In November 2016, the district asked residents to vote for an additional $9.3 million in taxes to keep the schools open, at least for several more years.
“We all knew it was going to be close,” said Lisa Kjos, an Arena resident who works for the school district. “For the parents in the village, their school was their life. The elementary school was what kept them going.”
The ballot measure failed by 207 votes.
The referendum opened wounds throughout River Valley, pitting the district’s four villages — Arena, Lone Rock, Plain and Spring Green — against one another. Spring Green, with its largest population and the most central location, stood to gain the most, while Lone Rock and Arena appeared most at risk.
“There were friendships that were split over one opinion or the other,” said Karen Wilkinson, a longtime substitute teacher at Arena. “Some of those have healed. But for some people, I don’t think there’s any going back.”
Jean Alt, a resident of Spring Green for more than 40 years, said her neighbors seemed unmoved by the possibility that a smaller village would lose its school. “They’re of the opinion: ‘If it’s going to save us money, great,’” said Ms. Alt, who taught at the Arena school. “But they’re not seeing the big picture of what’s happening in the other three towns. I got to the point where I didn’t even talk about it with other people. It just wasn’t worth the argument.”
In December 2016, the school board voted to close the elementary schools in Arena and Lone Rock. The village of Plain would keep a school serving preschool and kindergarten.
“I remember thinking, I will pay for this vote,” a board member, Frederic Iausly, said.
“A lot of this was based on feelings that we were picking on one community over another,” Mr. Iausly said. “That had nothing to do with it. It was based on numbers. How do we provide the highest possible education for our kids?”