Judge Rules Merrill District Can’t Close 116-Year-Old Rural School

Maple Grove School Has Ties To Local History, But District Said Closing It Could Save $550K

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 rural school in north-central Wisconsin that had been targeted to close by the Merrill Area Public School district can stay open through at least June 2022, a judge has ruled.

Leaders at the Maple Grove School in the Marathon County town of Hamburg say they feel vindicated by the ruling, which rejected claims by the district that the rural charter school had broken its contract. The Merrill School Board has already voted to appeal.

The rural elementary school has operated since 1904, and it’s beloved by the tight-knit community of parents and locals with connections to the school. Since 2012, it’s operated as a public charter school offering “exploratory learning” to its students including projects like tapping maple syrup, composting and raising chickens.

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But the Merrill school district has said the district could save about $550,000 in the next two years by closing the school and consolidating its 80 students into other elementary schools.

That plan sparked protests from Maple Grove parents and other community members with ties to the school. At an emotionally charged public hearing in January, speakers threatened to pull their kids out of the Merrill district if Maple Grove were to close.

It also led to a legal battle. The Maple Grove Governance Board contested the district’s claims about the contract, and later filed suit against the district. On Tuesday, a judge in Marathon County ruled that the contract, which extends through the end of the 2021-22 school year, would stand, and he issued an injunction against closing the school.

“It was a very positive judgment for Maple Grove School,” said Angie Servi, the president of the school governance board. “But there are a lot of things about our long-term future that we will be discussing in the upcoming months.”

Servi has two kids in the school, and another entering kindergarten in the fall. She said there remain a lot of questions about the school’s long-term future. She said the likelihood that the school would sign a new contract with Merrill is “slim,” which means the rural school may seek to join a neighboring school district after its contract expires.

And the current legal battle isn’t over yet, either. Merrill School Board President Kevin Blake said the district on Tuesday night voted to appeal the decision.

“No other decisions with respect to school closures or consolidations have been made,” Blake said in an emailed statement. “For now, the district will continue its mission to provide all Merrill Area Public School students with quality education and opportunities for growth and achievement.”

Like many small-town school districts, Merrill has faced declining enrollment and subsequent loss of state dollars. District officials make the case that consolidating schools can help the district make new investments in instruction for students, such as hiring new school social workers.

Maple Grove has unique ties to the region’s history. It has an endowment from one of the Fromm brothers, whose business, Fromm Brothers Inc., pioneered ginseng cultivation in Marathon County and gained international fame and fortune as furriers raising silver foxes. The endowment funds a college scholarship for Maple Grove students.

Servi, who was just elected president of the school’s governance board for a new three-year term, said she’s committed to finding a way to keep the school’s traditions alive.

“We owe it to our students and our teachers and our families to figure out a long-term solution,” Servi said. “But we don’t know what that is yet.”