language, stating he objected “to the Legislature singling out only one of our state’s branch campuses when many campuses are facing challenges, in part due to the Legislature’s repeated failure to provide an adequate funding level for the University of Wisconsin System.”

Enrollment at nearly all UW System branch campuses has plummeted over the past decade, with some seeing declines of more than 50 percent during that time.

Branch campuses were formerly part of a system of two-year colleges designed to let students earn associate’s degrees before transferring to four-year state universities. The college system was dissolved in 2017 by former UW System President Ray Cross and branch campuses were merged with universities. The hope was the universities could revitalize the branch campuses with new four-year degree options, but enrollment declines only intensified at most institutions.