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Rory O’Driscoll, La Crosse Tribune  

UW-La Crosse’s Colton Nieman breaks up a pass intended for UW-Stout’s Brian Sandifer during Saturday’s WIAC game. The Eagles forced six fumbles, recovered one, and intercepted four passes against the Blue Devils.

In an era of school choice, La Crosse area school districts work hard to get message out

La Crosse School District staff have turned to social media platforms to get their message out to students and their families. And it’s not a coincidence that the interest in telling the district’s story comes as more and more students take advantage of open enrollment.

La Crosse, like many area districts, uses social media to highlight the work of students, faculty and staff. Being able to get the message out is important, Superintendent Randy Nelson said, as the educational landscape changes to include more options for students and their families.


“Things have changed a lot in the last 15 years,” he said. “Expanded choice puts more pressure on school districts to be more strategic.”

Parents have the option to open enroll their students at other districts or participate in Youth Options or Course Options for high school or college coursework beyond a district’s offerings. Families that meet income limits and other eligibility guidelines can also participate in the state’s choice programs, which provide up to $8,176 per student to attend a participating private school.

Parents are taking advantage of these options. More than 126 students from La Crosse County school districts received a voucher this year, and the La Crosse district saw 333 students open enroll into the district compared with 268 who open enrolled out, for a net gain of 65 students.

Other districts lose students, such as Holmen, which saw 408 students open enroll out compared with the 170 who came in. Onalaska had 446 students come in and 172 leave, resulting in a gain of 274 students, while West Salem reported a net gain of 71 students. Bangor did not provide headcounts but reported a net loss equivalent to 5.8 full-time students, a measure by which some students spend less than a full day at school count count as a fraction of an FTE.

Responding to these changes, La Crosse began branding itself as the “school district of choice” more than a decade ago. La Crosse offers more than 10 charter or themed schools such as Summit Environmental School, North Woods International School or the La Crosse Design Institute.

More than 1,300 students are enrolled at these schools, some of which also serve as neighborhood schools, totaling more than a fifth of the district’s population. The district also offers special programs, such as a Health Science Academy geared towards high school students interested in careers in health care.

“We believe in choice with our district,” Nelson said. “The future of education is about choice and an individualized model.”

This is what attracted La Crosse residents Scott and Amanda Erpenbach to Coulee Montessori for their daughter Addyson. An independent eight-year-old, their daughter enjoyed the additional responsibility the school puts on its students as well as the freedom they have to learn at their own pace and control their own learning.

“I think charter/choice school is an amazing thing,” Amanda said. “We would probably have to home school if it wasn’t for the charter/choice option.”

Along with educational options, school choice has financial implications as well. La Crosse spends $35,000 each year to market the district to prospective parents; Onalaska spends about $35,000 on Youth Options students’ college courses. And students leaving one district for another mean lost revenue — which might be more significant for a district with fewer students.

Conservative and free-market groups say school choice is a good thing, as increasing competition will make districts act more like businesses and improve their offerings to attract students and parents. Others, including many educators, argue this can result in districts taking resources away from the classroom in order to compete, or dilute limited education dollars as private schools siphon those funds away from districts.

“I go back to the voucher programs,” Onalaska superintendent Fran Finco said. “When you start paying to more than the public schools, there is less support to go around.”

Onalaska doesn’t do any dedicated marketing, Finco said, relying more on the reputation of the schools and programs such as show choir, football and other activities. Onalaska High School was named a national Blue Ribbon School in 2015, and the district is known for performing well on statewide tests and annual report cards.

In Holmen, social media are primarily tools to reach out to students and parents, said district administrator Kristin Mueller. Posting updates on the football team or upcoming fundraising events is a way for the district to reach its audience on another platform.

That doesn’t mean the district is ignoring the need to sell itself. Mueller said Holmen has worked to get the word out on its award-winning agriculture program and teachers among other district strengths.

Recent voter-approved referendums have also allowed the district to address needs and issues parents value. For instance, the technology referendum provides a 1:1 Chromebook program in the middle school and high school, while another referendum addressed safety and security concerns.


Mueller also pointed out that local districts have taken a more collaborative approach than a competitive one. La Crosse’s Health Science Academy is a strength of that district, while agriculture is the equivalent at Holmen. Instead of throwing resources away fighting for students, this approach allows districts to specialize and focus limited resources on a few key areas.

“Our goal is to keep providing the best education options for our students so they stay in our district,” Mueller said. “All of the districts in the area have great programs.”

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On Wisconsin: Take a tour through some of Wisconsin's vintage bowling centers

IRON RIDGE — Yvonne Bennett hasn’t been trained in the art of cartography, but she’s done a pretty good job of mapping the deep roots of Wisconsin’s bowling heritage.

Not surprisingly, her plat of throwback bowling alleys — with eight, six and even two lanes — is concentrated in some of the state’s smallest communities.

There’s Stars & Strikes in Princeton and Lambeaul Lanes in Red Granite, with four lanes each. And also Stubby’s Bowl in Waterloo, with six lanes, and Fireball Lanes in Lancaster, which features eight lanes for bowling.

The path along Hwy. 29 between Green Bay and Chippewa Falls offers a string of small bowling centers that serve as entertainment hubs in communities like Stanley, Boyd, Thorp, Athens, Gleason, Birnamwood and Tigerton.

“If you’re into old stuff and bowling, it’s a pretty cool place to drive,” said Bennett, executive director of the Pewaukee-based Bowling Centers Association of Wisconsin.

So when the Green Bay Packers had a bye last Sunday, Bennett broke out her map, chartered a bus and organized a tour of four small, vintage bowling centers in Dodge and Jefferson counties. The 11.5-hour excursion, designed to promote and showcase older facilities, covered about 135 miles for 11 bowling enthusiasts who each paid $119 and combined to bowl 75 games, all scored in pencil.

There were rounds of Bloody Marys and Old Fashioneds, a healthy dose of nostalgia and a fair number of strikes and spares in historic settings far removed from the state’s largest bowling center, the 72-lane AMF Bowlero in Wauwatosa.

The tour is believed to be the first of its kind in the country and could lead to similar tours in other parts of the state where bowling lanes, out of necessity, are part of small business plans that can include bars, supper clubs and dance halls. Wisconsin is home to 308 bowling centers, ranking third only behind Pennsylvania’s 318 and New York’s 317, according to Bennett.

But Wisconsin is uniquely flush with smaller bowling centers. The state has 84 bowling alleys with between two and six lanes, the most in the country, many of them with wood instead of synthetic lanes, manual score keeping and exposed ball returns.

The tour — a rural drive during peak harvest time and fading fall colors — took us to four of them:

Strikes, Spares & Spirits

We were greeted by the owner, Robin Ehrensberger, who had football playing on the televisions as we piled into her narrow building, constructed in 1904 on the main drag of Iron Ridge, a community of 937 people southeast of Horicon in northeastern Dodge County.

The first lanes in the building were built in the basement but were later moved to the first floor of the building, which at one time was also home to a barbershop and meat market. In 1907, the Mayville News reported the Iron Ridge Bowling Club was holding a five-day tournament. Entry fee: $2.

Ehrensberger, 53, bought the business in 2005 and has added three outdoor horseshoe pits and indoor darts, for league and recreational play, plus a concrete pad for outdoor parties, which help diversify her business, located across the street from the Iron Ridge Inn supper club and hotel.

The four lanes here are a step back in time. The ball returns are exposed, the Brunswick hand dryers are chrome, and the pin-setting machines were salvaged decades ago from a bowling alley in West Bend. More than 100 people take part in Ehrensberger’s bowling leagues, which is more than 10 percent of the village’s population. One of her leagues on Thursday doesn’t start until 9 p.m. to accommodate local farmers.

“I’m constantly recruiting,” Ehrensberger said. “I have people that come from all over.”

This is where the outdoor beer sign on the front of the building touts Old Style beer, wooden doors to the restrooms are barely two feet wide, and beer steins painted by famed wildlife artist Terry Redlin can be purchased. A large calendar from Persha Equipment Sales in Mayville hangs on the paneled walls and, once a year, Ehrensberger holds a liester tournament where scoring is modified and awards given to those who would have had the lowest score in a regular tournament.

Ehrensberger, a former accountant, is only the fourth owner of the building and believes the size of her facility gives her an advantage.

“It’s a lot easier to fill four lanes than 24 lanes,” Ehrensberger said.

Ley’s Bark River Lanes

Services had just ended at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church when the tour bus pulled up to the corner of highways P and Y in downtown Rome, an unincorporated community of roughly 600 people east of Jefferson.

Part of the building that houses the bar, restaurant and six-lane bowling center has stood on this corner since 1844. The site was a dance hall and former meat locker with bowling added in 1956.

Larry Leys, 72, who had a career installing security and phone systems, bought the business in 2003. This is home for Leys, who grew up next door, where his father repaired radios and televisions. His grandfather had a hardware store across the street from the bowling alley.

“There’s no through-traffic here,” said Leys, shortly after serving the group homemade pizza, one topped with bratwurst slices and Swiss cheese. “If somebody comes through Rome, they either took a wrong turn or they knew where they were headed.”

The bowling center, with advertising banners for local businesses like Pelican Plumbing, Pal Steel and Biggy’s Decorative Concrete Edging, hosts league play four nights a week, doesn’t allow powdered resin and accounts for about 20 percent of his business. The remainder comes from the bar and restaurant. There are grilled steaks on Wednesday, ribs on Thursday and a fish fry on Friday nights that can draw 180 and cram the dining room,which was once a dance floor.

The bar resembles a wildlife museum with wood-framed glass cases that double as tables, all built by Leys. One holds a badger hit by a car a few miles from his business. Another is filled with three beaver trapped from the nearby Bark River. He also has part of the goal post he and a few buddies took after the Packers beat the Los Angeles Rams at Milwaukee County Stadium on Dec. 2, 1962. It was the last home game of a season that would end a few weeks later with a World Championship.

Leys echoes the sentiment of other bowling operators and has shortened his leagues to 24 weeks from 32 weeks in an effort to attract more bowlers.

“It was too much for people,” Leys said. “There’s so many things going on in the world now.”

Fort Atkinson Club

This grand building, modeled after the Wisconsin Building at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, was constructed for $10,376 along the Rock River and has had quite a run since opening in 1913 in this city of now 12,541 people.

The original club members were men who paid $18 a year to use the three-story, 6,000-square-foot building for drinking brandy, eating, smoking cigars, playing billiards and, in the basement, bowling on its two lanes with pin-setting boys. The club was purchased in 1930 by the Billings Masonic Lodge, which had their own leagues. The Masons sold the building in 1986, and it was used primarily for storage until it was bought in 2011 by Joan Jones, who created a nonprofit foundation to raise $2.5 million and restore the building for public use.

The result is stunning, with dark woodwork, hardwood floors, a second-floor solarium that overlooks the river, a commercial kitchen, meeting rooms and the ballroom. It now hosts poetry readings, concerts, weddings and other social events. The bowling lanes were restored earlier this year for about $20,000.

“It’s part of the history of the building. It’s part of the integrity of the architecture,” said Renae Mitchell, director of the club. “We decided that it was better to restore it and have it as something people can do. It’s part of living history, in a sense.”

But for bowlers, there are challenges. The approaches are shorter and there are no marks on the lanes that are standard at most bowling centers. Bowlers also need to make sure they get a thumbs up from the pin setters indicating they have cleared the pit that collects the pins and the ball.

Chance Leistgang, 11, and Remy Nelan, 12, spent about 90 minutes setting pins and sipping cans of Diet Pepsi. They worked for tips and each earned $42.50 from the tour group, a far cry from the nickles and dimes earned by their predecessors decades before. In most frames, they could reset a full 10 pins in less than 30 seconds.

“Speed is key,” Chance said.

Added Remy: “If you don’t do it right, they tend to get stuck.”

Palmyra Bowl

The village of Palmyra was settled in 1842 and has a colorful history that includes a period of time — the 1870s to 1920s — in which people from around the world came to visit the natural springs in the area. The bowling alley sits on Main Street, across the street from the Carlin House, built in 1845 but now a museum that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The four-lane bowling alley is in the basement of a building constructed in 1901 that for years was home to a movie theater. The first two bowling lanes were added in the 1920s and, sometime before 1965, two more were added. The movie theater eventually closed, and the space used for a variety of businesses including an Italian restaurant, archery center and clothing store. The bowling lanes remained, but over the past 25 years fell into disrepair.

Lori Hale purchased the building in 2015 and converted the first floor to the Cornerstone Restaurant. She held a fundraiser for the $5,000 job to restore the lanes, which hadn’t been resurfaced in 20 years or used in 10. The decor was updated with a retro look: 45 rpm records hang on the wall around the juke box. A game of bowling is $4, and shoe rental is $1.

Hale’s daughter, Jennifer Gutierrez, who runs the bowling operation while working full time as an office assistant in Waukesha, has returned league play to the facility on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. One of the challenges for her business is getting people back into bowling after it was gone from the community of 1,781 people for a decade.

One strategy paid off big a year ago when the bowling alley’s float in the Christmas parade took first place.

“So we get Santa on our float this year,” Gutierrez said. “It took a while for the town to get to know us, but we’ve really made a name for ourselves out here.”

Consumer groups: Coal, nuclear subsidies could cost billions; utilities say Midwest customers could pay twice

The Trump administration’s plans to subsidize coal and nuclear power could cost American consumers billions of dollars, and the cost could fall disproportionately on Midwestern ratepayers.

Utilities and consumer interest groups alike have warned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to reject or modify a Department of Energy rule designed to guarantee higher wholesale payments for electricity generated at plants with a 90-day supply of fuel on hand — which translates to coal and nuclear plants.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry says the measure, first proposed in September, is needed to slow the retirement of those plants, which increasingly struggle to compete as cheaper fuels have driven wholesale prices down. Perry argues that these legacy baseload plants are critical to “grid resiliency” and should be compensated for remaining in service.


But the DOE study that Perry cites as the impetus for the new rule doesn’t exactly support that argument.

An analysis by the Rhodium Group found that over the past five years just 0.0007 percent of the major power disruptions were caused by fuel supply. Most are the result of weather affecting power lines, not power plants.

Because many details of the rule have yet to be written, the exact impact on utility bills is uncertain, but the clean energy policy group Energy Innovation estimates it could cost American consumers up to $10.6 billion a year, with most of the proceeds benefiting five companies.

And the vast majority of the subsidies would go to nuclear power plants, not coal.

Perry gave FERC until Nov. 27 to respond, though the independent commission could take longer to consider the proposal.

Paying twice

An array of utilities argue the rule, in its current form, would unfairly burden Midwestern consumers, who already pay for grid resiliency.

The reason has to do with a tweak in the wording published in the Federal Register that limits the subsidies to non-regulated plants.

Customers in Minnesota and Wisconsin are served by regulated utilities, such as Xcel Energy or Dairyland Power Cooperative, which own and operate generators as well as power lines. However, the electricity moves through an interconnected grid that functions as a wholesale market for states throughout the Midwest.

Plant operators set a price for their electricity, and grid operators call on generators as needed to meet demand, taking the cheapest power first. This means older coal plants run less often as natural gas and wind generators serve a larger share of the load.

Over the past decade, this variable cost system saved more than $17.5 billion for customers in the Midwest market, according to Xcel Energy.

But regulated utility rates are designed to also cover the “fixed costs” of building and maintaining the power plants. Customers pay for the electricity they use as well as the infrastructure needed to meet their potential needs.

Owners of “merchant” plants make money only by selling power on wholesale markets. If they aren’t profitable, they get retired. According to Perry’s argument, the system needs these plants for long-term reliability, so their owners should be compensated for benefits they provide.

But industry experts say that would put upward pressure on wholesale prices, affecting everyone in the market.

Dairyland Power Cooperative, which relies on three coal-fired generators to provide about 70 percent of its capacity, argues the current rule would unfairly burden its 256,000 end customers in rural Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.

The proposed rule doesn’t spell out how these merchant plants would be compensated, but vice president of power delivery Ben Porath said it would likely come in the form of an “uplift” charge that would be shared by all members of the market.

Ben Porath

Therefore, customers who are already paying for assets like Dairyland’s Genoa coal plant would also be forced to support merchant plants, essentially paying twice for reliability.

Though not regulated by a state authority, Dairyland’s executives believe its plants would be excluded from the subsidies because its rates are set by the member board.

In comments to FERC, Porath concedes that market forces have created financial strains for coal and nuclear plants but argues each of the nation’s energy markets should be allowed to address its own unique reliability issues.

“There is no immediate crisis to solve or immediate threat to reliability of the bulk power system,” Porath wrote.

Meanwhile Dairyland has aggressively invested in wind and solar generation and earlier this year announced plans for a jointly-owned $700 million natural gas plant. Spokeswoman Katie Thomson said Dairyland will continue with its diversification strategy, which calls for increasing generation capacity by up to 15 percent with renewable sources in the next two years.

Investor-owned utilities in the Midwest have also warned the rule could hinder the markets, which they say have delivered “billions of dollars in cost savings to customers.”

Alliant Energy, which serves customers in Iowa and Wisconsin, commented that the rule “is flawed, insufficiently supported, and does not assure the promotion of reliability or resiliency. Furthermore, all indications are that the draft rule will increase costs, which will ultimately be borne by customers.”

Xcel Energy urged the commission to exclude the Midwest market, known as MISO, from the scope of any requirements.

The sentiment is echoed by the Edison Electric Institute, which represents the nation’s investor-owned utilities and argues it would be “premature” to apply it to markets like MISO.

MISO does not provide a list of the independent power producers in the market, but according to data from the Energy Information Administration there are 16 unregulated coal and nuclear generators with a combined capacity of nearly 14,000 megawatts. That includes the Point Beach nuclear plant in Manitowoc County, which is owned by Florida-based NextEra Energy and produces about a sixth of Wisconsin’s electricity supply.

It’s also unclear whether the proposed rule would apply to MISO, which has a different mechanism for ensuring capacity than the east coast markets.

“Until FERC really starts to define this rule there’s just a lot of uncertainty,” said Gary Radloff, an energy policy researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

‘A tax on consumers’

Though applauded by coal and nuclear interests, the proposal has been panned by a coalition of manufacturers and other industrial customers, including representatives of Wisconsin and Minnesota mining and paper companies.

The groups, which represent the nation’s largest electricity users, urged the commission to scrap it entirely, arguing there are already systems in place to ensure resilience and many of the premises underlying the proposal are “are vastly overstated or demonstrably false.”


The proposal has drawn criticism from eight former FERC commissioners — appointed by presidents from both parties — who called it “a significant step backward” from the transition to competitive wholesale markets and warned that the subsidies “would inevitably raise prices to customers.”

One of those former commissioners, Nora Mead Brownell, said during a panel discussion Tuesday that FERC should think about the people who ultimately pay the bills.

“To invest in a mature industries and mature technologies that are not adding the value we need … is really just a tax on customers,” said Brownell, a George W. Bush appointee. “If you want to tax customers to do favors for friends, then be honest about it.”