Group sues to buy vacant Mattoon Elementary, open Christian school; Antigo School District seeks to block planSubmitted: 07/17/2019
Story By Ben Meyer

Group sues to buy vacant Mattoon Elementary, open Christian school; Antigo School District seeks to block plan
MATTOON - Wade Reimer thinks it's pretty simple.

There's a vacant school in the village of Mattoon, southeast of Antigo.

He wants to buy it and turn it into a Christian community center, and, someday, a school.

Reimer says the community is behind him.

But the Unified School District of Antigo is not.

In 2016, people in Mattoon fought as the district closed the school, saying rural elementary schools like Mattoon were too expensive to run. A year later, many of the same people tried unsuccessfully to open their own school district.

"Honestly, I felt like this little town was targeted," said Zak Kickhaver, who lives in Mattoon and has two young children.

This year, the district closed three more rural elementary schools. It has now closed seven overall, and all elementary students will attend school in the city of Antigo.

But now, Kickhaver likes a new option, a potential private, Christian school in Mattoon.

"With possibly a Christian education center here, it's ideal. It's great. That makes me happy. That makes me excited," Kickhaver said. "I get mad when I talk about Antigo [Schools], but this makes me very happy."

Reimer and his group, Shepherd's Watch, are driving the effort to buy the building and open a Christian community center, then a school, at the Mattoon Elementary site.

"I'm a gentleman that believes in prayer," Reimer said. "My faith is important to me. I see the Lord's hand at work here, because now, we have an opportunity to have a Christian school here, possibly."

But the Antigo School District doesn't like the plan. It's refusing to sell the building unless the buyer agrees no school will ever open at the site.

Last September, district business manager Tim Prunty told the Antigo Daily Journal a private school could drain students and money from the district. With fewer students, the district would be eligible for less state aid.

"Financially, they're hurting. The more kids that leave the school district in Antigo financially puts a dollar loss to them," Reimer said.

The Village of Mattoon and adjacent Town of Hutchins have opened a lawsuit against the Antigo School District, pushing for the ability for Reimer to buy the property with the ability to open a school.

In fact, Mattoon and Hutchins claim they, not the district, actually own the property. A Shawano County judge will determine who has the claim to the deed.

"Even though the real estate issues are technical, the outcome is going to be significant for K-12 education in the area," said CJ Szafir, the executive vice president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

That group is now trying to join the lawsuit and fight Antigo Schools, offering its legal services for free.

Szafir said real estate pushback by public schools is becoming common.

"This is especially an issue here in Milwaukee," Szafir said. "They refuse to sell the building because they view it as competition."

In Mattoon, Kickhaver just wants a school option for his kids right down the street. He'd love for it to be a Christian school.

If the lawsuit goes his way, he just might get it.

"In five or ten years, I hope to see kids on that playground. That's the story going perfectly," Kickhaver said. "When you put this in the hands of people that can think outside the box a little bit and have a passion to educate children and to do what's right, you can make this work. This will work."

A Shawano County court hearing on July 26 will determine whether the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and Shepherd's Watch can join the court case.

Szafir said he expected a decision late this year or early next year on who holds the deed to the school property.

Unified School District of Antigo Superintendent Dr. Julie Sprague declined to speak on this story because the issue is in court.

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