Historic Elementary School Won’t Close After Families’ Petition Allows For District Change

Maple Grove School Was Established In 1904. Advocates Say New District Will Ensure It Has A Future.

Maple Grove School in Hamburg is part of the Merrill School District
Maple Grove School in rural Marathon County has operated since 1904. The school will leave the Merrill School District and join the Athens School District after both districts voted for the change. This photo was taken Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. Rob Mentzer/WPR

A nearly 120-year-old rural school in north central Wisconsin won’t be closed or consolidated after families fought to have the school switch districts.

The Marathon County town of Hamburg and its historic Maple Grove School will leave the Merrill school district and join the neighboring village of Athens district. The two districts’ school boards ratified the move with separate votes last week.

For Maple Grove advocates, it was a happy ending to a sometimes-bitter battle with the Merrill district that included heated public meetings and a court battle.

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“It was a long road, but it turned out as well as I think it could have,” said Angie Servi, president of the Maple Grove Governance Board and a Maple Grove alumnus whose children attend the school.

Maple Grove has operated in Hamburg since 1904, when it was established by the Fromm Brothers. Their businesses growing ginseng and raising silver foxes made them among the most powerful families in the region in the early 20th century, and an endowment from the Fromms continues to fund a college scholarship for Maple Grove students.

In 2012, Maple Grove School became a public charter school. Situated across from a historic graveyard on 18 acres of woods, the elementary school’s curriculum is built around “exploratory learning” that includes tapping maple syrup, raising chickens and maintaining forest trails alongside traditional school subjects.

But rural schools are closing all over Wisconsin, as districts face declining enrollments and seek to save money through consolidation. Merrill administrators sought to close Maple Grove, making the case that savings to the district could fund mental health services and other student needs.

In late 2019 and early 2020, a conflict erupted between the Merrill district and Maple Grove families, who said the district didn’t value the rural setting, unique history and culture of the school. After Merrill announced plans to close the school, they took the district to court. In June, a judge ruled the district couldn’t close Maple Grove until at least June 2022, when its charter contract expired.

Throughout 2020 and early 2021, Servi and others worked toward the goal of detaching the town of Hamburg from the Merrill Area Public Schools and joining it to the School District of Athens. The school is situated about halfway between the two municipalities. They gathered signatures for legally required petitions and made the case to leaders in both communities.

“There were times when I thought about giving up,” Servi said. “But that just wasn’t possible for me or many others to do.”

Jeff Mastin, the superintendent of Athens schools, was a strong proponent of the change.

“In this day and age where over 60 percent of the school districts in the state are losing enrollment, this will give us an opportunity to pick up an entire school and increase our enrollments by approximately 80 kids immediately,” Mastin said.

In the long run, he hopes to build on those increases as Maple Grove elementary students leave the school and join Athens’ middle and high schools.

In the end, Merrill’s school board members were persuaded that the school’s departure would be in the interest of the students and the Hamburg families, and not too damaging to the district’s bottom line. In fact, at a meeting Thursday Merrill officials said that due to state policies aimed at protecting districts from dramatic enrollment shifts, the district expects a budget surplus in its next fiscal year.

Next up, said Servi and Mastin, will be to formalize the school’s agreement with the Athens district and to work out the logistics of the change, including busing for students. Mastin said Athens’ bus routes already go within about 2 miles of the school.

They expect the school’s migration to the new district to be complete in time for the beginning of the fall semester.

Peter Fromm Wade is the grandson of one of the Fromm brothers who helped found the school. His parents went to Maple Grove, and so did he.

“I hope that my grandchildren can attend there,” Fromm Wade said. “I’m hoping it will be ongoing for generations.”