Three Lakes School District students could soon find themselves attending global science or physical education classes at a proposed outdoor classroom along Highway A, although details about the project are scarce. 

Efforts by the district to purchase land for the project moved forward at the school board’s June meeting, when the school board unanimously approved a proposal to take the issue to the electorate for a vote.

The proposal will ask electors to approve the purchase of a 40-acre tract of land currently under the ownership of the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL) for $63,000. 

The property is located along Highway A, roughly midway between Three Lakes and Sugar Camp schools. The BCPL has already approved the land for sale to the district. The total cost quoted to the school board was $65,000, including $1,800 for the appraisal and the difference in title insurance.

District officials said they would like to see the land utilized for extracurriculars and by the public as well as for physical education and science classes, similar in manner to the School District of Rhine­lander’s Cedric A. Vig Outdoor Classroom.

District Administrator George Karling also stated the district is not looking to expedite the project or invest district money into it and that there are no plans to build any buildings at the site. Instead, he would prefer the district look for grants and donations while phasing in usage of the land as work is completed.

“Our goal — I don’t know if it’s our goal — I should say I was asked about it and I would try writing a grant for an outdoor multipurpose facility,” said Karling. “The Department of Natural Resources, the National Rifle Association, Whitetails Un­limited, they all claim to give money for that. So there’s a possibility, but you know it’s a ways off. I’m hearing from a lot of people that it has the potential to be something really good for district and for our community, but my charge at this point is done. The question is do you want the property or not?”

Karling further shared that supporters of the high school trapshooting club had already expressed interest in donating time, equipment and money to set up a range for the Three Lakes Clay Crackers, work that would benefit the entire project, such as excavating a road and a parking lot.

“They (the trapshooting club) want do something with a trap range and we have some heavy hitters that are donating for the trap range, so that won’t hurt us at all if we can get the site work all done. We don’t want to spend money on this thing aside from acquiring the land, OK?” he asked.

“And we have people willing to donate equipment and labor and money and maybe get the site work done initially, in order to put a trap range in somewhere on the property, and then we look at putting in our trails and things sort of as we go,” said Karling.

Some questions

While board members and officials tried to discuss all of the concerns, there were still questions from the public. Some questioned the prudence of the project and the district’s transparency on the matter. Others expressed curiosity at the perceived lack of planning for the proposal’s scope, costs and use.

“Before the annual meeting, before this meeting of electors, there are certainly some questions that I hope will be addressed during that meeting and those we’re following, and I’d be happy to email these as well,” said Colette Mahlerwein.

“What’s the proposed scope of the project — the buildings, the facilities and those projected costs?” asked Mahlerwein. “You know we’re talking about buying the land, but there’s the possibility of other projects and the concern is, well then the investment is there what comes next and how much is that going to cost? Yes, there’s the hope that grants will cover it, there’s a hope donations will cover it, but you know there’s always that question of what the cost will be. Also, maintenance, I think we’ve all experienced that life and buildings and property require maintenance. And so, what are those proposed costs going to be for maintenance?”

Mahlerwein also questioned whether the purchase was truly necessary since the district owns seven other 40-acre parcels. Board members and Karling indicated that those parcels were not feasible due to distance — one parcel is located in the town Piehl — and deed restrictions.

Property tour

Board members also stated they hoped to be able to answer those questions going forward, many of which they themselves do not currently have answers to. Hearing the concerns of those in attendance and expressing their own desires to further flesh out the project’s details, board members deemed it necessary to set up a formal tour of the property for themselves and the public and requested the presence of staff members who would develop curriculum for an outdoor classroom.

“I think it’s really important that we have a firsthand look at this piece of property as a board, but I’d also like to tap into our resources internally,” said board President Tom Rulseh, referring to the science and physical education faculty. “I think we need to clearly establish what is the future vision for this piece of property. And to me this is a tremendous opportunity, but only if we have a good share of the administrative team on board say, ‘Oh, yeah, we can capitalize on this.’ Otherwise the question is: Are we better off with some other investment for the future?

“Right now I can be excited about it, but that’s just based on my own thinking of outdoor activity being a very healthy thing for children, a lot of hands-on learning opportunities, but I don’t want to just base it on that,” continued Rulseh.

“And I haven’t, I’m sorry to say it, I haven’t been out to walk the property yet, and that would make a difference for me. So I think we should set a date, and, again, it would have to be posted and certainly the public would be invited to tag along but I would like to make it somewhat formal in terms of saying, OK, here’s what we’re expecting these invitees to give us feedback on,” said Rulseh.

The board approved a formal meeting to tour the property for Monday, July 23, at 10 a.m. The meeting will be open to the public and will include members of the teaching staff in addition to administrative officials. A bus will depart from the Three Lakes High School parking lot at 10 a.m. and travel to the site along Highway A; others may travel by car and hike in. A second, informal tour will be held for anyone unable to attend the morning tour and will meet at 7 p.m. that same day.

The informal meeting will be led by a board member and participants will be required to meet at the site. A public access road is available on state managed forestland for both parking and access to the parcel. Site maps will be made available to attendees.

Electors will vote on the proposal to buy the 40-acre parcel at the district’s annual meeting Wednesday, Aug. 22. Whether or not the district has to seek approval from the electorate is considered “legally murky” by attorneys, according to Karling. But board members resoundingly supported holding a vote.

“I think it’s a good idea to have a meeting in front of the electors, whether it’s re­quired or not,” said board member Randy Ingram. “We’ve been striving to get people involved in our annual meeting for years anyway, so I think it’s a good idea to do it that way. But I also think we have an opportunity to look at the property and view it, and get our own opinions in the interim.”

Board member Mike Kwaterski was absent from the meeting.

Project history

The effort to purchase land dates back to 2009 or 2010, including the district’s attempt to buy the Schnabel property — which it had similarly intended for outdoor educational activities. The deal fell through, according to Karling, due to lack of cooperation from the federal government, and the search continued.

“Well, just to set the record straight, about eight or nine years ago we were going after a piece of property for outdoor activities, the Schnabel property,” said Karling. “I was charged by the board to enable us to acquire a piece of property for outdoor facilities. We worked hard on the Schnabel property, (but) couldn’t get cooperation from the federal government. We gave up on that,” said Karling. “Then I had to look elsewhere. The board really was not involved in this because I was working on the day-to-day basis and I was charged with coming up with something that was suitable and appropriate.”

Karling said he was recently able to gain approval from the BCPL for the district to purchase the 40-acre tract after local lawmakers intervened. Now the district must decide whether or not to authorize the purchase. 

“We’re at the point now where my task is over and it’s time to hand it over to the board to decide where we go with this,” said Karling. “I think it’s a good deal; anyway, it’s perfectly situated for our purposes.”

Other business

Athletic Director Charlie Volk updated the board on the ongoing search to bring the services of an athletic trainer to the school and all sporting events. 

Volk stated that Kay Anderson of Ascension is seeking permission to hire an additional athletic trainer who would be able to meet the needs of Three Lakes and other area schools. 

A proposal will be presented to the board at the annual meeting for approval and whether or not it partners with Ascension or another provider. Volk said the district is seeking to work with a local medical provider to provide this service at little or no cost to the district. 

In other business, the board approved opening a proposed 2019 drama club trip to Los Angeles to students in high school English classes.